"What we've always loved in board games is treachery," says Trent Kusters, co-founder of game studio League of Geeks.
"Treachery in board games is great. It's like one minute we're buddies, but you know at some point one person is going to stab the other in the back."
Kusters is demoing the alpha build of Armello, League of Geeks' debut title for PC and tablets, which is currently seeking funds on Kickstarter. It's a digital board game. Players tap on their hero character to move it around as they would on a physical board. They roll virtual dice like they would physical dice. And they commit acts of treachery, they plot and scheme and form alliances just like they would in a traditional board game. "That's what we wanted to set up," Kusters says, "the ability for people to create these temporary allegiances if they want, but they'll also know that they're going to crumble at some point."
"... everyone is going for the same thing, so they're all going to try to hamstring each other..."
But being a digital board game means Armello does things differently. The game world comes to life on the screen. Clouds drift through the sky. The sun casts light and shadows across the board. Everything moves, like a perpetual breeze is blowing through the game. And it is in this lush world of animal clans, a mad king and spells and magic that the player — the hero — must race against other heroes to claim the king's throne.
The king has contracted rot, a dark force that is slowly driving him mad and killing him. Knowing that he grows weak by the day, the heroes of each clan race to claim the throne for themselves. Victory is not determined by who can get to the throne first, though. First, the king's castle is protected by perils — incredibly dangerous traps that could take out a weak character in one hit — so rushing into the castle unprepared is likely to result in death (although Armello's "death" only sends players back to their clan's base). Second, until the king's condition has advanced far enough, he is significantly stronger than the heroes, and poses a serious threat. Third, the other heroes have their own plans.
So instead of being a frantic race from beginning to end, Armello starts as a dance. Players traverse the board back and forth, exploring tiles and looking for ways to level up. They cross paths with other heroes, sometimes interacting with them, sometimes ignoring them, always keeping an eye on what they're doing. They take on missions, they get into fights, and they wait. Typically, around four rounds in, the king becomes weak enough to fight, and the heroes usually gain the confidence to strike and, at that point, the real race begins.
"There's nothing that says you need to attack the other players," Kusters says. "It's just the fact that everyone is going for the same thing, so they're all going to try to hamstring each other on the way. You can kill the other heroes, but you can't eliminate them. They'll just respawn on their clan grounds."
According to Kusters, it's possible to claim the throne without ever fighting. After 16 or so turns, the king will naturally die from the rot, and whichever hero character has the most prestige — points earned through completing heroic tasks — is crowned the winner. That's one of the more passive victory states. Some players will want to train their hero to be aggressive and fight directly, hamstringing every other heroes on the board while building themselves up to take on the king. Some players will sneakily lay traps and cast spells to set everyone else back. And others might not try to win at all, and instead focus on giving everyone else grief. When a player enters the king's castle, regardless of whether or not they're ready to take on the king, the king will send soldiers out to kill every hero on the board. By triggering this, the dynamics of the game will change and all the heroes will now have to worry the soldiers and each other.
"We really wanted the game to be playable in different ways, so if someone is interested in straight up fighting, they can find a character and build them into this death machine," Kusters says. "But if someone doesn't want to be a fighter at all, they they want to play passively, or play the political style game of thrones, they can do that. They can create a character that works on that political angle and evade combat altogether."
And of course, like with any game involving thrones, treachery is always an option.