**This post originally appeared on BGG on March 7, 2017
Thank you for checking out my sixth review. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
An Overview of Pixel Tactics
Pixel Tactics is a tactical game using cards and tokens, designed by D. Brad Talton, Jr. is published by Level 99 Games. The box states that is can play 2 players and has a 45 minute play time.
Each player will choose from their starting hand a leader for the game and set them in what is essential the center space of a 3×3 grid. On each turn a player gets two actions that are restricted to the current row of their grid, known as a wave (the three waves, from front to back, are Vanguard, Flank, Rear). Those actions include drawing a card, playing a card into the current wave, attacking with a figure from the current wave, removing a corpse, moving a unit to an open space, or activating the ability of a figure in the current wave. Each card has different abilities depending on the wave in which a card is played, while the attack power and life value remain the same regardless of where it is played. When a figure takes damage from an attack, it gains wound tokens and if it has an equal or greater number of wounds than life value, at the end of the current wave (after both players have played their two actions), that card will be flipped over and become a corpse. The corpse, essentially, takes up that space until a player clears the corpse from the battlefield with one of their actions. Each card also has a one-time use event that can be played from their hand, rather than recruiting the figure onto their battlefield. Play continues back and forth until one of the leaders is defeated.
Setup for 2 Players
Since this is a 2-player only game, the setup is the same when playing with two. Each player takes their deck of 25 cards (both decks are identical), shuffles the cards, and draws five cards. From those five, each player selects a leader for the match. One player will get the first player card marker, the other will get the second player marker, and play will begin with the Vanguard. Once all three waves have been played through, the first/second player cards are exchanged and play continues at the Vanguard once more.
Let’s start with the first thing about this game that really appealed to me: the artwork. Simple? Yes. But it evokes memories of playing the great Nintendo and Super Nintendo games that I grew up playing. I understand this will not carry an appeal for everyone – my wife is a perfect example of that, as she doesn’t really care about the artwork for this game – but for me, it was what initially drew me to the game and made me want to know more about it.
Because the game is designed only for two players, it really shines as a game for two players. There is a lot of back and forth that goes along throughout most games, where you constantly feel like you’ve got the upper hand for a turn or two, but then it shifts to your opponent. A lot of this has to do with the clever mechanism of having the first player card cycle back and forth over the course of the game. Going first makes a big difference because it can either allow you to land attacks before they can rebuild their defense, or it can allow you to put out your defenders where they need to be to ward off an oncoming attack. But there are also times where going second can be an advantage, such as creating a corpse in front of their leader during the vanguard wave so that their leader is unprotected, essentially, for the next three waves you play (since you’ll go first again during the next vanguard). There are definitely times where a game might feel like it is getting out of hand, but you never feel like it is actually over until that leader is defeated.
Every card has five possible effects, depending on how/when/where it is played. Yes, five. One for the leader, one as a one-time discarded effect, and one for each wave. They are all nice and color-coded and in the same order, with the leader on the “bottom” of the cards. If you fear this is an AP-factor, let me assure you that it is not AP-inducing. Each option is short, and once a card is played it typically remains in that same wave. The leader side is only considered for five cards per game at the very beginning. And most of the time you are seeking units for a specific wave. Furthermore, since the decks are the same 25 cards, after a few plays you’ll already develop preferences on where a card will go or how it will best be used under normal circumstances. So your first glance at your hand in your first game might feel overwhelming, but after a play or two you really come to appreciate, and enjoy, the fact that cards offer different strategies and abilities based on where they get deployed.
Bring out yer dead! *Clang* Yep, the corpses are a plus for this game because they impact the game. Every time a non-leader unit dies, it flips over and becomes a corpse. Why is that important? Because that spot cannot be used until they spend an action to clear that corpse. And they can only clear one corpse per action, so they cannot simply wait for them to pile up and sweep the board clean. Unit placement is an essential part of this game because you can only attack the foremost unit in each column with the foremost unit in each of your columns. But a corpse doesn’t count to that, so when a card becomes a corpse, it opens up attacks to the unit behind that corpse. Often times, this means you get to attack that leader. No one wants to spend an action to remove a corpse. It feels like a waste of half your turn. But until that spot is cleared, no one else can be dropped into that spot, leaving their army vulnerable. It is a simple, yet brilliant, mechanic that adds a lot of impact to the game. Sometimes it is better to create two corpses than to attack that leader directly, especially if your opponent has already been neglecting their corpses. Unless that is part of their strategy…(see point about multi-use cards because yes, some cards do things with those corpses!)
