Review: Armello

Review: Armello

When the King falls to madness, it’s up to you to remove him from power. But even in his corrupted state the king is strong, he’s protected by guards, and you’re not the only one who feels compelled to take his place as ruler of the kingdom. Did I forget to mention that whoever takes down the King gets to be the new King or Queen? Someone has to take his place! Equip yourself well, (literally) play your cards well, and bend fate to your will or you’ll not only end up as King or Queen, you’ll be dead!

Title: Armello
Developer: League of Geeks
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Version: Final
Review Copy: Provided by developer
Interface: Handheld Switch console
Available on Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PS4, and Steam (Windows, Mac, and Linux)

Armello is a grim fairy-tale board game come to life, with every match combining deep, tactical card play, rich tabletop strategy and RPG elements. Leverage subterfuge, spells and careful strategy to wrangle control of the game’s chaotic odds as you quest for the throne.

I’ve always been a video gamer, but just a few years ago I became a tabletop gamer as well. Armello is a digital board game that requires no set-up, takes up no space on your shelf, and you don’t even have to worry about getting cheeto dust all over your expensive pieces! With multiple victory methods you’re encouraged to take on the road to the throne in your own preferred manner, whether it’s through brute force, trickery, becoming famous enough to bend the King’s ear, mastering the ability to cure the King or taking on the same rot that’s corrupted him and using it against him.

