Fourscore and seven years? Wasn't that the delay between Next of Ken Volume 72 and 73? At any rate, prepare to battle Exploding Pigeons with your trusty Beserker Burger and our 16th President in the new deckbuilding game Pixel Lincoln. So...honestly....join us, won't you?
8-bit retro is all the rage these days. We're at the age now where the creators of board and video games are extremely nostalgic for that era. You can see this from downloadable console titles like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Double Dragon Neon, Cave Story, and Castle Crashers; in boardgaming, we're seeing the trend play out with games like Boss Monster and today's game for review, Pixel Lincoln: The Deckbuilding Game.
Like many good games from the Nintendo 8-bit era, the theme is completely off-the-wall. In Pixel Lincoln, it seems our sixteenth President has to "travel through time and space, searching for the pieces needed to restore the balance of time." Along the way, he'll find meat-based weapons and fight off hordes of Laser Sharks, Luchadors, and his arch-nemesis...Booth. Yes, you read that right, the President's real-life assassin is included in the game. Too soon?
Players begin the game by building two level decks from the available pool of cards. For each level, you'll choose three stacks of items, three stacks of enemies, three level checkpoint cards, and one secret item for each level. The board has two slots for levels, with a place for each deck as well as card slots for things as they are encountered and revealed.
Structurally, the game uses a sort of conveyor belt system approach to deckbuilding. Instead of having all cards available to purchase or defeat, each character has a small wooden pawn on the board that shows where they are. As the players scroll from left-to-right--just like the old side-scrollers--they'll approach each card and must purchase it (if it's a powerup or item), defeat it (if it's an enemy), or Jump over it (either enemies or items can be jumped.)
Like Ascension, there are essentially two kinds of currency in the game, along with the ability to play Jump cards to bypass things. Your starting deck is half Jumps and half...Beardarangs. Yes, 8-bit Lincoln can remove his beard and throw it as a ranged weapon. Because...reasons. At any rate, the Beardarangs have no money value but provide 1 Strength each, while Jump can be played either as a Jump or for one coin. Power-ups have a cost at the bottom and if you play enough coins, you can take that card and put it in your discard pile, to be shuffled in as you continue to draw through your cards. If you start your turn in front of an enemy and can't muster enough strength to defeat it nor do you have any Jump cards, you lose a life and have to start back at the far left of one of the two available levels.
The nifty part is when a player's pawn reaches the end of the conveyor line. At this point, the level "scrolls"--cards that are behind all players are removed from the board and all players shift backwards to the left, along with all the cards still there. Gaps between cards caused by defeating enemies and acquiring items are closed by sliding the cards together, and then new cards are revealed to the newly empty slots on the board.
Players will want to scroll through the level because in order for the game to end, the two bosses of each level will have to be encountered and defeated. The checkpoints are what makes this happen. The first checkpoint encountered allows the player who reaches it to get a benefit, while any other players on that level get a lesser benefit. The second time a checkpoint is reached, a Mini-Boss is drawn from the Mini-Boss deck. These guys aren't really that much more powerful than normal enemies, but they cannot be Jumped. So if you find yourself in front of a Mini-Boss at the start of your turn, you'd better be able to defeat them, or you're one life down.
The third time a checkpoint for a level is reached, the fearsome boss for that level is drawn from the Boss deck. These all have higher strength than all the other enemies and you'll definitely need the help of the items you've picked up along the way to help you...a couple of Beardarangs simply won't get the job done. If you succeed in defeating a Boss it will go into your score pile as a hefty 10-point score. Once both level bosses have been defeated, the game ends and players tally their scores.
Scoring is pretty simple. The lives you start with are worth 5 points each, and any of them you don't lose will contribute those 5 points to your tally. Each item you pick up is worth one point. Enemies that you defeat during the game don't go into your deck but rather a score pile like the Bosses and Mini-Bosses do, and these are worth varying amounts of points based on how difficult they are to defeat. Mini-Bosses are worth 5 while the Bosses are worth 10.
I didn't mention the NPC characters you can help along the way. All the cards in the game outside of your starting cards have one of four symbols on them. Cards in your deck can be alternately played for the power of one of its symbols--the Key lets you bounce between levels instantly, the Star lets you cull a card from your hand and stash it in your score pile, and the X lets you cancel a card another player plays. The reason this ties into the NPCs is because they all have a list of three symbols on them. Should you pick up the character during the game and then have at least one copy of each of the symbols in your deck and/or score pile, you'll net a solid 10-point bonus. Think of them like fetch quests that NPCs will send you on in many old-school games. The characters appear to all be either Kickstarter-backer designed or Boardgame/videogame reviewers, so yes, Tom Vasel is in the game. What's really cool is there are also a few cameo characters from Sentinels of the Multiverse available as additional promos, so you can even be sent on a fetch quest by Bunker. I geek out for crossovers so I thought this was pretty cool.
