Skip to main content

Pathfinder: Adventure Card Game Review


There have been many, many attempts at blending role-playing games and strategy games. Until recently, almost all fell foul of the fundamental mismatch between playing co-operatively in the imagination and competing on a board.

The latest iteration is Pathfinder: the Adventure Card Game. Based on the famous role-playing game of the same name it may be the purest distillation of the adventure game concept yet. It’s smart, simple and packed with potential variety. But for all the benefits it boasts it trips on perhaps the most basic hurdle in game design: it just isn’t terribly interesting to play.

The base game comes in a quite colossal box which is largely empty, leaving space for expansions. It’s entirely card based, which is a good thing. Cards are about the only way you can shoehorn enough colour and variety into a tabletop game to even approach the fecund imaginations of GM’s everywhere.

You prepare by building a lot of decks. Each player selects a character and chooses cards for their decks based on that template. A warrior might be instructed to take lots of weapon and armour cards, while a mage will have spell and blessing card instead. There’s pre-selected decks for those that want them. But trust me: this is the best part of the game, as engaging as putting together a set for your favourite collectible card game. You won’t want to miss out on it.

Then comes the drudgery of preparing location decks. The locations you use depend on the adventure you’re playing. For each location you take a certain number of cards of different types, just like building a character deck. So the Goblin Tunnels have lots of monster and barrier cards, but a farmhouse is more likely to have helpful items and equipment. Unlike the character decks you draw these at random from the box, so the contents of each deck comes as a surprise.

The game then plays out with each player drawing a card from their current location and resolving it. Most cards, after resolving, get removed from the location deck. The final goal is to locate a villain that’s hiding in one of the decks and defeat him. But if you uncover the scoundrel and haven’t yet closed other locations by defeating the henchmen lurking there, he can run away. So you keep hunting until you defeat the big bad or a 30 turn timer runs out.

There’s no denying it’s pretty exciting. No-one has the least idea of what’s in those decks, or where the villain and his henchmen are ensconced. With such a huge selection of cards to pick from, the surprises come thick and fast. Zombies and Shadows mix with Harpies and Ogres. Deadly pit traps can nestle up close to potions and chests of treasure.

So why, then does the game feel so flat once a few turns have passed? The problem is the resolution mechanic. For all the bloated text in the awful rulebook, which makes the game appear far more complex than it is, resolving comes down to one thing. You look at a target number on the card you’ve drawn, pick some corresponding dice off your character card, roll them, total the result and try to beat the target.

That’s it. That’s how it works when your warrior is swinging his longsword at a goblin. That’s how it works when your absyssal sorcerer is force-blasting a skeleton. That’s how the thief picks locks, how the priest heals heroes, how the bard recruits allies.

That is, in effect, the entire game.

As you might expect it’s nowhere near enough to convincingly differentiate all those different cards. The result is that colour and flavour drains out of everything you encounter. All the richness and imagination of a fantasy world that’s been years in development rendered into two-tone by a weak and pointless mechanic.


After a while it gets so bad that the only difference between turning over a treasure and turning over a monster is whether the encounter hurts or benefits your hero. In both cases you still just look at a number and roll dice to beat it. If the card feels no different in play, why make the effort to differentiate it in your imagination?

It’s made worse by the co-operative nature of the game. I find most co-ops either too random or too predictable but it’s a mechanic that seems comfortable for adventure games. But when the core of the game is so trivial, there’s nothing to co-operate over. Decisions consist of nothing but unguessable risk-reward gambles.

It reminds me a lot of Talisman, a game that suffers from many similar complaints. But the slight extra complexity in Talisman is just enough to bring its fantasy thrillingly to life. The movement on a board gives it an extra element of spatial strategy. And most crucial, its competitive nature ensures the game stays taut and compelling long after Pathfinder has become flatly repetitive.

