Author Topic: Reinard the Fox, complexity and what diminishes it  (Read 2373 times)

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Reinard the Fox, complexity and what diminishes it
« on: February 14, 2016, 09:18:23 AM »
Hi, devs. I don't normally register at forums to voice my opinion on a game, because it's very likely that someone else will have already made the same points. But Armello has made me both excited and disappointed, and I think I'll take this moment to say why.

Now unless this is a very great coincidence, the inspiration for Armello came not from any silly Game of Thrones but from the adventures of Reinard (Reinhard etc.) the Fox. The animal kingdom, modeled on the human society of feuding lords and governed by a Lion, with wolves, foxes, bears and so on in attendance, is all there. A fox was the first thing I scanned the "tapestey" of the loading screen for. What makes the Reinard cycle so great is double complexity. On one hand, those stories are about actual animals, their ways and antics, as seen by curious humans of the 12th century, for whom forests and wildlife were not abstract concepts or cartoons but a day-by-day reality, familiar yet still guessed at. People loved to find out about animals then and compare them to humans. On the other hand, Lion's domain had castles, courts, bishops, knights, pennants, honour challenges, disloyal wives, funerals, invading saracens even - all those wonderful interrelationships ported straight from human living. So while one story talks about how an hungry Reinard played dead to get on top of peasants' fish-loaded cart, in another the fox is a lord of a castle other animals have to besiege.

Game of Thrones? Pfft. The problem with a gimmicky show like that is complete ignorance about the medieval way of life. It only tries to simulate it. When I saw Armello and got a little into the tutorial quests, however, I thought: well, here there might be a little truth and a little something for the intellect! The game has text, who knows what they'll write? And look, politics! Cards to make others trip, cards to help pave your way to power. This could be rich, I thought.

Unfortunately, while Armello is an enjoyable board game, some things prevent it from going deep enough. A few elements, in my opinion, should have been left out, while others I thought I had reason to expect never materialized.

The part the game most obviously would be better without is all that fantasy stuff. It is so not inspired. The Rot, the Banes - what are they for? How many games have dungeons with a slumbering evil that, you know, Returns? Infection is an interesting mechanic, but everything has to make sense story-wise, and Banes are kids' stuff. The King could very well be mad and ruthless without supernatural influence, and the rest also work fine without it. Putting a big load of fantasy tropes - or tripe - in a world of palaces, bandits and squires just showcases how jejune that sort of thing really is. Do you want to be Studio Ghibli? Well, there is one already, and it has made nothing as cool as God's creation.

Secondly, and I'm sure many people have said this, the map is too small. There are a few dungeons, a few stone circles and a handful of, mmm, heroes moving about, getting hit or hitting... The tutorial made me think that the actual game map would be much bigger, with many opportunities for politics, clever use of cards, numerous quests... But the scale of the thing prevents it. While it is possible to stay in the King's favor long enough to outlive and succeed him, that's about all there is to intrigue here. The dice system works well for the most part, although there is too little you can do to avoid combat and too few maneuvers in the course of it (just card burning, really).

One solution to this could be making Followers and various card characters (Mercenaries etc.) into game pieces rather than equippables on heroes. If a sequel ever comes out, with an expanded map and more in-depth look at medieval relations, moving Followers would help populate the map for much more interesting and plannable interactions. And please, devs, forget about Return of Cthulhu, collect-artifacts-to-defeat-evil and other cliches streamlined to the point they are barely registered by the brain. Every time these things appear in a game, they block out some other mechanic or story element that would otherwise have to be invented - an original idea or a researched fact from history, from animal lore, from mythology, wherever... Rack your brains and hit the books, please, don't settle for the tried and familiar.


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Re: Reinard the Fox, complexity and what diminishes it
« Reply #1 on: February 14, 2016, 02:34:00 PM »
Hello Temnix.  You'll be proud to hear that your particular concern has not been a big complaint before (except the map size).   

I can't say whether Reinhard was an influence; the devs cite Redwall for sure.  The Game of Thrones inspiration is primary from the idea that the "political" infighting exists despite the larger, supernatural, existential threat.  Winter isn't coming to Armello, the Rot is.

Fantasy is pretty popular, political intrigue (the kind without literal backstabbing) a little less so.   Studio Ghibli is also rather popular.  The game was also inspired by Talismen, which uses a whole host of fantasy character archetypes, and things get dry pretty quickly if everyone is a spell-less fighter, archer, or rogue.   The devs made what they wanted to make.  How could you have fireballs, teleporting, or stat buffs without magic?

