Post by Game Design I student and Character Artist Brianna Jenkins
A somewhat recent release, Armello has gained acclaim for having a classic tabletop gaming feel, while utilizing a digital platform to enhance the experience visually and aurally. Armello is a game that I’ve greatly enjoyed playing, and through an analysis it is clear that the game designers successfully crafted the game’s essential experience through careful development of supporting aesthetics. One can also clearly see how the aesthetics are supported by emergent dynamics which are in turn supported by the games basic mechanics. The way in which all of these design elements support each other gives rise to truly meaningful play within the game. It is great example of well thought out design and many of the design decisions made in Armello could successfully inform my own game creation.
The designers’ intended essential experience, as understood in the Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell, of Armello seems to be the journey of a hero on an important quest (specifically a quest to overthrow the corrupt king). This experience, broken into more basic components is that of urgency, unpredictability, and exploration. Not only do I think that the game achieves this intended experience, but does it well.
In order to understand how the designers were able to create these experiences, one must look at the aesthetics used to support the experience, how these aesthetics are supported by emergent dynamics, and how these dynamics are supported by game mechanics. When looking at the aesthetics named in “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research”, it is clear that the experience in Armello is expressed through the challenge, fantasy, and narrative aesthetics; these three main aesthetics all work together to create the essential experience.
The essential experience component of urgency is most supported by the aesthetic of challenge within the game, the game is challenging on many levels, but most specifically in the fact that you are racing other human players in order to win the game. Mechanically, the game only allows for one of the four participants to win. In order to win, one of the participants must complete one of four win conditions; collecting “spirit stones” to purify the king, killing the king and surviving, killing the king while having more “rot” than him and surviving (very similar to just killing him, but having more rot gives you great advantage in the battle, and changes how the victory is expressed at the win screen), or having the most “prestige” when the king dies. Also to note, is a mechanic which causes the king to die of “rot” after 9 day cycles (one day cycle being after each person has taken their turn twice), so, even if all players are slow to complete a win condition, the game will force the prestige win condition after a certain amount of time. The emergent dynamics from these mechanics is that all players attempt to complete one of the win conditions as quickly as they can, before somebody else completes one, or the game forces a win. Also in support of urgency, is the mechanic that players have a set number of tile moves per turn (three unless modified by a card on equipment). This also causes a sense of urgency and produces the dynamic that each player carefully plans movement paths to their goal, and must weigh a path being safe versus being short.
Secondly, unpredictability is supported by the challenge aesthetic as well. Through mechanics, very few victories are guaranteed within the game, battling is decided through dice (though the number of dice a player has through other contributing factors can give advantages and disadvantages), rewards from mini quests are decided randomly (the probability relating to the resources you have), cards are drawn from randomized decks, and the outcomes of random exploration (good or bad) is decided randomly as well. Also, there are mechanics in place which allow players to sabotage other players by casting detrimental cards on them at almost any time; therefore, dynamically, if you are winning, it is likely that you won’t be for long, considering all players usually team up against the leader until they are no longer a threat. This emergent dynamic keeps the leader in flux for nearly the entire game.
Finally, exploration is supported most heavily by the aesthetics of fantasy and narrative. For the most part, the mechanics of the game clearly support a narrative aesthetic, but the flavor of that narrative, mostly supported by visual and aural decisions, is fantasy. One of the most notable mechanics in support of narrative is that all characters are given sub-goals (as quests) within the greater goal of overthrowing the king. These sub-goals can provide resource advantages as well as directly advancing a character towards a win condition. So, as a dynamic, most players choose to pursue these quests, considering they begin the game quite weak, which causes them to travel across the “kingdom” board setting, completing smaller tasks, until finally being strong enough to defeat the king. Though the specifics of this narrative change by player, depending on the play style in which they chose, it is a clear narrative. Furthermore, there are mechanics which support this narrative while also creating things in a fantasy-flavored manner. For instance, as each player completes the sub-tasks and continues their journey, each task completion is logged in a menu which can be pulled up at any time; the text of this menu is constructed in a way so each quest completion is linked as a narrative, and also flavored in a fantasy style. Another mechanic (which is actually supported by the questing mechanic) is that players must traverse the board (and quite a lot) in order to gain advantageous resources. Considering players dynamically chose to go after these resources, players physically explore the board by moving their character piece, as well in a conceptual way (each tile has flavor text, random events may occur, etc.) The fact that the tile flavor is constructed in a fantasy style, and that all events are explained as a part of the larger narrative of the game supports these two aesthetic styles.
Now that we understand the games essential experience, how it is supported by the aesthetics, which are in turn supported by the mechanics and the emergent dynamics, one can look at how all of these work together to understand how meaningful play is created. According to Rules of Play by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen, the two important parts of meaningful play is that players are able to make decisions, and that those decisions are meaningful by not only impacting the game, but also allowing the player to see that impact. From the time a player chooses their character figure, they are making meaningful decisions that impact their game experience. In order to start the game’s narrative, each player must chose a hero and the hero’s starting items (one ring, and one medallion); mechanically, each hero and item has different strengths (different stats, certain advantageous abilities, etc.) this means that the player is immediately making a decision which will have mechanical impact on the decisions they make for the rest of the game. Not only that, but this choice and mechanic directly influences how they express the emergent dynamic of creating a strategy to win. The dynamic of players creating a win strategy is also another meaningful decision the game allows a player to make; mechanically, each player can choose from four different win conditions. Though there are more meaningful decisions the game allows a player to make, the player choosing the character and the player choosing a win strategy influence most of these. How, though, is the information that a meaningful decision been made communicated to the player? First of all, with each choice you make, it is recorded in some way, which is directly comparable to all other players. You can see all of the character cards containing all game-informing information, you can directly compare which sub-quests they have chosen to take, as well as how far each character is in any one win condition. Also important in communicating these meaningful decisions is that each chosen character and pursuance of win condition changes the character enough that completely separate play dynamics can be observed from each player. For example, the character “Sana” (shown below) knows to avoid battle because they have a very low “fight” stat (this influences the amount of die you roll in fights), but they know to draw a large amount of spell cards because they have high spirit (the resource that allows you to play spell cards). This shows that the game is designed in a manner which (though it allows the player to play in any way they want) communicates with players that, based on the previous decisions made, some options of play are now more difficult and some more easy.
Though I think much can be learned about successful game design from Armello, the aspects of it that most inspire me are the meaningful choices afforded to the player in choosing how they want the narrative of their adventure in game to proceed. The player choosing their hero, their starting items, their desired win conditions, what quests they take in order to help fulfill these win conditions, etc. This successful series of choice-making mechanics allows players to play with all different play styles, thus displaying different play dynamics, and making for a more interesting game. These elements of meaningful choice which cause great differentiation between each player gives me great inspiration for what I would like a game I design to be.