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Monday, May 1, 2017

Armello Review: A Poorly-Designed Board Game Dressed Up Like a Video Game

Most digital board games are merely adaptations of actual, physical board games; they keep all the same gameplay elements and components of the physical game and simply add a digital interface so that you can interact with the components, and therefore actually play the game. Platforms like Board Game Simulator and Tabletopia are just physics engines with digital versions of board game components that play virtually identically to the real thing, with you picking up and moving your pieces across the board and dragging cards into the play area, substituting your hands for a mouse cursor. Armello -- successfully Kickstarted in May 2014 and released on Steam in September 2015 -- may be the only digital board game without a physical counterpart, since it was designed from the ground up to be digital. As such, it's basically a hybrid game with the design concepts of board games and the functional feeling of a video game.

Armello is a fantasy-themed turn-based strategy game for up to four players, in which everyone plays as different anthropomorphic animal clans (represented by their hero) vying for control of the animal kingdom after a dark poison known as the Rot has overtaken the land and driven the lion King mad. The game lasts up to 20 rounds, with the king -- positioned in the palace at the center of the hex-based board -- losing one health from Rot poisoning every other round, at dawn, until he eventually dies. If it comes to that, the player with the most Prestige (ie, victory points) wins the game by being the most worthy successor to the throne. However, players can also end the game early by breaching the palace and assassinating the weakened king, or by collecting four spirit stones and bringing them to the palace to cure the king. A player who kills or cures the king wins, regardless of prestige.

You'll be rolling dice based on your stats to complete quests, survive perils, and to fight monsters and other players, while using limited action points to move across the board towards specific objectives and to maneuver past obstacles. You'll also be managing a hand of cards, drawing up to your hand limit every turn. These cards consist of different types of equipment, spells, and trickery cards, all of which have some type of cost to use. Equipment cards can be permanently equipped to your hero for various benefits, while spells and trickery cards can be played at any time (even when it's not your turn) on enemies, tiles, or other players. You'll complete quests to increase your stats, claim settlements to increase your income, defeat monsters to earn prestige, explore dungeons for random rewards, and play your spells and trickeries on other players to influence and control the board.

I play a lot of video games, obviously, but I'm also an avid board gamer. I've actually spent more money on board games over the last three years than I have on video games (which includes money spent upgrading my computer), and I've even reviewed a few board games on this blog. It's safe to say that I'm exactly the kind of person this game is intended for, and yet I just don't like it very much. Perhaps that's in large part because this just maybe isn't my type of game (I'm not a huge fan of dice-chuckers, although many of my favorite games use dice and I do enjoy games like Run Fight or Die and Cosmic Run), but Armello features several rules and gameplay features that I and a lot of gamers consider to be objectively bad. While I can tolerate or even embrace some of these things in the right context or in small doses, Armello takes some of them to the extreme, with too much prevalence in a game that's a little too long and serious for what it ultimately is.

The way I see it, Armello has three main problems: it's way too random, there's too much "Take That" going on, and there's too much potential for forced, unproductive, sub-optimal turns where you feel like you can't really do anything. Add in a few other, more specific rules issues, balance issues, a free-to-play style business model in a $20 game that ran a successful Kickstarter campaign in which it raised over 50% more money than it was asking, plus some serious technical issues, and you have a game that's often more frustrating than fun to play.


Too Random

Every single thing in this game has some kind of randomization. This includes the starting configuration of the board (including the distribution of settlements), your initial card draw and every subsequent card draw, quest locations, choice of quests and rewards, what types of perils show up, where perils show up, skill checks for perils, dungeons/adventures with random results, random encounters, where spirit stones spawn, when and where enemies spawn, dice rolling in combat, and so on. Even things like movement can be affected by random chance, if you step onto a dungeon tile and it randomly decides to warp you all the way across the board, or if you get stuck with a semi-permanent debuff that moves you to a random adjacent tile at the start of every turn. Literally everything is affected by random chance.