If you like games that are nearly all low magic fantasy politics, your game description reminded me of the Discworld "Ankh Morpork" boardgame.  That has you sending around agents to control territory in order to achieve secret goals.

As for the board size.  It's ideal for forcing conflict (because people need to cross paths) while not being too small that distance matters.  Other sizes have been tested with far less than satisfactory results.  I'm not sure why the Prologue made you think the map would be larger, it's all the same size.  The game was never intended to be a 4 hour Epic adventure (aka a slog to all but the die hard player).  The tight 90 minutes or less experience helps keep the game fresh enough to try the infinite random replays.


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Re: Reinard the Fox, complexity and what diminishes it
« Reply #2 on: February 15, 2016, 01:06:37 AM »
It's interesting, because I always saw this game as Redwall meets Game of Thrones meets Studio Ghibli. That's what drew me to the game. I'm sorry it's not what you were looking for, but I think your assessments are a bit harsh. Sure, the dungeons with the ancient evil is a little overused, but I'd hardly call the rot and the banes "Kid's stuff." The rot is like the dark side of the force. It tempts with power, and slowly corrupts the user into wanting nothing but bloodshed and destruction. The Banes are the literal manifestation of that corruption. Also, from the bits of lore I've been able to piece together from quests and card lore, it seems like the Underworm (where the rot comes from) and the banes might have their own territory underground, and the times that the banes come through the dungeons, it's because the heroes have accidentally opened a path for them, or they've partially broken through themselves. (Sort of like the Darkspawn from Dragon Age.)

Hardcore political intrigue is really hard to do in a video game. Yes, there are the Europa Universalis games and their ilk, and those games are fine if that's what you want, but not everyone has the time or patience for a game that can take weeks to finish. (I personally have a hard time seeing a game of Endless Legend through to the end, and that's much smaller and faster.) I feel like Armello hits a really hard balance between the fantasy, the intrigue and action and strategy. Try letting it stand on it's own legs instead of comparing it to anything else, and see what you think.


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Re: Reinard the Fox, complexity and what diminishes it
« Reply #3 on: February 15, 2016, 09:54:07 AM »
The problem I have with Game of Thrones is that if anything else is even remotely tied to political infighting, it's compared to Game of Thrones as if Game of Thrones invented political infighting.
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Re: Reinard the Fox, complexity and what diminishes it
« Reply #4 on: February 16, 2016, 10:39:23 AM »
Hey temnix, thanks for taking the time to write up your passionate opinions about Armello. I believe the directors did take some inspiration from Reinard!

Firstly, the size of Armello's map is something that was experimented with heavily through development. It became obvious to us that this size was optimal for Armello's core game mode. Basically with larger maps, heroes weren't forced to interact with each other enough and the punishment of death (being sent back to your clan grounds) was overly severe.

Regarding your suggestion regarding more controllable units, would you believe that Armello was actually drafted as a multi-unit war game in it's beginning? Obviously it has come along way since then. Nowadays, the idea of adding the infrastructure to control multiple units in Armello is an enormous request that would essentially transform Armello into a different game.

As for your major criticisms about the world of Armello and it's themes, it seems as though you primarily take issue with the fantasy genre in general rather than our game specifically. I mean really, this game is about anthropomorphic animals navigating a mysterious land, engaging in physical, political and magical warfare. Not being historically accurate is something we are happy to wear.


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« Last Edit: February 16, 2016, 10:48:19 AM by Darcy Smith »


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Re: Reinard the Fox, complexity and what diminishes it
« Reply #5 on: February 18, 2016, 01:10:58 PM »
Kletian, Darcy, good points from both of you. Obviously we all have our own preferences, and if, as you say, map size has been experimented with a lot to fit this particular gameplay, then that's that. Nor would I want a Medieval: Total War here. But I would like to explain why I prefer what I prefer in the first place - it's not just taste. There are some pretty important concerns in there. Let me first put forward this option, though, for any sequel of expansion pack the developers might have planned: a "longer game" mode. Some games have this choice: a shorter or a longer party. The length of play in Armello now seems fine for a little skirmish between friends on, say, a lunch break. But who knows, maybe some people would like to sit down for a few hours? It could work for single-player too. In this "longer game" mode there could be some additional gameplay elements/winning conditions to make the process deeper. A bigger map could work there too.

