Pathfinder the Ultimate Adventure Card Game

Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game is an old game (2013) at this point, but that’s how long it took this particular foursome to get together and play out the full Rise of the Runelords campaign.  In the time it took us to complete everything, the game has released at least 2 more full adventures, and also released an iPad version of the game where some of our players had already finished out the campaign.  Still, there are a lot of interesting things to discuss in relation to this game and it’s worth a full review.

Overall Feeling

Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game is what it says it is: a card game.  It is a really fun, cooperative card game that progresses like a RPG adventure campaign and allows for character development and customization like in a RPG.  However, it’s not a RPG and it will disappoint those who are looking for the full RPG experience, yet it’s as much a time sink as a full blown RPG campaign so you have to keep that in mind going into it.

For us, playing the full Rise of the Runelords campaign out over many years, it felt like an epic fantasy adventure, full of heroes, monsters, some long odds and some glorious triumphs.  We started characters, then really developed them over the course of the adventure.  Your character is essentially a deck of cards with some added abilities, and by the last adventure, I think pretty much every character’s entire set of cards had completely changed from the beginning, while everyone’s special abilities improved greatly.  We took on some near-impossible adventures and tremendously strong bad guys along the way, but were a pretty well-oiled cooperative machine by the end, rising to every challenge before us until we finally faced Karzoug the Claimer, who we squashed with ease.

There is some repetitiveness to what you do, but just enough wrinkles to keep that problem from getting too big, especially since what you do is pretty fun.  It’s a slow progression, but it’s satisfying and pays off in the end.  I’ve read some not-so-hot reviews for this game on boardgamegeek.com and Shut Up and Sit Down, so keep in mind that not everyone loves this game, but I think it’s pretty great for what it does, so long as you know what you’re getting into.  It’s especially great if you’re committed to seeing it through, even if it takes months or in our case, years.

What I liked about Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game

It all works really well. They bring great and well-known Pathfinder fantasy theme to this, and there are great figures available, so you can really immerse yourself.  They distill a nearly complete RPG adventure down to a collection of cards, but it’s 300 cards to start and hundreds more with all the expansions.  You “explore” through each adventure, turning over cards which can be boons, such as spells, weapons, armor or items, or banes such as monsters or barriers and traps.  Your character is represented by a stack of cards and when you run out, you die, so you have to make them count.  It’s not perfect by any means, with some wonkiness and some ways it’s not RPG-like, but it works.  You get the hang of it and you learn to deal with it, and you learn to think of your character as a collection of cards that can weaken as the game goes on.  The character builds take a long time, but they’re really fun.  By the end, each character could do a multitude of things that she couldn’t do at the beginning.

What I didn’t like about Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game

I discuss it in greater detail below, but there’s a little bit of a repetitive structure, and some clunky mechanics, clunky enough that some people who recorded reviews on BGG didn’t like it at all.  I’ll also say that I don’t love the story — there isn’t a whole lot of one — or the villains, or at least, the game isn’t put together in a way that lets me really appreciate them.  To a degree I feel like I’m just going through the game the way that I need to, without a lot of extra story or drama going on, but story and drama are good things in this type of game and I miss them.

Setup Highlights

Yeah, the setup really sucks.  For 4 players, you have to set up the 6 location decks, but first you have to set up the villain and henchman, plus you have to shuffle all 8 bane/boon decks, or how ever many it is, then make sure you carefully distribute the cards to each location, set up the Blessings deck, then check everything.  It only works when all 4 players get involved in the setup, and even then, it takes time and we’d get a location wrong every now and then, and would sink time trying to figure it out.  Then, when you complete one scenario and start another, you have to do it all over again.  Obviously, a nice benefit to the iPad version of the game is that it takes care of all of this.

Theme and Components

The components are all standard playing cards and a set of dice.  They’re nice cards with great, great art, but it’s still just cards.  You use cards for your character “pieces” as well, and I personally found this unsatisfying.  So, great cards, but only cards, which limits how good the components are.  Fortunately, it was easy enough to find Pathfinder figures, and I painted them up.  Extra cost and time but there are upgraded, non-cards components out there if you want them.  For a truly epic experience, I’d call this a requirement, and a bit of a detriment to the game that miniatures aren’t included in the first place.

