Into The Spine Of: Armello

A living board game with a lot of style.

The king of the land has fallen into corruption. A strange disease known as the Rot is slowly killing him, while also taking away his sanity in the process. The royal guards are now attacking everyone on sight, and following commands that involve attacking the local settlements and imposing fear upon the citizens.

In the meantime, clans from all over the kingdom see this as an opportunity for different purposes: defeat the ruler and become king themselves, become their right hand to influence upon the realm or to try to cure him from this disease. That’s where every match of Armello’s take on digital board games begin.

Released back in 2015 as truly a different experience, mixing RPG elements with a board game with its own rules and ways to approach each match from a strategic point of view, Armello feels like nothing else out there. But it also comes with the cost of complexity, although only at first. As soon as you begin a tutorial will open up, which at the same time is divided in different steps, including a general understanding of the rules and going back and forth with mechanics available. You can skip it altogether, but I feel nothing but sadness for those who chose to go in blind.

In a regular match, you’ll start by selecting a clan, a trait and an item, each with their own advantages. Then, by choosing either a single player game with three more characters controlled by the AI or simply multiplayer, you’ll start on the situation I portrayed in the first few lines during a number of days, separated in a day/night cycle, until the last day in which the king dies from the Rot.

From that moment it’s up to you which path you take: take on many quests as possible, go full assault on other players, conquer settlements to earn a profit each day, explore dungeons or just be an ass and plant traps for your fellow enemies. The map isn’t that big (and there’s only one) but your regular movements are limited to three per round, more or less. This leads you to carefully think how you want to spend your time.

Aside from the properties of each grid, there are many stats to take into account (which influence in the type of victory you want to achieve and how your character can behave) and cards to put in use. These are divided in three categories: equipment, magic and trick cards. The first are one of the two equippable cards in the game, along with companions, and both grant unique, often passive bonuses. Magic and Tricks work more sporadically, directly affecting enemies, grids or even yourself in different ways. Want to have an advantage before entering combat with a lighting strike? or perhaps set a trap with bandits for someone who tries to conquer your settlement? You can do both things and more.

And then there’s the combat, in which your stats and cards will play a major role. How each battle will progress depends on your luck with dices, throwing them at the start and, depending on which face it lands on, granting you either attack or defense points. You can burn cards to get specific result as bonuses, but erasing a dice from your current hand in doing so. After that you’ll see the two characters confronting each other in a gorgeous and short animation, and depending on their luck, they can get from the fight with only a few scratches or suffer from a killing blow.

But Armello is still an ongoing board game, so you’ll spawn immediately. Not without suffering penalties, of course, which translates to someone collecting a bounty for killing you, or losing prestige. So, even when you can always continue, every death counts.

That’s only the core part of the game really. From there it all relies on randomization, which cards you get and how, and when, you choose to use them. Following a certain victory path might be clever, but at first I tried to taint on many of them as I could, trying to improvise on the go and see what I could come up to.

In one match I was playing more careful, looking for dungeons in hopes of stats boosts or gold, but instead I found myself collecting enough spirit stones to stop the king’s corruption. In order to do so, one must step into an altar from the map whenever a stone shows up, and repeat the process four times. Once that happens, you must fight your way through the castle’s whereabouts and confront the king in person, healing him from his endless insanity, and bringing hope to the land once more.

Instead of offering a wide variety of modes to choose from, Armello introduces you to a unique gameplay loop with strict rules from the start to make it engaging and fun even after a few matches. Of course, playing with the AI can only be entertaining for a short time (although they never feel neither overly hard nor incompetent to play with) and online matches are what makes Armello so appealing.

The Switch version, platform in which we reviewed the game, recently received two multiplayer modes that were present in the PC version for quite some time now, so players can expect to be full up to speed there as well. These are Fury Fridays, making battles more intense by reducing the king’s health and changing several rules, and Stranger Games, adding varied house rules by granting players random cards in the beginning, altering the king’s behavior, and more.

After my time with Armello, I don’t think I would have endured so long and cared enough to learn the rules and practice in the game if it weren’t for its sense of style. The artistic direction, along with a soothing and charming soundtrack playing the role of companion in the background, make for a beautiful book cover to attract newcomers to its inside.

The Switch version works just as intended, and while you can tell there has been a certain graphical downgrade compared to the PC and console versions, the style is certainly present and palpable. Aside from a minor of slowdowns in between turns’ transitions, the game ran smoothly in both handheld and docked modes during my time with it. Just beware that, as it keeps happening with recent releases, the text might be a bit difficult to read in handheld.

Regardless of which version you choose to play it, Armello is a beautiful game to look at, and one that can either grab you or not during its initial moments. But with enough patience, you may enter in a really unique concept that is not seemed so often in the video games’ realm.

A copy of Armello for Switch was provided by Stride PR on behalf of the studio. Make sure to visit the official site for more information.

By Diego Nicolás Argüello

Founder and EIC of Into The Spine. Probably procrastinating on Twitter right now. Talk to him about pinballs, Persona, and The Darkness. @diegoarguello66

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