Board games have long remained a physical alternative to the digital delights of video games, with their multi-coloured dice, cardboard pieces and overly-complicated rules, but the news that much-loved classics such as Carcassonne and Pandemic are Switch-bound means we're finally seeing the mediums united once and for all. However, before Asmodee bridges that gap, Australian indie studio League of Geeks has its own take on such a union with the anthropomorphic tactics of Armello.
And while this turn-based affair might look, move and feel just like a real board game, it’s actually a completely original creation - but one that does more than simply doff its cap at the world of tabletop gaming. Every element of its fantasy-inspired world brings those physical pieces and elements to life. Armello, the titular setting for the game, is a living, breathing board broken into cellular grids. Its cast of warriors, rogues, mages and kings are moving board pieces. You can even throw dice during battle to determine how such an encounter will play out. Sprinkle in a CCG element that enables you to build a deck of cards that enhance your stats in exploration across the board and in battle, and you’re left with one of Switch’s most unique prospects.
The result is an intoxicating mixture of fast-paced RPG questing and long-form tactics, one that cherry-picks mechanics from elsewhere but manages to blend them into something mostly fresh and new. Whether playing in single-player or against other adventurers online in multiplayer, everything comes down to a race to take the crown. The king has been corrupted by a malevolent sickness known as the Rot, and at the dawn of every day, his health grows ever weaker. However, the Rot has spread to dungeons across the land, and the King has retained enough strength to send out his dangerous Royal Guards to patrol and terrorise villages.
There are multiple ways to claim the throne, and each one plays to the strengths of Armello’s colourful roster of characters. Perhaps you’ll want to pick Thane of the Wolf Clan, build up the strength of your deck so you breach the defences of the King's castle at the centre of the board, defeat his guards, perform regicide and take the top job in the land. Or perhaps you’ll play the long game and focus on killing Banes (the roving manifestation of the Rot) and other Heroes to increase your Prestige. Being the Prestige Leader at every dawn enables you to choose the king’s next decree - which often adds more perils to the land or robs other players of their stats - and if you still hold that title when the King croaks it, you’ll inherit his seat of power by proxy.
And that’s just the tip of the tactical iceberg. You’ll draw new cards every time you die, and for successfully completing quests. You’ll need to make your way across the board to reach them, but doing so means you’ll need to cross different kinds of tile. Swamps will remove one piece of health, but stone circles will replenish one. Forests will hide you from other players, enabling you to ambush them, while mountains provide some extra defence if you're attacked (at the price of a higher AP cost to enter them). Dungeons offer a random reward (or punishment) and an encounter where you can choose either a dangerous or a safe option. The safe one will reward you with a small gift, but there are far greater spoils to be had if you risk it.
Armello’s vast library of cards come with a cost in gold, so you’ll need to quest in dungeons or land on a town tile in order to claim it in the name of your clan. Towns under your banner will generate gold everytime you game reaches dawn, so if you have a set of powerful cards with a heavy price, you’ll be able to play them or assign them to your character in a couple of turns. And there’s such a breadth of ways you can use them. Some add to your attack, others to your defence. Some can be played on other players to reduce their health, or as a means of adding an extra dangerous peril to a tile.
Each card has a symbol tied to one of the signs on the game’s die, so you can even choose to sacrifice your cards either in battle or when facing a peril. Doing so will increase your chances of surviving a peril, or increasing your attack and defence. After the dice have been rolled, each character will attack one after the other. Even if you’re stuck with a killing blow, you’ll still be able to play out your own strikes so it’s possible to perform a double KO that nets you some Prestige for your troubles. It’s a set of intricately entwined systems that are accessible enough to coax in those new to such a melting pot of ideas, and deep enough to reward those who love long-form, top-down tactical battles.
The Switch port also runs beautifully and is as silky-smooth as the one found on PS4 and Xbox One. There’s almost no slowdown and you’re getting the same mixture of enchanting character models, whimsical medieval musical motifs and a set of animated card designs that are so awesome you’ll likely be scrolling through your album in the menus to marvel at the sheer level of detail and personality League of Geeks has infused into this one element of the game. The controls also map really well to the Joy-Con and Pro Controller, so you never feel like you’re playing second fiddle to a mouse and keyboard combo on PC.
It’s taken three years to get here, but the long journey hasn’t dulled Armello’s blades. From the deep tactics of its living board game gameplay to the sheer charm of its world-building and character designs, it's a turn-based quest filled with back-stabbing, political power plays and rampaging monsters that’s different each and every time you play. It’s at its absolute best when played in multiplayer, that human factor making for an even more predictable battle for the corrupted throne. You’d be doing yourself a disservice not to add this anthropomorphic tale to your wish list.