Imbroglio review

“Imbroglio” is a fantastic word. It’s legitimately fun to pronounce– “im-BROL-yo,” from the italian for “to confuse”– and it means, basically, “a terribly confusing embarrassing disaster situation.” If you fell asleep on a train and woke up in a strange town without your phone or wallet, that would be an imbroglio. If you lost your date at a halloween masquerade because everyone was wearing the exact same Rick Sanchez costume, that would be an imbroglio. If you were driving a hearse and it went over a speed bump and the coffin shot out the back of the hearse and the dead guy shot out of the coffin and caused a car crash that went on for several blocks, that would be an imbroglio, and also a scene in a slapstick dark-comedy indie film. Imbroglios are bad to be in, but often fun to watch. The Coen Brothers are pretty damn good at imbroglios.

Michael Brough’s latest game is called Imbroglio. It’s a fast-paced micro-roguelike with deck-building elements and a spooky labyrinth theme, and it definitely wants you to feel as if you are trapped in an imbroglio while playing it. The trick to Brough’s Imbroglio, however, is that you, the player, control the terms of the embarrassing disaster, setting yourself up for success or failure. It’s a game about taming chaos, or creating controlled chaos– or, perhaps, creating the kind of uncontrolled chaos you think you can (somehow) live in.

Here’s how it works. The player chooses a hero– there are eight, each with different abilities– and creates a “board” of sixteen cards which represent the grid of the play area. During the game, whatever card the hero is standing on represents the weapon they will use to attack. The player must anticipate enemy movement and position themselves so that when they attack, they’ll be standing on the tool which is most useful for dealing with the current enemy. Between enemies, players snatch up score gems which shift the labyrinth, giving the four-by-four grid a new set of dividing-walls, separating the cards on the board in new ways, and forcing the player to deal with whatever problems that might create.

The board is what makes this game so different from other small roguelikes I’ve played recently, like Hoplite (another fantastic phone roguelike, by the way). The board is, basically, the whole game: you react to situations tactically, but you create the terms of the encounter with your board design. You must create a board which synergizes with your hero’s abilities, and you must learn to play the boards you create, too: you can’t just hop around the map and attack at random with whatever you’re standing on. The monsters all have two different health bars of different lengths, and you should always attack a monster with a weapon that targets its shortest health-bar. Some weapons are ranged. Other weapons refill or drain your two health-bars. Some inflict status effects. And on top of this, weapons level up the more times you kill with them. So you’ve got to deliberately stand on specific weapons and kill with them a whole bunch of times if you want to unlock some of their higher-order abilities.

I’ve given you this mechanics information-dump because Imbroglio’s brilliance is its mechanical depth. It is a tightly-woven web of systems and currencies and strategy and tactics that rewards both experimentation– new boards, new heroes– and practice. I have played as Masina Rebel Queen for several hours, and I’ve gotten steadily better and better at her, making only slight changes to my board over time as I learn more about how to best use her unique skill. But I’ve taken more liberties with Susannah Holy Templar, a hero who is only allowed to use weapons which target a monster’s red health-bar. Her best boards all involve different combinations of high-damage red weapons, so she can deal with monsters that soak up more red damage. Her default board also comes with a lot of ranged weapons, for shooting those red-resistant monsters from afar. I’ve moved a lot of those ranged weapons around the board, but I’ve also experimented with boards that use close-range red weapons which have better damage scaling. When I play those boards, I have to work hard to level the fast-scaling weapons up so that they’ll be more useful to me. Each hero comes with different challenges, and there are zillions of different board designs you could make to deal with those problems, and zillions of different tactics you could use to play those boards in the best way. Right now, to me, the possibilities do seem rather endless.

You may be familiar with Brough’s other work– 868-HACK, his lo-fi, hacker-themed roguelike, was  a 2014 IGF finalist for excellence in design. (Imbroglio was a 2016 honorable-mention for the same award.) 868-HACK took place entirely in a six-by-six grid and featured a ‘streak scoring’ mechanic, where players would get more points for completing the full game many times in a row without dying. Imbroglio is much smaller and tighter: it’s got that four-by-four grid, has no streak scoring mechanic, and focuses more on the desperate race to higher and higher scores within a single play session. This is, I declare, good: the problems you are trying to solve in Imbroglio are more specific, more tightly-contained, and less random than the ones you are trying to solve in 868-HACK, but just as complex– perhaps even more so. And that’s how I like it.

If you like experimenting and practicing to solve specific, tightly-contained strategic and tactical problems, Imbroglio will quite possibly be exactly your jam. It’s up there with 868-HACK and Hoplite, my other two previous favorite iOS roguelikes. I see it having a very, very long life on my phone.

I’ve been checking the leaderboards all day, because I am currently thirteenth-best in the world (last night: seventh best) at Masina Rebel Queen, and if anyone else passes me, I am going to lose my shit. When I get home tonight, I’m sitting myself down and trying to score over one hundred points with Masina. I know what my weaknesses are with her, I know I’ve got to get better at them, and I have a few thoughts about how I’m going to do it. It’s that strategic, board-building layer that makes this kind of thinking and planning possible, and that layer that will give the game a very, very long life life its players, I think. At any rate, it’s got its hooks in me already.

Verdict: YES

Imbroglio is currently available on iOS.