Each game begins by selecting from one of eight characters, each with their own stats and special power. Once your character is chosen you’ll get to choose a ring and amulet to equip and the game begins. Each player gets cards equal to their wits, and then chooses from one of three quests. After that you’re given free reign of the game; you can head straight for your quest location, move to settlements so that you’ll earn more money each day, explore dungeons, battle other players, cast spells, equip things, set traps and more. You’re given several separate pools of points based on your stats: your fight stat gives you more dice in battle for example, while your spirit stat gives you more magic points to use spells each day.
Adaptability is the name of the game in Armello: while a skilled player has numerous advantages over a newbie, the luck of the draw is a big factor. Each peril requires you to roll certain die faces, and you’re punished if you fail depending on what the peril is. One person may get super lucky and get all three required things out of four dice, whereas another may have seven dice and still fail. Battle is similar: you each roll dice based on your equipment, terrain, any spell bonuses and your fight stat; different faces may count as an attack, a defense or even an “explosion”: an attack and another bonus die roll. You can certainly stack the odds in your favor, but as every gamer knows, sometimes the dice just hate you.
Armello does a great job of balancing luck with preparation through the ability to burn cards. Unless you’re ambushed, you’re given an amount of time to burn cards (essentially just discarding them in a more epic fashion) to guarantee a certain roll. Each card has a symbol in the upper-right corner, and if you burn a card you use one of your dice as that result. This is great not only for guaranteeing results in a battle (or even in a peril), it’s also spectacular for getting rid of cards you don’t want and allowing you to draw new cards on your next turn. Heck, even the card draws have a way to balance luck since you can draw from three different decks – items, spells, and trickery. If you really want equipment to help in battle or are desperate to heal yourself, draw a bunch of items. If your character has a lot of spirit, grab lots of spells. Trickery usually requires money, so if you have a surplus of it you may want to throw some wrenches into some opponents’s gears with some tricks.
Furthermore, death is far from permanent. If you run out of health for any reason you merely lose the rest of your turn, go back to your clan grounds, and you lose a single prestige point. This can be annoying, sure, especially if you were very close to finally reaching a point across the board or you’re going for a prestige victory, but it’s far from a reason to flip the virtual table and give up, and sometimes it’s even beneficial if you want to get back to your corner of the board, want to refill your health or for a slew of other reasons. If another hero kills you in battle they’ll gain a prestige point, and if you kill each other at the same time (which is very possible!) then no prestige points change values at all since you both gain and then lose one.
Prestige is, in the long run, one of the most important numbers in the game. You’ll gain it through some quests, through killing banes and through various other methods. Whoever has the most at the beginning of each day is presented with two choices from the King and is allowed to choose which one will happen. Having control over this choice can be very strategic, sometimes it’s almost vital to certain win conditions. Rot is hard to come by unless you get very lucky, for example, but sometimes the King’s choices help a lot with it. Or maybe you have a card that lets you steal a piece of equipment from a player if they don’t have two gold, and you can set them up through making them lose gold through one of the King’s choices. Like many classic games, anyone can be successful sometimes by focusing on the moment, but a great player has a much better chance if they plan ahead and combo things up.
Prestige is also important because it’s the easiest way to win and is the only reliable backup plan. The King begins the game with 9 health and loses one each day from the rot that’s taken hold in him, and turns are broken up into two phases: day and night. If the King dies without someone killing him, whoever has the most prestige wins. The same is also true if someone does get into the palace and kills him but also dies in the process, although anyone who attacks the king has their prestige reset to guarantee they don’t still win the game for their treason. Going for a prestige victory does get nerve wracking toward the end when the King has one or two health left and people are trying to breach the walls, but it never hurts to have it!
Spirit stone victories are the next easiest: you merely have to collect four spirit stones, get into the palace and then use an action point to interact with the King. This purifies him but also kills him in the process, making you the new ruler without having to worry about a roll of the dice. This is made even less luck-based if you complete your four quests and earn a key to the palace so that you don’t have to overcome the challenging peril, once again showing the importance of preparation. Spirit stones are rare, though, and if you’re not focused it’s very easy to never even see four of them let alone collect four.
But maybe while one person is walking around collecting spirit stones and two of them are wandering around equipping themselves up for battle, you’ll turn to the dark side and let the rot corrupt you. There are various ways to get rot, and battles change if both fighters have any at all: whoever has more rot gains dice based on how much their foe has. Rot also hurts you by one health each day, just like it hurts the king, and if you manage to get 5 rot you officially become corrupted and you’ll automatically die if you step into the stone circles that normally heal anyone else. But if you can pull off amassing a bunch of rot, more than even the King, the battle should be a cake walk. Each night the King gets even more rot, so if you can pull off getting 9 or 10 rot and the king has 8, that’s 8 extra dice for you when you take him on! But beware, if you have one or two less than the king, he’ll be the one to gain a load of dice and you won’t stand a chance.
The various win conditions and strategies, bunches of heroes to play as, loads of equipment to unlock and equip, and the randomness with not guaranteeing your initial card draw or the flow of the game means that each game is widely different. In one game I began with equipment and cards that could’ve given me 2-3 rot right off the bat even though I originally wanted to go for a spirit stone victory. In another game I was going for a prestige victory but a spirit stone appeared a single square away from me, and when I drew my cards at the beginning of that turn I drew a spell that would let me summon another, so I got two in one turn! Even your foes alter your strategies; if an enemy is really loading themselves up with equipment for battle, maybe you shouldn’t try to compete with them if you’ve been less lucky with your own draws. There are very few games that I can play endlessly against AI players and still be satisfied, but Armello succeeds gloriously there. You also have the option to play against local human players and online against real people, but I wasn’t able to test online play since I don’t have the Nintendo Switch Online service. For those of us who love board games but don’t have the space to set them up or the people to play with, Armello is a very solid option, and the art is top notch as well.
The only complaints I have about Armello are that the game doesn’t allow for touch screen gameplay on the handheld Switch console for some reason and the game doesn’t quite explain everything with tutorials. You’re given a few quick scenarios that show you some of the basics, but the intricacies are hidden in the menus or through learning the hard way. I’d highly recommend you go through and read the game guide in the game after a full game or two so that you get the basics, and use those early games to go for easy victory conditions – especially going for prestige – rather than the more complex ones. This way you’ve got a basis of understanding when you start learning about the deeper strategies. The game originally released over 3 years ago, so there are lots of online posts for strategy and tips as well.
Finally, while the average game of Armello lasts a good 45-60 minutes, as long as you’re not playing online you can turn the game off and it’ll save your progress. I certainly wouldn’t tackle an online game on the bus or a lunch break though!

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