Cracked LCD: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game in Review

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My first game of Paizo’s new Pathfinder Adventure Card Game didn’t impress me much. Designed by veteran game maker Mike Selinker, the game is a co-op adventure that at first blush feels like another Talisman-descended flip a card, roll a die at it exercises. The key differentiator seemed to be the character cards packed with as many stats and powers as you’d use in the pen-and-paper RPG on which the game is based. It felt simplistic, too easy, and nowhere near as detailed or complex as the Lord of the Rings LCG or Mage Knight. I had one of those “this can’t be all there is to it” feelings about it as my two characters, a Dwarven scout and a human wizard, tracked down and made quick work of a villain and his bandit henchmen stirring up trouble in the town of Sandpoint.

But then I prepared the second scenario out of the three that comprise an introductory campaign.  I had to examine each character’s small 15-20 card deck and determine which of the weapons, armor, spells, allies, items, and blessings we had picked up would remain for the next adventure, adhering to quotas that along with statistics and powers define the character classes. My dwarf had found a much better weapon, a throwing axe, than what he started with. The wizard swapped out two of his spells and kept an ally that would help him in case there was a dexterity challenge in the next adventure. Between later adventures, your characters might earn Skill Feats that give them die roll bonuses to stat checks or card feats that let them have larger decks- important, because your deck is also a barometer of your health and exhaustion. Every card is an HP as well as a resource.

The cardplay is especially compelling because it’s not really about hand management. Many cards are “displayed” to use, and they go back into your hand and stay there unless they’re taken as damage or discarded for other purposes. Some cards can be recharged and put at the bottom of your deck. And there are items that are one-shot uses that are banished (returned to the box). Over the course of several adventures- eight of which are included in the box and with more coming in expansion packs- you’ll be constantly refining and developing your characters’ deck contents and their abilities, eventually taking on one of two class specializations. But it’s not quite deckbuilding, and the tight decks keep your card selection focused on what your character does best.

Sure, other games like Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel or the Road to Legend rules for Descent had contiguous character development. None have done it so succinctly. But make no mistake- this is not a roleplaying game. It’s a card game.  It’s still about flipping a card and rolling a die at it, not about telling a detailed story.  What you get is a CCG-like précis, fill in the blanks as to why a Bunyip showed up at the General Store. Some will inevitably resent the game for its ease of play and level of abstraction, expecting a 1:1 transposition of complex RPG storytelling mechanics to a fixed system. Others will value its smooth gameplay, engaging tactical situations, and innovative concepts. I am most definitely in the latter camp.

There’s not much to explain about how it plays at a processl level, despite a lengthy rulebook that makes it look like there is. On your turn, you send your character to a location. Each of these has a specially prepared deck of cards with a specific assortment of Boons and Banes, typically including the scenario’s boss and his/her/its henchmen. You’ll explore these areas by drawing cards and encountering them, making combat check or statistic challenge die rolls. When you find a henchman, you can beat them and attempt to close a location. The reason for these shorter term goals is that when you find the main villain, he can flee to other open locations and you might wind up having to fight him a couple of times. And time is of the essence, because there’s only 30 turns between all players to wrap it up.

What that brief description leaves out is that even though this is a cooperative game, it completely sidesteps the usual genre tropes that have been much too common in the years since Shadows Over Camelot, Pandemic, and similar titles. There is no “stop the siege” concept. You do not draw a bad card to activate a kind of cardboard AI. There are no respawning/overrunning bad guys. There’s also not a single meter, threat dial, or track anywhere in the box. With closed hands and uncertain deck contents it’s more or less impossible for the Alpha player to bark orders to others, directing everyone as to which fingers to stick in which holes in the dam. It just doesn’t play like that.

Instead, players can assist each other with Blessing cards and other benefits to add dice before difficult rolls are attempted. They can partner up to complete multi-part skill checks. The cleric can heal others or repair their gear. The Scout can shoot his crossbow from another location to help the Bard. You might call in the Rogue, who starts with the most item cards, to come and try to disable a trap or other barrier that is slowing down the party. Because the characters are so specialized, the division of labor makes sense- send the fighters to areas where there are a lot of monster cards, put the character with Diplomacy on the location that needs a Diplomacy check to close. Inevitably, you’re going to need to call on your friends to help.

Even with occasional insurmountable die rolls, the game never feels like its out to destroy you. Punitive, capricious difficulty is one of the frustrating continuities of co-op game design.  You won’t lose the game because you topdecked a card that is slightly less bad than another bad card. You won’t spend the game getting hammered by random events and impossible situations. There’s always hope. There’s always the possibility of an ace die roll, and if you haven’t squandered your resources there’s usually something someone has that can save your bacon. The balance is sometimes quite amazing- you’re heroes, most of the time you’ll beat the monster or succeed in finding that great weapon even if you need some assistance. But all it takes is a couple of fumbled rolls and suddenly the game isn’t so easy anymore. You’re shedding cards as you take damage, and running out of options. And with the timer ticking down, tense situations and do-or-die junctures create meaningful punctuation instead of persistent, soul-crushing difficulty. LOTR LCG, I’m looking at you.

As much as I love this game- enough to subscribe to Paizo’s service by which they’ll send you the expansions upon release- I think it’s crucial that expectations are kept in check. Do not go into this game expecting Magic Realm: The Card Game. Do not expect this game to tell a detailed, specific narrative rich with deep strategy and Byzantine mechanics.  Do not expect it to be an ersatz way to experience Pathfinder or  the fantasy RPG experience in general. Do not look for this game to compete with the LOTR LCG with its deckbuilding, challenge level, and complex card combinations. Expect a 45-60 minute adventure card game- exactly what it says on the tin.

And it is a big ass tin. The box is huge and full of empty space. But there’s a reason, there’s room for all of the expansion packs that will make up the Rise of the Runelords storyline. Over time, the actual mix of available cards will change as characters effectively “level up” and get stronger. I’m really looking forward to how the scenarios develop. There’s a lot of potential in this system for some really exciting concepts, particularly because the concept of continuous, player-owned character development will be interacting with an evolving storyline and setting.

If there’s a kicker to this otherwise outstanding game, it’s that it is really not meant to be played as a one-off experience. Like last year’s Risk: Legacy, the idea is that permanent elements of the players’ in-game agency change. The rules even tell you to write on the cards, ticking off boxes when you earn feats. There are even suggestions for “grinding” with characters that haven’t caught up to where others are at in the adventure. It’s not that you can’t just pick a scenario and play it, because you absolutely can, it’s that you won’t be getting at what makes this game so exciting.

The good news I have for you if you’re reading this and thinking “my group will never play this more than once a month” or whatever is that Pathfinder is an excellent solo game. It scales one to four players perfectly (five to six with a character add-on pack), and playing with two or three characters solitaire has quickly become one of my favorite me-time activities. Setup and takedown are quick, and it’s fun to play through with different combinations of characters. Replayability out of the box is very high, alone or with a group. Setup is random every time, and different character groups will encounter different challenges.

This game could be a major release for Paizo. It’s the first attempt at doing a board or card game based on their Pathfinder brand and as far as I’m concerned they’ve aced the coming out party. Buzz from Gen Con is great, and reports of sold out retailers is good news. I want to see this system develop, and I’m interested to see what a second base set and overarching adventure following the Rise of the Runelords cycle might look like.

It was just a few weeks ago that I called Robinson Crusoe the game to beat in 2013. Now it has some real competition

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One Response to “Cracked LCD: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game in Review”

  1. Bill Abner August 22, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    This was smoking hot at Gencon.

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