Review: All Glory to the Pixel King!

Stone outer walls, interior reflecting pool. Form meets function meets plague-addled killers.

Stone outer walls, interior reflecting pool. Form meets function meets plague-addled killers.

I respect the hell out of All Glory to the Pixel King! I respect it because it’s a game that dares to be minimalistic in a maximalistic world. Because it’s a game that hasn’t forgotten the childhood pleasure of playing with toy figurines–miniatures of doughboys, robots, knights, etc. Because it has a punctuated title and I get to do this! for the rest of the review.

But I respect All Glory to the Pixel King! mainly because it’s fed up with the conventions of glossy, overproduced turn-based strategy. “No, ‘dude,’ let me tell you about medieval-fantasy games,” it says, sitting in the pub, on the wrong end of a third pint. “Back in the day we had a game called Gemfire and exactly everything was better about everything.”

Compelling stuff. And yet, like most barroom-hatched philosophies, one has to wonder if All Glory to the Pixel King! intends to replace the conventions it ignores, or if it’s content to demolish first and worry the foundation later, if at all.

Perhaps the latter. Here’s what I saw when I first pulled up AGttPK!: a king standing alone in a field. No tutorial (since addressed but this is sort of a “conceit” thing I’m doing here). No welcome to the game. No obvious clue as to what to do. Nothing. Just the pixelated, vaguely European monarch of the game’s title, in some crabgrass. Staring. In the upper right corner of the screen was a red button with a sword (which activates battle mode, as I learned later on my own), and for a second I worried this was the “seppuku” button and that All Glory to the Pixel King! was going down a much darker route than its enthused title suggested.

That strip of red carpet's a real game-changer, strategy-wise.

That strip of red carpet’s a real game-changer, strategy-wise.

Turns out you’re actually meant to protect your not-chosen, not-elected leader from encroaching heathens in service to another vaguely European royal patriarch. And once players come to terms with the crushing, King-John-inIronclad-like depression their sad-sack king is undoubtedly suffering under, they can start building pretty castles! Drawing from a (fairly limited) palette of tiles, you can erect stone keeps, brick barracks and wooden staging grounds, and populate these structures with the staple medieval archers, knights and catapults. Naturally, this all costs gold, of which you have a limited amount. (12,000 or so gold pieces being “limited,” for royalty.)

You’ll need a well-conceived fortress and properly positioned troops to win, because once you’ve depleted your war chest it’s time… to go… to… war! Battles in AGttPK! pit your 8-bit fastness against one created by another player and manned by the AI (the two bases are just… sort of placed next to each other). Knights pour out of their barracks, archers loose arrows over their respective ramparts, catapults chip away at fortifications on both sides and the kings, well, the kings just hang, really. Say some inspiring stuff. Get a little reading done.

"Commander, they're tearing through the hedges! That's such a jerk move, m'lord!"

“Commander, they’re tearing through the hedges! That’s such a jerk move, m’lord!”

Really, it is best to leave your leader alone (so very, very alone) in the keep while the bulk of your force meets the enemy in the field. Just like in real war, once an army’s sole leader is dead they immediately lie down and stop fighting. A faster, lightly equipped battalion can steamroll a stronger force by breaking through their line and shanking their king.

Some other key strategies to employ in AGttPK! include:

1) Building a big-ass wall around the guy who instantly loses you the game upon croaking.
2) Totally putting a bunch of archers behind a portcullis, then shouting “ARCHERRRRS… DRAW!” when it’s time for the archers to draw.
3) Getting catapults. What, are you going to play a medieval strategy game and not use the catapults?
4) Totally putting a bunch of knights in front of the only door to your castle and repeating “Hold…. hold… HOLD…” when it’s time for the knights to hold.
5) Tactical horticulture.

All Glory to the Pixel King! does, at times, capture the feel of a medieval engagement. I’ll admit that in one match, when my foot soldiers in the field were defeated and the enemy was chipping away at my barricades, my king protected only by a few malnourished archers, I found myself both panicked and completely engaged. I was in that moment, watching the walls buckle, watching the end. And… then the terrible AI calmly walked its forces single-file through my gate, and into my arrows.

For reasons still unclear to historians, every single man stationed at Fort Yay! died of exposure in the winter of 1447.

For reasons still unclear to historians, every single man stationed at Fort Yay! died of exposure in the winter of 1447.

I didn’t plan for that to happen. I mean, I did, sort of. I meant for my archers to try and defend their lord from a fall-back position in our dinky wooden fortress. I just didn’t plan for the AI to also have that in mind, and so willing to accommodate me. And that’s the problem with All Glory to the Pixel King!. What should be a game of nail-biting last stands–where you watch your own personal Helm’s Deep get the Saruman treatment–ends up being a game of illogical crowd-sourced castles and an enemy army which clearly hasn’t heard of the defender’s advantage. Hell, the opposing king won’t even try to run or dodge arrow fire if he’s the last unit left on his side! That’s goddamn depressing.

AGttPK! feels like a game where the rules are only half written, with the rest being made up as you play. Thrilling, at first. But then it’s “Why do I need two kinds of roads to plan for a battle that lasts five minutes?” and “What do I do with the coins I earn once I hit the arbitrary unit ceiling?” and “How could a knight knock down a stone wall with just a sword?” All Glory to the Pixel King! is really just an entertaining toy. And again, I respect that. But that doesn’t mean I can’t ask for more from such a promising game.

Pocket Tactics Rating

3 Star Rating

3/5 Stars