Let me make this disclaimer up front: I have no problems with random elements in games. In fact, all of my favorite games have some form of randomization, whether it's with dice rolls or card draws, and I think there's definitely an argument to be made that randomness can have a positive effect on games. Randomization makes it harder to tell who will win a particular exchange, and it gives a "weaker" player a chance to stay competitive against a "stronger" player because there's always a chance that they can defy the odds and win when they probably shouldn't. Plus, random elements can add some tension and excitement to games since you never know what's going to happen until it happens. However, too much randomness can make the player feel like they're not in control of what happens, as if the game is just playing itself. The trick with game design, therefore, is to allow for some degree of unpredictability and variable outcomes while still making the player feel like they're in control, that their decisions have a direct effect on the outcome.

Armello does this to a certain degree with its card system, which helps mitigate bad luck by letting you "burn" cards from your hand, effectively discarding them in order to lock one die per card that you burn to a specific result, depending on the type of card you burn. That's useful, of course, but even this has a random luck element to it because your card draws are completely blind and completely random. You have zero control over what cards you end up with (apart from selecting which of the three decks to draw from), which means your choices of what cards to burn are completely random. Likewise, you can equip different types of equipment, cast different spells, and use different trickeries to help yourself out in different situations, like equipping armor to add guaranteed shields to your dice rolls in combat, or casting haste to give yourself an extra action point for the next two turns. But the fact of the matter is, certain cards are just better than others, and since the card draws are completely random, it comes down to pure luck whether you get better cards or worse cards.


In combat, for instance, each six-sided die has a 50% chance to give you one point of offense and only a 16% chance to give you one point of defense, with a 33% chance to roll a dud and get nothing at all. This makes defensive cards immediately more valuable than offensive cards, since you're so much less likely to roll defense, and since damage from both sides is applied simultaneously (comparing each side's offense against their opponent's defense) you will take damage and will die frequently (causing you to lose prestige, certain ongoing status effects, your position on the board (you get warped back to your starting tile when you die), and any remaining action points for your turn if you were the one attacking) if through random luck you can never get any defensive cards or defensive rolls. One time I spent the first half of the game drawing equipment cards and never getting any weapons or armor, which made me a weaker target in combat. In another two games I kept drawing nothing but weapons which forced me to be a glass cannon -- in one of those matches I went four fights in a row rolling 12 dice every time and never got a single defensive roll. It seems astronomically improbable that I could draw eight or nine equipment cards and roll 48+ dice and not get a single defensive result. That's basically Armello in a nutshell -- getting screwed by random chance.

I've played several matches with friends online, and after one of the matches, two of them felt like they lost the game because of bad card draws, while I felt like I lost because of bad dice rolls. Either way, we all felt like it came down to bad luck at the end, and that's coming from two of my friends who absolutely love this game. In one match I had enough rot that I could go for a super rare rot victory, but on the turn that I could've possibly gotten into the palace, the Stranger debuff (which I'd failed numerous coin flips to get rid of previously) made me move onto a stone circle, which normally heals you one health but kills you if you're corrupted with rot. After that, I had no chance of getting back to the palace in time. In one match I lost after collecting four spirit stones and spending four turns just trying to get into the palace, burning cards left and right and casting preemptive buff spells, but failed each time by a single die; when I finally got into the palace, the king died the next morning before I could give him the stones.


It's not just at the end of games, either; sometimes you can get screwed at the very start of the game, through no fault of your own, and that's possibly even worse than getting screwed at the end because it can put you at a permanent disadvantage for the rest of the game. With randomized settlements, there's a chance someone else will have two or three clustered near their starting spot while you might only have one, which makes it harder for you to earn money over the course of the game, which is necessary for using equipment and trickery cards. If you step onto a dungeon tile on your first turn and randomly spawn a bane, and then randomly lose because of bad dice or bad cards, then you've wasted an entire turn and now have rot, which is really hard to cure, causes you a point of damage every other turn, and makes all other rot-infected banes or heroes stronger than you unless you can accrue more rot than them. In one game I ended up with six obstacles in my starting area within the first couple of turns, while no one else had more than two. If you spend several rounds making it to your first quest and get killed or warped across the board before you reach it, then you start the game behind on prestige and behind on stat boosts, which makes it harder to earn more prestige and catch up.

