Double Buzzworthiness: Pixel Tactics 2 and 7-Card Slugfest

Recently, I got review copies of two new titles from Level 99 Games. So today, I’m going to review both of them. Starting with:

image by BGG user kyokai
image by BGG user kyokai

Pixel Tactics 2 is a two-player tactical fighting game, designed by D. Brad Talton that is set in the world of Indines. This is the setting for many of Level 99’s games, including BattleCon and the other game I’m reviewing in this post. PT2 is the sequel to the game Pixel Tactics (as reviewed as part of the Minigame Library), and plays pretty much exactly the same. Essentially, two players are facing off, putting out heroes into various positions to attempt to defeat the other’s leader.

image by BGG user kyokai
image by BGG user kyokai

PT2 comes with two identical decks of 25 cards, as well as two current wave cards.  At the start of the game, each player takes a deck, shuffles it, and draws five cards.  You’ll look at the leader side, and select one, revealing your choice simultaneously with your opponent.  This card will be placed in the center of your play area, a 9×9 grid that can be imagined or represented by the giant folding mat included that doubles as the rules.  This grid is divided into three waves – the Vanguard (front 3), Flank (middle 3), and Rear (back 3).

Players will then take turns taking two actions for each wave.  So the first player takes two actions in the Vanguard wave, then the second player takes two Vanguard actions.  And so on.  Once both players have taken two Rear actions, player order switches and you return to the Vanguard wave.  There are six different actions choices: recruit (play a card in an empty slot); attack (melee against the front of your opponent’s columns, or ranged against anyone); draw a card from your deck; play a card for its order; clear a corpse (cards tat have been defeated remain face down on the grid until cleared); or restructure by moving a hero to another empty slot.

Depending on where your heroes are placed, there are different special benefits, as indicated by the four rows on each card.  A hero placed in the Vanguard wave can use the top row as a special ability (such intercepting ranged attacks, healing, or special attacks).  The Flank wave uses the second row, and the Rear wave uses the third row.  The fourth row is the special order, which can be used as an action – you discard the card afterwards.

When a player’s leader is defeated, the round ends and the other player gains the leader as a trophy.  You play a best-of-five match to determine the winner (leaders never go back into your deck after being used).

COMPONENTS: The cards are good quality, and laid out exactly like they were in the original.  The boxes are clearly delineated, though it will take some playing to get used to knowing which one goes with which wave.  I still wish the orders box was marked a little differently than the others because it can get confused with the rear wave if not careful.  The cards are of a glossy style, as opposed to the linen finish of the original (at least, the version from the Minigame Library – I don’t know if the retail version was similar).  The game also includes some cardboard tokens for marking damage on your heroes and leaders.  These are double sided with denominations of 1, 3, 10, and 20.

A couple of niggly things here.  First of all, I hate the box.  It’s in the shape of an old-school video game cartridge box, so it’s thematic in that sense.  However, it seems flimsy, and my cards like to fall out the bottom.  Not only that, the rules are on a big fold up page (like a road map), and make it impossible to store your cards and the rules and the tokens in the box without making it all misshapen.  The rules are well laid out and in large text on one side of this big map, and a player mat is on the other side to help you organize the play area.  And that’s my other complaint – how are you supposed to reference the rules if playing on this mat?

Those complaints aside, the components are good.  The box and the rules don’t affect the quality of the game at all.

THEME: PIxel Tactics is set in the world of Indines, and features a lot of the characters you’ll find in other games set in that universe.  I have not played BattleCon, the main game in the universe (though I have downloaded the iOS app…just haven’t played yet).  If you are familiar with Indines, you’ll notice the crossover, but you can play and enjoy the game without any knowledge of the universe.  The names of each leader are characters from Indines, but the heroes have standard, familiar fantasy characters – necromancer, druid, warlock, and so on.

The art here is pixelated, meant to invoke an old style video game.  The text boxes and fonts also give that feel.  But really, it’s not overwhelming.  It’s just a style choice.

Overall, I’d say the theme is present to differentiate cards, but is not overwhelming.  Even if you’re not into Indines or 8-bit art, there’s still plenty here for you.

MECHANICS: Practically nothing has changed between PT1 and PT2.  It’s basically a game of tactical strategy where you’re trying to place cards in such a way to do maximum damage while protecting your leader.  The most interesting thing about the game is that cards can do five different things – each leader has an ability, each order allows you to do something different, and then there are three different abilities you have based on where it’s placed in your grid.  It’s fascinating.

Game play also has a pretty clever alternating structure.  One player takes two actions in the current wave, then the other.  This proceeds for all three waves, then player order switches.  This serves to keep the game tight, and also to keep it moving.  You seriously have to plan for the future as you cannot attack with a hero you just placed.

The use of corpses is another really interesting part of this game.  Rather than dead heroes being removed right away, they remain on the board and need to be cleared.  Otherwise, you can’t place in that spot.  It makes sense with the theme, and makes the decisions that much more agonizing.