Now to fantasy and medieval detail. The reason I've come to dislike most "high" fantasy is because the genre has gotten lazy. The usual tropes have become a cop-out, familiar "solutions" are just carried over from one book or game to the next, whole-cloth. Spells aren't themselves a problem, for example. Magic can do nifty things, though it's not quite irreplaceable. You could have historical counterparts with more dimensionality. But to keep magic in: how do spells work? All we are usually told is, the wizard knows. Or, in this case: the Wyld does it, fullstop. Similarly: just what is the Rot? Something bad, with a sigil suspiciously similar to the sign of the Wyrm from Werewolf: The Apocalypse. The description from the game reads: "Not much is known about it..." And you can leave both blank this way, but in doing so you close off for yourself opportunities for asking new questions and developing new plot devices which would make the game even more fun than it already is and possibly more original. There could be, for example, an ebb and flow of Wyld power, or characters with a Wyld affinity but always considered criminals and hunted (permanent bounty), or encroachment of civilization, of castles, nobles and royal guards, could jeopardize the sources of magic. Or ley lines. Or an empathy mechanic. You could have that kind of device without changing the scale of the game much.

The Rot, in turn, could have actual history, something like an origin in an ancient event. It doesn't have to be an eternal force. I mean, even the Devil hasn't been at his tricks forever, only since his fall. Or there could be a faction that considers the Rot an important part of the universe and believes in balancing it with the Wyld (the Precipitarians?) ;D Anyway, these are just examples off the top of my head, and there is no need for a very detailed history or metaphysics in a game of this type. But a departure from fantasy's feet-dragging defaults could at the least add some gameplay twists, make new tactics possible. And at the most, if you really sat down at it and linked some ideas together, you could deepen the strategic quality of the design. More power to the player in choosing turns on the roads to winning, more opportunities for scheming and foresight, all wrapped up in a story - that's what makes a game not just fun and interesting but famous.

The question is, how to make something complex without burdensome detail or confusion? How much is too much? In my experience, people these days crave complexity - of the right kind. They will embrace any number of extra options so long as, first, they understand how those options work, what they can net them and, importantly, how others might use these options against them; this is all necessary for a sense of control and fair play; and second, they must not be forced to use any one of those options. Most attempts at adding complexity break up on the one rock or the other: players are either overwhelmed with fearful, head-scratching surprises or doomed to sort through designers' concepts and use these tools thrust in their hands, turn after turn, whether they want to or not. You end up losing either the sense of openness, or of light-hearted simplicity, or the pace.

But it doesn't have to be that way. As an illustration from history, consider this: in Europe's Middle Ages, or really in any period's traditional society, every person had a great deal to "keep in mind" about his station, duties and freedoms vis-a-vis others. If you were, say, a dyer in medieval Paris, you would have to follow all sorts of norms and rules: as a man, a husband, a son, a Christian, a burgeois, a master of your apprentices, a member of the dyers guild (not just any one, too, the Parisian one), a resident of your neighbourhood (you'd go to war in a unit with your neighbours if called), a member of a particular church's congregation, very possibly a member of a lay order, like a Society of St. Someone, and so on and on forth, with fasts, tithes, colors and liveries to wear or not to wear and so on. Yet people didn't find it confusing, but enlivening and homely. This complexity of their existence was to them perfectly lucid and natural, while the sort of undifferentiated "free" lives we live would seem to them ugly, chaotic and bland, just like the clothes we wear. And while there are trade-offs to democracy, in my opinion a lot of the need that keeps shows like the Game of Thrones super-popular is this hunger for information - real information, not the vapid nonsense we hear in the news. People want detail, they want to hear about clans, and illicit offspring, and who has done who to whom, and see crossbows cranked, they squint to admire the patterns on Lannisters' vests or the Targarian girl's new dress. In a world of Facebook and low-res Warcraft clones, a series like that, shallow as it is, is a treat for the eyes, the ears and sometimes the mind. The heart, too.

So give your players some of that. Make the details endearing and fair, make them matter, and people will take to that background and complexity like fish to water.

It's up to you how, of course. But here is one fact of medieval life that made it stable, structured and varied: the principle of tit for tat. Right now heroes mostly run around killing each other, more like Siegfried and Co or wild-haired barbarians from the Mabinogi.  Not much subtlety to their dealings. And I like it rough, but I also like to be able to set back, twirl an imaginary moustache and plot.

