Thanks to Level 99 Games for providing review copies of Pixel Tactics 4, Pixel Tactics 5, and Pixel Tactics Deluxe.
Back in 2013, I reviewed the Level 99 Games Minigame Library. This Library contained six games, one of which was Pixel Tactics. Then, later that year, I reviewed Pixel Tactics 2, a continuation of the series. It’s been a couple of years since I revisited the series, but now there’s suddenly a ton of stuff to take a look at. Unfortunately, I missed PT3, but I can still review
Pixel Tactics is a two-player fighting system originally designed by D. Brad Talton for the Minigame Library, published by Level 99 Games in 2012. It was one of the most popular in the set, and has spawned a bunch of standalone sequels that can be integrated into one game. It’s not a CCG because each set has a standard amount of cards, but it’s probably closer to the LCG model (or Expandable Card Game, as people who aren’t Fantasy Flight tend to call them).
Each set comes with two identical 25-card Hero sets. Each set also comes with some hit point counters, as well as other tokens as required by the various Hero and Leader abilities. The Deluxe version also comes with Bases, Common Cards, and HD Leaders, and has a box big enough to hold all PT products that have been produced – I have everything but PT3 and some of the expansions, and it all fits into one of the three insert slots.
The basic game of Pixel Tactics hasn’t changed that much since its original iteration, though some of the terminology has been clarified and a few new mechanisms have been added. At this point, I’m going to run through the rules as they are now. Since this is my third review of Pixel Tactics, feel free to skip ahead in order to see what’s different.
Each player begins the game with a deck of 25 cards. You can use one of the standard sets, or you can draft from a bunch of combined cards. In the basic game, you will then choose a Leader from your initial hand of five cards. With drafts, you’ll sometimes be creating a pool of Leaders to choose from. The Leader you choose will be placed in the center of your virtual 3×3 grid (you can also use a play mat – a fold-up paper version is included in PT Deluxe, or you can buy a rubber mat through the Level 99 store).
A game is played over a series of rounds. Each round consists of three Waves – Vanguard (top row of your grid), Flank (middle row), and Rear (back row). In each Wave, a player’s turn consists of taking two actions. Here are the options:
- Draw: Take a card from your deck. You have a hand limit of five.
- Recruit: Play a card from your hand to the current Wave. Heroes you recruit this turn can’t do anything else for the rest of the Wave. Special rules for the Hero are printed on the card in the row corresponding the Wave where he/she/it is placed.
- Attack: Use a Hero or Leader from the current wave to attack a rival Hero or Leader. This adds damage to the attacked Hero or Leader equal to the attacker’s strength. A Hero that Attacks can’t do anything else for the rest of the Wave. There are two types of Attacks:
- Melee: The foremost Hero in any column can attack the foremost Hero in any Rival column.
- Ranged: A Hero that uses a Ranged Attack can shoot any Hero or Leader in the Rival’s Unit. The Hero who uses the Ranged Attack must have that ability in printed in its box for the current Wave.
- Some Vanguard Heroes have an ability known as Intercept. If a Hero with Intercept is standing at the front of a column, you can’t shoot anyone behind him.
- Clear a Corpse: If a Hero dies, it is flipped face down, becoming a corpse. This takes up the slot on the field until you use an action to clear it.
- Move: Move a Hero to a new location. Heroes that Move can’t do anything else for the rest of the Wave. This was known as Restructure in the original edition.
- Switch: Switch the positions of two Heroes, Corpses, or a combination of the two. This is a Long Action, meaning that it takes both of your actions to do.
- Cast a Spell: Some Hero abilities will list a Spell, which is a special action you can perform with that Hero. Again, if you use a Spell, that’s the only thing the Hero can do for the Wave. This was known as Attack Powers in the original editions.
- Issue an Order: There’s a fourth row on the cards. If it’s purple and shows a wing, it’s an Order. This is a special one-time action you can play, then discard the card.
