Imbroglio is a turn-based abstract puzzler masquerading as a roguelike dungeon crawler. It is easy to learn, straightforward on mechanics, and satisfying to play. I find a lot of iPad games to be a bit like baby corn in Chinese food. Upon first glance they look great, everybody pretends to like them, but they turn out to be awful. Fortunately, Imbroglio is not one of those kind of games. It is, in fact, quite the opposite: it looks like hell but is actually both maddening and addictive. I know it is waaaaay too early to start throwing around superlatives, but I think Imbroglio might be a bit of a classic.
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In the game, you play a character skulking around a 4×4 labyrinth teeming with monsters. There are bad guys, there are weapons, and there is combat. Each character has a strength and a weakness, and the weapons they use confer special abilities. So far it sounds like a typical dungeon crawler, right? Yes. But that is all that is typical about Imbroglio, because except for these basics, there is nothing else typical about this game.
The first thing that sets Imbroglio apart is that, although the game takes place in a dungeon, there aren’t dungeon levels or bosses. There is just an ever-increasing quantity of baddies who appear at apparently random intervals from four doorways. You, the intrepid adventurer, have a very simple calculation to make each turn: do you move north, south, east or west? That’s basically it. Occasionally you might be able to invoke a special ability, but there are no opaque decision trees here or hidden information to be sussed. Move, fight, get the goodies, repeat.
Which brings me to the next thing that sets Imbroglio apart. The entire goal of the game is simply to procure a large quantity of rare, valuable objects known as “purple stars.” It is mysterious what exactly draws the adventurers to this colorful treasure. Perhaps they are the coin of the realm. Perhaps they have powers that can save the known universe from unimaginable evil. Or maybe, just maybe, they are simply stars that happen to be purple. In any case, your only goal is to get more than you got last time. Good luck with that. If you are anything like me, you’ll open the game in a skeptical frame of mind, play a game or two, decide it is overhyped, and set it down…for about eighteen seconds. Then you will pick it up and play it again. And again.
If it weren’t for the fact that I got my non-gamer wife hooked on it, I’d probably be divorced by now. I also might have gotten picked up by child protective services, but my 7 year old has learned to eat Eggo waffles with one hand while playing Imbroglio with the other. He is being fed and entertained with video games — two fundamental human rights.
So what is it that makes Imbroglio so worthwhile? Michael Brough has something of a cult-following among people for whom turn-based puzzlers are a way of life. His reputation is based solely on making little, well-balanced games. Imbroglio works because it plays very quickly and keeps the tension high. I’ll give you a few examples.
There are two types of “hitpoints” in the game — red hearts and blue diamonds. (There are no purple horseshoes.) Monsters have varying amounts of each type of hitpoints, and so do heroes. Since players have a maximum of four of each type, they are very typically lunging from star to star, hoping to avoid being cornered and killed.
In Imbroglio, the best laid plans are temporary things at best. They last exactly as long as it takes you to get to the next star, after which point the maze changes shape. Along the way, you will be beset by monsters spawning from one of the four corners at a frequency that increases with the number of tiles your character walks on. Take a roundabout way to the star to avoid a monster? No problem! But don’t do it too often or your character will not earn experience for monster-killing and will find itself overwhelmed mid-game without enough power to survive.
There is math hidden in this game, I can smell it. Deep math. Rates and flows of tempo, turn-based granularity, etc. What is more, I get the impression that Brough has tinkered with every variable with their cascading effects on gameplay, and ironed out the kinks until everything plays smoothly. That is why you won’t ever know the moment you are doomed until it crashes in upon you. Likely, your mistake was made many turns ago and the consequences have only just caught up to you.
One of my favorite elements of Imbroglio is its “tile/weapon” system. Each of the 16 room tiles on the board are represented by a single weapon or item, which can be custom-arranged prior to play. This element resembles deckbuilding to some extent, although there are perhaps just twenty or so unique weapon tiles to choose from. The weapon in each spot then determines what sort of attack that can be made from there. Weapons do either red or blue damage, and often have special abilities that trigger as the weapon rises in “experience” level.
Some weapons teleport enemies, others put curses on them that combo with other weapons, some just do a ton of damage. Each weapon is unique, but up to four copies can be placed on a board. This enables players to create combo attacks and synergies to use.
The ever-increasing pressure from the monsters is counterbalanced by the experience system, which grants a point of experience for each killed monster from that spot. After four kills, the weapon rises a level, giving it more power. The more I’ve played, the more I have discovered strategems in levelling up certain weapon/rooms before others. (Other times I find myself just reeling from attack to attack, fighting from any square, trying to hang on.) Although all games tend to blend into one another after awhile, one of the fun aspects of the game is discovering the strategies possible with each weapon loadout.
Imbroglio is not a visually appealing game. The graphics look like they were drawn by a talented middle schooler. At first, this was a turn-off, but I have now come to appreciate that the visual style is merely basic and humorous, not actually bad. In the interest of honesty here, too, I have to admit that one of my top, all-time favorite iPad games is Dream Quest, which has absolutely horrible graphics. After a few games, Imbroglio’s rough appearance will cease being an issue. On another note, if you like more visually appealing games, then perhaps one like Forbidden Desert is one that you may want to look into.
The sound-design is another place where Imbroglio ventures into interesting territory. Instead of playing a musical score and superimposing typical dungeon sounds like rattling chains, screams, and water droplets, Imbroglio uses sound to communicate with the player. Each hit on a monster or player earns the pluck of a stringed instrument. The bigger the hit, the more strings are plucked to form chords. When the player dies, the guitar strums a brief, somber finale. The net effect of these sound choices is a pleasing and expressive, if minimalist, experience — much like the game itself.
As for controls, there are very few. Mainly, you’re just sliding around the board collecting stars and bashing stuff. It works fine.
Opening the game for the first time, you will find that the written rules are extremely basic. I fumbled around my first few games, wondering what weapon “curses” did until I realized that they were just combo buffs that partnered with various weapons. Other than that, there were no mysteries. There is “flavor” to the game in the form of the characters — each has a name and, presumably, a backstory, but nothing is explained, everything is implied. You won’t find a “dwarf” with a “+1 battleaxe” to play. Instead you’ll play a one-armed guy named “Vesuvius Bob” who is awesome and probably has a kickass story to tell. Or maybe you’ll play “Masina Rebel Queen” with her raised fists, or “Dominic Twice Bitten” who has just one-eye. Whoever you choose to play, you will will find that like everything else in Imbroglio, there is not too many abilities and nothing that is clearly superior to the rest. Everything is balanced.
It should be obvious by now that I like this game. A lot. I did not expect to. I suspect that I will keep this on my iPad longer than most. I am also intrigued to explore other Michael Brough titles. If anyone knows which one I should try first, let me know.
At around $4 the price of Imbroglio is too steep to be a thoughtless purchase. I’ll throw $2 to chance on a game, but $4 needs to be something special. This game *is* special, and I definitely recommend it. I’d even pay $5 for it.
- Quick, streamlined play
- Easy to learn
- Quirky and fun
- Sub-par art
- Won't do my laundry