Buckle up and grab your axe, because a path of adventure lies ahead of you, young adventurer. You may not have the best armor and weapons at hand, but after undertaking a few tasks you might just land some shiny new toys, and a few stories to tell at that.
The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is a relatively new release from Paizo games, and it attempts to pare down the role-playing game experience into a short(er) card game that requires little preparation and no game master, while retaining the dice-rolling and storytelling fun, not to mention the joy of building your own character over the course of many sessions.
How It Plays
PACG is not a terribly complex game. To begin the adventure, players choose characters and shuffle together a pre-determined set of cards for that character, which includes weapons, armor, and items.
Then, players choose an adventure to run (there are adventure paths with adventures in chronological order that build a big story over the course of multiple games) and follow a series of instructions to create several locations. Each location is a stack of cards containing enemies, obstacles, and useful items to be encountered.
On a player’s turn they can move and explore, which just means flipping over the top card of their location. Each card encountered has an ability tied to retrieving or defeating it – for example, fighting a Goblin will require combat skills, while nabbing a useful dagger might require stealth. Each character has a set list of skills and abilities, which involve both a base number and a type of die. You roll the die tied to the appropriate ability and add any bonuses, and if you beat the target number you kill the monster or retrieve the item or disarm the trap. In many cases, further rewards are reaped through success.
Fortunately, players can use cards from their hand to modify their numbers to increase chances of success, or mitigate penalties for failure, or roll more dice.
Players have many items, allies, and blessings to help them out, but must be careful. Their deck represents their life, and when their deck runs out, so does their time on this earth. Whenever a player takes damage, they must discard cards, and at the end of their turn they draw up to a hand limit.
Fortunately, there’s more than one way to play a card. Some cards are simply revealed, such as weapons, and aren’t discarded when played. Other cards are “recharged” which puts them at the bottom of the player’s deck instead of the discard pile. Of course, there are also cards that c
an only be used once per scenario, and even other items still that are returned to the box when used. Yikes!
Where does this all lead? Each location contains, somewhere inside it, either a villain or henchman. When a henchman is defeated (or all cards of a location have been explored), a player can attempt to “close” a location. When the villain is defeated, the current scenario is won! Unless, of course, not all locations have been closed and the villain has a place to escape to. And you thought it would be easy.
Players must work together to explore locations efficiently, tackle the various obstacles, seal all locations, and defeat the villain before time (a deck of cards that cycles automatically) runs out or all the players die, at which point the players LOSE.
But wait, there’s more! In addition to the scenarios that make up the game, players get to keep their characters from game to game. Though decks must be culled down to a limit, players can ditch old items and weapons in favor of new ones. It doesn’t end there, though – when players complete scenarios they can earn permanent improvements to their characters. Such improvements include increased ability scores, more special abilities, and an increased maximum deck size. As players play through scenarios and complete adventure paths, their characters will continually grow stronger and better, just like in a role-playing game.
This of course makes death all the more serious – unless resurrected by the end of a scenario, a character who dies is dead, and must be re-set back to 0. Ouch.
On a final note, PACG is designed to be continuously expanded. Adventure packs can (and pretty much must) be purchased to extend the adventure path. These packs don’t just add more scenarios, but add more powerful monsters, traps, and items the players will encounter.
Are We Going On An Adventure?
The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is an interesting beast, to be sure. I’ve heard a lot of different things from different people about this game; some who loved it, some who seemed to despise it. So is this the greatest game since Settlers of Catan, or is it overrated?
Maybe a little of both.
The cool thing about PACG is the somewhat legacy-like format of character building. Your choices and the things you succeed and fail at will change your path for the long haul. And yet, you don’t have to rip up your cards. You don’t even have to mark your cards, if you’re smart and just sleeve them (or at least the ones that get marked). PACG isn’t really a deck-building game, as the game itself doesn’t change your deck all that much. But the deckbuilding over time, game after game, is cool. It’s brilliantly executed, and captures the sense of an RPG with much simpler rules and a shorter setup time (it takes 5 minutes to “create” a character in PACG, whereas character building in Pathfinder (the RPG) itself can take hours).
But when you dig down into the actual game, things get a little foggy. I have to ask the question, what is PACG trying to be? Is it a simplified role-playing system? Is it a simple, fast-paced card game that draws from an RPG theme? Is it a deckbuilder that simply must be played over the long term?
As a streamlined RPG, PACG has the great advantage that preparation time is a fraction of what an RPG normally would require. Whereas a game master might spend hours crafting an adventure to bring his or her players through, not to mention extensive character creation and the general slow-paced nature of RPGs themselves, you can get a game going within a few minutes and complete a scenario in an hour and a half, leaving time for another if you’re up for it.