There's so much random stuff happening every single turn, every single round that it's almost impossible to come up with any sort of plan, because so many things can change by the time your turn comes up again, or even during your turn. Certain random events happen every round; spirit stones spawn on random stone circles; banes spawn on random dungeon tiles and move to random tiles towards guards, players, or settlements; guards randomly patrol the board or else move towards banes or wanted players; the king puts random perils on random tiles; and the prestige leader picks between two random events that will mix things up even more (some as drastically as swapping everyone's hands). Additionally, most cards can be played out of turn, so other players will be placing traps on the board, enacting pacts with each other, and casting spells or playing trickeries on one another while someone is taking their turn.

Meanwhile, dungeons and perils can have drastically game-altering effects like spawning enemies, moving you to other tiles, taking random cards away from you, draining magic or gold you were planning to use later (or even that turn), poisoning or infecting you with rot, or even sometimes outright killing you. You typically don't know what's going to happen until you trigger them, and what happens is either the spin of a roulette or comes down to dice rolls if you don't have the right cards for the situation. All of which creates this immense feeling of rampant chaos with so many things happening all the time that you're always on your heels reacting to things, most of which is typically bad or annoying. Every game is ultimately a matter of things constantly popping up to block your path or throw a wrench in your plans, and most of it is totally unpredictable and beyond your control.


Too Much "Take That"

"Take That" is a term used to describe a type of gameplay mechanism where cards or other effects are used specifically to target other players, thereby causing them some sort of negative consequence. In typical usage, a "Take That" card neither costs nor gains the player anything who's using it, as its only intention is to hinder the other player. Consider the special cards in Uno, like the Skip, Reverse, or Draw 4 which you play solely to mess with the person next to you; you're meant to relish in the fact that you've set them back, and all they can do is be annoyed. "Take That" can be fun and enjoyable in the right context or in small doses / shorter games, but it can also ruin games if there's too much of it or if it's not executed properly. Like all things, how much one can enjoy (or tolerate) "Take That" in games varies from person to person, but I find that Armello is too mean-spirited and aggressive with its "Take That" mechanics, which can really sour the fun if you're on the receiving end and make you feel bad if you're on the delivering end.

There are about 150 different cards that you can draw (for free) from the Item, Spell, or Trickery deck at the start of each turn, up to your hand limit. About half of these are buffs that you play on yourself to improve your stats or else to help you out in some way, while the other half are debuffs or other offensive cards that you play to hurt or disrupt other players. Some cards fall into both categories, helping you in some way at someone else's expense. Each card has a cost to use, with more powerful cards having a higher cost. Most cards cost gold or spell points (which you gain automatically every dawn and dusk, respectively, depending on how many settlements you control and your spirit stat); others cost prestige or give you rot.


These cards can do all kinds of nasty things to other players. A lot of them cause other players to outright lose action points, health, magic, money, prestige, cards from their hand, equipped items, or recruited followers. Some cards steal things from other players' hands or equipped slots, or even steal prestige or spirit stones. Some cause lasting status effects like bounties that cause guards to hunt you down, or poison which causes you to lose one health every time you move, or sabotage which prevents dice from exploding (a mechanism where every "wyld" rolled counts as an attack and "explodes," thus giving you an extra die roll). Some move players to specific tiles (like to the nearest mountain or to the farthest dungeon) while others block movement. Some effects like "lose 2 gold" don't hurt that much and don't cause much ill will, but others are so nasty that they can set you back multiple turns or undo a ton of progress if they're used at the right time.

Armello is a game of opportunism, the type of game where you beat each other up even if it doesn't help you, just because it hurts them and makes it harder for them to win -- if an opportunity presents itself to screw someone else over, you take it just because you can. You're encouraged to attack each other because the winner of a fight gains one prestige and the loser loses one, so if someone's in a weakened state it benefits you greatly to swoop in and land the killing blows. In a head-to-head fight, the defender has a chance to fight back with dice and cards, but a lot of cards are played outside of combat and apply instantly. If another player is nearby and has low health, and you have the right cards, you can walk by and kill them and there's nothing they can do about it.

