Armello: Versatile Play, Tight Design

Armello is not an educational game in the way I usually talk about here. A fantasy strategy-RPG that has been described as “Game of Thrones with animals,” it will not teach you about medieval life like Mount & Blade. But it will teach you a few things about game design.Data Theory Play llama as Armello character Marco

Armello is a computerized board game, most of which are (let’s be honest) inferior to both board games and computer games. But the project, indie collective League of Geeks’ first game, does a bang-up job bringing the two forms together. The art is gorgeous, the world engaging, and the animations bring the game’s “paper” elements to life in a delightful way.

Where Armello shines most, though, is in its pacing and variety. A game plays through from start to finish about an hour and a half, which makes it something of a unicorn among strategy games for the computer, many of which can consume ten hours of play time or more before completion. As an adult with other demands on my time, I appreciate the chance to finish a game in one 90-minute setting, but I also appreciate that the pressure is always on in Armello to make every turn count. Events can sabotage your plans suddenly and at any moment, which means that your strategy has to include backup plans; if you fail to keep track of how other players are positioning themselves, your own brilliant plan can come to naught when someone else moves in for the win. And if your plan crumbles and you lose, when victory seemed so near? It was only 90 minutes, so heartbreak is minimal.

As a short game, Armello needs to offer a lot of variety in its play experience to keep players coming back, and here again the game really shines. Twelve playable characters (with the first expansion of, I hope, many) and a variety of options for helpful starting items make for a large number of different starting scenarios to experiment with, and every character has different strengths. The four stats (fight, body, wit, and spirit) are all valuable, and none stands alone, so the typical RPG approach of min-maxing is not a shortcut to an easy victory. Nearly every decision is a trade-off, from character setup to card draws, which makes gameplay terrifically engaging at every moment. It’s not easy to balance game elements as well as Armello does.

One more thing, which is less about great rules design and more about great experience design: Armello includes an equal proportion of male and female characters, and no characters are sexualized. Their female characters are just as individualized and interesting as the males, with with no cleavage in sight (and a variety of body shapes befitting animals); without any romantic elements, the story still feels packed to the brim with adventurous content. It is a model for graphic design that does not objectify women, and I hope League of Geeks gets the credit they deserve for this aspect of the game as well as so many others.

We’ve talked before about meaningful decisions, and how critical they are to game engagement. If you’d like to see a game where the rules set is extraordinarily tight and well-balanced, packing a lot of strategy, hard choices, and excitement into a very small time footprint, I highly recommend Armello.

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