Level 99 games was nice enough to provide me with an advanced copy of the game for this review of Pixel Tactics 3.
As is often the case, hidden gems in the gaming community are often spread by word of mouth and recommendations taken more substantially from fellow players. Pixel Tactics from Level 99 Games was one of those games rec’d to me while first looking for substantial 2 player games that lacked the collection component. If you’re not familiar with its predecessors, versions 1 & 2 have become relatively known for being synonymous with engaging depth and expandability while staying compact in nature.
Whether from its the under-the-radar success or low initial sales projections, the two forerunners have been relatively difficult to come by as of recently, and with the release of #3, a restock of Tactics 1 & 2 has tagged along as well. So how does a game that only features two decks featuring the same 25 cards actually work and continue to be successful? From Sun Tzu, “To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.”
For those unfamiliar with Pixel Tactics’s core premise, pixelized version of various archetypes across genres have been enlisted to form your deck of heroes waiting to be recruited to defeat your opponent in a 1 on 1 tactical combat game. The dexterity of Pixel Tactics provides is based on the latent potential of five separate yet useful abilities each card possesses that, on paper, you could wonder how it wouldn’t supersaturate the game and clog it down to a grind from analysis paralysis.
Designated by a color scheme to match the row-by-row board set-up (more on that later), the options become slightly more manageable. The additional iconography to clarify abilities only further eases what could otherwise be deemed daunting textual prowess on the cards and instead makes it easily translatable into gameplay actions.
This potential that Pixel Tactics taps into is that each of the five options laid out has the possibility of being useful, depending on situation and the course of the battle. The option you choose provides the identity for the hero after deciding placement on the game board.
Setup is relatively simple; 5 cards drawn from the deck at the game’s beginning with one of these initially chosen to be your battlefield representative and Leader, whose death brings about your defeat. The “Leader” option is via the double edge mechanic and Leaders are much more influential and powerful evolutions/versions of the flip hero each with a unique ability that becomes the basis for your core strategy.
The board itself is a 3 x 3 grid of 9 spaces to place/field heroes, each row with a specific name designation; the front “Vanguard,” middle “Flank”, and back “Rear” make up the board. The specific row a hero is summoned thus determines which of the abilities that hero utilizes while in play.
For example, consider the Repossessor, a new character to this edition. His front row (vanguard) ability allows his to intercept, or prevent ranged attacks from hitting heroes behind him, and is useful for guarding your Leader who remains situated in the center of the 3×3 grid during the game. His second row (flank position) changes corpses from being sent to the discard pile and now are sent to the bottom of their owner’s deck when cleared from the battlefield. If placed in the rear row, the Repossessor’s attack allows for simultaneous cancellation of any ongoing order (i.e. bonus effect) an opponent has previously played.
His Leader, Endrbyt, is a unique strategy unto itself. He permits you to use your Draw action to draw a card from your opponent’s deck, thus depleting his deck faster. The “order” ability for the card allows you to take a random card from your opponent’s hand and add it to your own. These last two options allow for exploitation of duplicate characters in your army but also permit a deck depletion strategy to defeat your rival’s army, because as Sun Tzu reminds us “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
Other unique character entries into this version that are notable include:
Alice Zero – allows for switching Leaders mid-game.
Exhufern Le Marigras – reshuffle discard pile into deck and heal for each card done so.
Doc Silnan – Protects so that maximum damage is 4 from any one source.
Arret Draamivar – Able to recruit up to 5 heroes per row instead of 3.
Cherri Seneca – All actions are free actions but cannot take more than 1 of each per wave. (my personal favorite currently)
The beauty of Pixel Tactics is that each of the options can be helpful, depending on the situational dilemmas you find yourself entrenched. The reminder that your opponent has the identical pool of 25 cards matters quite little once you realize no two players will employ the same card in the same manner. This is by design but only remains successful because Pixel Tactics has been successful in maintaining a competitive balance between the 3 games worth of 75 unique characters.
That same feeling of options-heavy yet tactical focused gameplay is maintained in Pixel Tactics 3. Player One takes two actions in the current wave (row) then Player Two takes their two actions in the same row. This repeats until all three waves are done, then player order switches and you begin again at the vanguard wave. With such short-term lifespan of heroes, combo planning and survival strategy plays a large role. Attacking no longer may take precedent when your Leader is left exposed open to damage. Or maybe casting an order prior to drawing a card to replenish for further deployment floats to the top of the need-to-do list? Think about restructuring to move a hero to a new row in order to utilize a different advantageous ability? Or remove the smell of those space occupying cluttering corpses? If only you had selected the leader who allows you to do one of each action per turn for free?
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” –Sun Tzu
Choosing actions with forethought and with prudence becomes the key to victory…and defeat.
The game is refreshing; it fulfills gamers’ sense of engaging complexity and depth without feeling like a clingy ex-girlfriend trying too hard win your adornment. Even in its third iteration, it shies away from revolutionizing or rebooting itself. The fact that the games themselves are cross-compatible only adds to the replayability. My general feeling is that this version places a little heavier emphasis on the “order” ability as well as they seem to be more powerful and used more often my play-throughs.
I like the new Leaders (my favorites being the ones noted above), another additional layer of variation to the franchise and a little more emphasis on deck management strategies in this edition as well from abilities, if you’re into that sort of thing.
If you’re a fan (or not) of the original or its sequel, then the third will do nothing to change your opinion of the game. The complexity that remains its greatest asset, however, is the source of its limitation. Casual and or non-gamers will have a harder time being as enthusiastic to engage with this type of game. Even regular gamers might find themselves slow to go on their first go around or two. The game truly shines when two players understand the depth to which the game can function.
Across three games, balance has been emphasized and achieved, which can further the game by allowing players to customize their own decks between versions. Playing with more of a “house rules”, two players could easily mix and match between the series without fear of over/underpowered teams. The price tag is an affordable breath of fresh air in the every increasingly expensive quagmire of new tabletop games; each version will only cost you about $10, (paper playmat included) to pick up, so buyer’s remorse is a low penalty even if you’re concerned it’s not for you beforehand.
It’s worth a look simply because of how clever it plays with such little time commitment. Pixel Tactics 3 as a game and as a franchise in whole knows its strengths and continues to successfully utilize them with this third adaptation.