Ideally, you attack people who are ahead of you in prestige, or those who might be trying to breach the palace to kill or cure the king, but if the prestige leader is on the other side of the map and the person in last place happens to be nearby, there's no incentive to go out of your way for the prestige leader when there's a more convenient opportunity nearby. In fact, you may actually be incentivized to go after the person in last place -- they're probably in last place for a reason (poor play, bad luck) and therefore may be an easier target. I always feel bad targeting people when they're weak, especially if they're in last place, because you're essentially kicking someone when they're down -- it's a dirty thing to do and it feels even worse for the person being targeted -- but sometimes it's your only opportunity for prestige, and you have to take every opportunity you get if you want to win the game.


While the game encourages (or at least enables) picking on the people in last place, it also encourages leader bashing. If it's near the end of the game and you're the one with the most prestige, you can almost guarantee that every negative card is coming your way until someone else becomes the new prestige leader. It's never fun in any game to feel ganged up on, even if you deserve it for being in the lead, and if two or more players decide to team up against you (either because of legitimate gameplay strategy or because you got randomly matched into a lobby with a couple of friends, thus making you the odd man out) then you stand zero chance of winning, because in this game getting hit with even just a few of the right cards at the right time can mean basically losing your turns or any chance of competitiveness at the end of the game.

There's also an element of king-making at work, where players outside of contention for victory can ultimately decide who wins the game by whom they choose to target near the end. If two players are tied for prestige, a player in third or fourth can essentially give the victory to one player by attacking the other; if someone breaches the palace with four spirit stones or a good chance to kill the king in combat, someone else might swoop in to kill them, thus extending the game a few more rounds and thus giving the victory to the prestige leader. Since a lot of this can happen with instant effect cards, it adds a lot to the general feeling that you don't really have as much control over the game as you'd like -- between all the randomized elements, leader bashing, and king-making, it can really make the end of the game feel like it's completely out of your control if you don't have the right cards or get crappy rolls / draws.


Too Many Quasi-"Lose a Turn" Effects

One of the worst things a designer can put into their game is rules that cause players to stop playing the game. This occurs most often in the form of player elimination, where players can get knocked out of the game while the remaining players continue on until a winner is determined, but games can also have "lose a turn" effects where you stay in the game, but simply don't get to take any actions during the next round. Armello isn't so extreme as to flat out say "you cannot play anymore" since there's no player elimination (if your character dies you respawn at your home base, retaining all of your items and stats) and there technically aren't any card effects that simply say "lose a turn," but a lot of the card effects can be so crippling that they may as well be "lose a turn."

You want players to feel like they're making progress, that they're doing productive things on their turn that help them towards the end-game -- that's a large part of what makes games satisfying to play -- but it's all too easy in Armello to have turns where you accomplish nothing at all, or worse, actually lose progress, either because of all the random elements or because of other players' "Take That" cards, neither of which you can do much about. It's not fun or productive to spend four turns trying to get onto a palace tile, where all you do is perform a basic skill check that, if you fail, sends you back to the previous tile and ends your turn. It's not fun or productive to take one step and land on a peril that causes a ton of damage and ends your turn immediately if you fail. It's not fun or productive to have to pass your entire turn, not moving at all, because you're poisoned and low on health. It's not fun or productive to have only one action point to spend on your turn because other players played one or more cards that cause you to lose action points.


Those ones aren't so bad because at least you're not losing progress -- you're just not gaining any. Other turns can be much worse, typically when effects cause you to move to the opposite side of the board when you're just trying to reach a quest objective. Say you spend three turns trying to cross the map, moving around obstacles and having to contend with a bunch of hazards, and almost reach your objective, only to step onto a dungeon tile and have it warp you all the way across the board. Or take your first action on your turn attacking a bane that happens to be in the way, knowing that it will give you prestige if you win, only to die on the first attempt and get warped back to your home base and lose the rest of your action points for that turn, also losing one prestige and gaining rot in the process. Or you're minding your own business but you've taken a few hits from perils and banes, and another player walks by and plays a card that kills you instantly. This kind of stuff is so frustrating, because it feels like building a sand castle and then having a bully come along and kick it down.

