An Interview with Pixel Tagmire
I'm a fan of Jason Tagmire. If you recall, he and his wife wrote one of Hyperbole's first guest columns about cooperatively developing his game, Sandwich City. Jason's latest game, Pixel Lincoln, recently launched on Kickstarter.
I was interested in discussing Pixel Lincoln with Jason, primarily because I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to design a good deckbuilding game for months now. I wanted to know how Jason approached it so that it could possibly help me (and others).
Note: HG and Italics means Hyperbole Games. JT means Jason Tagmire.
HG: Can you tell us about Pixel Lincoln?
JT: The game is 2-4 players. I intend to create rules for a 1 player version, because it seems very natural, but I just haven't been able to dedicate any time to that aspect of the design as of yet. Game sessions are about 30-45 minutes each and game length scales fairly evenly from 2 to 4 players. I'm somewhat stumped on the genre because it's very similar to an adventure video game.
In the game, [each player] plays as Pixel Lincoln traveling through time and space chasing after John Wilkes Booth, who has stolen Lincoln's (unknowingly) magical top hat. You will acquire items and defeat enemies to build your deck. Once the levels are all beaten, or all of the bosses are destroyed, players will tally up their points and compare high scores. Just like video games, high score always wins.
The game is loaded with retro gaming nostalgia. There are power ups, cheat codes, boss battles, side-scrolling levels, level checkpoints, secret items, NPCs, and much more.
HG: One player version? How is that natural in a competitive setting? I'm very intrigued and you must elaborate.
JT: The style of video games that this emulates were for the most part, one player. You would play by yourself, or players would take turns playing one at a time. And in a lot of cases, you were simply playing to beat your previous high score. The competition was against the game, and yourself. I'd love to be able to preserve that and incorporate that into this game.
HG: Where did you get the idea for making a game about Abraham Lincoln? What drew you to him and the idea of making something fantastical with such a famous historical figure? I've long wanted to make a game about my hero, Theodore Roosevelt, but haven't found the right design yet.
JT: It was 2008 and I was making one of my very first card games. One prototype had a 3x4 grid on each card and you would move a token from left to right along a series of cards. I was essentially trying to recreate a side-scrolling video game with cards. I had no characters and no story, just a really rough general idea of how it would work.
Even in early stages of development, my first ideas are always about production. I knew that I couldn't afford to make custom tokens for this game, so I looking into buying some tokens from a parts company. At one point I read a post on Board Game Geek where the author said used pennies for his prototypes. At one cent each, they are the cheapest and most accessible prototype parts.
I was using the penny and sliding it across the grid and it hit me that I should just make Abraham Lincoln the main character and use the penny for the actual in-game token when self-publishing. And since Lincoln is so iconic, it was an easy choice. The beard, the hat, the penny, the Lincoln Memorial, log cabins... all of these are defining to most Americans.
I took the original Mario Bros sprite, changed it into Lincoln, and Pixel Lincoln was born. Even though he was pretty short and squat, and wasn't wearing his hat he was instantly recognizable and instantly very cool.
The old card game was an homage to Mario Bros and Megaman, so I kept the standard level types in the game (underground, underwater, etc). I just needed enemies. Whenever I made them realistic, it felt out of place, so I turned to a few artist friends, gave them the template and asked them to create enemies. Within an hour I had the puking turtle, tommy gun cats, smiley slimes, tiny T-Rex, and many more. We went with it and those characters carried into to the DS game and now into the deckbuilding game.
HG: Pixel Lincoln was a DS game, right? Why did you decide to convert the property into a print game?
JT: Pixel Lincoln was actually a card game first. Way back at the end of 2008, I created Pixel Lincoln and self-published a card game. The art was great and the concept was a lot of fun, but the game itself was more of a novelty than a game. There weren't a lot of choices to be made, but people still loved the idea of Pixel Lincoln. A few years later, I connected with video game developers Island Officials and started development of Pixel Lincoln for Nintendo DS. I was a designer on the game and after 2.5 years of production my role was just about complete. I left the DS project and Island Officials asked if I would be interested in making an analog version of Pixel Lincoln, again. Pixel Lincoln is my baby so I jumped right on it.
