Having pixelated units battle each other is nothing new. I remember spending many hours commanding my units in old Nintendo games such as Conflict, or later in games like Final Fantasy Tactics. These games are, not surprising, more about tactical decisions than flashy graphics. That just goes to prove that you don’t always need lifelike artwork to make a great game.
Pixel Tactics, from Level 99 Games, was originally introduced in their Mini Game Library back in 2012. This game turned out to be a surprise hit for them and recently they have broken out Pixel Tactics into it’s own product line (with expansions). Is this highly tactical game worthy of its solo breakout? Read on to find out!
Pixel Tactics is a Tactical Placement and Hand Management card game for 2 players. Pixel Tactics can be played in about 30-45 minutes.
In Pixel Tactics, 2 players face off against each other on an imaginary battlefield. Each player will be attempting to slay their opponents leader while protecting their own. Each round, players will be recruiting and attacking with heroes in the hopes of whittling down their opponents troops to get to their leader. Each opponent plays their hero cards onto a 3×3 grid, with their leader at the center. Which location in the grid a player recruits a hero to can be as important as which hero they select. The first player to deal enough damage to their opponents leader will win the match.
The artwork in Pixel Tactics is, not surprisingly, pixelated. Anyone who has played an 16-bit video game in the past will be right at home here. Even with a limited palette of colors to work with, the artist did a fantastic job of creating some great looking artwork. Each hero has a unique, pixelated drawing that I wish was larger on the card. The small size really doesn’t do it justice. That all said, the cards are very well designed to make the myriad of choices easy to understand and utilize.
I have no complaints with the main component of the game, as the cards are both well done and of high quality. However I do have 2 minor gripes with the other components. The first is that the game comes with some cardboard tokens to keep track of hero/leader life points. These are great but the box the game comes in is somewhat small and it’s really hard to get the counters back in the box after you’ve punched them out.
Second, the rules are on the back side of the playmat. While I know using the playmat is optional, it really helps the game flow better and allows new players understand the game much easier. So you’ll want to have a second copy of the rules hand as it’s not possible to flip the mat over to check a rule mid game. I’d recommended printing out the rules from the Level 99 Games’ website before hand.
How to Play:
The game play in Pixel Tactics is one of those “easy to learn, difficult to master” types of games. To start, each player is given an identical deck of 25 cards (although this could change if you add in expansions). Each player shuffles and draws 5 cards. From those 5 cards, each player chooses a leader. The rest of the cards are put back into the deck, reshuffled and a new hand of 5 cards is drawn to start the game.
The chosen leader cards are placed in the center of the play area. During the game, players will be playing cards onto a 3×3 grid. The center card of that grid will always be the leader card. The other 8 cards will be hero cards that will each have different abilities depending on which row they are recruited in (Vanguard, Flank or Rear). Each hero card is divided into 4 parts, and the chosen row it’s played in allows only that ability to be active. A hero also has a 4th ability that can be played as a one time use action card instead of recruiting the hero.
The game is divided into rounds, and each round is divided into 3 waves (that match the 3 rows of the grid). Starting with the first player, each player gets 2 actions on their turn.
Draw: Draw 1 card from your deck. There are no hand limits and no reshuffling.
Recruit: Place a hero card from your hand into the row matching the current wave (for example: A hero played in the Vangaurd wave goes into the front row).
Attack: Choose a hero in the row matching the current wave and attack. If it’s a melee attack, the attack can damage any hero at the front of one of the columns of your enemy’s grid. If the hero has a ranged attack, they can attack any enemy (unless your opponent has an hero with the intercept ability blocking). There is no defense. Attacked heroes simply take damage equal to the attack value. When they’ve taken enough, they die at the end of the wave.
Order: Play a hero from your hand and use its order power. This essentially makes the hero an action card that is discarded after use.
Clear: After a hero is killed, its corpse stays in play blocking the space. This action will let you move a corpse to the discard pile freeing up the space.
Restructure: Move a hero in play to any open space.
After each player has taken 2 actions, the wave moves to the next row. After the rear wave has finished, the round resets and the other player becomes the start player. Play continues in this manner until one player kills their opponents leader. Ideally, games are quick enough to be played in a best 3 of 5 match.
Pixel Tactics is, as the name implies, a highly tactical game. What’s interesting though is that Level 99 Games managed to make a tactical game that doesn’t involve moving troops around on a battlefield. While card placement absolutely matters, I find it interesting to have a tactical game where, for the most part, the heroes don’t move once placed. It reminds me of the combat in Final Fantasy where you select actions off a menu and your hero’s actual location doesn’t really matter.
