Observe the following picture:
If this image resonates with you, can I just say: lucky you. Skip the next two paragraphs.
If it didn’t, allow me to explain its significance. The above screenshot represents a battle scene taken from Japanese role-playing video game Final Fantasy VI. I won’t go into too much detail about the medium-defining juggernaut that is the Final Fantasy franchise - safe to say, it’s pretty big - but I will talk briefly about the 6th effort in the series, which is pictured above.
Though released as far back as 1994, Final Fantasy VI has the honour of being considered by many RPG fans as better than most of its successors in Squaresoft’s long-running series. Upon closer look, it’s not surprising to see why. True to a game genre that commonly puts players in charge of controlling a band of characters in their own digital fantasy epic, Final Fantasy VI managed to encapsulate a sweeping, 40-hour-long adventure saga about struggle, cataclysm and redemption into a 5-inch tall Super Nintendo cartridge. Its battle scenes though are particularly well-remembered - not just for their distinctive appearance, but also for their challenge. Fights in both this game and similar RPGs of its time weren’t just about merely attacking an enemy and trying to keep your health points from dropping to zero. They were, and still are, about learning about and adapting to the enemies put in front of you. Knowing which attacks (swords, spells etc.) work, and which combinations and ordering of band members work best to provide optimal effectiveness against the hordes of monsters you face are both critical skills needed to be good at this type of game. Less hack n’ slash, more strategy, and fans of such a game genre happily devour such entertainment with glee.
Now supposing you took such a battle sequence, but instead of warring against computer-managed foes, you were battling a rival human player with their own group of warriors. And then you turned that into a card game, complete with its own retro-pixely look, a deeply engaging system of play and the flexibility to build almost any kind of army you like. Sound fun? It should - and that’s exactly what Pixel Tactics is.
Pixel Tactics is one of a number of Kickstarter-funded games produced by board game company Level 99 Games and is thematically set in the company’s own World of Indines setting, an imaginary world mish-mashed with as many ideas and tropes from classic fantasy, sci-fi and anime genres as you could shake a geeky stick at. As complex as Pixel Tactics’ universe might be though, the basic, unexpanded game itself at least appears uncomplicated. Out of the box it consists of just two different decks of cards, a set of variously-defined tokens and a pullout listing the rules of the game. Other fantasy-oriented games might bury you under a deluge of counters and other pieces (I’m looking at you, Games Workshop) but Pixel Tactics avoids taking such an intimidating route on first impression, allowing it to be set up with minimum fuss.
The lightweight load of Pixel Tactics’ contents does not make way for an inconsequential style of play however. Being a strategy game first and foremost, it revels in providing a methodical, detailed structure of action that can take a little time to comprehend. A game is contested between two players, each with their own dedicated deck of cards. Every card in a deck (identical for both players) portrays a Hero character, complete with both Attack and Defense ratings in the card’s top-right corner. Both of these are pretty self-explanatory - Attack details the number of damage points a character can inflict, while defense indicates the number of damage points they can take before they are killed. With players taking an initial five cards from their deck for their starting hand, they then take turns to lay a card down in one of nine spaces making up their own 3x3 area on the table. The entirety of a game turn thus involves each player interchangeably stepping from front to back through their army’s grid, row by row, and performing up to two ‘actions’ on each. The actions available are both numerous and diverse - placing a Hero from your hand to the playing area, attacking your opponent’s characters and removing ‘dead’ characters from the game area to make space for another are just a few of the allowed options. Once both players have stepped through all their rows and performed relevant actions the game turn ends, and a new one begins again from the front row, with the player who went second last turn going first in the next.