HG: How long has the game been in development?
JT: I have worked on it pretty much daily since the beginning of March.
HG: Who is handling the art and graphic design for the game?
JT: One of the reasons we decided to make Pixel Lincoln: The Deckbuilding Game as my first analog project with Island Officials was because the art assets were already completed. I am using artwork directly from the game for both the cover art and card art. The cards feature the in-game sprites, but blown up 1200%. The cover art uses our concept art from artist John Fisher, who I've worked with previously.
I am handling the graphic design duties for this game. I made a deck of prototype cards for testing and everyone loved the mock ups. I was going for the feel of a Nintendo cartridge meets a Game Boy unit. Over the last 2 months, I feel like I've pushed myself as both a game designer and graphic designer to places I've never been able to reach before.
HG: Why did you choose to make a deckbuilding game? It's always really fascinating for me to find out why a designer chose to frame his project a certain way.
JT: When I was chatting with Island Officials, they suggested a board game. My first thought about that was the high production cost, so I decided to go all cards. About two weeks later, I brought them some card mockups and very rough prototype and I think they were shocked that there wasn't a board.
After I decided to go with cards only, I immediately flocked to the idea of a deckbuilding game. I loved the idea of combining some of the oldest video game concepts with some of the newest board game methods. And deck building is traditionally about gathering and collecting cards, which thematically fits very well with gathering and collecting items in older adventure video games. And finally, deckbuilding games are usually known for their customization, which is key in this game.
HG: Is each player essentially playing as Lincoln? Or is each player influencing a central character of Lincoln? What's the players' perspective in this?
Each player plays as Pixel Lincoln. On your turn you will play through the level defeating enemies, obtaining items, building your deck, and advancing your score. At the end of the turn, the controller passes to your opponent (not physically, but metaphorically) and they take a turn as Pixel Lincoln. Each player has a central card in front of them that says "Player 1", "Player 2", etc.
HG: What is the unique mechanic or setup for Pixel Lincoln? I've been working on a deckbuilder for months and it's been incredibly difficult to create it such that it doesn't feel like a "me-too" when played alongside Ascension, Dominion, A Few Acres of Snow, etc.
JT: There are a few things that set Pixel Lincoln apart from the others. I didn't stray from the familiar concepts of draw/discard piles or anything like that, but I did play around quite a bit with the cards that are available to the player. In many deckbuilding games, you can obtain the cards that are in play. In Pixel Lincoln, you have the act of exploration. You can see what is in coming up in the level, but not too much as there are only 5 cards in each level at the start of each turn. You have the opportunity to see what is coming up in the level by playing specific cards or abilities. There are also multiple levels in each game, so you can see what cards are in an opponent's level during their turn. This was influenced by classic 2 player games and watching an opponent explore a level that you've never reached.
HG: Could you explain the exploration mechanic a bit further? I'm intrigued and I'm sure I'm not the only one.
JT: The game has one level per player, and each level is its own randomized deck consisting of enemies, items, a boss, NPC's, and checkpoints. So, in a four player game, there are four different levels.
During the game, 5 cards are drawn from each level deck and laid out from right to left. This represents everything that a player can see in front of them in the level. There may be enemies or items, and when a player defeats or purchases them, those cards are added to their discard pile. If a player decides to explore, they must discard a card from their hand and another card is drawn from the level deck and added to the table. That card is now available to defeat/purchase. If you have enough cards in your hand, you can continue to explore, etc.
Also, the levels are all accessible from the beginning, so each player will choose where they want to go. If I am the only player in Level 1, I am the only one with access to the cards that are drawn for that level. However, just like with a turn-based video game, I am still seeing what other players are doing in their levels. If I see cards that I need for my deck, I may decide to leave the current level and hop into one that my opponent is in.
Deckbuilders traditionally receive a lot of negativity for not having enough player interaction. This was big on my list from the start. I made sure that the players could affect each other. When players are in the same level, there are various things they can do to affect each other.
And theme is probably the biggest difference between Pixel Lincoln and Dominion or Ascension; Pixel Lincoln feels like you are playing a video game.
