Overview: Oh noes! John Wilkes Booth has stolen Abe Lincoln’s hat and disrupted the time-space continuum. It’s up to you to defeat Booth and his minions (laser sharks, puking turtles, and luchadors) with your trusty Beardarang and meat-based weaponry. Pixel Lincoln is a deck-building card game based on a sidescrolling platformer video game based on a card game inspired by old Nintendo games. Got that? Trust me: it’s a riot.
Ages: 10 and up
Playing Time: 45 minutes
Retail: $25 on Kickstarter (other reward levels available)
Rating: 14 out of 16 bits. (Or something like that.) This review is based on a demo version which is not entirely finalized: it felt unbalanced and at times overly difficult, but we still had a blast and laughed a lot playing it. A little fine tuning will make this just right.
Who Will Like It? If you’re a fan of deck-building games and old-school video games, then you’ll probably want to go kick in for a copy of Pixel Lincoln. It really does capture the feel of a side-scrolling videogame, including the ridiculous enemies and cheat codes.
Theme: You can read about the origins of Pixel Lincoln here, but basically it was a little card game that used a penny as a pawn (because it was cheap) — and thus Pixel Lincoln was born. It is coming soon as an actual Nintendo DS game, but for now it’s turned into a deck-building game that simulates the video game. The artwork plays off the retro-theme with blocky graphics, and the gameplay really reflects the platformers that inspired the original.
The components are still being finalized (some of it depends on whether they hit some stretch goals) but essentially you get a whole lot of cards plus some Lincoln meeples. There are the starting cards for each player (1 Character card, 2 Lives, 5 Beardarangs, 5 Jumps), lots of Item cards and Enemies cards (5 of each type), some Secret Items, some Non-Player Characters, and some Mini Bosses and Bosses. There’s a 10-card expansion for fans of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and the Cheat Codes are also available as an add-on at the $40 level. If they hit the stretch goal there will also be a game board (not necessary, but fun).
The graphics on the cards are great and the enemies and items are hilarious. You’ve got Bunny Bombs, a boss named Lobster Bottom (half man, half lobster), and items like the Muttonstar (a leg of lamb on a chain). The mini boss Pigeon Man might have been a reject from Mega Man.
The ultimate goal of the game is to have the most points (through enemies, items, and NPC bonuses) by the time the game ends.
Each player starts with a deck of 5 Beardarang cards and 5 Jump cards. They also have 2 Life cards and a character card, which are placed in a stack in front of them as a sort of status pile. Two “levels” are built to form two main decks. Each level has 3 types of Items (5 of each), 3 types of Enemies (5 of each), 3 NPCs, 1 Secret Item, and 3 Level Checkpoints. All of these are shuffled together. Next to each level is one Mini-Boss and one Boss. The top 5 cards of each level are revealed and placed in lines to the left of the level decks, and the player meeples are placed to the far left of those. Each player gets to choose which level they want to explore first. (My photo below is using PennyGems for the player markers since they didn’t have the meeples yet.) Each player shuffles their 10 cards and draws a hand of 5, and then the game begins.
On each turn, you resolve ambushes, travel through the level, and then draw.
If there is an enemy directly to your right, you’ve been ambushed and you must deal with the enemy, either by fighting it or by jumping over it. You simply discard a Jump card to jump over it, or play any number of item cards to equip them. If the power of your item cards meets or exceeds the power of the enemy, you defeat it, and it goes into a score pile (to the left of your character card). Some enemies also have special effects which take place after they’re defeated. If you can’t defeat an enemy that ambushed you, then you lose one of your Life cards and go back to the beginning of either level. Lose all your lives (including the character card) and you’re eliminated.
After you’ve resolved the ambush, you may travel through the level as far as you wish (and as your cards allow). Enemies must be defeated or jumped over. Items and NPCs can be purchased (each card has a coin value, and you discard them to spend them): items go into your discard pile and NPCs go into your score pile. If you happen to get the Secret Item (there’s only one per level) then you get to take it for free and add it to your discard pile.
Finally, once you’ve decided to stop (or have run out of cards) then you can discard any number of your remaining cards, and then draw back up to five cards.
There are a few other things that come into play. First, if you run out of cards to your right because you’ve purchased/defeated/jumped all the others, then you’ve reached the end of the screen and everything scrolls. Any cards to the left of all players are discarded, and you draw enough cards so that there are five level cards again. However, if there’s some slow player who’s still to the left of five cards already, you discard the left-most card and draw a single one.
There are also three checkpoint cards in each deck. When the first checkpoint is revealed, nothing happens. The second time, you put the Mini Boss card on top of it, and the third time you put the Boss on top of it. Also, when a player reaches the checkpoint card, everyone gets a bonus: you can either draw a card from your deck or score a card (by putting it from your hand onto your scoring pile). Essentially scoring a card culls it from your deck so that you still get points for it but it won’t show up in your hand anymore. The player who reached the checkpoint gets two bonuses. Finally, anyone in that level now has a chance to jump to the beginning of the other level if they desire.
Some of the cards also have a little icon in the lower left corner. There are four icons (or “suits”), and these cards can be discarded for different effects: Time Travel lets you peek at the top 5 cards in the level deck and rearrange them; Score lets you place a card into your score pile; Key lets you jump to the other level; Cancel can be played during anyone’s turn to cancel the ability of an item or enemy.
