A beautiful game that gets boring way too quickly
Armello is a digital board game of royal intrigue featuring characters that look like they belong in a children's cartoon, aptly described by Kotaku as "like Game of Thrones, only with animals". In it you take control of one of four anthropomorphic animals from different clans (Wolf clan, Bear clan, Rabbit clan and Rat clan) who vie over the throne as their king, a lion (as is tradition), is sick with something called The Rot and has lost his mind. You move across a map of hexagonal tiles with the starting areas on each corner and the castle in the center, each taking turns to pick up or use cards, explore the map and do combat with each other or other game pieces that stand in your way.
As a digital board game Armello does its job admirably, representing a game which could easily be played using physical pieces and pen & paper, but is instead rendered in full 3D. Armello is also a beautiful game, with an evocative style that is sufficiently cartoony to match the Disney film cast, but is filled with small details that make the game board come alive.
The game starts with an opening cutscene that captures the feeling of the game world quite well and it just gets better from there. The characters are detailed and move with expression, flamboyant but never over the top. There are small animations everywhere, idle characters shift their weight, the cards you carry have small repeated movements and clouds move overhead. The game board feels alive in a way that regular cardboard and wood could not emulate, which is coupled with an effective, albeit not ground breaking, musical score that sets the tone as you fight for the crown.
How you actually become king is possible through a few win conditions, the most straightforward being beating the king in direct combat. You can also take the pacifist route by simply being the most renowned person in the kingdom when the king finally dies of The Rot after ten days. Other ways to win is to beat the king while you yourself are infected with The Rot or to banish the king using spirit stones that manifest randomly on the board during a round.
The gameplay itself feels very board gamey, with dice rolled during combat, cards that you can equip to your character or play as spells and trickery. There is also an element of roleplaying as you need to complete quests while you move around the board which increase your character's ability scores and perhaps more cards if you pass their challenges.
This concept of capturing the feeling of playing a board game isn't exactly new, as there have been digital board games before, but Armello presents a "realistic" board game experience with an amazing amount of polish. Some of the game mechanics would perhaps be too cumbersome or complicated to represent in a board game, at least for a casual audience that don't have massive tables to sprawl this game world out on, but the game feels like playing a board game. However, Armello's major flaws come from this strict adherence to board game mechanics.
First of all is the dependency on randomization which is absolutely everywhere. You get random cards, random quests (three are shown, of which you choose one), random results from exploring dungeons and the combat is randomized through dice rolling although your stats and equipment can help you out there. Although also somewhat influenced by your characters stats the outcome of quests is also random, which feels like just one unpredictable aspect too many and is a part of what makes it hard to really strategize your pursuit of the crown. There is so much of the outcome which is based on pure chance that sometimes it feels unnecessary to try to pursue a specific strategy, but instead try to broaden your characters abilities and equipment enough so that you are able to win with any of the possible win conditions.
The game also suffers from the same problem that a lot of board games do which is where you can easily play the game without really interacting with many of the other players, only nudging each other in passing as you work separately towards victory. Then, when everyone has increased their skills far enough or there are only a few rounds left there is a mad dash towards the center of the board as everyone tries to claim victory before the others. This usually results in the first person to actually reach the king being the victor, as once they have made their intentions known it may take the other players a few rounds to catch up. There is no real incentive for players to interact with each other as the most sound strategy is to just stay away from the others and power up your character as quickly as you can (which isn't helped by combat with the other players) and then running for the king before anyone else gets the same idea.
Even though Armello has the same flaws as some board games it is also missing one vital aspect of playing boards games: other people. Even in multiplayer you are simply playing against three other animals, with no real indicator that they are controlled by real people other than how much time they spend making their decisions. This, coupled with all those luscious details and animations that take a few seconds to play through, you are left with a game which is mostly waiting in silence as you watch your opponents take an agonizingly long time to make the few moves allotted to them. The banter and company of real players is missing which, together with the fact that most moves made don't directly affect you, means that the game is one of long stretches of tedium interspersed with hoping that the random number generator will give a result in your favor.
Armello is an amazing game to look at and it feels like there is so much to explore under the tiles that make up the board, but with a single board to play with (albeit with a random layout and season) and no real story to guide you through the game it ends up feeling repetitive after just a few games. The prologue has some storytelling elements which teach you the various gameplay mechanics, but after it's over you are given the board and tokens and told to go off and play with no real direction. This is not too dissimilar from board games who have their entire story outlined in a three paragraph preface at the front of the manual and then twenty pages of rules.
I would love to have more of the universe where Armello takes place. The art style is so well done and thorough that it almost begs for more depth, but as it stands it's just a digital board game. You move your pieces, roll your dice and maybe you'll win.