Everyone has their biases, and I’ll admit to one right off the bat: I don’t like two player head-to-head battle games. This is for a variety of reasons, but two factors stand out above the others:

1. In a two player head-to-head battle game, the two players directly confront each other. Our goals are to annihilate one another, so every good move directly hurts the other player. This is fine, but when you are as competitive as I am, or as my wife and my brother are, you end up with a lot of anger and frustration on the losing side of the table. This is especially true of longer games where both people have time to become heavily invested. What’s the point of playing a game if it just ends with my wife crying in the bathroom?

2. Many, if not most, of the two player head-to-head battle games that I’ve played involve dice rolling as a major mechanic. I’m not Anti-Dice Guy, but so many games have elegant mechanics involving moving the board, deploying units, and deciding exactly when to attack, only to have the results of that attack come down to dice rolling. I can outplay my opponent all game, and if I roll poorly I lose anyway. This can lead to some of the anger referred to in reason #1.

When I received a copy of Pixel Tactics 3 to review, I kept my expectations in check. After all, it’s a two player head-to-head battle game, and I don’t like that type of game, right? Wrong, as it turns out. To my pleasant surprise, Pixel Tactics 3 ended up being a ton of fun without suffering from either of the problems discussed above.

What’s in the box?

Pixel Tactics 3 is the third in a series of battle card games from Level 99 Games. I haven’t played either of the first two entries in the series, but each game can be played as a standalone game. The game employs a light, 8-bit video game theme that integrates very well with the battle mechanics. Pixel Tactics 3 is a card game, so it naturally comes with a bunch of cards, in the form of two identical decks of hero cards. In addition, the game includes a sheet of punch-out damage chits and a two sided rule sheet/player mat. The cards and chits are high quality. The player mat is nice, as it helps you to keep all your cards in order when you play them, but there is a problem for new players: if you want to refer to the rule sheet, you have to flip the mat over and scatter your cards all over the place. For this reason, we just skipped the use of the mat and double checked the rules as needed.

Gameplay

Pixel Tactics 3 consists of a match broken down into multiple games. The number of games is determined by the players before the match. The object of each game is to defeat your opponent’s leader by attacking him or her and causing damage. At the beginning of the game, players deal themselves a five card hand from their deck. From these five cards, players choose one to act as their leader. Each leader gives the player a special power. All of the remaining cards are used as hero cards.

During the game, hero cards are deployed around the leader and act as support soldiers. Each player’s play area consists of a three card by three card grid with the leader beginning in the middle. The leader cannot be moved from this spot. Each turn consists of three waves corresponding with the three rows of cards: the Vanguard (front row), the Flank (middle row), and the Rear (back row). Each wave, players execute two actions, such as drawing cards, deploying heroes to the board from player hands, making attacks, or rearranging previously deployed heroes. Deployments and attacks can only be carried out in the row corresponding to the current wave. For example, during the Vanguard wave, players can only deploy and attack with heroes located in the front row. Each hero has a different benefit depending on the row in which they are located. So a hero might have an attack bonus in the Vanguard, an action bonus in the Flank, or a hit point bonus in the Rear. The key to the game is to have the right hero in the right place at the right time for maximum effectiveness depending on the player’s need. Play continues until one of the leaders is defeated. Once a leader is defeated, the two leaders are given to the winning player and are out of play for the rest of the match. The remaining cards are reshuffled, and the players deal themselves new cards and begin a new game. Games are designed to go quickly, so the rules recommend a match of three or five games, although you can really play as many or as few as you like.

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Thoughts On Gameplay

The power granted by each leader card is strong enough to impact the strategy the player will employ. This is a good thing, as it keeps the game from becoming monotonous. If you choose a losing strategy and get your butt kicked in a particular game, you can simply bounce back with a new leader and a new strategy in the next game. The fact that the games go relatively quickly helps to mitigate the crying wife problem. It’s hard to invest yourself in a game that only lasts 15 minutes. Plus, if you lose, you need to move on and gear yourself up for the next game. Finally, the theme keeps things light hearted. The heroes all have goofy names, and it’s hard to get too serious about a bunch characters with names like Minyard Milquetoast and Gaspar Geddon.

I love the mechanic where an attack performed within the rules is generally a successful attack. Players don’t have to roll dice to see if an attack hits. The one exception occurs when the defending card has some sort of special power to deflect or mitigate the attack. I love not using dice, because superior tactics are not thwarted by a crappy dice roll. Heroes are meant to come and go quickly, so part of the strategy is planning for inevitable attacks from your opponent that you are powerless to stop.

As much as I enjoy Pixel Tactics 3, alas, it is not a perfect game. Because the cards have so many different powers depending on where they are played, there is a ton of tiny text to read on each card. Additionally, because each card has so many potential uses, it can be difficult to keep track of your strategy and remember exactly how you intended to use each card. This can lead to some pretty good bouts of analysis paralysis. Both of these problems can create a final problem: the game takes longer to play than it probably should. Part of the charm of the game is that it is designed to be light and quick. My first play took well over an hour for a best of five match. We managed to reduce the time in subsequent plays, but we never got under the half hour time estimate listed on the box, even for a best of three match. I believe that all of these criticisms mostly affect newer players and can be mitigated once the players are more familiar with the game.

Pixel Tactics 3
Designed by: D. Brad Talton, Jr.
Published by: Level 99 Games
Players: 2
Ages: 12+
Time: 30 minutes
Mechanics: Head-To-Head Combat, Hand Management
Weight: Light
MSRP: $15.00