(2012 – Level 99 Games)
One of the first hobby-oriented, two-player board games I got the chance to play (outside of Chess) was Colby Dauch’s Summoner Wars. I was immediately drawn to the specialized units and abilities, as well as how each race contained particular strategies and tactics that were essential to their success. The game rewarded players for learning and becoming familiar with the particular units and events that made up a race’s deck and the strategies involved with using them together. So when I first read about Level 99’s Pixel Tactics (designed by Brad Talton), it immediately reminded me of the mechanics and gameplay of Summoner Wars. And while the implementation of these elements are quite different between the two, Pixel Tactics brings forth the same sense of overall depth and experienced skill players will gain after multiple sessions.
Pixel Tactics is a head to head, 2-player battle card game, in which players will assemble a team of Heroes surrounding a central Leader. These units will attempt to destroy the opposing player’s Leader on the other side of the board. Each Hero when recruited, can be placed along different lines in the battle, the Vanguard line (front), the Flank line (middle), or the Rear line (back). Heroes will have different abilities depending on which line they are located in. Play continues until one of the player’s Leaders is destroyed, in which the other player will earn a trophy. This is considered a match. Players will play through a best of 3 or best of 5 series of matches, until the ultimate winner is determined.
– Foldout Game Board (optional)
– Red Player card deck
– Blue Player card deck
– Current Wave cards
– Wound tokens
Pixel Tactics comes with a foldout game board that is included on the back of the rule sheet for the game, however a board is not necessarily required. Since the placement of cards during the game is revolved around the center placement of the Leader card (which I’ll explain later), there is technically no need for a game board, though I personally prefer to use one.
There is actually a very nice printed board (made out of material similar to a thick mouse pad) that has, in the past, been available on Level 99 games website. For the purposes of this review, I’ll be using this playmat, but note that it is not included with the retail version of the game itself, and must be purchased separately.
Pixel Tactics is a 2-player card game, and as such, each player will receive a deck of hero cards (one for the red player and one for the blue player). These decks are identical to each other, except for their backings, displaying which player’s deck the card belongs to. Players will shuffle their corresponding deck of cards and place them in their draw area. The Current Wave cards are split into a 1st player card and a 2nd player card. These reference not only which player goes first in each Round, but also which Wave players are currently in. To begin the game, these two cards are shuffled and dealt randomly to each player. The beginning Wave of each Round starts with the Vanguard row, so each player will set his personal Current Wave card on the left side of his Vanguard section on the board.
Players will draw the top 5 cards off of their draw deck. Each card is comprised of a Hero and a Leader. Either of these sides can be viewed by flipping the card 180 degrees. Players will flip all of their cards to their leader sides, and choose 1 Leader. This Leader is placed into the center space of the Flank row on the board. A player’s Leader gives that player a special ability that only he can use during the game. For instance, the Leader, Seth Cremmul (as seen above) forces the opponent to play the entire match with his hand revealed. If for some reason, both players have chosen the same leader, these cards are placed at the bottom of the draw deck, and players will choose a new leader until both player’s leaders differ.
Finally, once the leaders have been chosen, a set of Wound tokens are placed near the board and the game begins with the player who owns the 1st player Current Wave card. After setup, the game should look something like this:
A game of Pixel Tactics is comprised of a series of matches. Players can decide how many matches to play, but the general consensus is playing a “best of 3” or “best of 5” series of matches. Each match consist of multiple Rounds until a player’s Leader has been defeated, with each Round ,made up of 3 turns (or waves): the Vanguard Wave, the Flank Wave, and the Rear Wave. The player with the 1st player Current Wave card will begin each turn until all 3 have been completed. At that point, the Current Wave cards are switched amongst players, and the opposing player will now begin each turn of the following Round.
Each player has their own side of the board, consisting of 3 spaces for each wave. The wave towards the top of their play area is referred to as the Vanguard wave, the middle section being made up of the Flank wave, and the bottom portion, the Rear Wave.
