Tobold's Blog
Sunday, September 06, 2015

When Sid Meier said that a good game is a series of interesting decisions, he was producing a lot of turn-based games for which this is particularly true. In real-time games the player can get into the flow of just taking care of the execution and still be engaged. A turn-based game constantly disengages the player while he has to wait for the other players to make their move. So it becomes important that when its the player's turn again, he has something interesting to decide.

Armello is doing this very well, as it is a virtual fantasy strategy board game. You don't just decide on a strategy at one point in time and then spend the next hundred turns executing it. Every turn the situation has at least slightly changed and you will have to decide on your move accordingly. And you don't get hundreds of turns anyway: In Armello the king has been infected by rot, and is losing 1 health every two turns. As he only has 9 health at the start of the game, that gives a natural limit to the number of turns the players have to either cure the king, depose him, or become the new king after the king's death by prestige.

In every turn you draw cards if you don't already hold as many cards as you have wit in your hand, and then move over a very small hex map around the world. On that map you can capture settlements for a gold income, explore dungeons for random rewards, visit stone circles to heal, or just pass over different sorts of terrain. In the middle of the map is the palace, which you don't enter until you try for one of the victory conditions near the end of the game. As the map is small, you constantly run into the other heroes (Armello is a game for 4 players, but 3 of them can be AI), the king's guards, and the banes. That is an opportunity for combat, as combat gives you the prestige you need for the default prestige victory condition.

Combat is done by rolling dice with symbols on it. Sword symbols count as an attack, shield symbols as a defense, and the other symbols as either attack, defense, or nothing at all, depending on circumstances. And yes, that means that there is a strong random element to combat, although characters with a higher fight score get more dice and thus have a distinctive advantage. Before rolling the dice you can also "burn" the cards in your hand to get specific results on a die. That not only makes combat a bit more predictable, but is also a great opportunity to discard cards you didn't want to play anyway.

The cards which you draw every turn unless your hand is full are of three sorts: Equipment, which you can then transfer to your inventory for a cost in gold, spells which you can cast for magic, and trickery cards which can be used for various effects, usually to hinder other heroes. The overall effect of the various ways to hinder other players is that the three victory conditions which require you to cure or beat the king in some way are very, very hard to reach. Most games thus end with the default victory condition of declaring the player with the highest prestige the winner. That in turn makes the more fight-oriented heroes like the wolf clan members more likely to win than the other classes. This minor imbalance is the only point of criticism I have on Armello. Each turn *is* full of interesting decisions, and while each game is relatively short, you'll often want to start the next one right after it and try a different way. There is also a system where your victories unlock different starting bonuses for your next games.

Besides the excellent gameplay, Armello is also a very charming game. The characters are anthropomorphic animals, the king is of course the lion, and the different character classes are represented by different animals. Everything is nicely animated and the whole world looks just great.

Overall I can only recommend Armello. In view of the low price tag of $20, you don't even have to wait for a Steam sale in order to be able to afford it. :)

Can you tell us something about its longevity?
Difficult question to answer. I played half a dozen games and I am not bored of it yet, but it is hard to predict after how many games I will be. No two games are exactly the same, the map changes every time, and you draw different cards every time, and the AI opponents are different too. But the fundamental structure of you going adventuring to become stronger until you finally face the king in the endgame (or somebody wins via prestige because nobody did) remains the same every time. The different victory conditions bring some variety, but in the end I don't think I'll play this hundreds of times.
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