Meanwhile, different cards have varying degrees of usefulness, with some being highly situational cards that you may not ever be able to use, some being literally unusable if you don't meet the stat or resource requirements, and some being straight up inferior to cards you already have equipped. It's possible, therefore, to get stuck with a hand full of useless cards which can seriously limit your strategic or tactical options, because there's no system for discarding cards -- the only way to get rid of cards you don't want is to use them (which is often times impossible, impractical, or harmful) or burn them in a stat check. Due to the randomized nature of the board, there may simply not be any perils or combat opportunities nearby (and you'd be risking further harm to yourself by triggering a peril, just to get rid of a few cards), which can force you to hold on to those useless cards longer than you may desire, and if you're stuck with a bunch of rot cards then you're completely screwed (unless you're willing to change your entire strategy mid-game and commit fully to rot) because rot cards burn as rot symbols in stat checks, which count as duds, meaning you have to literally waste dice to get rid of your rot cards.

It's also possible find out that you've been mathematically eliminated from winning the game in the last few rounds, if something happens and you can't get to the palace in time, or if there aren't enough opportunities to score prestige around you, or if you aren't getting good cards that might help you. That can take all the fun out of the game, and make the end completely deflating when your last few turns don't really matter except possibly to mess with other people and play king-maker. As mentioned previously, I don't like king-making in games, because the winner should feel like they won through their own play, not because someone in third or fourth place chose the winner, and so I've had games where I've simply passed on my last two turns because I knew I couldn't accomplish anything in that time, or I played them out knowing full well that it was pointless to do so.


Other Rules Issues

At the start of every round, from round two onward, the king presents the prestige leader with two randomly-selected decrees, and they get to pick one to put into play. These decrees can change the state of the board, or apply an instant effect to all (or certain) heroes, or introduce new rules of play for that round. This is a fun idea since it adds variety from round to round, and they're usually pretty interesting decisions for the prestige leader to make. My problem with it is that it's always the prestige leader, because in my experience across a dozen or so games, once someone takes the lead they tend to stay in the lead for the majority of the game, meaning one person will be making nearly all of the game-altering decisions for the entire game. I think I would like it more if the decrees could rotate from player to player so that other players could have a chance to take part in the fun. The actual decrees would need to be modified for this to work, and it would also go against the theme for the king to seek counsel from less prestigious players, but I really think it could help the gameplay more and help players feel a little more in control of things.

I'm also not fond of the fact that players take turns in the same order every round, meaning one player will always be going first, and another player will always be going last. There are inherent advantages and disadvantages for each position in turn order, so going last can be a good thing in some situations, and going first can sometimes be bad, but I feel like going first gives you a little bit more of an advantage over other players, because being first is basically a tie-breaker for a lot of scenarios. Suppose two players are both able to gain one prestige every round, meaning they're persistently tied -- the player who goes first in that scenario is considered the prestige leader because he's always a half-step ahead of the other player. Similarly, if two or more players are in position to breach the palace when it's nearing the end of the game, whoever goes first can attack or cure the king before the other players even get a chance to act. I would've liked it, therefore, if the "first player" could rotate every round so that you're not always stuck in the same situation every single round.


There's also a timed element to the game; you have a time limit in which to take your turn, and if you want to play a card on someone else's turn (e.g., if you think someone's going to attack you and you want to cast a buff on yourself) you have to do it before they act. So the game is technically turn-based, but it all flows in quasi real time, and I find that to be a little stressful sometimes. It's hard to keep track of what's going on when you're trying to watch someone take their turn and other people are playing perils and spells and trickeries elsewhere. You can toggle an action log to help keep track of what's going on, but if you have to scroll down to figure out what just happened, you can miss more stuff as it's happening. Meanwhile, if you're taking your turn and have a lot of card text to read and different options to consider, you can find the timer rushing you into a decision before you're ready. It's not that I don't like real-time systems in board games (I really like Escape, Space Alert, FUSE, etc), but in this case it feels more like an anti-AFK measure than a core gameplay principle. You can turn the timed turns off, but they're on by default and most online matches will have them on.