The device that could make it possible is diplomacy. However, in the Middle Ages cool, impersonal deal-making and shuttle diplomacy did not exist. Human relationships were just that, human, driven by loyalty and trust as much as calculation. The stable, official form they took for the ruling classes was the homage and fealty system. As you know, in exchange for a source of income to live and arm off every nobleman had to make homage to its previous holder, pledging to come and fight for him when summoned. The allowance he received in return was called in most places a fief. Fealty, on the other hand, was an oath of general loyalty, little more than non-aggression, but also brought a fief. You could swear this much to any number of people (some nobles held fiefs from hundreds of lords through fealty), but you could make homage to only one liege lord. Fiefs themselves was increasingly land as the practice developed, but it could also be some privilege, like the right to collect taxes in a place, a cushy government office etc. Titles granted this way included bishop, by the way.

I think this system could be recreated in Armello quite faithfully without overwhelming players. Here is my idea how. Rather than making separate cards for the purpose, "fealty" could be an option on some cards you draw - play them on yourself to enjoy the benefit or on someone else to get him under a fealty. Cards maked "homage" could be playable only on other heroes, giving you a one-time big benefit but binding you to defend that hero exclusively. No hero could be in an homage relationship to more than one other player. To simplify the actual terms a bit, the pair of heroes connected by fealty in Armello could be called "tenant" and "lord," by an homage "vassal" and "liege". A player could have several vassals or lords but only one liege. If this sounds complicated, people will learn soon enough - of course, if this mechanic is made important enough to bother. I know that a little of this already exists in the form of the Alliance card, but right now that has very slight influence on gameplay.

Some fiefs could involve a land grant - play the card only if you've got a Settlement to give away. Others could cost 1 Coin from your income per turn, with the relationship broken if you run out of money and some loss of Prestige. But there should be a number of fiefs useful enough to make the recipient consider keeping the relationship. Extra benefits could include sharing Scout information. Homage, in my vision of this system, would be more strict: no cards with good effects can be played on those who have killed the liege lord, lose Prestige every turn until you avenge him. To break either relationship, attack your liege or lord, but lose the fief and a lot of Prestige, especially for homage - plus all other vassals of the same liege also become your enemies. For a greater mess, there could even be cards to get two heroes other than yourself in a fealty relationship, if they aren't already.

Clearly, this would be worth implementing only if Prestige gathering and politicking generally was more important for winning and if fief cards of both kinds would be common enough. A cooperative victory of some sort would also be helpful. How would fiefs add depth? Well, a smart player could hide under the wing of a more successful hero by paying homage, use magic to get a couple of rivals in a fealty/homage relationship to attack each other, ruining their reputation, or just swear fealty for more and more nice fiefs to everyone as the cards shuffle out, keep out of sight and prepare for the final takeover. This could even be a victory condition: the Magnate. Accumulate 15 fiefs to become the realm's real owner, crown or no crown. The number of players' fiefs would be, of course, displayed. And if you want to put a bit of magic in and make money more useful, clever fief-building could be used to gather wealth. Here is a Colossal Victory option: gather 100 coin to make an Alchemic Forge appear on the map. Bring the money there to buy a huge Colossus piece, with stats like 10 Fight and 10 Body. It marches on the capital, but any hero who kills the Colossus on the way will be pronounced Champion and win instead.
Now my imagination is running a little wild there, but the idea is to invite - not force! - the heroes to do something more involved than just slashing at each other and picking up random rewards. Both are pretty exciting activities and should still remain valid options so that the fief system, instead of binding players' hands, puts their actions against a background. The fiefs system could add long-term planning and structure the way two meeting game pieces would deal with each other, bringing a shadow of real history's richness. And it would make room for different player temperaments. Some players, human and AI, wouldn't care for this sort of thing. I'm sure Sylas wouldn't. He would just rove the map, hacking at the passerby. But that would only invite the others to team up against those sorts, provoking counter-moves and new diplomatic combinations. Also linking homage to one-time benefits, as opposed to running effects from fealty, would reflect one aspect of historical reality: an obligation of doing "knight's service" to someone was much harder to bear and fulfill, especially over and over, than it was to give advice and general political support, the only conditions of fealty. In game terms, players would be tempted to pay homage to another, especially early on, for a boost, but they would find less and less enthusiasm for maintaining the relationship. Among other things, they would have to hunt the liege's killers. Eventually realities of the map situation would push them to betray or try to find a way out of this confidence - and then people's real colors would show.

And you could make traitors take on Rot, if that's in. Should be the reward of sin overall.

P.S. On the subject of animals: in Reinard's story, there are all kinds. The king's banner-bearer is a snail.  8) The Lion's army in the battle with saracens has several commanders, including a rooster and a grasshopper. That's what I would like to see, too. Some intrepid invertebrates, and maybe birds. They could have flight over difficult terrain as a special ability.