The king is dying from a mysterious infection and demonic creatures stalk the land. The animal clans are at each others’ throats and only one faction can seize the throne. It’s an instantly appealing setup for a digital board game of shameless opportunism and back stabbing, evoking fond memories of old classics like Moonstone and Talisman. In our Lets Play from a few weeks back we gushed about the production values on display in Armello, its lavish Saturday morning cartoon intro, slick UI and high quality artwork. This isn’t a ropey, cut and run Early Access project, the developer’s enthusiasm and belief in the game shows in every detail.
Four players wander around a hex grid kingdom completing quests, playing spell and item cards and stomping over each other’s ambitions. It’s engaging just clicking around, exploring the board, getting in scraps and soaking up the atmosphere even if you’re not entirely sure what you’re doing. A limited tutorial flashes up context sensitive advice and explanations but new players are left in the dark when it comes to basic strategies to follow. Even the in game manual has trouble walking you through the more intricate mechanics and I had to fall back on the currently incomplete developer wiki at times.
The Quest system presents further confusion. Character specific quests crop up in random locations requiring player stat checks to complete them, but there’s no indication of the probabilities involved. Even when the outcome text describes abject failure the game frequently still rewards you for the effort. Exploring dungeon spaces on the board is equally problematic, a random chance of reward or penalty but without an explanation of the balance of possibilities. This is compounded by clumsy execution, quest information doesn’t show up while other players are taking their turns’ leaving you feeling isolated and uninvolved. Infuriatingly the screen doesn’t always centre on players at the start of their turn, exacerbating the problem as they scamper about off screen. After four sessions I still wasn’t sure if this was down to my fidgeting with the mouse and keyboard or an inconsistency within the game itself. Coupled with a limited field of view that fogs out the further you pull the camera back, it starts to feel like the tabletop and videogame aspects of Armello are two sides that don’t fully mesh.
Beneath these surface irritations there’s a great deal of substance for players with the patience to uncover and decipher Armello’s many overlapping systems. There are stealth rules, AI factions roaming the battlefield, a day and night cycle and multiple win conditions. The themes of decay and corruption in the back story are superbly depicted with a mechanic involving the mysterious ‘Rot’ infection where a losing player might find themselves in a stronger position after multiple deaths. Players are rarely truly out of the game and the potential for massive upset and snatch victories is always lurking in the multiple card decks.
Like all Early Access multiplayer games, there’s a cloud hanging over Armello. Over my time with the game, I failed to find an open multiplayer match and played mostly against the AI. Private matches proved effortless to set up and while this is a game that shines when played with friends it still needs an active online community. There’s always the worry that the core community might move on before the final release. That would be a great shame as this is a deep, cut-throat game, albeit one that still needs some work. It’s unclear at this point how much will change before the official release but Armello is a game that shows great potential.