At this point you’re be justified in asking why such a bland, boring game is riding so high on the popularity wave. I’m glad you asked, because there is a reason. It goes back to where I opened this review with the building of character decks.

After each adventure your characters, naturally, get rewards. Sometimes it’s treasure cards drawn from the box. Sometimes it’s a new feat which allows you to customise your character’s skill and abilities. You’ll have picked up various geegaws during the adventure, too. Either way, you’ll have more cards in your deck than you started with.

But here’s the kicker: you’re still reqired to fit in with the card counts associated with that character template. Some feats increase the amount of different cards you’re allowed in the deck. But you’ll still have to sit down, sort through your loot, and decide what to keep and what to discard.

This is a superb example of how the packed the game is with clean, intuitive yet thematic mechanics. Your deck limit is a brilliant yet simple way to mimic encumbrance. There are lots more. Your deck is also your life pool, and wizard types have a bigger hand size than warrior types. So they go through their cards quicker, making them simultenously more flexible yet more fragile than their brawny brethern.

However, this plethora of breathtaking design makes the central draw, dice, roll mechanic even more infurating. With so much creativity on display elsewhere, why is the core of the game so clunky and pedestrian?

But I digress. One you’ve re-arranged your deck to your liking it’s back to the lather-rinse-repeat tedium of adventuring. But the sense of advancement is palpable. Lots of games succeed in making characters feel more powerful as they play. Only Pathfinder succeeds in making them feel so uniquely personal to the people that play them.

Does the draw of slowly bonding with a character as you tweak their deck to your liking outweigh the dead matter of the adventure itself? Only just. Yet there’s another consideration. Pathfinder was obviously designed to be played as an ongoing campaign, but this starter set contains only a sixth of the required material. There’s another five adventure packs to purchase to complete the story.

Each scenario takes thirty to sixty minutes to play, and there’s maybe 35 scenarios in the campaign. If you find the campaign sounds appealing enough to make you want to invest that kind of time and money, then Pathfinder offers a unique, but flawed, card-based RPG experience. For the rest of us, who want a bit less commitment and a bit more game, we have to carry on waiting for the ultimate marriage of role-playing and strategy.

Space Alert Review


The world of board games is a largely cerebral one, even at the thinnest end. For most games, physical appreciation begins and ends with the tactile nature of the pieces. But just occasionally, you’ll find a game that breaks out of your head and into your body. The first one I discovered was Labyrinth, which made me feel queasy as I planned massive terrorist outrages across the globe. Space Alert is the second. Space Alert gave me indigestion.

After playing nonstop for several hours – a large number of games since most last only 20-20 minutes, I lay in my bed and failed miserably to sleep as stress and adrenaline coursed through my nerves and acid ate away at my intestine. I wasn’t sure if what I’d just experienced was fun or not, but it was certainly powerful, and utterly unique.

Some background. Space Alert is a co-operative game, a genre I’m not over-fond of. Like most titles in this family, it effectively tasks the player with a puzzle to jointly solve. They’ve a spaceship crew who must survive an alien onslaught by powering weapons and shields from a central reactor, taking down the incoming enemies before they blow the ship apart and deal with internal threats like structural damage and a malfunctioning computer.

But the game has a quite evil twist up its sleeve. Rather than allowing players to consider the conundrum at their leisure, the game runs on a timer, placing them under immediate pressure. And it’s no ordinary clock, but an audio track of ever-increasingly urgent alarm klaxons which in punctuated by various computer instructions.

Mostly you’ll be asked to turn over a threat card and add it to one of the incoming trajectories. But there are various other instructions you’ll have to pay heed to: communications blackouts where no-one is permitted to talk, and incredibly brief windows in which players are allowed to swap action cards with one another. Until you’re very experienced with the game, the timing and nature of these announcements will come as a surprise, creating a delicious mixture of thrills from what’s mechanically a fairly deterministic game.