Interesting mechanics and game play

You play an adventure, made up of scenarios, each represented by a card, which dictates a set of locations and some overall scenario rules.  Each of the locations, equal to 2 plus the number of characters, must be explored, and each location is made of a stack of 10 cards.  Each scenario, your goal is to close locations, then find, corner and kill the villain before 30 turns have elapsed, marked by a “Blessings deck”.  Your characters explore each location by turning over the stack of cards, one at a time.  While you search each location for the villain or his henchmen, you find boons, which include weapons, armor, items, spells and allies; and banes, which are monsters and barriers.  Boons typically require what is called a “check to acquire” against attributes like Strength or Constitution or Dexterity, or skills like Knowledge, Survival or Diplomacy.  You only get the item if you succeed the check.  Banes require a “check to defeat” and you only overcome the bane if you succeed the check.  A check comes down to a dice roll, after you’ve decided what kind of help you want to activate to help your roll.  Each character has his/her specialty, and you try to explore locations consistent with your character’s ability.  Some spells, items and abilities let you look at some of the top cards and manipulate them.

Do-Something Ability

Unlike most board games, this is a RPG, with an epic adventure to be told, so you do a lot, every game.  There could be more variety to what you do, since in nearly every scenario you’re hunting down and killing a villain, but at the end of each scenario, you’ve accomplished something.  What’s really fun to do is upgrade your character along the way, be it with improved cards (spells, weapons, items etc.) or with the improved abilities that are sometimes awarded after completing an adventure.

Why play Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game instead of a standard RPG?

Disadvantages:

  • Forced characters and less character flexibility.  This is the heart of role-playing.  You want to try an Elven ranger?  Well, you can be an Elf, but she’s a thief, or you can be a ranger, but he’s a Dwarf, so you have only certain combinations to select from, and hopefully you don’t have a gender preference because you’re not going to hit 3 of 3 with race, gender and class.
  • Lack of story telling.  You tend to do the same thing each scenario:  Search through locations and close them out, corner the villain, take him/her down.  There’s some text in each adventure and flavor text in villain cards, but not enough to string together a coherent story.
  • Lack of drama.  There’s some text in the beginning, but no pauses for descriptions in this game.  When enemies take certain actions, like a dragon doing damage to everyone, you can sort of understand what they’re doing but there’s still no dramatic description of it.
  • Repetitive structure.  For the most part, every adventure is looking through locations for the villain and his henchmen.  You’re always looking through stacks of cards for something, and then rolling to see if you succeed or fail.  It almost always comes down to winning a tough fight or two.
  • Some clunky mechanics. There are actually quite a few of these:
    • Exploring a location consists of turning cards over. Sometimes those cards are monsters or barriers, and that typically makes sense.  Sometimes those cards are spells, weapons or items.  I don’t get it.  These things are just lying around?  When I’m rolling to see if I can acquire the weapon or item, what exactly is going on?  Are the gods deciding if I’m worthy of taking it?
    • I really don’t much care for armor at all.  It comes in handy when you take damage, and all the characters take damage sometimes, but it’s strictly a reactive ability, can go unneeded for long stretches, and often feels like it’s just taking up space in your hand.
    • It’s like, you have 2 characters at a location, but you can’t have them specialize, with one dealing with one type of card and the other dealing with the other.  If one character finds the monster, only that character can fight the monster, with no help from the other character beyond what all characters can do to help, unless that character has a special ability or something.  It takes some getting used to.

Advantages vs. Paper-and-Pencil RPG:

  • Epic adventures.  Rise of the Runelords is made up of 6 adventures, each 3-4 separate scenarios.  Even with the lack of story telling, it’s continually challenging enough to give your adventure an epic feel and you do a lot of cool stuff.  It’s worth mentioning that some find it repetitive, but I found it fun.
  • Nobody has to GM. You and your friends can all focus on working together to solve the adventure.
  • Automatically a good spread of booty. Spells are a good mix of arcane and divine, weapons are mixed between strength and dexterity, and there’s a nice mix of spells, weapons, armor and items throughout the game.  Everyone in our party found good cards to add to their decks, and throughout the game, down to the second to last scenario.
  • Thoughtful lore and great art. Pathfinder is as good as it gets. They create a full world and then bring you into it, including interesting villains and henchmen.
  • Easy builds, with enough choices to allow you to customize, but guided in a way that keeps everyone in the same sandbox.
  • Really great teamwork elements. In the end, it was about coordinating to maximize our abilities.

Our Team of Adventurers

I’ve explained the synergies of our team in this post, but here’s a quick rundown:

Seelah, the Paladin: Tall, strong, spiritual, and donned in shining armor, I always figured Seelah as the leader of this quartet.  A versatile check-maker and sturdy combatant with the capability to heal herself, Seelah typically goes off alone, but doesn’t mind working with others when she needs to.  She fills the strength fighter role, acquiring and utilizing all strength-based weapons and heavy armor.