But don’t think that you can just play a card anywhere and expect to win. Each card has 4 different options for how you can play it. Choosing which wave to play your hero in is almost as important as choosing which hero to play. Many times the hero powers are so different, depending on which row they are in, it can be agonizing deciding when to play them. And I love that about Pixel Tactics. The options for strategy are so far reaching and diverse that even with a deck of 25 cards, no two games will be similar.
Even Leaders have their own special ability, so in addition to having 25 different heroes, each with 4 different powers, you have 25 different leaders that can alter your hero playing strategies. For people who like replay value in a game, Pixel Tactics has that in spades. This is especially true if you start buying expansions. The game comes with two identical decks, but by picking up a copy of Pixel Tactics 2, you can have two different decks squaring off against each other. We’ve tried this (Pixel Tactics 2 review coming soon) and the game doesn’t suffer any loss of balance because of it.
With having so many options in a game, there do come some tradeoffs. First, if you have a player prone to analysis-paralysis, then this game can be overload for them. Some people just aren’t great when overwhelmed with an abundance of choices and Pixel Tactics has the potential to grind to a halt for these types of players. But for players who like have many options and can easily work with them, then they will love Pixel Tactics.
The concept of only being able to use the squares or heroes in the active wave also takes a little bit of getting used to. Many times I’ve seen new players try to use a hero in a wave that is not the active one (or trying to recruit a hero to a different wave). Even with a card marking which wave is active, players will still want to maximize their strategy and use other open spots. I think it will probably take a game or two before working with the waves becomes second nature. Overall though, the concept is pretty unique and I really enjoyed it. Once players achieve familiarity with the rules and concepts of the game, Pixel Tactics can provide hours of enjoyment.
To go with that, I think any gamer won’t have too many issues learning the nuances of Pixel Tactics. However, non-gamers or more eurogamers might feel a bit behind the 8-ball with Pixel Tactics. As easy as the game is to learn, the many different options and tactical nature of the game still make this a heavy game to really wrap your head fully around. I’d guess that Pixel Tactics would appeal more to the tactical gamer than anyone else. I wouldn’t try teaching this to my non-gamer friends. But for the strategy gamers out there, they should get a good amount of enjoyment from recruiting their heroes, attacking their opponent, and finding new ways for the cards to interact with each other. Pixel Tactics does a great job of working synergy between cards that players should enjoy coming up with different card combos.
Speaking of enjoyment, I really liked how the combat aspect of the game works. Not dice, no defenses, just pick a hero and do some damage. This allowed you to plan for how much damage you need to do to get rid of partially annoying heroes your opponent has recruited. Combat is simple, but it works really well in the game. And since heroes don’t die until the end of the wave, your own heroes will also get a chance to attack back if you go second in the wave. That was a nice design choice to help make sure the first player didn’t always have a powerful advantage. The game balance in Pixel Tactics is pretty spot on.
I really enjoyed Pixel Tactics, probably even more than I expected too. The tactical strategy in the game is pretty deep and I’m really pleased with the replay value. I’ve played a number of times now and have rarely seen a game play out similar. I also love the many different options that a player has on their turn with respect to each hero. Level 99 Games did an amazing job with the variety of different heroes that no two really feel the same. Somehow they were able to come up with 25 different heroes, each of which with 4 different abilities. That’s a lot of time spent in the think tank.
This game is truly one that you will be spending more time mastering than learning. I find myself trying out new strategies each time I play. The rules are easy enough that you should be able to get it to the table often, and if you can’t, you won’t have to spend much time familiarizing yourself with the rules. Pixel Tactics makes for a fun two player game that’s also very portable. Consisting of only 50 cards, it’s really easy to take on the go. Just last year, we ended up bringing Pixel Tactics down to the Caribbean with us to play on vacation. Nothing better than sitting in the tropics enjoying a bit of tactical gaming!
Pixel Tactics is a low luck, highly tactical game that should appeal to any gamer out there. I don’t have too much to complain about with Pixel Tactics and seem to enjoy it more each time I play it. Check this one out today.
If you are interested in getting a copy for yourself, it’s about $15
Final Score: 4 Stars – An easy to learn, highly tactical game that has immense replay value. Gamers who like lots of options and enjoy games where cards interact with each other will love this one.
• Rules on the back of the playmat can frustrate
• New players can feel overwhelmed
• Players prone to analysis-paralysis can be on overload