Not only does each card have a variety of uses, they all *feel* different in how they play. It never feels like I have a handful of guys that are only slight variations of each other. Many of them have very interesting, thematic abilities such as the Vampire. I don’t know if this will hold true across all of the sets that have been released, but I really enjoy how this base game, at least, succeeds in having each card feel unique.
This can be a frustrating thing in-game, but I actually find that I like that you are (primarily) restricted to recruiting and attacking with figures in the current wave. It sucks to draw a card and have to wait three waves to finally deploy it where you want it, and then have to wait until that wave comes back again to actually use it, but it makes things interesting and challenges you to consider all possibilities. You can clear corpses anywhere on the board during any wave. You can move a unit into an empty space, even if it doesn’t go into the row you want. You can spend both actions to essentially swap the placement of two heroes. You can play cards as events from your hand. And you can, of course, draw cards. There are certain waves where those actions are the best used, and the successful management of when to use those actions is essential for victory.
The first round is a Ceasefire, which means you cannot attack, or use an ability that deals damage to your opponent’s cards. Additionally, you cannot attack with a hero the round you bring them out. Both of these serve to help balance the game, and do so in an effective manner. There are possible ways around the latter restriction, but the presence of the Ceasefire is a smart design. You get six actions, essentially, to prepare for the first wave of bloodshed by primarily deploying heroes and drawing cards. It helps to mitigate the effect of being second to begin the game.
In spite of the multiple uses and the thematic uniqueness, there are some cards that simply are best when used in a certain manner. Why would I put my 10-health Knight anywhere but the Vanguard? Why would I ever dream of not using my Alchemist in the Flank wave, where it can sit and reduce all damage done to my leader? And there are a few that, unless you have the right situation, simply sit in your hand until they are either discarded through an effect or you are forced to play it because you just need someone to absorb some damage for a round. I do not usually mind the pidgeonholing of a card, because you certainly want to maximize its usefulness, but it could be a real drawback to some players.
While there are no dice rolls, randomness still holds some sway due to the drawing of cards. You never know for sure what cards you will see in a game, since most of the time you will not deplete your entire deck. So that one card you need to complete your master strategy may never turn up. This is both a strength and a weakness. It can be deflating to know that one card can save your game and lead you to victory, but it never comes. Yet the reverse holds true, leading you to the highest of highs when you draw that exact card. Except when you are searching for a card to heal your leader, only to draw it and realize it doesn’t heal the leader, just heroes. Which causes you to lose anyway, because your memory was faulty and you spend a few waves digging for that card that didn’t really do what you thought to begin with. Yep, I’m still mad at myself for that one.
There are tokens in the game with symbols that I still have no real idea what they do. My guess is that they integrate somehow with later installments of the game, because I am yet to truly find where they come into play in the base game.
As you can probably guess, this is a game that I really, really love. It is a perfect game for my wife and I to play because it has so much variability, and it requires both short-term tactics and long-term strategy in order to be victorious. It is a game where we never really know who is going to ultimately win, because the flow of battle can really change in an instant and swing to the other person’s favor. Not only does that help this to feel like an actual skirmish might, but it also helps us to remain engaged for the entire game. This game was a big enough hit that, after playing it for only a month, my wife knew I’d like to get the next installment for the collection and it was under the tree for Christmas. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is! This game cracked my top 10 in short order, and I see no reason why it couldn’t perch itself firmly in the #2 spot for years to come. I don’t think it would ever seriously challenge to dethrone my #1 game, but this one seems likely to remain a staple at the top of my collection for years to come.
Especially when I get the other three main sets (since I now own the first two), the deluxe box, and mini-expansions. This might just be one of those gems in the game world where I actually want to collect them all.
Check out this Geeklist for some of my other board game reviews: https://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/220300/cardboard-clas…