The only difference I can see between this game and the original is that some of the orders are ongoing, staying in play until a certain condition is met.  This can give your opponent fewer actions, take away their ability to recruit, or allow you to take less damage.  It’s a good addition, and can be really annoying when played against you.  The good thing is that the decks are symmetrical, so you’ll get that card eventually.  Unless you play it as something else.

So, mechanically, the game is very solid.  No complaints here.

STRATEGY LEVEL: Pixel Tactics is a fairly complex game.  With five choices per card, you really have to plan out and determine what the best configuration will be for your army.  It’s a game of tactics, which means that short-term planning is paramount – it’s going to be hard to keep heroes around for more than one or two turns.  But there are things you can do, like save critical cards to revive dead heroes, or put cards in the same wave that will combo nicely should they survive.  There’s really a lot to chew on in the game, and it is very enjoyable because of it.

ACCESSIBILITY: The complexity of the core mechanics make this a game that is not going to be accessible to a wide range of people.  Certainly, gamers will get it, but non-gamers may have a harder time.  They video game style may make it a little more palatable, but it’s a game that you’re going to have a hard time getting casual gamers into.  The first play or so is plenty confusing for gamers, I can’t imagine how it might be for people who don’t game regularly.  The box says it’s for 12 and up, and that’s probably about right.  I haven’t tried it with kids, so I don’t know.  Most of the kids I know wouldn’t have the patience for it, but I think 12 year olds could grasp it.

REPLAYABILITY: This game is very replayable.  With five options per card, you have 125 different options in your deck.  Plus the variable order they come out and your leader’s special abilities will make a difference.  It’s going to be different every time, and if it isn’t, apparently you can combine it with the original set which will add even more variety.

SCALABILITY: This game is only a two-player game, so it’s not very scalable.  There are some promised four-player rules that should be going up on the website, but as of this writing, they’re not there yet.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? YES.  I love the Pixel Tactics series.  This one adds more to the system while maintaining the same tactical feel of the original.  If you like tactical combat games, like Summoner Wars or Neuroshima Hex, you’ll like Pixel Tactics.  If you liked the original PT, you will like PT2 as it is virtually the same, and more cards is always a good thing.  If you didn’t like the original, there’s nothing here that will change your mind.  But Pixel Tactics 2 is a game I definitely recommend, even if you haven’t played the original.  At the very least, it’s worth a look – it’s a very clever game and plays unlike anything else out there.

———-

On to game #2:

image by BGG user Andy Parsons
image by BGG user Andy Parsons

7-Card Slugfest is a game for 3-8 players, also designed by D. Brad Talton and also set in the world of Indines. Whereas Pixel Tactics is more of a tactical strategy game, the Slugfest is chaos in a box. The idea is that you’re in a bar, and you’re getting into fights, trying to earn the most gold. There are eleven possible characters, each with a 7-card deck (imagine that), and you have to time your punches just right to get the knockouts.

The game comes with 77 character cards, 12 placards (one per character plus the bartender), eight drink tokens, and a bunch of cardboard gold coins.  Each player takes a character deck, placing their placard in the center.  When someone says “FIGHT!”, everyone can start flipping cards over from their deck (you may only use one hand to play this game).  You can look at the card, then place it face down on another player’s placard.  The back of each card gives a number indicating that card’s strength, but many of the cards (three in each deck) have a special ability that can affect their power.

When a player runs out of cards, they grab a drink token (-3 to +3), which affects their stamina for the fight.  When all players have finished with their cards and have a drink token, you resolve each fight.  You can do this simultaneously, but I like to see what happened to everyone.  You flip over the cards on your placard so the bottom card is resolved first (it was the first punch, after all).  You add up strengths and apply damage until you have reached 10 (plus or minus the number on your drink token).  At this point, you are KO’d, and the player who knocked you out gets a KO point – all other cards are discarded with no effect.  Anyone who does not get KO’d gets a survivor bonus (1 KO point).  Once all have been resolved, whoever got the most KO points gets a gold bonus.

At the beginning of each round after the first, you’ll flip over a stage card.  This changes the rules somewhat – now you can use two hands, now you play your cards face up, now you can’t attack either of your neighbors, etc.  This will also indicate gold payouts for each round.  After seven rounds, the player with the most points wins.  And I love how they deal with the tie situation – “If the case of a tie, total up all gloating rights and distribute them evenly among all tied winners.”  Much better than “Rejoice in your shared victory.”

COMPONENTS: The overall component quality for this game is pretty good.  The cards are all a good size, and clearly marked.  There are some subtleties in the powers that may take a while to pick up, but the cards are good.  The placards for each fighter are big and thick, and include a reminder of the card powers.  This can be a bit confusing if you don’t realize that the placards do nothing – you’re waiting for a bonus from the placard that never comes, or something like that.  The money, character, and drink tokens are all pretty large sized.  The box is a good size for everything, but once it all comes out of shrink and gets punched, you’ll need to get rid of the cardboard insert.