These action cards are they key to the game. Each one shows a movement arrow or an action, and players plan for the mission within the time limit by placing them on a board to indicate the actions they’re going to take during the resolution round. So, if you’ve got a hand full of actions that deal with energy transfer that’s going to be your major role for that mission.

But the geography of the ship being what it is, it’s more efficient if you can get to a station and stay there, raising the shields and then manning the cannons or whatever. But often you can’t: you don’t have the cards for it. And card swaps don’t always help because they occur before you can properly digest all the threats you need to deal with, or the actions you’ll have available later in the round.


This is fairly common and it’s incredibly frustrating. The game is a hideous pressure cooker as it is, and trying to do the basics like get players to stop, think and co-ordinate their actions when everyone is panicking and shouting and running around like headless space-chickens is quite enough to induce terror and despair without the additional barrier of a bad hand, a barrier you didn’t make for yourself and can’t do very much about.

Not that you have any time actually think about why you’re close to tearing your useless collection of action cards in half as cryogenic frigates and pulse balls hurtle toward your ship, spitting out ten different flavours of firey laser death, or fissures open beneath your feet and threaten to tear the ship in two or boarding parties rampage around the interior shooting everything in sight. You’re just trying to work out what you can do with your actions and communicate this to the captain, hoping desperately for orders that might never come, as the timer ticks inexorably down to zero and the sirens become ever more insistent.

It’s an incredible experience. And then the silence comes.

Space Alert is a Vlaada Chvatil game, and that pretty much guarantees you’re going to get brilliant innovation, and also makes it likely that you’ll see a two phase game. He’s very fond of an initial planning phase followed by a resolution round, and Space Alert follows this pattern. One of his previous titles, Galaxy Trucker, had a superb real-time round of competitive building followed by what I always felt was a rather tedious exercise in which one player just drew cards and told everyone what was happening to their ships.

I was worried that Space Alert would fall into this same trap, but it doesn’t. While the setup is similar, with one player working through the turns, everyone pitches in with moving their pieces around and adjusting threat tracks. But the real kicker is that most of the time the planning was so chaotic that no-one will have a clear idea of what to expect when the actions are revealed. So all the players are taut with the thrill of waiting to see whether they’re going to survive the trip or not.

One of the things I struggle with in co-op games is the alpha-dog problem, where one player just tells everyone else what to do. Space Alert does absolutely nothing to ameliorate this issue, yet it still works. It took me a good few games to realise that this is because it actually makes a virtue out of the problem, going so far as to assign a specific role, the Captain, to players with this tendency. You’ll need a good Captain to even have a chance of surviving the interstellar bruising that Space Alert dishes out, so it’s perfect for players who want to embrace their inner manager and step up to the challenge of command.

Robinson Crusoe Review


Mostly, I’m not a big fan of co-operative games. Games suffer terribly without the unpredictability and skill of human opposition, and the whole genre sometimes looks like a collection of semi-functional attempts to solve this big, blaring problem.

But there are a very few that make my grade. And I’ve noticed they tend to have certain things in common: they allow plenty of scope of individual player decision making in the face of the group, offer some sort of simple AI-like mechanics that make it look like the game is reacting to your decisions and have a deep well of variety to add to the narrative and keep things unpredictable.

But the most important quality of all is balancing the need for transparent mechanics that allow for strategic decisions with a strong wind of chance to make sure the game doesn’t become a mere logic puzzle. Lean too far in the former direction and you might as well be solving co-operative Su-doku with your friends. Too far in the latter and you might as well co-operatively shoot craps. It’s a hard, hard proportion to get right and none of the co-ops I’ve played so far, even my favourites, have quite got it right. Until I played Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe doesn’t so much nail that balance as drive it through the wall and into a water main. At heart it’s a worker placement game, albeit one with an unusually strong emergent theme for the genre, with all the heavy decision making that implies. Your picks from the bamboozling plethora of options you’re offered every turn will shape the game and nearly always determine your success or failure. Yet skimming across the top of these hard choices is a playful breeze of chance that can, if allowed, turn itself into a hurricane of destruction.

