Pixel Tactics Product Line Review
on Feb 9, 2016
You can count me as a Level 99 Games fan, and one from way back at that. I was an early supporter of BattleCon, D. Brad Talton’s awesome head-to-head fighting game and over the years I think it has surpassed the venerable Yomi in that design space. Last year the company brought us Argent: The Consortium and it was one of the top games of the year. This is a brand that I look for and I know will provide an interesting, unique gameplay experience across several genres and styles of games. But what these guys excel at is in two player card battlers heavily influenced by video games and Pixel Tactics fits right into their wheelhouse.
I’m just now catching up with Pixel Tactics, but I feel like I’ve been missing out. There’s nothing else quite like it out there although you could point out similarities to titles like Summoner Wars and not be wrong in doing so. Each player gets a deck of 25 cards, and both decks are the same. Each card depicts a character (in lovely pixel art) along with multiple abilities. You take one of these cards and flip it upside down, representing your leader. The leader has a specific, powerful effect that will impact your entire game and how it is played.
This leader is at the center of a 3x3 grid. To the front is the Vanguard. To his or her sides is the Flank. And the Rear column brings up, well, the rear. A round is a full cycle of actions moving from front to back, with each rank performing two from a menu that includes playing more cards, attacking with characters in that rank, using special abilities, casting spells from a character’s card, or everyone’s favorite- clearing corpses. Once the round is complete, the other player gets first player status and this continues until someone’s leader is reduced to zero hit points.
There is melee and ranged battle as well as other effects that can harm, incapacitate or outright kill other heroes. Melee characters apply their damage rating to other heroes in the enemy’s grid- but they have to attack characters in the closest rank. Ranged characters can shoot over enemy ranks, but can have their shots intercepted by certain heroes. So positioning characters is extremely important so that you can take advantage of their strengths and abilities.
But here’s the catch. Each of these cards may have different functions depending on which rank you place them in. A hero might have a great combat – focused Vanguard ability but a completely different support function when placed in the Flank or Rear. It could be that the hero supports the one in front of them or transfer damage. Or the hero card may have a one-use ability that you’d rather use in response to a tactical situation or a strategic level Operation effect. What this means is that Pixel Tactics gives you a wide range of flexibility in how you use each card and it can be almost overwhelming at first- especially if you aren’t familiar with the cards you or your opponent are playing with.
There is a lot going on with this relatively simple game. Traps, buffs and debuffs, healing, raising the dead, counters, instant effects. It’s vast. And this is before figuring in advanced gameplay elements such as bases, deck construction and tournament play- or playing with decks from different sets. It’s easy to get intimidated by it all, but the rules are clear and easy to grasp and the process is extremely simple. It’s in the gameplay where it gets delightfully complicated.
This is the kind of game where you show a friend how to play it, and before you know it you’ve played 5 games in one session and you’ve started to at least work out how higher level play works. It’s one that you can play casually just fine and have a good time surprising yourself and your opponent with cool combos or clever plays, but it is also one that rewards digging in and learning its nuances. Stick with it and you’ll get it, and I think that the bang this little game packs for the buck is quite possibly unparalleled in the card battler genre. Be warned however- the balance in this game is wild. Be prepared for a highly volatile experience- the decks may be the same (if you are playing with the same decks), but what you do with it and which leader you choose make for an asymmetrical experience.
Now, how do you get into Pixel Tactics circa 2016? There are a couple of choices, and none of them are bad. There are five small box sets that all feature two identical 25 card hero decks with the most recent release being, not surprisingly, Pixel Tactics 5. Any one of these is a good, low-cost entry point but be aware that each introduces a new element building on the previous set. They are portable and easy to teach to another player within minutes. Focusing on a single set will still give you tons of replay value since you are looking at 25 different leaders and who knows how many different combinations of hero effects and positions. There are also small expansions that add some additional characters including an Argent University pack.
But the all-in, “I’m ready to dive into the deep end” purchase is the new Pixel Tactics Deluxe set. This is a fully updated, complete game with another 25 new heroes, 68 cards of a new Common Hero type, 8 bonus freelance heroes, bases, “HD” Leader cards and space enough to hold ALL of the other Pixel Tactics releases. It’s a great place to start if you’ve looked over the rules and materials online and decided that this is a game for you. But I think more casual players will find plenty of value in the smaller releases.
I love Pixel Tactics, I think it’s a really fun and surprisingly intense card battler that has a wide appeal. The anime-style pixel art is cool but if there’s one complaint it’s that the game is, by necessity, extremely text-heavy. The cards are TL;DR walls of text with tiny illustrations of the characters. This is what those “HD” Leader cards are for, they blow up the character image to “HD” resolution, get it? I do have one other complaint, that the game is one of those promo-heavy things that have been popular of late. I don’t care for promos. But if you are a collector, this might appeal to you. I’m content with the five small boxes and the Deluxe set myself, a perfect collection of this big little game.