As mentioned before, a player’s Leader is always present on the middle space of the Flank Wave area. While other Heroes will be able to move between Waves during the game, the Leader can not do so, and will always remain on this space until either winning or being defeated. When a turn begins, each player will be allowed 2 Actions a piece, starting with the Vanguard section. Players can perform various Actions (which we’ll take a look at in a bit) with regards to the spaces and Heroes in the Vanguard section only. Once both players have completed their Actions in the Vanguard Wave, the Current Wave card is moved down one section and placed beside the Flank Wave section. Starting with the 1st player, players will take 2 more Actions in relation to the cards and spaces in the Flank Wave area, and then so on with the Rear Wave area. Each Hero card contains information as to how they are used in relation to which Wave they are being used from.
For instance, taking a look at the Priestess, we can see that she has different healing effects depending on which Wave she is being used in. When taking an attack action she can either deal 1 point of damage, as is seen in the upper right section of her card (sword icon), or use her alternate attack abilities (listed amongst the various Waves). She also has 7 points of life (shield icon).
When choosing to take her alternate attack action from the Vanguard Wave, she can heal up to 4 wounds from another Hero. When taking this attack action from the Flank Wave, she can heal up to 2 wounds from the Leader. Finally, when taking this attack action from the Rear Wave, she can resurrect a fallen Hero, but in doing so will take an amount of wounds herself equal to the restored Hero’s life.
Finally, she also has a special Order ability (listed below her 3 Wave abilities) that can be used instead, if played straight from a player’s hand. We’ll cover Order abilities when discusses the various Actions that a player can do during their turn.
During each turn, a player has the option of 6 different Actions to choose from. A player can draw a card, add a hero to the wave area, attack, clear a corpse on the board, play an order from his hand, or move a hero to another empty space on the board. Players can choose to the same Action more than once, but must only complete 2 Actions on his turn, unless a special ability allows him to do otherwise. There are also a few restrictions to this rule, but we’ll cover those as we encounter each one.
1.) Draw a Card – When taking this action, the player will simply draw the top card off of his draw deck and place it into his hand. While there is no limit to the hand size a player can have at one time, players are limited to the cards in their draw decks. Once there are no longer any cards in the deck to draw from, this action becomes mute and can no longer be used.
2.) Recruit a Hero – When recruiting a Hero, a player can place a single Hero card from his hand, onto an empty space of the Current Wave area. As mentioned before, each Hero has different special abilities depending on what Wave area they are stationed at. Most of these abilities have a particular correlation in the relationship in what they do and the Wave in which they are placed. For instance, most Vanguard abilities will revolve around attack power and defense, while Flank abilities will help improve the other Heroes located on all three Waves sections on the board, and in many cases the Leader himself. Rear Wave abilities mostly focus on ranged attacks and special support.
Taking a look at the Blue Player’s area, we can see that this turn is taking place during the Flank Wave. Because of this, if the player chooses to recruit a Hero this turn, he would need to place it onto one of the two empty spaces on either side of his Leader, in the Flank area. He decides to place his Planestalker hero on the leftmost Flank space.
By doing so, this Hero now provides the Vanguard Hero above it and the Rear Hero below it, the ability to perform ranged attacks. Therefore, in future turns, when the Assassin (Vanguard area) and the Fighter (Rear area) perform an attack, they can perform a ranged attack as opposed to a melee attack.
3.) Attack – When taking this action, the player can choose any Hero or Leader located in their Current Wave, and perform an attack on an opposing player’s unit (Hero/Leader). Note that a Hero can not perform an attack if it was Recruited or otherwise moved into this Wave area during this turn. A unit can only perform a Melee attack if there are no allied units in front of it, unless they have the Ranged ability. At the same time, they can only perform Melee attacks on the opposing enemy units that are considered “in Melee”. A Hero and/or Leader are considered “in Melee” if they are in the forefront position of the unit column they are currently located in.
For instance, let’s take a look at the Red Players current side of the board. In the unit column along the left side, he only has a single Hero located in the Rear area. His middle column consist of a Hero in the Vanguard area, as well as his Leader in the Flank area. The right side column contains a Hero in the Flank area and a Hero in the Rear area.
If the Blue Player were to perform a Melee attack, he would be able to target the Rear Hero on the left side, the Vanguard Hero in the middle, or the Flank Hero on the right side, because all of these Heroes are the foremost Hero cards in their respective unit columns. Of course if the Blue Player was performing a Ranged attack, he would be able to target any Hero and/or Leader in play (unless a Hero in front of that card had the Intercept ability, which we’ll cover next).
