Did you ever wonder what it would it would look like if the Starks in Game of Thrones didn't just take wolves as their sigil, but actually were wolves? Well your search is over my friend, for I give you Armello! All joking aside the basic premise of this game is more or less Redwall meets A Song of Ice and Fire, and lemme tell ya, it works.
The kingdom of Armello is under threat. The King, a burly lion with a giant sword, has contracted Rot, and it's driving him mad. In response, the four clans of the Kingdom have gathered their mightiest heroes to seize the throne and bring peace to the land. Naturally this means a lot of backstabbing, battling and a general lack of any real cooperation. This is because mechanically the game is a four player digital boardgame that allows for only one winner. You pick a character, currently from a roster of four, more if you backed the kickstarter at a certain level, but more on that later - and you're off.
The game takes place on a random board each time, with each player starting at one corner. Each turn a player fills their hand with cards, which have various effects. Some can be equipped, providing permanent bonuses to combat or explorations, others function as traps, whilst some are straight spell cards, played by consuming resources. Each morning, like all creatures with the Rot, the King will lose a hit-point, bring him closer to death. If the King dies of his illness, the player with the highest prestige wins. This is the games bread and butter win state for the most part. Prestige basically represents Armello's political currency, and most games end with a player manipulating the game to end up as top dog when the King cops it.
The player with the highest Prestige is also known as the Prestige Leader. Truly an inspired title worth fighting for. The Prestige Leader basically functions as the King's Hand from Game of Thrones, and the position is worthy of equal envy. You advise the King by choosing to back an edict of his each morning. He brings forth two with every new dawn, and they're generally all bad. It's up to the Prestige Leader to try and push the Kings madness in a direction that is as beneficial to them as possible, no easy task as the game progresses and the King grows ever more insane.
The other three ways to win are by slaying the King in single combat, with the caveat that you survive the fight. If you and King slay each other, the victory will be handed to the Prestige Leader, as you lose all Prestige upon attacking the King. This is one of the rare occasions where death is a real issue in the game, as death generally only nets you a small loss of Prestige and a respawn at your home territory. There's really only two other ways to win if I'm honest, as one is just a variation on the Kingslayer win, requring only that you have higher Rot than the King when you kill him. For all intents and purposes this is exactly the same, though a higher level of rot will make for an easier fight.
The final victory type has you collect four spirit stones to bring to the King, which will banish the darkness that grips him, and conveniently for you, kill him in the process. The Prestige victory is as mentioned by far the most common, and the others exist mostly as ways for players to sneak a win out from under the Prestige leader, who as the player who gets to dictate the pace of the game, is generally the guaranteed victor.
Each of the heroes is specialised for a certain task. Thane, of the Wolf Clan for example, is a skilled and aggressive warrior, recieving greater dice rolls in combat, along with a tidy ability to pierce enemy defences by burning sword cards. Sana, of the Bears on the other hand, is a natural caster, recieving a larger base pool of the magic resource. She also comes with an ability to use her magical abilities as a combat stat when fighting creatures who have the Rot. This applies to everyone, including the aforementioned King.
To be quite honest there's really far too many rules to go into, and explaining them would take several thousand words, but please don't take this as a a criticism. Armello is very easy to pick up, and the intricacy of its ruleset is one of its strengths. Take away from my thoughts only that there's enough of backstabbing and last minute wins to permanently cripple your relationship with any friends you play it with, and I will be happy. It's genuinely lovely to play with some mates, and sneaking a win out from under your friend who thought he had it in the bag is a special kind of pleasure.
I really don't have many complaints with the actual game. I think it's very solid and despite being unfinished, it absolutely nails the atmosphere and style it sets out for. This could easily be a final release and there'd be few points of contention, and that's some of the highest praise an early access title can get. I do, however, have one glaring issue. The game was funded on Kickstarter, and backers who payed a certain amount get four unique heroes who make up the exclusive Bandit Clan.
I can't fully express how bullshit this is, especially considering that there are only four heroes in the the game as it is, with eight planned for the version 1.0 release. Come released those unique heroes will be as much as half the roster, currently they're as much as the full roster again. On the Kickstarter page there are over 20 heroes planned for the game, but several months on from the March 2015 estimated release it's easy to wonder how long we'll be waiting for those. It might be different if we were talking about a limited production of physical merchandise, but this is digital content that could easily be offered to everyone, that is sitting their stagnant for the wider audience, while a privileged few who either had the money, or were lucky enough to catch the game before the funding campaign ended can enjoy.
I understand that developer League of Geeks wanted to give backers an incentive, and by all accounts the unique heroes were a massive selling point for many players, but this is a frankly staggering amount of content to withhold from the community at large, especally those like myself that hadn't even heard of the game until they saw it advertised on Steam.
On the Kickstarter page it says these are a true exclusive available only to those backers, but there's also a post from League of Geeks regarding the absolutely reasonable backlash from players who feel a little cheated. The post discusses the possibility of allowing the unique heroes to be released to the wider community, with the permission of the backers.
This is a really embarrassing situation to see a developer in, because either they're withholding a large amount of in-game content, and not just cosmetics mind but real actual content, from the majority, or they go back on their promise to the minority. If I was one of those special backers, I'd be all for the community at large getting access, but I'm not going to be the one to tell them the extra money they paid was a waste, so this is on League of Geeks alone. Having said that the £18.99 I paid on Steam actually doesn't come too far off the amount the special backers paid in Australian dollars when you factor in exchange rates which certainly doesn't help. The best option at this point seems to be some kind of timed exclusivity, or a small DLC asking price for the extra heroes.
Armello is an addictive game of politics, bribery and backstabbing that'll have you hating your friends as much as your enemies, and there's a surprising amount of emergent storytelling to be found in the randomly generated maps. It's just a shame that a foolish promise on the part of the developer has left many players, including me, feeling like we're missing out on some of the coolest content.
EDIT: So I just found a post by League of Geeks detailing the final update with the Bandit Clan heroes and it seems they're going with timed exclusivity, along with unique skins which will remain exclusive to backers. This is is super good to see but honestly this shouldn't have been an issue in the first place. This decision was as the result of a poll from the backers who were allowed to vote on whether the heroes would be made available and it's great that those players decided to share the love.