- Perform an Operation: If that fourth row is white and shows a scroll, it’s an Operation. When you play an Operation, you place four time tokens on it and put it in a reserve row behind the Rear Wave. At the end of each of your turns, take one time token off. When all time tokens are gone, you discard the Operation. Each one will have different effects.
- Place a Trap: If the row is orange and shows a trap, then it’s a Trap. These are also placed in the reserve row, but are placed face down. When one is triggered, you reveal it, resolve it, and discard it.
At the end of each Wave (i.e. when both players have taken their two actions), you’ll check to see if any Heroes have taken fatal damage (i.e. more than their health). If so, those Heroes become Corpses. If a Leader has taken fatal damage, the player who defeated him/her/it is the winner.
A note about this review before I get cranking: Level 99 sent me copies of Pixel Tactics 4, 5, and Deluxe. Rather than do separate reviews for all three, I’ll be combining them into one because I don’t think they’re different enough to warrant three separate reviews. Also, I’ll be referring to PT 1 and 2 throughout, but I don’t know if there are updated editions of either, so take those comments with a grain of salt.
COMPONENTS: The primary component in all versions of Pixel Tactics is a 25-card deck for each player. The layout of these cards is a bit confusing the first time you play – the problem with having each card possibly being five different things is that you have to know what each one is. Once the cards are on the table, it’s easy to forget which box it can use. However, the boxes are color-coded, so that’s helpful. Also, looking at your opponent’s cards, you have to remember to read upside down – the side facing you is not what the card can do. In the Deluxe edition, some large tokens are included that can be used to at least cover up the Hero portion of the Leader card so you’re not confused.
This brings up a point that kind of annoys me. Not once in any of the PT games is there any kind of specific component breakdown in the rules. The Deluxe set does at least generally tell you what’s there, but as the games have added tokens, the rules don’t say a thing about them. So I looked at these Leader tokens for a long time before I figured them out. There are also a bunch of other tokens that are referred to on cards, but you’re left to guess which ones they mean. I realize they’re probably trying to save space in the rules, but something would be nice.
And speaking of the rules, they have been MUCH improved since the original editions of the game. Rule ambiguities are cleared up, and while the rules for 4 and 5 are still printed in roadmap style, they have at least made them more compact. One of my big complaints about 2 was that the rules were printed on this huge roadmap with a playmat on the other side – how are you supposed to figure out rules questions if you’re playing the game on the backside of the rules? Granted, you don’t NEED a mat to play, and 4 and 5 don’t include them at all (Deluxe has a separate paper mat with a poster of the included characters on the back). So good job for not continuing that trend.
Card quality is good and uniform, though my PT 1 cards from the Minigame Library are of a different finish – probably the standalone version is like the others. PT Deluxe also includes a bunch of HD Leaders (aka Leaders without confusing Hero abilities), as well as Bases, Commons, and dividers. Also, there are counters included in each box for tracking hit points, statuses, and other Hero abilities. It comes out to a bunch once combined.
Last thing – the PT Deluxe box is pretty awesome. If you have a lot of PT stuff, I’d highly suggest getting this just for the box. I have all of my PT stuff (which is everything but 3) in one of the three insert columns, which leaves room on either side for all of the rulebooks, tokens, and whatever else is released in the future.
THEME: Pixel Tactics is set in the World of Indines, just like most Level 99 Games. And as I’ve played more and more of these games, I’ve been able to see how the same characters keep popping up here and there. And really, that’s the extent of how infused the theme is here – characters. There’s not much else thematically. The pixel art is meant to invoke old school video games, so you might get some thematic satisfaction there, but generally, it’s all about the World of Indines characters.
MECHANICS: Pixel Tactics plays unlike any game I’ve ever played. It uses the excellent mechanism of multi-use cards very well, though that does mean that there is a ton of text. However, I prefer that to just symbology (which is also included).
