Apparently, Booth has stolen Mr. Lincoln’s hat. Somehow, this has upset the balance of Space and Time and only a pixelated Lincoln can recover all the “pieces” needed to restore that balance.
I’m not exactly sure why the hat holds the key to space/time, or what pieces you are collecting, or why an army of Luchadors is in your way. But, the story of Pixel Lincoln is no more wild than many of the old 2-D sidescrolling action adventure games this deckbuilder takes its thematic inspiration from.
Time to get your beards into gear, friends. This is no laughing matter. The high score itself is at stake.
How It Plays
Pixel Lincoln is a deckbuilding game, and it follows many of the classic staples of deckbuilding with a few variations.
Each player starts with a deck of 10 cards, made up of 5 “Jump” cards also producing 1 coin, and 5 “Beardarang” cards featuring 1 “power” to attack enemies with.
Central to the gameplay is the Level board, which by standard rules has 2 Levels on it. Each level is made up of 5 face-up cards in a row, and a deck at the end of it. This deck is created by shuffling 3 power-ups, 3 enemy types, and 3 character cards, as well as a Secret Item and a few checkpoints evenly spaced (at least, relatively) throughout.
Players must traverse through the level by buying power-ups, destroying enemies, and jumping over anything they don’t want to buy or fight. They’ll also have to fight a mini-boss and a boss card in each level before that level is completed.
Players do this by playing cards from their 5-card hand. Players can play Jump cards to move forward, or use the coins on those same cards to buy items that they are directly in front of. Enemies can only be defeated by “equipping” cards, such as the starting-deck Beardarangs, totalling Power equal to the enemy’s Power level. Players can only be hurt by Enemies at the start of their turn, if they are unable to defeat or jump over them. Fortunately, each player has 3 Lives, and can spend a few points to “Retry” and get a life back if they lose all of them.
Items purchased go into the player’s discard pile, which will eventually be shuffled back into that player’s deck for later use. Character cards and defeated Enemies go to the player’s Score pile to be totaled at the end of the game.
Mini-Bosses and Bosses must be defeated, and they cannot be bypassed by jumping.
The game ends when both Levels have been completed by defeating the Boss in each one. In the end, the player with the most points via enemies, items, characters, and remaining lives, is the victor.
Four Score, or Seven Years Ago?
Pixel Lincoln does a lot of things right, but a few flaws – or rather, lack of inspiring gamelay – keep if from being a truly great game.
Lets start with what Pixel Lincoln does well. Thematically, the game is spot on. It so perfectly emulates the feel of an old fashioned side-scrolling Nintendo game from the 80’s I find myself humming a made-up soundtrack and making jump and attack sounds as I play the game. The art is generally spot-on with its pixelated goodness (although, for some reason, the player boards switch to a different art style that is not pixelated. It’s not bad, just… not really jiving with every other component). Beyond the pictures, though, the game is populated with completely random enemies that are silly, entertaining, and don’t make a whole lot of sense. The weapons also lean towards the humorous side and they don’t make much sense – but this reminds me EXACTLY of old Nintendo games. Pixel Lincoln even goes so far as to provide an extremely vague backstory that doesn’t make much sense. It’s all in good fun, though, and doesn’t feel in any way like this silliness is due to lack of attention or laziness. No, it all adds to the fun, and it is fantastic.
The gameplay itself is enjoyable, and it certainly functions well with no broken rules. It’s not too complicated; you can teach it in about 10 minutes, especially if your players have any familiarity at all with deckbuilders like Ascension. However, outside of the theme, the mechanics lack much in the way of providing originality or interest.
The setup is actually very nearly identical to Ascension. You’ve got a central board with 5 randomized cards to interact with (Ascension has 6, although Pixel Lincoln has at least 2 rows – “Levels” – from which to access cards). You’ve got 2 currencies – a form of money to purchase upgrades (Runes for Ascension, Coins for Pixel Lincoln) and a form of attack power with which to destroy enemies (Power in Pixel Lincoln, and, oh hey, Power in Ascension). Things you purchase go into your deck, things you attack and kill just give you points and sometimes have another immediate effect.
The biggest difference Pixel Lincoln brings to this scheme is a sense of location. The rows of cards simulate levels, which of course thematically you must move through to interact with. So, you can only interact with cards directly in front of you. Thematically this works; mechanically, it limits your access to the cards that happen to be available on your turn even more than Ascension. Effectively, the further to the right a card is, the more expensive it is to obtain – you have to bypass other cards either by purchasing or attacking them (using up your resources) or by Jumping them (also using up some of your resources). The swordfish might be the ideal card to have in your deck, but may be unavailable to you because even if you had enough coins to afford it, you might need to spend Jump cards to get there, using up the valuable coins on those Jump cards and likely being unable to afford the card you want when you at last arrive. This means the best choice is to simply buy or fight whatever is directly in front of you, regardless of what it is, rather than make choices to build your deck.