There's a ton of effect text on cards, and for a new player it can be overwhelming trying to parse how all of the cards in your hand actually work and what other players are doing. There's always a bit of a learning curve in board games -- you have to become familiar with the rules and mechanics before you can start to think about strategy -- but the timed element combined with the huge number of unique cards makes it even harder on new players. It doesn't help that some of the text can be a little vague or unclear, leaving you to make educated guesses about how a card actually works before using it. One of the king's decrees, for instance, says something like "The prestige leader passes around his renown; give 1 prestige to other players," which kind of implies that you're losing three prestige so that everyone else can gain one, but it's not clearly stated that way. The basic rules are simple enough to learn, but this is a type of game that you really have to play multiple times before everything starts to sink in fully.

Typically when you're playing a board game with new players, you help ease them into things by explaining what you're doing as you take your turn -- it slows things down and lets them see a little more clearly how all the gears turn -- but a new player doesn't get that benefit in Armello because there's no voice chat, and you're typically playing online against strangers (or offline against AI bots) who aren't going to extend you that grace, anyway. Sure, there's a helpful tutorial that runs you through all the necessary information to play the game, but it doesn't explain exactly everything and it doesn't show you every card, so in practice your first several games are just Things Happening and you don't always know why or how; you just see the results of cards and events being played and then have to dig through the action log to find the card that was played, so that you can read it to actually understand what happened. Meanwhile, the game is flowing forward in real time while you're trying to grasp this information, and you can easily get left behind as more things happen. And sometimes, for whatever reason, the action log doesn't even show you what card was played or explain what happened and you're left at a complete loss for information.


Free-to-Play Style Unlocks

Armello costs $20 but feels like a free-to-play game with all the paid DLC and gameplay functions that are locked behind grinding progression. Fortunately, a lot of the paid DLC is purely cosmetic, even if it is overpriced with a single character skin costing a whopping $7, but half of the game's playable characters are paid exclusives, split into two $10 packs. It would be one thing if they were just skins, but each hero has a unique ability that changes the way they play the game, and some of them look pretty fun and useful, like Sargon, who gets to look at top card of each deck before drawing; if you want to play as any of them you have to shell out an extra $10. Another four characters are Kickstarter exclusives that, for over a year-and-a-half, weren't even available as paid DLC, but have now finally been released to non-Kickstarters backers for another $10. Then you've got the random crate and $1.49 key system from CS:GO and TF2 for dice skins, while the main game menu and community hub news feed on Steam is bombarded with updates for the in-game store, which is also plastered right on the main menu screen.


At the start of each game, you can choose one ring and one amulet to equip; each one gives you a unique bonus, typically either a +1 to one of your stats or a rule-altering ability, like ignoring the movement penalty for crossing mountains. You start with a few basic options and have to unlock the rest by playing X number of matches with each animal clan. They're all meant to be balanced, but the reality is some of these can lend a strong advantage to particular playstyles, meaning more experienced players (who are already better at the game) will have an extra advantage over newer players. If you want to unlock those fancy new options for yourself, then you have to put in tens of hours at a time just to get them, and I'm not sure why that has to be the case in a $20 game. It's not like this is a free-to-play where they try to incentivize you to pay money to unlock stuff to save the time grinding for it -- you can't even pay to unlock them, so grinding to unlock them isn't a matter of saving money, it's literally just wasting time.


Technical Issues

Armello has a lot of stability and performance issues, many of which are completely game-breaking. Sometimes the game crashes completely to desktop, or you get disconnected from an online match (despite having a stable internet connection), or someone drops out of an online match (intentionally or not) and the AI player never takes over, or the game somehow gets stuck on some turn or phase and never advances to the next turn/phase leaving you at a complete standstill. These problems aren't so frequent as to make the game unplayable, but there's maybe a 20% chance that something will happen to prevent you from finishing an online match, and it can be really frustrating spending an entire hour on a match only to have it crash or glitch out and prevent you from actually finishing it.

