Paizo’s latest release, a card-based RPG/Adventure Game based on Pathfinder lore, was one of the most highly anticipated titles debuting at GenCon this year; their booth attracting droves of fans looking to grab a copy or try out a quick demo. While I had my doubts regarding how effectively a deep, cooperative role-playing experience could be translated into a card game, I can attest that, after both group and solo sessions, this game is incredible.
The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game essentially streamlines an RPG experience into an easy-to-understand rule set, delivering a thematic narrative with an ongoing campaign that rewards players for their perseverance. I’m going to start with a quick run-through of the components and the game set up before touching on how it actually plays. The first thing I noticed on seeing this at Paizo’s GenCon booth was the immense size of the base game box but, once you crack it open, the extra heft makes a lot of sense. Housed inside is a very useful insert that has specially designated slots & trays and, more importantly, enough room for all of the cards from the base set as well as every future adventure deck. See, when you purchase the base set, you get enough cards to set up four characters simultaneously along with three introductory scenarios and another, separately boxed deck containing what players will need for the first step in their adventure path. There will be five additional adventure decks released bi-monthly which will carry a party of characters through an epic quest full of monsters, loot, and above all, fun. If you want to get up to two additional players in on the action (or simply want to expand the roster of characters you are able to build from) Paizo also offers a character expansion deck which also has a cozy home in the base box and contains a wealth of new items in addition to four new possible heroes, bringing the total to eleven when used in conjunction with those offered in the standard set.
In addition to offering storage for all six adventures (each featuring several individual scenarios) and the add-on character deck, the insert will help keep all monsters, barriers, henchmen, villains, locations, items, weapons, armor, blessings, allies, and spells grouped together to make for easy access. There are also six small slots designed to keep character decks grouped together – I’ll get into why that’s important in a bit. The components themselves are high quality with cardstock that feels thick and durable. The set includes one set of 5 polyhedral ( a d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12) although, while they’re totally serviceable, players will likely want to have additional sets on the table for when checks require adding multiples of the same die. This keeps you from having to re-roll the same one several times. The design and artwork on the cards is exceptionally well thought out. The illustrations are beautiful and eye-catching while all the most important information is easy to read and plainly laid out. Everything simply feels very functional and intuitive. Likewise, the rulebook has an excellent flow to it and the rules themselves are solid, with little to no room for fiddly issues. That said, the game isn’t at all complex; its foundation is actually quite straightforward and easy for a casual player or someone with no RPG experience to absorb.
At the start of the game, presumably at the beginning of your group’s adventure path (the itinerary that carries you through the game’s current and yet-to-be-released scenarios), each player will be able to construct a 15-card deck for their character of choice. These characters are completely asymmetrical with their own unique powers, skillsets, and card limitations but are all balanced quite well for cooperative play, with each offering something helpful to the group. Each player will take the token card of their chosen hero as well as their character card which outlines their proficiencies. Not all characters will have specializations in the same skills or even the same level of competency in those that they share. How well a character may be able to perform in certain areas is determined by the type of die associated with that skill. A mage character, for instance, may have a character card that states they roll a d12 +2 for checks using the Arcane ability. Conversely, their strength check may be determined by a mere d4, guaranteeing a much lower outcome if they were forced into hand-to-hand combat as opposed to conjuring an arcane spell in combat. A character much more outfitted towards brute force, on the other hand may use a d10 or d12 for their strength check, just like a rogue character will likely roll a larger die for dexterity. Similarly, each character’s deck will be set up in a way that most benefits them. As stated on their token card, a character’s deck must conform to the card limits they are allowed (x number of weapons, x number of armor cards, etc), so while a sorceress may not be able to go into the adventure with any weapons, the barbarian character won’t have any spells at their disposal. When setting up a character in this fashion, you also need to restrict the cards you add to ones that feature the “basic” trait on them. For beginners, or players that simply wish to get right into things, the instruction booklet also offers suggested builds for starting each character.
Once characters are built, the group will determine which scenario they are starting and retrieve the necessary components from the box. The scenario card will dictate which villain you will be squaring off against, what henchman will be assisting him, and which locations the scenario will take place in (depending on the number of players participating), along with some background info pertaining to the mission itself. Each location that the scenario calls for will be laid out (I prefer a circular pattern) around the scenario card and a deck of 30 face-down blessing cards and will detail the number of each type of card that will be drawn randomly from the box to make up each location’s deck. Once these cards are grouped, the villain and his henchman will be shuffled and randomly added to each location deck as well. At that point every location deck will also be shuffled and re-placed next to its location card. The reason for this is so players are unsure which location holds the villain and which are populated by a henchman. The location decks will also contain a mix of monsters, weapons, allies and other helpful or detrimental cards (referred to in the rules as boons and banes respectively). On top of that, every location card will detail a special action or effect that is available to or placed on players currently in that location. Once these cards are set up, players will choose which location they wish to start at and place their token card appropriately. The set up sounds cumbersome, but it’s honestly not that bad – set up time for a group session goes by very quickly once everyone has decided on and outfitted their characters and, hopefully, their characters will survive and they won’t have the need to rebuild often.