Following so far? Well here’s where things get sticky. Each player also has a dedicated Leader card, chosen at the very start of the game, which their opponent has to defeat in order to win the game. This Leader is always placed in the dead centre of the 3x3 grid (i.e the middle of the Flank row), and cunning plans must be devised by either player in order to make sure their own Leader stays alive in order to obtain victory. Leaders are considerably more powerful than their regular Hero counterparts, often having better Attack ratings and always vastly superior Defense ratings - simply put, they are much tougher to defeat. Also, any Hero card can be a Leader (all Hero cards have their corresponding Leader types written on the other end of the card) and each Leader comes with their own unique in-game effect that can greatly increase your chances of winning, such as automatically healing your damaged Heroes each turn or even being allowed to take three actions instead of two on each row.
But not only do Leaders have effects. Any Hero placed down in your playing area also possesses their own less potent but nonetheless critically significant effect as well. The key here is that a Hero’s own unique effect is entirely determined by where they’ve been placed in the game area, and every card comes with three potential gambits, one for each row of placement. A winning gameplan has to therefore be devised from using the full potential of your card hand to build a unit of Heroes around your Leader which will provide great defense, offense and a complimenting mix of support effects. A Leader could well take the credit for a win, but only with the working combination of a surrounding unit will you get close to achieving one.
And to put it mildly, the number of possible combinations you could have for your unit is dizzying. With each player’s deck randomly shuffled before play, the order of the Heroes you draw has a fundamental effect on how you can approach the game. Couple this with the fact that any player could lay any Hero in any row with varying results and you have an astronomical number of ways that a game could play out.
Such a bold decision to make a player’s team structure so malleable could easily render Pixel Tactics too chaotic or unfocused to enjoy. It is therefore a relief - and a stroke of genius - that most Hero cards have the potential to play off of each other well enough so that tactical acumen and astute analysis of your opponent’s strategy can always be the deciding factor on whether you win or lose. Simply put, there is no single cast-iron way to win the game, meaning victory is always within a player’s grasp. No matter how dire your hand or played cards may be, the right Hero effect at the right time can swing things back into your favour. Because of this, Pixel Tactics can be as enthralling to play as any other card game of its kind, no matter who takes part. Games against equally-skilled opponents can lead to tense, even affairs and deeply rewarding endgames, while new players are still able to learn the game without getting completely overwhelmed. It’s an excellent balance that allows Pixel Tactics to not only provide subtly deep card-duelling, but also a fun experience that anyone can immerse themselves in, once the slightly complex rules are fully understood.
It’d be mistake to say that the game is completely perfect however. Its commendable ability to provide challenging and open play should be lauded, but a game with literally this much variety in card action will inevitably throw up moments of confusion. Some Hero effects are ambiguously written and can be easily misinterpreted, leading to complete stops in play while disputes between players rage and references back to the game rules are made.
Also, despite achieving a genuine level of fairness in most of its games, there will be scenarios in which one player has a clear edge over another. And it’s one particular source that will be to blame: Heroes may be created equal, but Leaders most definitely are not. The differences between Leader effects and their Attack / Defense ratings vary enough that certain characters will come out considerably better than others, and rookie players specifically will always be at a disadvantage if they happen to choose a Leader who turns out weak. It is perhaps Pixel Tactics’ greatest strength - the provision of so many uniquely different characters and ways to play - that ends up creating this weakness. With every Hero capable of being a Leader, and every Leader needing to be original and distinct from each other, there is inevitably going to be a ceiling that game-makers hit trying to make every single one achieve both these goals and also match equally with their corresponding cards. Even if it stems from the game’s praiseworthy ambition to be diverse, it’s a genuine flaw.
Despite these issues, Pixel Tactics is an absolute blast and highly recommended. Veteran card gamers may balk at Pixel Tactics’ retro game aesthetics, believing it to be an overtly whimsical, childish game that isn’t worth their time. That’s to their detriment - what they’ll be missing out on is a genuinely compelling, deep and compulsive card game that manages to condense the fairly convoluted world of Japanese RPG combat into a format accessible for not only the game genre’s purists, but also for card-battle beginners willing to see what the fuss is all about. With a horde of expansions already released that further enhance the play, it’s also a game that, once indulged in, will undoubtedly keep you hooked for months and maybe years to come.