HG: Can you give some examples of the type of player interaction? This was an area I sought to improve upon as well (though I personally love Dominion). I really didn't want to go the "Take-That" route, so I'm curious how you chose to incorporate player interaction.
JT: The interaction is both direct and indirect. When you defeat an enemy card, it goes to your discard pile. Enemies have big points and they are great for end game scoring, but they aren't equippable like items. When they are in your hand, you can cash them in for money (to buy items) or use their abilities. The abilities on the enemies were the ones that would affect other players the most.
I added some "take-that" style cards because it fits the style and feel of Pixel Lincoln. There are enemy cards with a Cancel ability, which will cancel an opponent's card effect. There are defense style enemies that give negative victory points and can be forced on your opponents. There are bomb style enemies that force everyone in the current level to discard cards. Time travel cards allow you to rearrange the decks, which can help you or hurt your opponent, depending on how you decide to use it.
The indirect interaction is within the levels and trying to get specific cards before your opponents do. Because all cards are not available to all players, players will see what their opponents are doing and then develop new strategies. Many cards are unique. Each enemy and item has an ability and an overall suit. These suits (stars, clocks etc) are used within the game for additional special abilities and scored at the end of the game as sets. If you talk to an NPC, they will tell you which set to collect in order to gain big points. There is a bit of a race to grab certain suited cards before your opponents do.
HG: Do you have a favorite deckbuilding game? Why?
JT: My favorite deckbuilding games have been games like Pond Farr (Salmon Run) (Noted: The Salmon Run on BGG is not the one to which he is referring) and Mecha Mayhem that I've played at Unpub. I'm loving what others are doing with deckbuilding, especially when it's incorporated into a game that consists of more than just the deck of cards. Both of these games apply deckbuilding as a tool instead of making it the entire focus.
And although it's not quite deckbuilding, Quarriors is my favorite "-building" game. The components are a big factor, but I think Quarriors has so much replayability in such a tiny package. By making 3 different cards for each character, the games are never the same. I'm also a big fan of culling down my deck and I like how Quarriors does it.
HG: I was fortunate enough to receive an early prototype copy of Salmon Run last year and I agree, it's a really great game. I'm also very fond of Quarriors -- I just love the premise, even though it is highly random. Seeing as how these are some of your favorites, did you at any point try to find a way to make Pixel Lincoln a bit grander in scope with the deckbuilding just a mechanic, not the entire game?
It's funny that I didn't design this in the style of my favorite games, but I tend to do that with many of my designs. I design to the game and see where it takes itself. If it starts to stray from my original intent, but the changes are for the better, then I am all for it.
The biggest reason I didn't use deckbuilding as just part of the game was because I didn't want to dive into other components. I was trying to hit a price point for production and couldn't stray from the cards.
I'd love to mess around with different takes deckbuilding in future games. It's a simple concept, with so much room for growth.
HG: What advice can you give to someone trying to design a deckbuilding game?
JT: Don't let the haters get you down. Deckbuilding has gotten a little bit of a bad name lately. It doesn't deserve it, because even with the common complaints, it's still a very new style of game and it has a lot of staying power. I would suggest checking out games like Pond Farr (Salmon Run) and Mecha Mayhem to see how deckbuilding can work as a secondary aspect of the gameplay. It's like deckbuilding without even knowing you are deckbuilding. It might even fool the haters.
HG: Why do you think people have been harsh on deckbuilding? From my perspective, like every genre, some people just don't care for it. But, the other factor is that the success of games like Dominion has been so explosive that many other publishers have jumped in with "me-too" cash grabs. Do you think it's something other than this or what?
JT: I guess it's more like "people are harsh on Dominion"... but deckbuilding is like the new kid on the block. With each new deckbuilding game that is announced or released, comes the wave of Dominion and Ascension comparisons. As more and more deckbuilding games come out, we're seeing less and less of this, but it's been hard getting past the big names in the format.
I think there is a little-bit of the "cash grab", but I see it more as a "following grab". Something like Battleship: The Movie: The Deckbuilding game would definitely feel like a cash grab, but the games that we're seeing today look like they're trying to gain a following by using a popular and familiar format.