Each player has a specific character with a raft of special abilities and two placement pawns which, each turn, can be assigned to activities like exploration, hunting or gathering resources. Some activities require only a single pawn, others can have one, two or sometimes more and this affects the success rate. Shove enough pawns into the activity and you’re guaranteed success. Fall short and you’ll end up dicing for it, possibly failing or triggering a linked – and usually undesirable – event.

It’s a quite wonderful mechanic. At a stroke, it puts the amount of chaos the players are prepared to endure into their own hands while at the same time offering a series of meaty and difficult decision every round while also enriching the narrative. It also has an unexpected knock-on effect when it comes to group decision making: if there is disagreement, players can still get what they want done if they’re prepared to take a chance.

This injects some inter-player tension that might recur later in the game, and reduces the boss player problem that plagues co-ops as a genre. So does the imponderable random factors that dance around your decisions. These factors do not, however, eliminate the problem, and the possibility of an alpha-dog player arising to direct the game for the other participants remains a black mark against the title for me.

The whole thing is smug with other neat little rules flourishes, interlocking to provide a quirky, absorbing experience. Another favourite is the way events can come back to haunt the players. If, while exploring, you draw a card that tells you you’ve sustained a head injury, you take damage, mark your character’s head with a wound token and shuffle the card back into the main event deck. Draw it again and you suffer recurring headaches causing more problems.

The weight comes from a classic set-up of too much to do in too little time. Characters need food to survive from the off, but they’ll need other things too as the game progresses. Shelter from the weather, tools and inventions to make life easier. To do most of these, and to work toward victory, you’ll need to spend time gathering resources first. You can’t do it all, sacrifices will have to be made and characters will suffer through a simple but effective rule stating that any shortfall in resource requirements must be paid in wounds. If anyone accumulates enough to die, it’s game over.


Winning is hard, and requires practice and skill, but is far impossible. The difficulty level, again, feels just about pitch perfect. Every game feels like a fresh take at a puzzle, but one in which the parameters change subtly, demanding fresh insight, granting a new narrative and keeping things from getting dry and stale.

The inventive mechanics tie up into a game that gives you not only a satisfying balance between strategy and chaos, but which tells a detailed narrative. You’ll pick a scenario at the start of each game, ranging from a standard rescue from a desert island to a bizarre quasi-horror quest to burn out cannibal villages on the isle. There are six in total, widely varied and each playing significantly differently from the others in a rules-light way by tying in different effects to icons on cards, tiles and chits.

But there are also five fat decks of cards, the main event deck, three lots of events for different activities and the wonderful mystery deck, which ensure that no two games are remotely similar. In one, you might be constantly threatened by wild beasts running amok into and through the camp, another might be filled with vicious booby traps left by mysterious previous residents. There’s unseasonable weather to deal with, flotsam from the shipwreck to discover, fires, cliffs, earthquakes and much, much more.

Of course, you pay for it in complexity. You can’t get all that strategy, all that detail, all that variety on a simple rules framework. But it’s not so bad as it might first appear after a trawl through the dreadful rulebook. A lot of the heavy lifting is farmed out to cards, tiles and a seemingly endless parade of tiny icons and with few examples, it takes a while to see how it all locks together. And there’s a lot of wood and card to shuffle about during setup and every turn. But once you’ve got it, games run surprisingly quickly: the two hour play time on the box is not only plausible, but occasionally generous.

Humble pie is rarely tasty, but sometimes you just have to eat a slice. On the basis of rules and reviews I got the impression with was a cumbersome game that did little to solve the inherent problems of the genre, merely one that communicated a convincing theme. The theme is certainly there, the game remains constrained by the inherent problems of the genre and play can be fiddly to administrate. But the poor rulebook hid a wealth of clever mechanics and careful balances that make this one of the few quality co-operative games I’ve enjoyed.