All Heroes and Leaders can perform a basic Melee attack, which corresponds to the sword icon at the top right portion of their card. Some Heroes will have a Ranged attack special ability (such as the Gunner), meaning that this damage can be dealt even if other cards are in between the attacker and the receiving enemy unit. One way to block a Ranged attack (especially when trying to protect the Leader), is to place a Hero that contains the “Intercept” ability (as seen on the Paladin‘s Vanguard ability) in front of this unit. The Intercept ability will automatically take any Ranged damage that is targeted onto the unit cards behind it in a unit column. The opposing player must destroy the Hero with this Intercept ability before he could then make a successful Ranged or Melee attack to the cards behind it.
The Red Player’s attempts to attack the Blue Player’s leader with his Gunner, whom has ranged attack. Taking a look at the Blue player’s side of the board, we can see that a Paladin is currently in the Vanguard section, directly in front of the Blue player’s leader, Seth Cremmul. Even though the Gunner can do a ranged attack, he would be required to attack the Paladin as opposed to Leader, since the Paladin has the Intercept trait while in the Vanguard area.
Some Heroes come with alternate attack abilities that players can choose to trigger instead of performing their basic Melee attack. For instance (as seen above), the Dragon Mage will automatically defeat a Hero “in Melee” when attacking in the Vanguard area. When the Scientist uses an attack action from the Rear area, this will allow another of the player’s Heroes anywhere in the board to deal an attack. When the Oracle attacks from the Flank area, it will allow the player to look at the top 5 cards of his draw deck, and place them back on top of the draw deck in any order.
Once a Hero has dealt damage to an opposing Hero or Leader, that opposing unit receives a number of Wound tokens equal to the damage done. Heroes and Leaders can take a number of Wounds equal to the number listed beside the Shield icon on the top right portion of the card, before they are destroyed. Even if Wounds are placed onto a unit that exceeds its health, that unit is not necessarily defeated; at least not yet anyways. A unit is not considered defeated until the turn is over (when the Current Wave card is moved to the next Wave). Therefore, a unit that has 4 health, and received 6 Wounds from the 1st player, would still be able to perform attacks with this unit, and/or have another unit heal him before the end of the turn.
Once the turn is over, any units that have damage equal to or exceeding their health are destroyed, and flipped over to show the back side of the card. These cards are not yet discarded, as players must use a Clear Corpse action to remove them from the area, so that they may Recruit more Heroes onto that space. However, some heroes have the ability to revive Corpses, so it may be that a player chooses to purposely leave a corpse on the board until being able to do so.
4.) Clear a Corpse – When taking this action, players will be able to discard a Hero that has become a Corpse located on any of the 3 Wave areas on their side of the board. When clearing out Corpses, it does not matter which Current Wave is active. These cleared Corpses are then placed into the players discard pile.
5.) Play an Order – As mentioned before, each Hero card contains a 4th ability that is listed below the other 3 Waves abilities on a Hero‘s card. This is used when the Hero card is played as an Order. Think of these as “events” that will immediately occur once the Order ability is played. Once played and resolved, the card is then placed into the player’s discard pile.
Taking a look at the above cards, the Order ability is the 4th ability listed. If the player chooses to play the Healer’s as an Order, it allows the player to heal a total of 10 Wounds from their Heroes, divided in any way they wish. The Doppelganger’s Order ability will basically copy any other Order ability in the player’s hand. The player can use this copied Order effect, then discard the Doppelganger Hero card instead of having to discard the Hero in which the Order was used from. This will give the player the opportunity to use this Order ability again later.
6.) Restructuring – The final option the player has when choosing an Action is to move, or restructure his units around his side of the board. Remember, that the Leader can never be moved in this way, however all other Heroes may do so. A player can choose to move any Hero in any Wave (it does not need to be located in the Current Wave for this action) and move it to any other empty space on his side of the board. Note that when a Hero is moved, he can not do an attack action during the Current Wave. Restructuring seems to be one of the must underestimated actions for new players. Strategically repositioning Heroes to benefit from their various abilities in the game is a great way to take advantage of the strengths and combinations found amongst the numerous units.