But... I would totally play Battleship: The Movie: The Deckbuilding game.
HG: What were some of the biggest challenges you had to solve for the Pixel Lincoln design?
JT: The biggest has been direct player interaction. There is plenty of indirect interactivity, but the direct interaction took a little while to develop. Each players area is wiped clean at the end of their turn, so when it came time for a player to affect one another, there wasn't much they could do. The inactive players only had the cards in their hand, which could easily be affected by the active player, but I wanted more than that.
From the start, enemies would be added to your deck for big points, and enemies would be used against your opponents. But the way they are used has evolved quite a bit. I considered using them for direct attacks, but it pulled away from the video game feel. Now each enemy has an ability on its card, many of which affect your opponents.
Another big challenge has been printing test copies. The game has a lot of cards and I've started over with the design about 3-4 times. It's been tough to test without solid prototype cards because the game is pretty deep in its theme.
HG: What do you mean by "each player's area is wiped clean?”
JT: By this, I mean all cards that have been played during a player's turn are removed from play and discarded at the end of the turn. Cards in hand may carry over to the next turn, but your playing area resets each turn.
HG: What's your favorite part about the game?
JT: The nostalgia. I've been trying to cram every one of my favorite old school gaming memories into this game. I made a "Pause" card recently. I'm incorporating cheat codes into it. There are hidden items, warp zones, and extra lives. It brings back good memories.
HG: What did you use to build your prototype?
JT: I have a method that I've been reusing over and over. It started with a set of black card sleeves with Pokemon cards inside for support. Then I'll slide in a piece of paper, which is usually handwritten at first and start to test out the game. As it develops, I'll print the next version as text only and slide in the printed version. Then when it's time to show it off and get deeper into testing. I'll print a full color version and slip that into the sleeves. This is exactly what I did with Pixel Lincoln as well as a few older games. If you look through the sleeves you'll find various old games and various versions of Pixel Lincoln.
HG: Where did you find your testers?
JT: I've been testing at local events such as Unpub Mini and the NJ/PA Board Game Alliance. At both of those events I can play with both designers and gamers, and receive very different and helpful feedback. I've also been testing with designer friends and various individuals at the Island Officials offices.
HG: What are some things you tried and removed from the game? Why?
JT: I tried direct conflict by using your enemies to attack your opponents, but it evolved into having special abilities on each card, and these abilities will directly effect your opponents. I tried player vs player battle as an out of turn sequence that was triggered by an action, but it just pulled away from the main game. I also tried using fixed levels in one variation, but with fixed levels you lose the variety and replayability.
HG: What do you plan to work on next?
JT: The next few weeks are very busy for me. I'm editing the Pixel Lincoln Kickstarter video and finishing some better versions of temporary cards. I'm heading out to Origins on June 1st and I'll be promoting Pixel Lincoln's Kickstarter launch and demoing another game of mine, Sandwich City. After the weekend, Pixel Lincoln launches and it's going to be 45 tough days. During that time, I need to finish and tighten the artwork and finalize the last 5% of the design tweaks, while also promoting the game as much as possible. I'll be at the Too Many Games convention in PA in mid-June and then at WBC and Gen Con later this summer. By then, Pixel Lincoln will be behind us and I'll be onto one of my pending projects, which is most likely ZombieZone, a head-to-head Zombie vs. Human battle board game, which has the feel of an abstract strategy game.
HG: I've had my eye on Sandwich City for quite some time. Not to derail the conversation, but what have you done with it lately? Any plans there?
JT: After The Game Crafter contest ended I started working on a 3 and 4 player version of Sandwich City. The game was originally built for 2 players due to the cost and component limitations in the contest. I tweaked it and finished up the multiplayer version and now I'm starting to show it to people. Ultimately, I'd love to see it fully produced, so I'm about to dive right into unfamiliar territory and see where it takes me.
HG: Anything else you'd like to add?
JT: Thanks for having me! Glad to be part of such a wonderful, inspiring site.
HG: The pleasure is all mine! Thanks for taking the time for this interview.