Here is the story of Pixel Lincoln: The Deckbuilding Game, which started out as a card game, then became a video game, and will now be a card game all over again.
How did all of that happen? Well, it all started with a penny.
2008: The Original Card Game
I was prototyping games for the first time and didn't have the arsenal of components that I have nowadays. After reading a brilliant tip on the BoardGameGeek DIY forum, I decided to use the most inexpensive and accessible item in the U.S.: the penny.
The game I was working on was an unnamed single-player side-scrolling card game. It had no theme, no art, and not much else, but the cards had a horizontal 4x3 grid in which I would roll a die and move the penny from left to right.
As time went on, I needed to figure out what the game actually was all about, and it suddenly hit me. Abraham Lincoln should be the main character, and players should use a penny as the token. It make perfect sense to me. The penny was facing in the right direction for a side scroller, and I could self-publish the card game without having to provide any additional components.
That day, I made the first Pixel Lincoln images, and finally settled on this:
With the help of many of my wonderful creative friends, we made all of the enemies and bosses and really started to shape the incredible world of Pixel Lincoln:
The first four enemy designs
The Puking Turtle – still my favorite character in the game
Booth's first appearance
The game in action – a skateboarding Penguin just killed Pixel Lincoln!
2009-2012: The Nintendo DS Game
Island Officials found out about Pixel Lincoln and started helping me out by taking the card game to local conventions. And each time we did this, we would talk more and more about how we needed to make it into a video game. At the end of 2009, we formed a team of ten and started working on the Nintendo DS version of Pixel Lincoln. The DS was the obvious platform choice as Island Officials had already released a DS game, and it felt like the right place for a 16-bit side-scrolling adventure game.
We took the general vibe of the card game – Pixel Lincoln travels through time and space, defeating crazy enemies to reclaim his hat – and took it to the next level. Lincoln was brought up to the times with a more 16-bit style. We added in (and eventually cut) all kinds of awesome weapons like the Beardarang and Sausage Link Whip. Levels were enhanced and expanded on, and the game started to come to life.
We worked on this game a few days each week for two-and-a-half years. Over this time the team built its own engine, I had two kids, and we went through three offices and a ton of conventions. I will never again wonder why my favorite games are in development forever because I have first-hand experience in the process. It was our first game together, and there are things that we would change to improve the next time around, but even so... it's a long process. There are delays of every kind that you can imagine, and bugs lurk in every corner. Every time we would reach a milestone or have a big due date, something major would decide to stop working. Oh, the joy of digital games!
Among all of the delays and difficulties were some real highlights in the video game process. Design sessions were a blast. Our illustrator, Jon Fisher, created character drawings for the cover art and rulebook – awesome action poses of Pixel Lincoln that were as far from pixelated as possible. We did this to mimic the old games that had intense-looking heroes on the cover and an 8x8 barely recognizable pixel character on the screen. Jon's art was amazing. Another highlight was when we brought Chipocrite on board for the music. Adding in his chiptune level music took the game to the next level. He's very talented and knows his retro gaming music history.
2012: The Deckbuilding Game
A little over two years after starting the DS game, my initial design duties were a thing of the past, and it was all in the hands of the programmers at this point. I was ready for a new project, and Island Officials suggested that I work on a board game version of Pixel Lincoln using all of the art assets from the video game.
This was like my dream project. I've been itching to revisit the tabletop version of Pixel Lincoln for a long time. Originally I planned to make an advanced set of rules, but with the video game art assets in hand, I could make an all-new game without worrying about obtaining original art (or even worse, having to do it myself). This was also a complete 180 from the video game development. The time it takes to get an idea from paper to the DS feels like ages. It has to go through the artists, then the animator, then the programmers, then at some point come back to the designers to test – and by then, I would have already come up with a way to improve this idea, along with five other ideas, too. With a board game, as long as you have someone to help test it out (and in some cases as long as you have yourself), the process is instantaneous. I can create a paper prototype and start shuffling ideas around. I can cross things out and write over them for an immediate alteration. With the various digital delays, a lot of creative sparks were outweighed by reality and ultimately shelved. This is the nature of any project, but the video game process enhanced it. With so many hands to go through, a silly idea (of which I have many) seems much sillier.
A week after I was asked to make a board game, I came back to the office with a card game. I ditched the board early on because I knew that it would make the product more expensive to produce, and if I were going to spend the next few months working on this, I wanted to make a game that could eventually see the light of day.
My prototype was a deck-building game, albeit one that felt like a video game. I went into this with the question, "How can I change a video game into a card game, but still make it feel like you're playing a video game?" So I started watching YouTube videos of my favorite games, games like Mega Man 2, Battletoads, A Boy and His Blob, and Super Mario World. I asked everyone who I knew about their favorite parts of their favorite NES-era games, then would try to incorporate those concepts into the card game.
The first prototype was similar to what we have today. Each player plays as Pixel Lincoln; on a turn, he travels throughout the level, defeating enemies and purchasing items. These items are added to the player's deck to eventually allow a player to defeat bigger enemies and purchase better items. Players take turns individually, just like when we were kids and we would pass the controller around. At the end of those old video games, everyone was playing for the highest score, so I added the exact same goal in Pixel Lincoln. Each enemy or item gives you a set number of points, and at the end of the game the player with the highest score wins. There were NPCs with specific missions, extra lives, power-ups, side-scrolling levels, keys – it was really starting to feel like a video game.
I tested the game at a bunch of events (Unpub Mini, NJPA BGA, Origins) and fine-tuned it. I tightened up anything that was slow and cleaned up anything that was unfinished. Players gave wonderful input, and I made tweaks based off of common suggestions. With each tweak I would reprint the entire game (which wasn't cheap), but I wanted to have the ultimate playtesting experience. I think it helped.
I was fortunate enough to meet up with Dan Yarrington from Game Salute, and they picked up Pixel Lincoln. With Game Salute involved, we were now able to make Pixel Lincoln into the best game possible. No worries of having to handle any of the production duties, and I could just focus on design. We were super excited to become part of the Game Salute family.
Playing the prototype at Origins 2012
Thanks to everyone for their support, and don't underestimate the power of the penny!