Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Pixel Tactics, by D. Brad Talton, Jr.

"I'm too dumb to play this game," I said to Ben (who's the closest person to a gaming brother I have in the world) during the third round of our first game of Pixel Tactics. It was nearly 40 minutes into a "30 minute" game, and neither of us saw the end coming any time soon - especially because it's supposed to be best out of three victories.

"Yeah," he said. "There's too much going on here."

Ben's sort of right: there's a lot going on in Pixel Tactics, but, to be fair, part of our discomfort with it was that we're not used to playing tactical games. Each card in the game can have one of five effects - usually closely and thematically-related to the name of the card - based on whether it is played in the first, second, or third combat row, if it is played as the single Leader of the other units, or as an order (a one-and-done effect gained by discarding the card from your hand rather than playing it to the field).

However, by about the fifth round, we had the hang of it - though as first time players, I'm confident that we made a lot of tactical errors. If we had more time, we would have played again - but like I said, the "30 minute" play time is a significant underestimation, especially for a first game, which took Ben and me about an hour and a half.

By the end, the game made sense, even though there's a lot going on. That speaks to the effectiveness of the design, I think. It's complex at first, but once you begin to understand the synergy between the cards, some of strategy in where to place your units, and just how useful the "order" action on the cards can be, it all snaps into place pretty clearly. However, with the variety of options - especially the elegance of the design in having a single leader that affects the game in significant ways - Pixel Tactics is a game that can sustain numerous plays with compelling emerging gameplay. And, ultimately, there isn't too much going on in the game. It's just right.

My guys took some hits this game - but I managed to win this one...and only this one.

The packaging, however, leaves something to be desired. The rules open into a large single sheet folded into sixteenths, which is daunting at first glance and occasionally hard to navigate. More importantly, the box is not large enough to comfortably fit the components back into it after the damage tracking tokens have been punched. Pixel Tactics Deluxe, a Kickstarter from Level 99a few months ago, offers a box for the game and all of its expansions, which would be welcome. But, for $15 for such an involved, replayable game gets cut a bit of slack for that.

The bottom line: Pixel Tactics is a great game that, for $15, has no reason not to be in your library. While the first game can be daunting, subsequent games will be a lot faster and you'll be able to play, replay, and re-replay Pixel Tactics while the tactics behind the game gradually emerge.

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