Normally I wouldn't complain about these sorts of issues, because my reviews focus more on gameplay design than technical execution of the final product, and technical issues can vary greatly from person to person, while developers usually manage to fix most of the bigger problems with patches. In short, I don't usually worry about it, but Armello has had a consistent problem over its lifespan of introducing new problems seemingly every time it rolls out new content, new DLC, or new patches meant to fix problems. And with the game's constant updating as a result of its F2P-style business model, I worry that there's always going to be technical problems just beyond the developers' grasp of fixing. It's been a year-and-a-half since the game first launched on Steam, after all, and the game still has these game-breaking issues, many of which are actually recent.


A lot of it has to do with online games against other players, and so you can avoid most of the risk by playing offline with AI players, but you may as well not even bother with that since the AI isn't smart enough to provide any sort of challenge. They don't make smart decisions, and they don't play aggressively enough to cause enough interference on you, resulting in them always falling way, way behind on prestige or doing stupid stuff like attacking the King when they have no realistic chance of winning. I guess playing against the AI can provide for a more relaxing distraction from real life, but I don't find it very engaging when you practically know from the onset that you're going to win, just because you're vastly more intelligent than your computerized opponents.


In Conclusion

I really wanted to like Armello, but I find that it's just too irritating to enjoy. It's a great concept with some good ideas muddled by a frustrating lack of control, with so many unpredictable things happening every single round. It's too random, there's too much "Take That" going on, and you end up in too many situations where you just get screwed by bad things, and there's not a lot you can do about it. I've played more than a dozen matches, and every one was half-filled with frustration and misery. Even in matches where I won, I felt constantly annoyed by things. It's not fun getting constantly knocked down and having things go critically wrong seemingly every other turn, all because of random chance and other players playing cards just to screw you. Sure, you can use cards yourself to counter random chance and other players' aggressive actions to a certain degree, but that also comes down to random chance whether you get useful cards or not.

I normally don't mind random elements in games, and I'm fine with direct conflict in games, but Armello manages to capture the worst aspects of both of those things. Maybe it wouldn't be such an issue if Armello were a slightly different type of game -- a simpler, lighter, shorter game -- but it feels too long and serious for the amount of random chaos and crippling attacks that players can launch against each other. Maybe if it were purely a PVP "Take That" game, but it's kind of a hybrid -- half the game is playing against the game itself (completing quests, fighting banes, exploring dungeons, claiming settlements, etc) with the other half being PVP elements meant to disrupt the PVE aspect. It looks like it's supposed to be a casual, lightweight family game, but then it's also got a surprisingly complex, convoluted card system and hardcore friendship-ruining dickery in it.

Maybe if it were an actual board game that I could play face-to-face with friends, where we could look at each other and talk and laugh about things, but it's a video game that you typically play online with random strangers using pre-programmed emotes to communicate with the other players, if you even try to communicate at all. You can remedy this by playing with friends and using third-party voice chat, but it's still not the same thing as sitting down at a table together; the social interaction through an online video game interface feels weird and sterile to me in comparison.

So I really can't recommend Armello. I see people talking about it on forums somewhat regularly, typically whenever someone's looking for suggestions on digital board games to play, praising how unique and interesting it is, but it just doesn't seem like a very good game to me. Its design feels self-conflicting to me, like some of its gears grind whenever I play and I end up more irritated than satisfied. It can be a lot of fun sometimes, but that fun is often undermined by frustration and misery. And when it comes to digital board games, I'd rather play virtually anything else. 

3 comments:

  1. Though I do not know many of the games you review I must say I enjoy a lot to read you. And I celebrate also that you post more frequently.
    On a side note, something we both (I imagine) are interested, the development of Elex, kind of puzzles me. There is a german guy on youtube who has uploaded a preview alongside Bjorn Pankratz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znOieSu_PRI
    It seems quite promising but at the same time there are -really- troubling aspects.
    See you ;)

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  2. I stumbled upon your blog because of your Skyrim article, and I must say that much of the stuff you post is pretty agreeable and understandable. From what I can see, you treat a game based on what it IS, instead of what series it belongs to, and that is respectable. Unlike others, you don't blindly praise a game because it's critically acclaimed, or because it falls under a category of games you enjoy. Kudos to that, and I look forward to more of your posts.

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  3. Have you played Tyranny from Obsidian? I didn't even know it existed! Checking it out right now.

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