What did I think about it? As someone who grew up with Atari and Nintendo, the theme of the game is right up my alley. Yeah, I'll admit it, I have a soft spot for the whole retro thing. (I have Scott Pilgrim and Double Dragon on my PS3, too.) It's got that crazy weirdness that a lot of Japanese programmers used to slip into games on a regular basis, where it reaches a point where you say, "sure, Lincoln spamming a Laser Shark with a Chicken Cannon makes total sense. If you take enough mushrooms."
What's appealing to me is the way that the mechanics realize the theme. True, the whole "six cards on display for purchase" is not new, but the way that Pixel Lincoln uses the scrolling from left to right certainly is. It gives you a tangible feeling of location inside the "level", and as you scroll through you'll see new enemies and items, adding to the feeling of discovery. The power-ups are all goofy, but quaffing down a burger to POWER UP feels exactly like something you'd do in a videogame. It's really easy to look on the surface and see this as "generic deckbuilder with ridiculous theme slapped on it," but there's some really smart and innovative design here. I didn't get into the weird abilities of some of the enemies, where some might randomly give you an item, and others still re-spawn...just like those old games where you'd accidentally move to the left and when you turn around, that enemy is right back where it was!
The art is great if you're into that retro pixelated 8-bit style. Some folks are, some aren't. I kind of eat it up with a spoon--I still love the little 8-bit versions of the Puzzle Strike characters on my player screens. All the characters and enemies on the Pixel Lincoln cards look like they were ripped from the (non-existent) video game.
The interaction is very much in the form of the frustration that was present in the New Super Mario Bros. games on the Wii. Remember how someone would grab an Ice Flower you wanted, or accidentally bounce you into an enemy? As players race through the levels together, that's exactly the sort of thing that will happen. You'll nab a key power-up someone wants, or go bounding over an enemy leaving a helpless opponent to deal with them. The cancel 'X' ability on cards too will give some of that "Gotcha! Counterspell!" feeling too.
That doesn't mean the game is without a few drawbacks. For me, there feels as though there are too few different items and enemies in the box. Since you'll be using six of each to build your two levels, you'll actually burn through your options very, very quickly. Don't expect the same 'longevity by variety' that you see in many deckbuilders, it just doesn't have it, at least not yet.
I think that the challenge tapers off too quickly during a game and it can get a little too easy towards the end. I'd rather see a ramping in difficulty for each level instead of only worrying about the Boss at the end. It almost seems like you have too much access to the Jumping ability, to the point where you'll only potentially be in trouble versus the Mini-Bosses and Bosses. This is balanced out by the fact that if you don't stop and take the time to better your deck, you'll have zero chance of defeating a boss, and 10 points is a hefty score in a game where scores seem to float in the 50-60 range so far. Still, a 6/4 split instead of a 5/5 split may have been better for the Jump cards. I'd like more fightin' and less hoppin', but that's a facet that is true to the platforming genre so I can't fault it too much for that.
The diversity of goals hampers the game too--you don't have a wide array of different goals to accomplish and you're mostly making quick tactical decisions as you travel the level. You'll need to keep an eye on making sure you are making your deck better as you go, but it's mostly a matter of handling cards as they come up and making the best decisions as you go.
Lastly I love the multi-use card system where the four icons give you other abilities but it's easy to forget which is which and they are not in a prominent spot on the card. I think a lot of interaction and strategy comes from using these cards wisely and wish that maybe the designer hadn't used small iconography for this. Of course, with full text, the cards would've been extremely crowded and busy.
The verdict? I like this game a lot. My kids really enjoyed playing it with me and ask for it right alongside King of Tokyo, which is high praise for them. I have two seven-year-old twins and while they struggled with the whole deckbuilding concept at first, they were able to catch on and I'm a bit embarassed to say one of my crafty little daughters beat me by one point in the last game we played. Yes, legitimately. I was finishing up counting my score and she was grinning at me like a Cheshire cat. She's a crafty little bugger, that one.
It's not quite a homerun, especially if you're not into the theme. It could use more enemies and items out of the box. The humor might wear thin for some but thankfully the real fun of the game comes from playing it. I would have also preferred to have some better cardstock--it's not "old Minion Games" terrible, but it's not the best in the world either. Some sleeving will be in order if you plan on playing it a lot.
It really does pull off the feeling of a side-scrolling game nicely, the whole scrolling mechanic is well done. The game wraps up neatly in 30-45 minutes with experienced players so doesn't overstay its welcome. For old-school Nintendo gamers and deckbuilding fans looking for some new thematic flourishes, I'll give this one a thumbs up. It's definitely better than many folks are going to think just looking at it initially. If you're totally burned out on deckbuilders though or the theme doesn't appeal to you at all, you probably want to give this a pass. For us this goes solidly on the "good family game" stack.
Another column in the books, thanks so much for reading. So until Jumpin' Jeff Farmer gets his due as one of the greatest wrestling promo artists of ALL TIME, I'll see ya in two weeks time.