ARMELLO Game Review: Kings Are Dropping Like Flies

The Mad King is on a rampage. GAME OF THRONES meets REDWALL in this surprisingly deep digital tabletop game.

The king is going mad, victim of a plague called The Rot that’s eating him from the inside. Every day he wakes up a little sicker and issues insane proclamations, and there’s not a lot the kingdom can do about it, as his guards patrol the land making sure his word is law. The other clans in his kingdom are well aware of his deteriorating mental state and are at war with each other, each trying to sidle up to his good graces in order to be in a sweet spot for his inevitable demise.

That’s the surprisingly rich plot of Armello, which is ostensibly Game of Thrones told with animals. Looking at the video game you could be forgiven for thinking Armello was an adaptation of a tabletop game. It certainly feels like one, and that was the intention of new developer League of Geeks, who successfully funded the game on Kickstarter last year on that promise - to bring a digital tabletop game to life like no other.

Each new game spawns a new (but tiny) world that's comprised of hex tiles featuring various terrain - you’ve got tiles like boring old plains that do nothing, swamps that cause you to lose one health, and settlements that you can capture and get gold from every turn. Weirdly you can’t see the whole map at one go, and sometimes it can be difficult to track what the other players are doing or where they are. Armello does fight downtime quite cleverly by allowing you to play cards during your turn, equipping items or casting spells to mess with your friends as you like.

The combat is very fun, and the PS4 version allows you to flick the touchpad to throw the dice. Before you roll you can choose to burn cards from your hand, matching up their symbols for guaranteed hits or shields. The characters during combat are animated beautifully, a credit to the many talented individuals who lend their art to this game.

One pleasant surprise for the game is how much credit is given to the artists. The game is absolutely packed with hundreds of cards which each contain animated illustrations, and when you make a card bigger the signatures of the artist and animators pop up, showing you who made these wonderful creations. It’s such a nice touch that you’ll hope to see more developers mimic in the future.

A deep, intense strategy board game sounds great, right? And it is… except the PS4 version, the only current console port, has a major issue. It certainly controls just fine with the DualShock 4, but it’s yet another of those games (like Witcher 3, Hand of Fate and countless titles before it) that doesn’t realize people have to actually read text on their TV screen. The tiny, tiny print is beyond anything I’ve seen on a game before and I’ve been sitting a few feet from the screen in order to read it. It’s a testament to the game’s entertainment value that I haven’t much minded doing so, even if matches can take upwards of an hour to complete, while my snickering wife sits behind me on the couch in comfort.

The developers are aware of this problem and have pledged to create a patch to fix it, but as it is now it’s a huge turn-off. Once that’s fixed, however, there should be nothing to stop you from grabbing this game, and of course the Steam (PC, Mac, Linux) version doesn’t have this problem, nor should the eventual iOS and Android ports.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about Armello is that it’s so well done it will make you pine for a real physical version of the game. Playing online with friends is certainly fun, and the huge amount of variables and goals gives it almost unlimited amounts of replayability, but there’s nothing like playing a real tabletop game. Still, this is the next-best thing, a wonderfully realized fantasy world you’ll be happy to explore.

Armello is currently available on PC/Mac/Linux and PS4.