Armello: one studio's vision to breathe life into the digital tabletop

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Imagine a four-player dice driven board game inspired by dark 1980s animation, and imbued with the tension and treachery of Game of Thrones. Then imagine a thick leather bound tome next to the board.

Now forget that, because Armello manages to weave all of these elements together fluidly, to the extent that it sometimes feels less a board game and more a RNG driven strategy RPG. At least, that’s the angle I approached it from, as a player ambivalent towards most digital tabletop games. Now I can't stop playing it.

The ongoing popularity of board games and the format’s affinity with video games should mean there are plenty of excellent digital board games, but there isn’t. Few successful hybrids exist, and it’s rare for a digital board game to exploit the benefits of ‘digital’. Armello appears to be among the exceptions. Developed by Melbourne studio League of Geeks, the game raised $300,000 on Kickstarter and is now in the middle of a six month Early Access stint.

At a time of rising antipathy towards the Early Access model, Armello is a model citizen on the storefront. League of Geeks release monthly updates for the title, but none have been as far-reaching as this month’s Engines of Fate update, which revamps the quest system and showcases the work of writer Alex Kain, co-writer of Dust: An Elysian Tail. Until now the leather bound tome has been missing in action; now it’s been discreetly weaved into the game.

“The game lends itself to storytelling,” Kain says. “The point of every match is for someone to become the king or queen. When a game starts everyone’s like, ‘I’ll help you if you help me, I won’t throw an axe in your face if you don’t throw an axe in my face’, but after eight or nine turns that all goes away: everyone’s just desperate to get to the throne and the relationships fall apart.”

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Each player gets a storybook journal detailing their journey, which can be compared at the end of a match.

While Armello’s launch build featured a rudimentary quest system which risked slowing the pace of the game (or angering opponents awaiting their turn), Engines of Fate allows all four competitors (whether online or against AI) to choose whether they’ll smite foes or loot caves during their downtime. The quests provide story beats in each player’s efforts to take the throne of Armello, but they’re also ways to optimise a build with permanent stat boosts, thus providing a bit more control over the game’s RNG roots.

Race for the Prize

Having played an earlier iteration of Armello I can confirm the changes improve a typical match’s momentum. In Armello you choose from one of four anthropomorphic characters with typical RPG class attributes: Thane, the wolf, specialises in armed combat; Mercurio is a stealth-oriented rat; Sana the bear is a spell caster while Amber the rabbit is a jack of all trades. Once you’ve chosen which cute animal you want to be, you can choose from a selection of rings and amulets to hone the type of run you want.

While quests were previously encountered with no rhyme or reason on the board’s procedurally generated panels, now each character is prompted with a quest at the beginning of a match. These bring more direction to the meta-game by offering opportunities to increase wits, fight or spirit abilities.

“Players had mentioned that they wanted more things to do during their off turns,” says Trent Kusters, League of Geeks founder and director. “You could already equip cards, play perils to the board, message people and strategise, but they still wanted more to do. By moving the quests to the off turn, you now have that decision to make.”

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Quests often throw up opportunities for extra spoils, but there's risk involved.

As dapper rabbit Amber I select the Industrial Espionage starting quest. I’m tasked with reaching a nearby town to speak to an inventor, but once I get there – following an impromptu mountain range Bane encounter – I find that the inventor has already been slaughtered. I can choose to either hunt down the killer for the chance to gain some Winged Boots (easing traversal through swamps and other difficult terrain) or go into town to call the guards. The latter allows me to fulfil my quest and gain my rewards without any risks, but I won't gain any extra awards. I take the path of least resistance and report to the guards, but they have no luck finding the killer.

With that quest sealed I can now select my next while the other three players – and the throne’s guard – execute their moves. I’m headed for another township north of the city, but the king has made a decree forcing all players into stealth mode. It’s under these circumstances that I trip over Sana, who easily slays my meek but well presented little rabbit, still ailing from her previous Bane encounter.

And this all happens within my first four moves. The scope for epic quests on my path to take the throne is massive, and Kain says he’s written at least 200 quest lines already. This, combined with the randomised board tiles and an endgame storybook recounting the highlights of your adventure, results in a much more compulsive game.

“In [traditional] tabletop games everything is abstraction and projection,” Kusters says. “You might be just moving green pips around the board, but in Armello that’s a fully animated character. Stealth in tabletop games is typically a question of ‘what’s your stealth rating, I’ll roll my perception and I’ll see if I see you’, but the character is still on the board. You can see it.

"In Armello you can’t. The story is an extension of that as well: on PC we can generate that story and provide it to a player in a really streamlined manner.”

Armello is still scheduled to launch later this year, at which point the amount of playable heroes will double, along with other yet to be announced features. Kusters says the studio will effectively relaunch the game.

"Where we are today is totally because of the community and Early Access," Kusters says. "We’re so sold on Early Access.

"It’s tough though. People can be very honest and making games is a super personal thing: we’re in that game. People aren’t shy on the Steam forums either, but at the same time the game is going to be so much better by the time we’re finished. You look at Endless Legend and Hand of Fate and look at where they were compared to how they launched, it’s amazing.”

Armello is now available on Steam Early Access.

Shaun Prescott

Shaun Prescott is the Australian editor of PC Gamer. With over ten years experience covering the games industry, his work has appeared on GamesRadar+, TechRadar, The Guardian, PLAY Magazine, the Sydney Morning Herald, and more. Specific interests include indie games, obscure Metroidvanias, speedrunning, experimental games and FPSs. He thinks Lulu by Metallica and Lou Reed is an all-time classic that will receive its due critical reappraisal one day.