One of the reasons I like to read Game Informer (diversity issues aside) is that it occasionally introduces me to games of which I was not previously aware. This month’s issue contained a preview for Armello, a digital strategy board game whose article screen shot contained an exciting amount of bunny rabbit.
Thrilled by the possibility of a game in which I might be able to play a rabbit, I looked the game up on Steam when I next was at my computer, and discovered that it looked completely amazing.
Aside from playing a lot of video games, I’m also a big fan of tabletop RPGs and board games, so you can imagine my delight when I beheld this trailer. Hex tiles? Cards to draw? Whimsical Redwall-esque aesthetic? YES PLEASE.
I’ve never bought into an early access on Steam, and the $25 price tag initially threw me off, but after reading a glowing review on Polygon that described the game as “a digital board game that exists somewhere between the island of Catan and the land of Studio Ghibli,” I was pretty much 200% sold. Also, if you read the Polygon article, you can learn about the fascinating collectivism experiment that the studio behind Armello is conducting. League of Geeks seems to have essentially gamified the process of making a game, assigning point values to tasks related to the game’s design and construction and awarding profit shares in proportion to the number of points earned.
Creative collectivism + amazing-sounding game premise + BUNNIES = a game upon which I am willing to risk $25.
I am happy to say that this was money well-spent.
I was delighted to discover that the rabbit is NOT armed with a carrot, she is in fact armed with both a sword and an adorable parasol, because she is a steampunk-y explorer rabbit of the Rabbit Clan. I mean, I’m also pretty excited by the equally adorable bear shaman, but as this blog is not called RPG Bear, I have been obsessively playing this game for several hours exclusively as Amber of the Rabbit Clan.
The game plays like a delightful combination of Settlers of Catan, Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of Ashardalon, and my favorite multiplayer Wii game, Dokapon Kingdom. Armello is, however, superior to all of these because in this game, I can be a BUNNY.
(It’s surprising to me how few games allow you to play as rabbit-creatures, but Armello’s Amber joins my other two favorite RPG rabbits: Cornelius the Pooka Prince of Odin Sphere and Fran of Final Fantasy XII.)
Beyond the fact that I can play as a rabbit, which I recognize as a quirky gameplay goal that is probably specific to me and few others, the rules and mechanics of this enjoyable board game are solid, varied, and interesting, The premise of the game’s story is compelling. The land of Armello is ruled by a wise king of the Lion Clan, but he has been taken with the dreaded rot, an illness that slowly poisons both his body and his mind. The other four clans, the clans of the Rabbit, the Wolf, the Rat, and the Bear, must compete to gain enough prestige in the kingdom in order to ascend to the throne upon the death of the mad, dying king. To keep things even more interesting, though, there are several other ways to win – you can choose to gather Spirit Stones to heal the Lion King instead of waiting for him to die, or you can hasten his end by sneaking into the palace and murdering him. These options helps to ensure that no two games are exactly the same.
You gain prestige by completing quests that become available throughout the game. You have a set amount of Action Points per turn that allow your fierce animal warrior to move from hex space to hex space. Each hex represents a different land type, and each land type does something different. My favorite land types are the dungeon tiles, because Amber of the Rabbit Clan is first and foremost the most adorable of explorers, and her racial ability makes her more likely to find beneficial things in dungeons. When you encounter another player or a monster, you must do battle! There’s an enjoyable dice-based combat system that deals damage based upon the symbols you roll, but the total attack can be manipulated by whether it’s night or day, what item cards you have equipped on your character, and what cards you are willing to sacrifice from your hand to make your attack stronger.
Will you ensure victory by burning an awesome item, or will you risk defeat, but preserve a card for later use? You’d better decide quickly, because you only have a limited time to make the decision. I initially was very liberal in my use of card-burning to pump my attacks, but I soon realized not only that death comes swiftly and often to the members of the animal clans, but also that my cards were damn useful. My favorite aspect of this multiplayer game is that you don’t need to sit idly by during your opponents’ turns. You can play your cards any time you have the resources to do so and an appropriate target upon which to play them. I can’t even begin to express how infinitely engaging this design choice makes the game. One of the great weaknesses of multiplayer games is the waiting around you are forced to do before your next turn. In a flesh-and-blood real-world board game, you can fill this time with socializing, but on a digital platform, multiplayer games typically involve a lot of boring staring while the other players make decisions and cause unfortunate things to happen to you. In Armello, as long as you have cards in your hand, you are always involved, and always considering poisoning or springing an awful trap on other players.
The game developers claim to have spent eight months play-testing this game as a real-world board game before digitizing it, and it shows. Armello is engaging, strategic, and purely fun. The idea of having the Lion King slowly consumed by a wasting disease is ingenious, because his health degeneration sets a logical, finite limit on the number of turns in a game. If you’ve ever played a complicated tabletop board game, then you know that a huge problem that these games face sometimes is their painful, dragging length. Sessions of games like Twilight Imperium, Wrath of Ashardalon, or even classics like Risk, are infamous for four-to-six-hour sessions that can seem like an eternity. A game of Armello lasts an hour, tops, and it never drags.
Although the game is early access, it’s supremely polished, with smooth gameplay, slick user interfaces, and a colorful, stylish graphical aesthetic. I’ve had no issues with bugs or lag, even though whenever I launch the game, it grumps at me for playing it on a computer with less than optimal specs. While I have been unable to successfully enter an online multiplayer game, I can’t tell if that’s an issue with the game or an issue with my computer. The singleplayer games are enjoyable enough on their own, so I’m not too bothered about the lack of multiplayer thus far, but I feel like games against human opponents would be much more tense and challenging.
All this being said, I am really enjoying myself with this game. The depth of strategy is pleasing to me, as a veteran of many a tabletop campaign. I’m really looking forward to seeing the full game when it debuts this summer, but their successful Kickstarter campaign page details some of the awesome things that fans of Armello will have to look forward to this year. I’m kind of sad I missed out on the Kickstarter, because one of the rewards was a set of illustrated short stories about each hero, and those books look so cool. Hopefully I’ll be able to purchase a copy of Amber’s story on its own, as I would definitely like to know more about the rabbit explorer and her rabbity culture.
Keep up the good work, League of Geeks. I look forward to seeing your finished product. Even if I am perhaps a tad biased towards games that include rabbits as playable characters, I would heartily recommend this game to almost anyone.