When a Boss is defeated, then the level is clear — all remaining cards in the level are discarded, and everyone goes to the other level. Once both levels are cleared (or there’s only one player with lives left) then the game ends. There’s a “continue” option if you get eliminated: you have to remove half of your scoring pile and you can get back into the game. Or, you can just keep all of your points and wait for the other players to finish.
When the game ends, you add up all of the points from your cards (all of them, including the score pile, discard, deck, and hand). NPCs give bonuses based on collecting three cards of particular suits. Your two Life cards are also worth 10 points each if you didn’t lose them. Highest score wins.
The Cheat Codes are still being fine-tuned, but basically there are four Cheat Code cards available, showing some combination of directions (e.g. Up Up Left Right). The enemy cards have two directions printed at the bottom of each one. If you remove enemies from your score pile with arrows that match the cheat codes, then you get to activate a cheat (only one at a time). Invincibility, as you’d expect, keeps you from losing lives. Anti-Gravity gives you an extra Jump each turn, and Big Head Mode gives you an extra Power for attack. Since there’s only one of each cheat code, another player can steal one from you by discarding their own cards to activate it. But be careful: you’re essentially throwing away points to activate cheat codes.
When I first came across Pixel Lincoln, I knew I wanted to play it. Deck-building and old-school gaming? Sign me up! But I was also worried that it would turn out to be disappointing. Having played this early demo copy, I have to admit that the game has some weaknesses (which I’ll get into), but it’s so much fun and so absurd that I didn’t actually mind. And since the game is still being tweaked and balanced, I think the final product stands to be an excellent game for the right audience.
First, the flaws. At the beginning of the game you have 5 Beardarangs (1 power each, no coin value) and 5 Jumps (no power, 1 coin value). Depending on the types of enemies and items you have in the level deck, you may find that you’re unable to do anything but jump over things — which progresses you through the level but doesn’t get you any points or stronger weapons. In our setup, we ended up with the Bowling Ball (cost: 5) so you had to have all five jumps in your hand to afford it. That same level also had the Bunny Bomb enemy (power: 5) and so you needed all five of your beardarangs to defeat it. Use your jump to skip a card, and you’ve also just spent one of your precious coins. It became extremely difficult in this level to acquire anything — and the Bowling Ball was the only card that was worth more than 1 coin. This is something I know the designer Jason Tagmire is working on: making some cards worth more coins, and making some cards cheaper to buy, so that you can start accumulating things more quickly. [Update: Tagmire is including some suggested levels — here are some recommended “easy” levels, with medium and hard to come later.]
Another weakness I found is that since the checkpoints are shuffled in at random, you may have a level in which the final boss appears before even half the deck is gone. That happened to us, and we found ourselves scratching our heads at how to build up enough attack power to take on the final boss when we couldn’t get through the rest of the deck. We did end up being able to salvage that using Ice Breath to send the checkpoint/boss card back to the bottom of the deck, but I could see that if you didn’t have the right combination of cards you may end up with a very short game. It might be better to build the deck Pandemic-style, where you shuffle the checkpoints into roughly the top, middle, and bottom thirds of the deck.
Finally, the first time we played we used some of the demo NPCs (like Lorien Green) which were included in my demo set. The NPCs ask you to collect three cards with specific icons in order to score 10 points. But the demo versions that they’ve done for promotional purposes (like the one of me you see here) all have the same thing: three star icons. Since there’s a limited number of star cards in the deck, if you use too many demo NPCs then not everyone’s going to be able to go for those bonuses. Of course, this is easy to fix: just be sure to have a mix of NPCs when you build your levels.
I should note that at the $75 level on Kickstarter, you can have a custom NPC designed for you, similar to this one here. You’ll get a copy of it with your game. But at the $500 level (for you big spenders), your custom-designed character will be included in every copy of the game! I have to admit that I’m very tempted. [Note to Editor: Maybe we could get the GeekDad robot in there! Can I haz $500?]
These complaints aside, the game itself is really entertaining. Just looking through the various weapons and enemies is great, and the fact that there are two levels ongoing makes for some interesting strategy. When do you jump into a different level? Is it better to be in the same level with other players or by yourself? On the one hand, other players may buy up stuff you need, but on the other you can wait for them to kill off enemies while you follow behind… or so I thought.
As it turns out, the side-scrolling aspect can also end up feeling a lot like Rush’n Attack or Contra, where my brother would run ahead and scroll past items I was trying to collect, and I was on the tail end of the screen being pushed forward faster than I wanted to go. Many times an item I was just about to purchase got “scrolled” off the screen by another player who kept jumping forward. And we couldn’t stop laughing about it.
One nice touch was that the item cards and enemy cards, which come in sets of five, aren’t exactly the same — they have different suits. That means that while the item or enemy itself is pretty much the same as the others, it will have different value for players based on the NPCs they’ve collected. Plus you can discard them for the suit ability, so it may affect which enemy you kill or item you purchase.
Pixel Lincoln has already hit its base goal on Kickstarter, so the game will definitely be published, and it’ll eventually be available for regular purchase from Game Salute and your local retailers. Of course, now’s your chance to get a custom character card, and to boost the Kickstarter campaign so that everyone gets a game board (and possibly other goodies). There are various reward levels and mix-and-match stuff if you want the Cheat Codes or Vampire Hunter add-ons. If you like deck-building games and classic NES games, this is a rollicking combination of the two.
Wired: A great mash-up of old school videogames and deck-building card games.
Tired: Some balance issues which may be worked out before final printing.
Disclosure: Thanks to Game Salute for providing a demo copy of the game, and to Jason Tagmire for the awesome character card design!