Player’s are currently in the Rear Wave of a Round. In the previous turn, the Blue player’s Hero located in the Vanguard area was destroyed, leaving his Leader undefended and open for an attack.
He currently has a Knight in the Rear area that he has been using as a support unit, in which he can transfer damage from other Heroes onto this Knight. With a total health value of 10, the Knight is one of the strongest defending Heroes in the game.
The Blue Player has 2 Actions during this Rear Wave. He needs to find a way to get a Hero with the Intercept ability in front of his Leader, in order to protect him from an attack by Player A on his turn. First however, he needs to clear the previous Corpse out of the space so that he can place a new Hero there. His first Action then would be to Clear a Corpse.
Even though he has 1 more Action, he could not choose to Recruit a Hero onto this new space, because remember that a player can only Recruit Heroes to the Current Wave area. However, he could choose to use a Restructuring Action and move the Knight from the Rear Wave area to this Vanguard area space.
Since the Knight has the Intercept ability, this would help defend his Leader from Melee and Ranged attacks during Player A’s turn. It would also allow Player B to use the Knight on his very next turn (the following wave being the Vanguard Wave). The Knight has another ability in addition to Intercept while in the Vanguard area which would deal 2 Wounds to any Hero whom attacks this Knight. A great combination for a Hero that must be destroyed to get to a player’s Leader.
When a player has done enough damage to the opponent’s Leader, so that Leader is destroyed, that player has won the Match. The winning player will take his Leader, along with the opponent‘s defeated Leader and place them together in his Base area of the board. These two cards combined make up 1 Trophy. The player that collects 2 Trophies (in a best of 3 game) or 3 Trophies (in a best of 5 game) is the winner of the game.
Note that since these Leaders have been removed from the decks, they will not be used in subsequent matches. After a match is complete and the Leaders have been collected for the Trophy, all remaining cards are reshuffled and create a new draw deck for the next match. The player that won the previous match will start with the 1st player Current Wave card, although the player that was defeated during the previous match will be able to draw 1 extra card during the setup process.
Pixel Tactics contains a surprising amount of tactical depth than one would realize at an initial glance. Each deck contains 25 Hero cards, meaning that there are over 25 Heroes and 25 Leaders to choose from. On top of that, each Hero can be used in 4 different ways, depending on where they are place on the board. Players are then given 6 different options for various actions that will be used in resolving these cards abilities. It’s safe to say that with so many varying combinations of characters types, abilities, and actions, each session of Pixel Tactics will be quite different from the last.
With that being said, the ruleset is quite basic and easy to learn. Though the card text can be very small on the cards (as you can probably tell with the pictures in this review), the card layout is easy to reference and understand. The wave abilities are color coordinated and placed in the order on the card in which they would be viewed on the board (with the final Order ability listed below these). The difficulty of play does not come from learning the ruleset of the game, but from mastering and implementing the tactics built into the Pixel Tactics itself. It will probably take a few plays for players to start to grasp all of the strategies and combination of abilities available to them.
Growing up through the 80’s, I have a certain partiality to 8 and 16-bit artwork. Level 99 Games use of this aesthetic in Pixel Tactics will please many of those, like myself, that grew up with Chrono Trigger, A Link to the Past, and Final Fantasy III. While it is definitely a stylistic choice to present the game in this art form, it is interesting that Pixel Tactics feels very similar to a turn-based video game; one that would easily translate well to a downloadable XBLA, PSN, or iOS game. Altogether, the combination of art style and game mechanics works well.
Pixel Tactics is two-player card game packed with depth and various strategies. While the artwork and ruleset may seem simplistic, mastering the combinations and elevating past the initial learning curve can take some time. Almost every special ability (especially those provided by the Leaders) seems wildly overpowered. But surprisingly, because of this, the game presents a nice sense of balance within itself. With each card containing numerous, flexible ways in which to use them, the game provides players the opportunity to devise their own strategies and implement pre-planned tactics that they’ve created, as opposed to using the same strategies and tactics from game to game. Because of this flexibility and amount of depth, Pixel Tactics should survive on the shelf for quite some time.