I’ve always loved tabletop games, but my ability to play has traditionally been hobbled by the need to find both the people and the time to gather round and play together. I was elated to learn that Armello is coming to the Nintendo Switch, and couldn’t wait to see what changes League of Geeks has made since its initial release a few years ago. I’m delighted to say that Armello has packed a beautiful and challenging table top experience into a portable platform.
The first thing you need to know about Armello is that the learning curve is steep. Despite the hour-long prologue, which serves as a tutorial, I was still in way over my head for my first two games. However, by the third time around, I was really starting to get a hang for tactics, victory conditions, and which characters my playstyle most resonates with. The dice-and-cards mechanics can feel a little overwhelming at first, but as you play, these complexities become second nature.
The second thing you should know is that this game is both brutal and beautiful. The aesthetic lies somewhere in the realm of Game of Thrones mixed with Zootopia, and the animations, creepy Rot-infested monsters known as Banes, and animated cards all blend together to create a dark, Disney-esque feel. The music is also great, with each hero having their own little ditty which plays at the start of their turn, and the voice acting for the King, the only non-silent character in the game, is spot on.
The story is pretty straight forward: the King was once a beloved and benevolent ruler, but he has been infected by a dark force known as the Rot. Each day, the Rot drives him closer to insanity, and to death. Games typically take 45 minutes to an hour, as players move about the gridded map one hexagon at a time, working towards one of four victory conditions. You can either kill the King, which requires an impressive amount of both health and attack, cleanse the King of his Rot by collecting spirit stones and infiltrating the castle, go the corrupted route by increasing your own Rot score through various means then taking the King on directly, or achieve a prestige victory by completing quests, slaying other players, and building up your reputation. The King will die of his rot after a number of rounds, and if no other player has killed or cleansed him, the prestige leader will claim the crown.
Some of these victory conditions are more difficult than others, and luck and chance play no small factor in Armello. Breaking into the castle requires that you defeat a Peril set up by the King; Perils require you to roll dice and match a predetermined set of symbols in order to succeed. Perils can be placed by the King or by any other player, though the castle Perils are some of the most difficult to defeat. Even getting close to the castle can be dangerous; other players can attack you, use Trickery or Magic cards to apply debuffs, set bandits upon you, remove your items, or even place a bounty on your head, causing the Kingsguard to attack you. A Prestige victory can be equally difficult to achieve, because even if you have a healthy lead, a few last-minute deaths and the good luck of another player can be all it takes for fortune to turn and the crown to go to someone else.
And then there’s the King’s Declarations. Each Dawn, the King will make one of two proclamations, which can range from punching heroes who have acquired Rot, to sending his King’s Guard to terrorize nearby towns. The King will consult whichever character has the most prestige, allowing them to decide which order to enact. This is a powerful position to be in–but it sometimes means choosing between the lesser of two evils. At one point, as I was trying to infiltrate the palace, I had to decide if I wanted to place a bounty on all heroes, myself included, or if the King was going to punish me, the Prestige Leader, for bad counsel by removing 3 of my prestige and boosting the stats the King and his Kingsgurad right as I was about to start the final battle.
Armello is populated by various animal species, and has species has eight playable heroes, a male and female each from the Bear, Rabbit, Wolf, and Rat clans. Each hero has their own unique stats and abilities; the Bears have impressively high hit points, while Mercurio, the rat, is able to steal gold from any town he enters. Controlling towns, placing scouts, traps, and bandits across the board, and keeping tabs on which strategies your rivals have adopted, and how close they are to a victory condition, is essential.
The AI has received some much-needed rebalancing since the initial release, and I’m delighted to say that while games are challenging and victory is hard to achieve, I never felt like the odds were stacked against me. Armello rewards you for playing through each of the characters in single player mode, giving you access to stat-boosting accessories which can be equipped before the game starts. It also takes advantage of the Nintendo Switch Online feature, allowing you to jump into games with three other real-world players to level up and earn badges, stars, and commendations from others. While the online multiplayer feature is great, I was disappointed to see that, even three years later, there is still no way to jump into local multiplayer. I would have loved to settle onto the couch with a friend or three and some extra Joy-Cons to grind out a game, even if we did end up seeing what cards the other person is playing.
I also never felt like I played the same game twice. Even if the game pitted me against the same three heroes two games in a row, between the randomness of the cards, the dice, the King’s Decrees, and the need to shift tactics mid-game, Armello always feels like a new challenge. There’s much more to it that I simply don’t have the space to talk about here, including terrain differences, exploring dungeons, recruiting party members, gold and spirit points, combat, burning cards, and even encountering the mysterious and elusive Stranger, there’s a whole lot going on. I only wish they’d taken the time to make the text bigger, it is often nearly unreadable.
Armello is a great addition to the Switch library, delivering a tabletop experience on the go. Beautiful to look at, this title boasts deep, engrossing mechanics for those who are willing to stick it out through the rather steep learning curve. While you won’t be able to hop onto the couch and engage in local multiplayer with your friends, Armello helps make up for this with solid AI and an online multiplayer option.