Armello is something special. I don't mean simply the way it looks or the way it plays, though it is admirable in both those regards, but also in the way it has been made.
This is a digital board game that exists somewhere between the island of Catan and the land of Studio Ghibli. It is a four-player hexagonal landscape of alliances and treachery among delightful woodland creatures with a tinge of darkness that would not feel out of place in Westeros. It is very pretty and, although I only have a few hours of solo play under my belt, has the feeling of tight design and solidly in-built fun.
It's been made by a team of video game creators and board game fanatics called League of Geeks. They describe themselves as a "collective," as opposed to a studio. The game has been partly funded by a very successful Kickstarter.
I asked Melbourne-based game director Trent Kusters to explain what this means in practical terms. His reply might act as an inspiration for new teams, setting out to make the sort of games that animate their passions.
We call ourselves a 'collective' because we're not based in one place, like a studio. Throughout the course of Armello's development, we've had over 30 people work on the game from all around the world. Some people for just a few hours on a couple of tasks and others for a few hundred hours on large chunks of the game.
A lot of our team members already have jobs, so it's not right for us to say we're a studio, based in one place. That seems an ancient model. It's 2015, you can collaborate with the most talented people in the world with the click of a button.
So we're doing that, and ensuring our collaborators know they're a critical part of League of Geeks, not just some contractor from another country, is important to us. It's important we show that in our actions and how we represent ourselves.
OK, so there's a lot of remote collaboration going on. But the additional kicker is how the work is recompensed. Kusters explained it as follows:
Almost all of our team works for profit share on Armello, under a model we designed from scratch.
The simplest way to describe how the model works is that every single task on the project has a number of points assigned to it. If you can complete a task to the standard required, you collect those points. When the project's done everyone has a certain number of points that reflects their input on the game and thus, their share in the profit pool, which is 50 percent of the profit, for as long as the game makes money.
There are so many different pros and cons, to working this way. I mean, we're kinda trailblazing here. I don't know of any teams that are working to this scope, on a profit-share system for a commercial title. Since I had this crazy idea in 2011, we've dramatically changed the way we've worked, multiple times. Everything from project management tools, to methodologies, tech, administrative stuff, and more. But, we're also working with some of the most talented people in the world on a game we truly love.
In Armello, each player takes on the role of a creature who begins at the corner of a board, made up of randomly distributed tiles. At the center is the king's palace. The king is dying. Each player wants to take the throne.
Players are given quests in order to earn abilities and to power up for the big fight ahead, but also for fights against other players and AI provocateurs. The quests offer choices, which dispense rewards.
In combat, players make use of cards and dice throws to find whatever advantage they can. The cards can also be used to sabotage and confound other players. Herein lies the treachery and double-dealing that makes for the best board game / card game experiences. Games are self-contained and designed to last about an hour.
The team spent eight months testing the game's mechanics as a tabletop board game, before laying down any code. How did this process work?
When we started Armello we knew we were going to bring board games to life on digital platforms. We wanted to be able to play together and carve epic stories of adventure and betrayal. And we knew it would be set in a dark fairy tale, animal kingdom called Armello.
We all had jobs at the time at various studios and so we dedicated every Wednesday night to play-testing the prototype. It started with Blake Mizzi, another of our directors, bringing a print-out of a satellite map with a grid drawn on it. He sat and wrote out some units on pieces of paper right then and there. He'd been mulling it over all week.
We talked it out, decided what we did like, what we didn't. What had that magic, what didn't. Then someone would take it, and work through the week on the next version of the prototype.
It took ten major redesigns of the prototype to find that magic we were looking for. When we did, we refined that version a further six times before hitting a point of diminishing returns and saying, 'OK, let's get some code going.'
It was a long process but one of the most rewarding in our careers and it was costing us nothing. Armello was our passion project, so we were in no rush. Besides, we felt we had stumbled onto something incredibly special, so we wanted to rise to that occasion.
Finally, I asked Kusters about the team's inspirations and their goals for bringing a board game onto a digital platform, right from the start.
We never sat down and said; 'let's make X meets Y' or 'how about a digital Catan with animals.' We were actually pursuing some very specific dynamics that we wanted to achieve with the systems.
Firstly, that magic of crafting stories with your friends around a table. Taking tabletop design's power to tell incredible stories and then using the benefits of digital to elevate the immediacy of those stories.
Secondly, we wanted to capture that fuzzy feeling you get when you're 50 hours into an incredible RPG or completely absorbed in a Studio Ghibli film. We wanted players to be able to recreate that in under 60 minutes, in every game of Armello.
And lastly, we admire the way that the great adventure films we grew up with, like Star Wars, The Dark Crystal, Dune and Watership Down, weren't afraid to get a little dark in parts, to have a true sense of consequence. We felt they worked because of their incredible handle on duality, contrast. Knowing when to take the viewer somewhere darker, and more importantly when to let them up for air. So we aimed to work a lot of that into our mechanics and supported it with the world we were building, and vice versa.
So we kinda worked top down. Naturally along the way we're fully invested in designing a great strategy game, of course we are, but that's so wrapped up in the tone and dynamics that we're going for that we let that be our beacon.
Games have been emulating tabletop experiences for decades. What is new though, is that games as a medium is far more comfortable in its own skin. We need not pretend to be something else. For games like Card Hunter, Hearthstone and Armello to not only leverage centuries of tabletop design, but to specifically hone in on that nostalgia, embrace it and amplify it as much as possible, that's the magic digital platforms can offer analog experiences.
Armello is out now on Steam Early Access for $19.99.