THEME:  The Indines theme of this game is present in the characters, who all appear in other Indines titles (including Pixel Tactics).  There are some character descriptions in the rules, and I’m assuming it’s consistent across all titles.  If you’re a fan of the Indines universe, there’s some fan service there.

The other big part of the theme is the barroom brawl aspect.  The theme is pretty unique, as far as I know, and the multiplayer simultaneous play does well to imitate it.  The chaos that you get is definitely reminiscent of people just throwing punches and trying to hit anything.  I’m not a huge fan of the barroom aspect of it – I don’t drink, and alcohol themes are typically ones that I avoid.  However, the tavern setting is a little more thematic for the universe than, say, a brawl at a soccer game (where, let’s face it, alcohol would probably be involved).  The use of drink tokens helps the theme as players can be empowered or weakened by the booze.

There are no female characters in the game.  My wife commented on this, and also commented that apparently women wouldn’t be taking part in this activity.  Take it as you will.

The theme is present, but not overwhelming in the game.  As you play, it’s easy to forget that you’re hitting people and fall into just playing cards.  I suggest shouting some insults with each punch to heighten the atmosphere.

MECHANICS: The central mechanism of this game is simultaneous card play.  Each player has a small deck, and everyone is throwing punches left and right quickly to try and knock each other out.  Chaos abounds.  But the card play works well for what it is – you’re simply trying to play the card that hits a target number.  This is made more complicated by the drink tokens, which can change the number.  These make the game a little more random.

The special powers are what separates everyone from everyone else, and help provide some extra variety to the game.  One character can move cards around in the stack.  One can do damage based on cards that are placed after his.  One can do damage based on cards placed before his.  One causes other punches to be discarded.  One does damage that is not necessarily what the back of the card said it was.  One only does damage if his is the knockout punch.  One does damage based on the opponent’s drink token.  One steals the survivor bonus of anyone who doesn’t get knocked out.  One has punches that cycle around.  One has very powerful punches that can’t knock someone out.  And one does an indeterminate amount of damage – there’s an X on the back of every card.

The other thing that provides some variety, even within the game, are the stage cards.  These change the rules in every round.  It doesn’t change the game substantially, but does change the way you play.  One had players take turns rather than the usual free-for-all (one player in our game said he preferred playing that way).  One had you play a card on your neighbor to your left and to your right before playing.  One had you play without looking at your cards.  This made each round different, so it wasn’t just lather-rinse-repeat.

STRATEGY LEVEL: Let’s say this.  If you’re looking for a highly strategic, deep, meaty game, you’re looking in the exact wrong place.  You CANNOT strategize this game.  If you try, you’re going to have a bad time.  You can be smart about your placement, you can try to combo your punches, but it’s going to be mass chaos.  You have been warned.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is an easy game to teach, but it’s not an easy game to play.  The fact that everyone is playing at once makes everything very confusing, especially in your first game.  Plus, some powers are easier to understand than others.  The resolution of each fight is supposed to be done simultaneously, but I’ve found that it’s better to resolve them one by one, especially in the first game.  The simultaneous resolution makes things quicker, but can be chaotic as players pass their tokens around.

This is a game that can be learned.  But it is extremely group dependent.  Some people are going to like the chaos and embrace it.  Some are going to be confused.  Some are going to outright hate it.  This game is one where you’re really going to have to know your audience.

REPLAYABILITY: The different character powers and stage cards will provide lots of variety to the game.  I think it’s pretty replayable as long as you find a group that’s willing to play it multiple times.

SCALABILITY: The game is for 3-8 players.  I have played with five and with eight.  Five was good, eight was far too chaotic.  Eight might be better with experience, but I suspect 5-6 is the best number for the game.  Three seems like far too few.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes and no.  I like the game, but I tend to like games with that element of chaos and unpredictability, games where you do your actions and then find out what happens.  I also recognize that this game is not going to be for everyone.  In my first game, I had some very mixed opinions.  One person was very vocal about his dislike for the game.  Another person mentioned later that he just didn’t care for it.  Several people were confused throughout.  At least one person was just playing randomly throughout.  One person said he liked it, but had some suggestions about how to better teach the game.  Another player told me he really liked it and wanted to get his own copy.  My second game was more successful as I streamlined the teaching and resolved battles one at a time rather than simultaneously.  That group all generally liked it.  One person said it was a good palate cleanser – something that would be good to play after burning your brain out with a longer game.

So take that as you will.  I enjoy the game, and I know others will too.  However, some people won’t because it’s just not their style.  And that’s OK.  I’ll gladly recommend it to people who like chaotic games, but I also think it’s a try-before-you-buy situation.

Thanks to Level 99 Games and Brad Talton for providing the review copies of these games.  And thanks to you for reading!

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