Armello: Review (XB1)
As a fan of digital board games like Tharsis, I saw League of Geeks’ Armello and its cutesy anthropomorphic animal heroes wearing chain mail and wielding halberds, and I knew I’d be in for a treat. Cards and dice and platemail-wearing rabbits, oh my!
Armello is set in the fantasy medieval world of, you guessed it, Armello, where a once proud lion King sits on the throne in the center of the map. However, the King has been corrupted by an evil force called “The Rot”, and it’s simultaneously killing him and driving him mad. With each new daybreak, the mad King makes a new decree that has the possibility to dynamically change the landscape of the game, whether putting bounties on everyone’s heads, tossing out a series of corrupted lands or traps, or even force players to change hands of cards. You can mitigate the pain your hero suffers if you happen to be the hero with the most “prestige” on the map, which can be gained by slaying enemies, bribing political officials, completing quests or striking deals with other players on top of a variety of ways.
The players on the board represent four different animal clans: the Wolves, the Rabbits, the Rats and the Bears, and the game is about the line of succession of who will be the next King of the animal kingdom of Armello. The race is on as the four clans claw and bite at one another, whether by the usual sword and shield approach or through subterfuge and political maneuvering to see who will be sitting atop the old King’s corpse when the timer runs out.
And the timer is counting down. The Mad Lion King has approximately 18 turns (9 days, 9 nights) before he is driven mad by the Rot and dies, making whoever has the most prestige the next in line for the crown. Each turn whittles away at the King’s health but deepens his corruption, meaning it gets easier to storm the castle and slay him, but he gets stronger and stronger with each turn. So the balancing act then becomes: “How do I storm the castle, save up enough health to survive the King’s guards and fellow players, manage to strike the killing blow and NOT die in the fighting?”
One of Armello’s major flaws is that all these mechanics to kill the King are almost a little too much. Of the four games I played (and won each and every time), one of the computer-driven players broke the castle’s defenses and died while slaying the King. As the game checks to see who is still alive at the end of every round with the highest prestige, it just so happened that I had it. Each time, it felt like an extremely hollow victory, having another player doing all the hard work while I sat back and drank a goblet of wine from a safe distance while the castle burned to the ground (ahem, Game of Thrones anyone?). The one time I was even in the running to legitimately win was with one of the Rat champions; I had gone out of my way to collect four magical stones called Spirit Stones, which if I had touched the King with them, I would have instantly won the match. However, my side of the castle had not been breached, and despite having an insanely high “Wits” statistic which was what I needed to breach, three separate attempts had my ass swimming in the moat each time with lower health and a bounty on my head.
Obviously, as Armello is a digital board game, you find yourself bowing and scraping to the “Random Number Generator God” quite regularly. Each fight and trap laid on the board require a series of skill checks through dice rolls, so it’s easy to watch the computer-controlled champions deftly land the necessary die rolls they need while you seem to regularly come up short.
The eighteen turn limit disappears in the blink of an eye, and I never really felt comfortable with my position in the game at any point in time. There’s a mild anxiety associated with that ticking clock that means you have to be out there hustling at all times, and Armello and your competition aren’t going to make it easy for you.
Another major issue with Armello is that the game is set to a fixed seed, which means if you miss a roll, you aren’t going to be able to unplug your Xbox from the wall, plug it back in and get a different result if you do the exact same thing. The cards you draw at the beginning of the turn are the same ones you’ll draw again. What this does allow in Armello is the ability to “save scum,” which means that if you don’t like the results of your turn, you can simply quit out, reload before the next player starts and you can essentially re-do your move. You accidentally walk into a Bear Clan ambush and get waxed? Simply reload and move differently. Don’t like the cards you drew? Simply draw cards from one of the other two decks (the three decks are: items, spells, and trickery). Not saying you can’t do this with a lot of games like this, but in computer run matches, the ability to reload time and time again to get a better outcome, even with the same seed, is tempting for a lot of folks.
At the top of the prestige rankings, you get to choose the Mad King’s next decree.
That said, Armello matches are between 45 minutes to an hour long each. This gives you plenty of replay value, with eight starting heroes to choose from, two from each clan, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. You also have a variety of starting bonuses to try out conveyed to you through rings and amulets your champion unlocks through gameplay and selects at the beginning of the match. I kept thinking to myself, “I can do better this next time, let me try this champion and series of bonuses out and see if it makes a difference.” And I think that’s the important part: despite the difficulty and the computer seeming to go out of its way to stop me in my tracks, I didn’t bounce off of Armello. I wanted more. Armello has couch and online co-op, which can extend the life of any game dramatically, but I was unable to test online as the review was written prior to the servers going up. I legitimately wanted to find some folks, sit them on the couch and play Armello with them as opposed to the usual run of board games we play at our house. Even as I’m sitting here finishing this review up, I want to get back in there and get a non-prestige win, and that’s saying something.
Note: Stack-Up received a review copy from Stride PR for Armello two weeks prior to launch on Xbox.