Almost as old as roleplaying games are boardgames that try to simulate them. Back in the day we had TSR’s Dungeon, and later came games like Talisman, HeroQuest and Descent. In principle, such games try to provide some elements of the RPG experience without the prep, bookeeping or scheduling concerns, becuase they can be played in a single session.
Roleplaying games today are a bit different than they were back in the days of yore, however. And there’s been a lot of analysis over the past decade or so that tried to isloate what the components of RPG play are and how to enhance them. This has spawned many novel RPG designs, but few boardgame emulations of the subject have tried to break the genre loose from the dungeon. The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (hereafter PFACG) does that. It’s a card game that plays like a board game that plays like an RPG. Specifically like a Pathfinder Adventure Path. It’s also a cooperative game; the players try to beat the game itself rather than each other.
Pathfinder, for those who don’t know, is an iteration of the D&D Edition 3.x rules, produced and adopted by Paizo Publishing after D&D 4th Edition caused an exodus of players who preferred the previous version of the rules. It’s been wildly successful and routinely outsells D&D proper, depite the latter’s far wider name recognition amongst the general public. The Adventure Card Game is a spinoff that incorporates elements of the deck-building games that are currently popular. Note that while there are expansions for the PFACG, it is NOT a “collectable card game” in the style of Magic: The Gathering. Aside from a couple of promo cards, what comes in the kits is what’s in the game, and there’s no random packs or anything like that.
The Base Set comes with a lot of pretty cards, a basic set of dice, the rulebook and a nice card organizer tray that seats inside the box. This tray, or something very like it, is almost neccessary for play of the game, becuase on many occasions you’ll need to pick random cards of one type or another from the box, and you’ll want those oprganized into cvatgeories and ready to go. Some kinds of discards also go back in the box, while others go into your dicard pile or to the bottom of your draw deck.
One starts playing the PFACG by picking a character (one of the Pathfinder iconic characters, of which seven come in the Base Set,) who gets a starting deck that you can design yourself from the cards in the box. This deck represents both your abilites and your life points, and is subject to a number of restriction on what can go into it and what can’t. You can also just use some preconstructed decks that are provided in the rulebook, although in my opinion these are not that great but easily improved upon.
You also pick a scenario card. This can be a standalone scenario or part of a larger “adventure” consisting of several scenarios intended to be played in order. Two such adventures are provided with the Base Set: Perils of the Lost Coast, which consists of three different scenarios, and Burnt Offerings, which contains five scenarios and is the first part of the Rise of the Runelords Adventure path, a series of six linked adventures. The other five parts are found in expansion decks for the game.
Each play session is a single scenario and can be played in roughly 30-60 minutes, or maybe a bit longer the first couple of times. When the scenarios are linked into a campaign the characters can grow over time and between adventures, gradually improving and exanding their decks and gaining new abilities. While the PFACG is fun played just as a one-shot, it’s in the campaign mode that it really shines.
Aside from the character decks, each scenario will have a number of locations, as given on the scenario card. How many locations you use depends on the number of characters playing. Each location gets a deck of its own, constructed randomly using the rules in the book from the card categories listed on the location card.
Characters, alone or together, explore these locations by drawing cards from their decks, encountering challenges like monsters, traps and parleys and possibly accruing treasures like better gear and abilities. You win the game by defeating the scenario’s end boss, but the boss can escape to another location that hasn’t been cleared out unless you cut off his escape route, which means you’ll need to find where’s he’s gone to challenge him again.
The game works on a timer; you start with a deck of thirty Blessing cards and each player turns one face up at the start of the turn, so you have thirty player turns in which to complete the adventure. If the Blessings deck runs out or all the characters die, the players lose. Various card effects can add to the Blessings deck or take away from it.
The Base Set contains enough stuff for four people to play; not just the character cards but gear, spell cards and such that are needed to flesh out the decks. The optional Character Add-On Deck contains enough cards to add two more players and provides four additional characters to play (the Barbarian, Druid, Monk and Paladin.)
The game is probably at its best with four players, but can be played solo with one character or several. And it can be fairly challenging; my first game saw my Fighter Valeros face-planting in his first location. Not all of the characters are well-suited to playing solo with a single character; the Rogue is the preferred class for this, but it looks to me like the Ranger would be pretty good as well.
My own imperfect understanding of the rules at the time didn’t help, either. The rulebook is not lengthy but a lot of details are on the cards themselves, as is common in card games these days. On the whole it’s fairly intricate, but not impenetrably so, even for kids. It’s probably about as complex as the rules in the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box. But there’s no simplified version of the game to start out with, or a gradual learning curve. You’re all in until you figure everything out, and there are a number of layers of rules that you could potentially forget, like the sepacial rules for the scenario or location, from the those cards, or the special rules for your character.
On the whole, though, the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is a great deal of fun, and not a bad substitute if you have the RPG itch but can’t get players together for a campaign or if nobody wants to GM. In the same amount of time it takes for one typical 4-hour session of D&D or Pathfinder you could get through an entire Adventure, store the built decks in the box, and pick up where you left off at a later time with the next adventure in the Path. Because the Adventure is randomized and there are different ways to build the character descks, replayability is high even using the same two adventures that come in the box.
Some vague guidelines are given in the rulebook for developing your own characters and Adventures, but no rigorous rules; it’ll take some expereince to get the balance and feel right, and there is support from online communities for doing this kind of modding.
At $60 for the Base Set and $20 each for the Character Add-On and additional Adventure decks, plus additional accessories if you want them, the buy-in price is fairly high… but as I mentioned above, you can get a pretty good amount of play even just out of the Base Set, you can play it even solitaire, and it’s entertainment dollars well-spent, in my opinion.
The final installment for the first PFACG campaign is due out in June. The next product will be a whole new Base Set and campaign based on the pirate-themed Skull & Shackles Adventure Path. If you’re going all-in on the game I do recommend adding some extra dice to your set. It’s likely that a lot of potential players will have those laying around anyway. And if you’re also into Pathfinder or another fantasy tabletop RPG that likes playing with minitaures, you might think about picking up the Pathfinder Pawns NPC Codex Box, which contains 300+ heavy cardstock standups that include the eleven iconic characters from Pathfinder, the same ones used in the card game. Using the standup Pawns is more fun and tactile than using the token cards that come with the Base Set and Add-On Deck.