I’ve had a pet theory for a while now that far from being eclipsed by videogames, board games have been having a greater and greater influence on them. It’s based loosely on Bolter and Grusin’s theory of remediation, which proposes that each new medium draws elements from those that precede it, but also force those earlier media to adapt and evolve.
Sometimes board game elements trickle into videogames in ways that are not immediately apparent, such as refining the maths or improving the range of options in strategy games and RPGs (of course right from the beginning RPGs had been influenced by war games and tabletop role playing games). Sometimes, however, the remediation is far more obvious, as is the case with Armello by League of Geeks, which is best described as a digital board game.
While plenty of analogue games have been given the digital treatment as adaptations, Armello is rather unique as an attempt to create a board game specifically for a videogame console, though one heavily influenced by classics like Arkham Horror or Betrayal: House on the Hill.
Set in a whimsical fantasy world, Armello sees four animal clans jockeying for position as the old king slowly dies of the rot. A game takes place over 12 turns of day and night, marked by the king’s declining health, each of which gives the player three action points to spend scurrying around a map vividly decorated with terrain hexes (each with its own unique effect), questing in dungeons, fighting other players or demonic banes, and casting a variety of spells. Settlements scattered around the map can be claimed or stolen, each one giving you a monetary income that can be spent on improving your equipment. There are four paths to victory (though getting a prestige victory seems to be the most reliable by far) and a myriad of other mechanics (bounties, stealth, ambushes, corruption) to give the game variety.
The medium of the videogame brings all the things you’d expect to the board game formula: a streamlining of the rules and interactions, a sense of progression from game to game (unlocks after every match give access to unique perks to build your character differently), and a high degree of graphical polish and animation. This latter point is where Armello shines: the world and characters are well realised and brimming with charm, and for anyone who grew up reading Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels, filled with animals taking on the guise of questing knights in an age of chivalry, there is an immediate heavy hit of nostalgia. In particular, the prologue, which acts as a very well executed tutorial (another thing videogames are able to offer much better than a board game), does a good job at suggesting a world that expands beyond the confines of the board and is interspersed with short, beautifully animated cutscenes.
Where the game falls down, for me at least, is in the types of board games it draws from. Perhaps it was obvious from my earlier allusion to the games that have influenced it, but Armello is interested in embodying a particular type of board game, sometimes dismissively referred to as Ameritrash, or by the much kinder German term ‘beer and pretzels’ games to emphasise their approach to board games as casual fun rather than deep strategy.
Such games revel in randomness through dice and card mechanics, try to weave group stories using rich themes and role-playing mechanics, and foster direct, often imbalanced conflict between players. Armello does all this in spades, which results in the game fluctuating between periods of pleasure as a well-made plan comes together, to frustration as it utterly falls apart; and the fact that it can go one way or another (often at crucial moments) is largely out of your hands.
As a consequence, the game at times feels quite old-fashioned, with little sense of the mechanical innovations that have made board games (even Ameritrash board games) far more interesting in recent years. One time playing as a rabbit character with particularly low health I was killed four turns in a row trying to make it to my first quest. With the board so deliberately constrained, it’s hard to avoid conflict and getting off on the wrong foot like this can set you at a massive disadvantage.
Of course, this is fine playing single player since you can just restart, but it seems a bit rude to do this in an online game, and since the matches take over an hour to play it can be a slog to see the game through knowing its next to impossible to come back. This is all very well when playing board games around the table with friends, of course, because there are other social interactions on offer (not to mention snacks) but when it comes to playing with random opponents online there’s a limit to the amount of fun that can be derived from the experience.
If you are a particular fan of the types of board game Armello models itself on then this is a novel and well-executed game that you’re sure to love, otherwise, your mileage may vary considerably.