This is okay in a sense, as you’re simulating a 2D side-scrolling level, in which you have to face what’s directly in front of you, and THEN take on what comes after. However, in an actual video game, you have real-time action, dexterity, and reaction time coming in to play, and that doesn’t translate well to a deckbuilding game.
This is further compounded by the fact that cards just aren’t all that interesting, mechanically. The enemies have the most variety, with a few different effects that come when they are defeated. Some drop items, some let you jump over an extra card, some force players to discard. There are only 3-4 varieties of effect, and all the enemies are defeated in the same way. I feel like a lot of interesting challenge or strategy could have been added by simple twists on the way monsters could be defeated. What if one monster needed to be jumped on, or another was immune to projectile weapons? Simple effects like that wouldn’t add much complexity to the game, but they would add unique challenges, which would fit well within the theme.
Items have even less variation. For the most part, the only difference between items are the level of power and coins they provide. Some weapons are Melee only and some are projectiles, but that’s pretty much it. Only few cards offer some differences – Berserker Burger and Double Berserker let you draw 1 or 2 cards respectively, and the Double Jump lets you skip 2 cards instead of 1 (but will most often be used only for the 2 coins it offers instead). Fire Breath and Ice Breath let you send cards in the level to the bottom of the deck, which is only minorly interesting. Everything else just contains a range of coins and power. It would be like Dominion if Dominion had only the basic Treasure and Victory cards, and maybe a Laboratory. There just aren’t many interesting decisions to be made, and while your deck grows over the course of the game, it doesn’t feel all that much like it “Builds.” It just seems like the game misses out on a lot of potential. The only items that offer anything truly unique are the Secret Items, but there’s only one mixed in to each level, and each item is only 1-time-use.
Many cards do have a special symbol – a “suit” – on the bottom that corresponds with 1 of 4 possible special actions – you can switch levels, look at the next 5 cards of a level and rearrange them, move a card from your hand to your score pile (effectively trashing it from your deck), or cancel the ability of another player’s card. But, these symbols are so small and hidden and it is difficult to remember what they even do, so they’re rarely used. I imagine that the “X” cards that let you mess with another player’s turn could be very influential in the outcome of the game, but it’s so invisible that no one ever remembers to use it. The symbols ARE useful at the end of the game if you managed to nab any Characters, but again all the characters do are give you 10 points. Useful but hardly interesting.
If you thought that Dominion has a long setup time, Pixel Lincoln manages to twist the 10-random-kingdom-card setup of Dominion and the shuffle-everything-together quick setup of Ascension into something more tedious than the sum of its parts. To create a level, you choose 3 sets of items, 3 sets of enemies, 3 character cards, shuffle them together, deal the first 5 starting level cards out, shuffle in a secret item, divide the pile into 3 stacks, shuffle checkpoints into each of those 3 stacks, and stack them together. Oh, and then do all that again for level 2. Then, during the course of the game, rather than filling in empty spots as they appear, you wait until a player has reached the far right of a level, and then “Scroll” everything to the left, filling in the empty spaces. Thematically it makes sense but again, it’s just a little bit tedious as far as gameplay goes.
The components are nice, at least. As I said before, the art is thematically spot-on. The layout of the cards is fairly easy to read, with both symbols and text to read and remind (except for the “suit” symbols) you of what it does. The Level board, while unecessary, is finely decked out with the same 8-bit art style, and it’s thick and solid and lays flat. Player boards are included as well and are the same thick, sturdy cardboard, although the boards contain no player aids and seem a little unnecessary. In fact, many players I played with tended to just play off to the side of the boards, using them only for their score pile. The Lincoln meeples (Lincles? Pixeeples? Pixles?) are just the right shape and are easy to grip and move around. The cardstock is okay, nothign spectacular but certainly function. The game box is nice and large – perhaps too large – but at least it includes divider cards with labels, foam for filling up the gaps, and plenty of space for expansions, apparently. The only thing I can’t figure out is the inclusion of “Level” card storage boxes. The only thing I can think they might be used for is building levels pre-game night and putting them in the level boxes for easy transport, but… honestly I can’t really see doing that.
Overall, I can definitely say Pixel Lincoln is not a bad game. I just feel like it misses out on a lot of potential. The theme is fantastic, but the cards could use a little more variance. Why not have obstacles you have to pass with movement cards, or different ways of drawing cards or rearranging cards in your deck or powering up your items rather than just having more copies of them. Why not special blocks you can use jump to break and score temporary extra coins or draw a secret item? Why not weapons with more varied and interesting effects?
If you want a simple deckbuilder with a great NES theme, Pixel Lincoln is definitely for you. Personally, I desire something a little deeper, with more strategic choices and planning involved, when it comes to deckbuilding.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Game Salute and Island Officials for providing a review copy of Pixel Lincoln.