But, on the other hand, as an RPG, everything is pretty rigidly structured. It’s hard to create plans and schemes and cooperate with the other players. You never know exactly what’s coming up next in any given location, so you can’t call the rogue over to disarm the trap you just encountered and failed to pass. It got shuffled back in, so if the rogue comes over they might encounter some sort of monster that’s too much for them. It is possible for players to work together to defeat a single card, but only if that card has multiple challenges that must be passed. Most cards just have one challenge, and the current player is required to face at least one of the challenges, meaning other players can rarely help. There is the occassional item that allows another player to participate in combat, but it feels a lot like each player is making a solo run whenever it’s their turn. One of my favorite parts of RPGs is working together as a team and using different skills to accomplish goals, but its hard to really channel that.
There is, however, a decent story element. Each scenario has a short intro, and most cards don’t have a ton of description, but if you’re paying attention, you’ll naturally want to fill in the gaps of the story that’s going on. The locations and encounters you have give hints at details that encourage players to tell the backstory. You may fight a goblin and defeat him, and then in the next encounter you face a trap. Well maybe you got the goblin to run and chased him, but he led you right into a trap. If you’re playing this as an RPG it will be natural for you to tell the stories; others will not get as much enjoyment out of the game.
As a simple card game, there are some flaws. The biggest flaw is the ridiculous setup time. Remember how I said as a lite RPG, setup time was short? Well, as a card game, setup takes FOREVER. Even assuming your characters are all created, you’ve got to check the number of players, sort out specific location cards, find specific henchman (and sometimes enemies or traps), then shuffle in very specific numbers of cards from several different sets of cards – a few items, a few blessings, a few weapons, armor, traps, enemies, spells, etc. etc. and so forth.
Once you finally get set up, gameplay is pretty smooth, but there’s not a whole lot going on mechanics-wise. You flip up a card, roll a die, and maybe discard some cards. Sometimes you can pull off a nifty combination of cards that lets you roll a boatload of dice at once to get something cool or defeat a tough enemy, but you have to be careful that you don’t get yourself killed by overplaying cards. Moments of awesome gameplay, mechanism-wise, are pretty few and far between. For the card game alone, it just isn’t worth the setup time. And yet, PACG is trying hard to be a streamlined card game.
So, it’s a little wierd. It’s a strange mix of elements. The story aspect comes out much stronger than, say, Lords of Waterdeep, for which it’s easy to focus on the economy and simply collect and trade in cubes and still have an enjoyable game of it. Pathfinder without the story suffers.
It’s also strange in that it’s not a game you’ll get the most out of by picking up and playing occassionally. This is meant to be played as a campaign, over the course of many game nights, with a consistent group. If you’re the sort who plays in all different situations and does not have a consistent gaming group, or you prefer to play a variety of games from night to night, PACG probably won’t hold your interest. You’ll lose track of the story, of your character, of any investment into whats going on.
Speaking of investment, if you do want to follow the full campaign, you’re going to have to expect to drop some twenties here and there to keep the campaign going to completion. The full adventure path is made up of several adventures, which are again broken down into scenarios. You get a basic adventure in the box, and one adventure pack which includes the first adventure of the first adventure path. Beyond that you have to buy more packs of cards; to get the full PACG experience and benefit from the coolest part of the game – building your character over time – you’re going to have to get those adventure packs. Like I said, story is what drives the game, and playing the same scenarios over and over again will just get boring, especially if you’re increasing your characters power, since the adventure won’t increase with it.
Component-wise, well, what you have is a big box of cards. A really big box. The cards are good, the graphic design is excellent, and the box insert is incredible (and definitely designed to fill up with more adventure packs).
I think this game is best suited for those who just don’t have the time for a full RPG, but would like to try an RPG-like campaign with their groups. You’ll certainly build a fun fantasy story with interesting locations, characters, and enemies. The preparation time is just fine compared to full RPG pre-game, and no one has to be the Game Master. This game could also be good for a group interested in trying out an RPG experience, if they’re willing to get into it. It’s also great for anyone who loves the Pathfinder world and wants to get their hands on more.
You could even compare it to an LCG, except that all the deck-building takes place in-game. In that regard it’s probably a little bit easier to get people in on the action and building their own decks, since you can do it with one box and you don’t have to get anyone to invest in a complex metagame outside of playing the actual games. So, that’s kinda cool.
This game isn’t for people looking for the mechanical efficasy of a streamlined but clever card game with some theme layered on top. It’s not for people who like to play a variety of games, and don’t tend to play the same games repeatedly.
So, that’s why there is a divide. Someone looking for a great card game or deckbuilding game won’t find it – the card game is decent but not fantastic, and the deckbuilding isn’t concentrated enough per game to make PACG an interesting deckbuilder. But it does take the concept of an RPG and streamlines it into something playable in a few hours, provides hints and details that will push a cool story through the right group, and can provide interest and enjoyment to the right people.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Paizo Publishing for providing a review copy of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.