The layout of the game is pretty abstract – it’s just a 3×3 grid. However, the game plays out in waves, with the top row going first, the middle row going second, and the back row going third. This serves a very important purpose to keep the game moving and limiting your choices – rather than having to look at nine cards on the board, you’re just looking at a maximum of three at a time.
Several things have been added or changed since PT 1 and 2. First, the language of the game has been cleaned up. One thing you can count on in a Level 99 game is that you’ll have to learn some new vocabulary. But some of the terminology of the original editions was confusing – the term Attack Powers was used to indicate actions you could do instead of actually Attacking, and cards would use the terms defeat and destroy interchangeably. Now, Attack Powers have been renamed as Spells, and you generally just see defeat. This clears up a lot of confusion in the game. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know if PT 1 and 2 have been retrofitted to include this change, but for anyone with the originals, it’s something to be aware of. There are also Long Actions in the game now, which are actions that take up your entire turn.
In PT 3 (I believe), Operations were added as an alternative to Orders. It’s in the same spot, but in a white box instead of purple. These are basically effects that last for a little while, and time tokens are used to count down the time until an Operation is discarded. These are also included in PT 4 and 5, but I don’t believe there are any Operations in PT Deluxe. PT 4 included Traps in an orange box, which, once played trigger when certain conditions are met. I like Traps a lot more than Operations, and I think that’s the best addition to the game. PT 5 introduced status tokens, which can increase or decrease attack, increase or decrease life, add Intercept or Ranged Attacks, or even take away special abilities. These are nice, especially when you can get a bunch of them going at once. There are just a few in PT 5, but a ton in PT Deluxe.
STRATEGY LEVEL: Pixel Tactics is a very tactical game (obviously). When you refer to strategy versus tactics, strategy generally refers to long-term goals whereas tactics are more short-term. In PT, you have to choose a leader at the beginning which may help form your strategy – for example, Ithol Udur’s Leader ability reads “When you have a Hero or Leader in every Slot of a row, they have +3 Attack Strength. When you have a Hero or Leader in every Slot of a column, they take 2 less damage from Attacks (min. 1).” So, this means that your strategy probably will involve a lot of Recruiting. Which Heroes to play and where is a tactical decision, knowing that you can’t get too attached and they will probably be gone soon.
ACCESSIBILITY: This is NOT a game I would recommend to casual gamers. There’s a lot going on and it’s a pretty complex game. Throw in the vocabulary lesson you have to have in order to understand what’s going on, and this is one I would recommend to experienced gamers only.
SCALABILITY: Pixel Tactics is only a two-player game, but there are rules for team play. I haven’t tried those out, but I’m perfectly happy with just playing the two-player version.
REPLAYABILITY: There is a LOT of replayability here. You could have the exact same cards in the exact same order from game to game, and it would probably still play out differently just because of all the different options you have. Plus, with multiple sets, there’s opportunities for deck customization and even for just shuffling everything together and just going for it. This is a very replayable game.
INTERACTION: Due to the tactical nature of this game, you have to be completely aware of what your opponent is doing at all times so that you can respond. This is not a game where you can just play your own game – you have to react.
FOOTPRINT: This is a game that can take up some space. Each player has to have room for three rows of cards (plus an additional row for Operations and Traps). So it’s not one you can play just anywhere.
LEGACY: This is really one of the most unique games I’ve played. Even when stacked up against Level 99’s other big two-player fighting game, BattleCON, I think Pixel Tactics is a better system just because of the sheer amount of stuff you can do. It is one of the best two-player fighting games out there.
IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes. If you’re just starting with Pixel Tactics, I think I’d probably recommend 1 or 2. 1 tends to be a shorter game, but either one is fairly basic. If you want to go any farther, I’d definitely recommend getting Pixel Tactics Deluxe. It’s a great storage box. All of the sets are worth having, and if you think it’s something you’d like, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them.
Thanks again to Level 99 for providing the review copies, and thanks to you for reading!