I mention death because, in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, death is a very real, very permanent possibility. The character decks that each player built at the beginning of the game, and which they will revisit and retool after each scenario, also indirectly serve as their hit points. If a player takes damage from a failed combat check or other type of bane, they are forced to discard a number of cards from their hand. If, at the end of their turn, they are unable to draw back up to their hand limit, their character is dies. As you play certain cards, they may call to be discarded, meaning you would need to draw to replace it at the end of your turn, so it’s important to manage card usage vs. card retention when planning out you course of action. Play and discard too many cards recklessly, and you leave yourself extremely vulnerable. If a character does succumb to their injuries and can’t be revived by spell or other means, they must choose to restart that or any remaining unused character from scratch while the surviving adventurers pick over the loot they were carrying (assuming they can finish the quest intact.
This adds a fair amount of intensity to the game especially when there is a timer constantly nudging you forward. The 30 cards in the central blessings deck I mentioned earlier will be flipped over, one at a time, at the beginning of each player’s turn. This ensures that there are always an equal amount of turns no matter how many players are present and keeps tension high as you are always trying to beat the clock. If time runs out and the villain hasn’t been captured, the scenario is lost and the reward noted on the scenario card cannot be gained. Unfortunately, defeating a villain is not easy task. Locations may be explored on your turn (and technically must be explored if you have any hope of winning) and, as the decks are randomized, you are not sure what may come up. If a boon is revealed, you may choose to encounter it and pass a check of perception, wisdom, etc, to put it in your hand. If a bane was revealed, be it a monster or barrier, it must be encountered and will likely inflict damage if you cannot pass the check it requires. If you manage to find one of the henchmen and defeat them in combat, the player may immediately attempt to close the location they’re in by succeeding at the location card’s requirement for doing so. Once a location is closed, its card is then flipped over (possibly granting bonus effects) and no villain can flee there. This comes into play once the villain is uncovered and fought. Even if you defeat a villain in combat, they will immediately escape to any location that is still open. Any player occupying another area may attempt to temporarily close or block the location they are in to prevent this so it is often beneficial to have your party split up in different locations. Other times, you may want everyone together – it’s one of the many strategic decisions you and the party will need to determine during the course of the adventure. During our first session, what started as learning a new, cool-looking game turned into a tense battle for survival where players were begging for aid and struggling to devise a winning plan of attack. Adventures often come down to the wire with characters on the verge of death and virtually no time left to fulfill their goals. That’s not only evidence of a well-balanced, thoroughly tested game design, but also brilliant mechanics and a narrative that’s engaging enough to keep people that entertained.
It also helps that, as you progress through this awesome story, you see real, lasting changes to your character. This is what really put the game over the top for me, offering tangible rewards for completing adventures and a sense of real accomplishment. After the scenario you will be able to sort through any cards you’ve obtained and decide to keep them while discarding others, as long as your deck still fits the build outlined on your character card. Furthermore, you’ll find that card is full of little checkboxes next to a bunch of different skills and powers. When a scenario reward states that you can level up in any of these feats, you can check off that box (either lightly with a pencil or, ideally, with a marker after the card has been sleeved for protection) showing your new, stronger ability. This may let you hold more cards in your deck or add bonuses onto specific die rolls. Either way, over time, your character will become more and more powerful. Of course, as additional adventures are released, the cards they contain will continually ensure the difficulty is ramped up to keep the challenge level high. Even while the play mechanics are repetitive (in that they boil down to repeatedly exploring and doing skill checks) the game still feels fresh every time it hits the table due to the unexpected nature of what will be revealed in each location next.
I was actually so impressed with this title that I’ve since placed an order for miniatures of the characters (to use in place of their token cards) and subscribed through Paizo’s site for all upcoming content. I’ve even gone so far as to read up on Pathfinder lore and some background to get further acquainted with the universe they’ve built – so players new to Pathfinder games have nothing to fear regarding the license as no prior knowledge of Pathfinder is needed to have a blast with it. Anyone who runs games regularly with a group of friends and is looking for a title with incredible replay value and epic campaign-based gameplay should look no further.