'Imbroglio': Four by Four Board, Infinite Fun
A Review of Michael Brough's Indie Masterpiece
When you imagine a game that's extremely involved, and super-deep, you probably won't be thinking about a game with a four by four board. However, independent designer Michael Brough's masterpiece, Imbroglio, sets game design on its ear. With ten play styles, 48 upgradeable tiles, and chaotic mechanics, Imbroglio has been my phone game of choice for years.
It's fast, if you want it to be. Or it can be deliberate, painstaking, mind-wracking.
And the sounds...
Enter the Dungeon
Imbroglio looks basic and unassuming when you begin. You are given just four out of the 10 playable characters, two of which are available with 16 extra tiles for just $1.99 (the Ossuary Set) or $2.99 (Phlogiston). Each character has one limitation, and one advantage. Count Harry IV, the first character, is able to heal himself as long as he has runes. However he is unable to use any ranged tiles on the board. His weakness is one of the mildest, and many newer tiles with ranged effects, like stunning all monsters, can still be added to his board.
There is a nice scattering of difficulty levels among the characters; their challenge rating is not determined by their position on the screen. My least successful characters are Dominic Twice-Bitten, whose serpent enemies are tougher, and Fey Sorceress Ixxthl, who can't use red weapons.
The Monster Four by Four
Once you have chosen your adventurer, you can change your board if you've gotten over 32 stars in any game. Once players are done board-building, they enter the dungeon.
Imbroglio's medieval art is solid to the point that even expansion art blends right in. The character art looks mostly serious, but as you will come to see, there are exceptions for many rules. The monsters follow suit, with three nasty-looking monsters and a shaggy, silly beast with a big tongue.
The sounds mark a big change from Brough's previous glitchy style, using unique guitar sounds for powerful tiles, combat, and movement. The best sounds in the game are the long scratch for a broken wall, a hilarious twang as monsters are cursed, and an echoing Armageddon from a fully powered Cursed Broadsword.
When starting on the game board, you will also notice some dungeon walls between the tiles. These walls can slow down grabbing the stars you need to increase your score. They make simple passages and turns, but sometimes they herd you from one corner of the dungeon to another, making things dangerous when your tiles aren't powered up yet.
Once you are swiping up, right, left, and down to move around the dungeon, you will see that you are not alone. Four types of monsters, eventually six, will come out of the corners, moving once each time you do.
Attacking is done when a monster is next to you, but some tiles can hit other monsters across the board. Standing on a red tile deals red damage, while blue tiles deal blue damage. Red tiles tend to do more damage, heal red health, and be more straightforward; blue tiles often require blue health to activate and focus on trickery. Some tiles blur the lines, including the red Reaping Scythe and the sharp blue Rimeclaws.
Swiping against a monster counts as an attack, and if the monster is still alive the next turn it will do its color of damage to you*. This can go back and forth for a few turns, but since monsters either make one move or attack on their turn, it may be better to avoid monsters until you reach a better position, a better tile, or a star. Collecting a star usually heals your character, by one red health and one blue health point.
If you are cornered by a monster, you have to attack. If any monsters are cornered, they either attack or wait in place behind other monsters.
You and the monsters both have red and blue health bars. The type of monster they are tells you what kind of damage they do to you. Three monsters take away your red health, while the monster coming from the lower left deals blue damage. Each basic monster type has a different mix of red and blue health totaling five points: four red and one blue, three red and two blue, two red and three blue, and four blue and one red. This means two creatures can be killed immediately by a weapon with the right color.
Here is where the game gets even more involved. Your board has to be able to handle any red or blue monster, even if you are standing on the wrong tile color.
Adding to the difficulty, is that many characters cannot use certain kinds of weapons, like ranged, red, blue, or duplicates. Tiles can have up to four copies on a board.
After unlocking a few tiles, more exceptions to the game's rules will appear. You will be able to break walls with a blue tile, or play as Vesuvius Bob, a bald strongman who can break walls with a swipe and a rune. Other surprises include time travel, color changing, and (spoiler alert) tougher monsters.
Halfway through your unlocks, the amount of freedom and innovation you can put into a board will amaze you.
Imbroglio's strategies involve gaining health, planning fights, and powering up weapons before you get swarmed. When you kill a monster, the tile you are standing on will get a small notch*. Four of these notches will level your tile from level 0 to level 1*, and all tiles can go up to level four. Sometimes you will have to decide between powering up your weapon, saving your health, or using just the right tile.
As weapons are powered up, some do extra damage, others unlock special effects, and some do both. The elegantly worded Blink Dagger, for example, teleports you to one spot of your choice per tile level. Even if you power up the dagger to level one, you will still have just one choice, until it's level two. The Blight Broadsword is pure offense, starting out at two points of damage and dealing four after it kills 16 cursed monsters.
Cursing is another unique element of the game. When a monster is cursed, a black cloud appears around it. The monster attacks as normal, but its damage may be prevented when a Confusion Cloud is on the board. If you grab a star when a cursed creature is on the board, one random cursed creature will turn into a ghost. A ghost is a weak creature that briefly stuns an enemy creature when it dies. Slowing down creatures is usually good, but one delayed monster can set off chain reactions of missed opportunities and extra hurt.
When you power up a tile by four notches, your character gets a rune. Some tiles use runes for fancy effects, and some character abilities run on runes. A few tiles enable or speed up rune gathering. Unless you rely on Geomantic Orbs, your rune count will run down as all tiles become powered up, proving yet another insidious way to die.
When you collect a star, the game gives you the illusion of movement, through the dungeon, by adding a new star and changing the walls all around you. This can make a new star right next to you difficult to grab, and a monster you didn't want to deal with might get in your grill next turn.
You also get a point. Minimalist scorekeeping for the win!
With the 24-tile basic set and two expansion sets, there are 48 tiles. These tiles all combine with cursing, a health system, character quirks, walls, and each other to make each game a unique experience.
I still daydream about some of the wacky combos I've come up with. One involves two Whetstones (+1 damage to neighboring tiles at level four), and an Echo Harp (two hits at level four), since that would mean six blue damage from a single attack. The drawback is that Whetstones deal zero damage, after they sharpen nearby tiles.
You may be able to survive on a low dual health bar of ❤️💙 for several turns, or you may wind up getting robbed right at the moment you're expecting victory.
Imbroglio starts out innocent-looking enough, but steadily puts the pressure on. Grabbing 20 or so stars is smooth sailing, but monsters will appear more frequently. If you are gravely wounded and/or crowded by monsters, your movement sounds become unnerving.
Unless you reach 256 points, your character will die. A discombobulation of guitar will assault your ears, followed by your score and two nails-on-chalkboard scratches.
When you get tired of fighting on the regular boards, the Ossuary expansion lets you rank on the leaderboard, using special tiles in automated four day challenges. Even Pseudovius Bob's, Vesuvius Bob's competition-friendly alter ego, can join in!
Star or Monster?
Between character abilities and tiles, Imbroglio offers exceptions to lots of rules. You can bust through walls. You can choose any target for a player, monster or tile's random effect. You can make red weapons blue and blue weapons red. You can double your maximum health, deal both red and blue damage at the same time, shoot through walls, and even make friends with ghosts.
And all this comes from a four by four board. Polished, deep and ergonomically paced, Imbroglio is a virtual artifact of our deeply advanced civilization. If you like straightforward gaming, the starting games may bore you, but if you want a geeky sleeper hit, stay the course. Imbroglio backs up an overloaded trailer filled with ridiculous depth and dumps it on your jaded mind.
* Usually. Just to show you how many times this unsettling game says "never say never".