Seoni, the Sorcerer: The hammer.  The muscle.  The slayer.  Even the strongest enemies are no match for Seoni’s arsenal of arcane magic.  I did an analysis a while back that figured her among the very top combatants, right along with the Barbarian and the Fighter, but I think arcane magic scales up better than weapons do, meaning she might very well be the best combatant in the game.  She is also a friend-maker and rapid explorer, though the latter behavior often gets her in trouble.  Seoni is not versatile.  She’s specialized in what she does, so she likes to explore with Lini.

Lini, the Druid: The healer, but also one of the most versatile characters.  Packs a lot of divine magic, overcomes a high variety of checks with her animal helpers, and can “warg” to turn herself into a fierce combatant or an agile dodger.  She and Seoni form the battery of the team, a fast-exploring, check-making, monster-bashing duo.  A healer needs someone to heal and Seoni is often in need so they typically explore together.

Merisiel, the Thief: Every party needs its burglar, and Merisiel the best in the game in that role.  In fact, she’s so much better at it than everyone else that I consider her the game’s most indispensable party member.  She has an unparalleled combination of stealth, acrobatics, the ability to disable barriers, and incredible dexterity, plus has the items to help her through other difficult checks as well.  She also serves as the party’s dexterity fighter, employing dexterity-based — typically ranged — weapons, and light armor.  She’s a capable combatant when left on her own, so that’s how she likes to operate, but can also evade a fight when she needs to.

Memorable Moments

There was one scenario with a bell tower location called “Angel in the Tower”.  Our team’s dynamic duo of Seoni and Lini took on that tower location while Seelah and Merisiel went to other locations.  We overturned a barrier card, which happened to be a falling bell (which could have turned up in another location, but didn’t).  Neither Seoni nor Lini avoided the bell and essentially got knocked out.  Someone had cut the rope at the top of the clock tower and taken down our heroes!  Furthermore, it turned out that the villain was hiding there.  Merisiel was the only one acrobatic enough to scale the tower after the bell had fallen.  With Seoni on the verge of death, and with Seelah using a crossbow she found to aid her, Merisiel defeated the villain to win the game.

There was also a scenario called “The Flood” that is unlike any other.  Instead of exploring locations for the villain, you explore for allies and try to save them from the incoming flood.  Seoni, the friend-maker, kept failing her Diplomacy rolls, but we got a few unexpected lucky breaks, too.  In the end, we didn’t think we had enough, and would have to go through this very challenging, hard-to-set-up scenario again.  We counted through our saved allies and we had only the exact number of allies we needed to clear the adventure!  We cheered and high-fived to celebrate the victory.

The final most memorable scenario was near the end.  You scale the frozen cliffs of a mountain and any 1 or 2 you roll on your dice counts as 0.  It’s pretty nasty, especially when the Cure (heal) spell heals 1d4.  Then you face these nasty Leng Spiders that can nullify magic, which included all of our attacks and weapons, but the spiders only succeeded in nullifying once and we got through the scenario on our first try.  In the final scenario, we used a looking glass to find the villain, then an Augury spell to bury him in his location, then took our time taking down the henchmen, since this scenario doesn’t have a time factor.  Merisiel the Thief faced the Blue Dragon and with assistance, she was more than strong enough.  Really, any of our characters could probably have handled it.  Then we paused and set things up for Seoni the Slayer to take on Karzough the Claimer.  Karzough fights you twice, first with a strength of 30, then with a strength of 40.  Seoni’s first roll was in the 40s.  Then, with all the stops pulled out, with all 3 other characters helping her, she rolled a 59 with her Disintegration spell.

The Fun Heart of the Game

This is a new category I’m introducing to reviews, and I’ll write up a post explaining it, but for now, let’s just get to it.  The fun heart of Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game is when you work together to make a check.  Magic users can cast spells to aid another player, ranged weapon users can often contribute with those weapons, everyone can contribute blessings, plus there are various other items and allies that can sometimes help.  Despite this, help is a finite resource with only so much to go around, and every card spent brings a character closer to death, so you’re always having to negotiate just how much help to use, and who it will come from, for any big roll.  This is what the game is — strip away the fantasy imagery and lore, and Pathfinder is a card game with this help dynamic at the heart of it.   It’s fun when everyone is assessing and negotiating his ability to help, and makes Pathfinder among the most cooperative of cooperative board games.

Game Design Notes

I really admire the way this game was put together.  It takes a new approach to the RPG genre, one that I would have guessed would be impossible to crack as a traditional board game, but it pulls it off.  Once you sort of get the hang of your cards representing both your abilities and your hit points, it feels right, and gives you much of what you want out of an RPG without any friend having to GM or make up an adventure.  I wonder what other areas of non-board gaming can be effectively converted to a board game?

The Verdict

As outlined above, it depends on what you’re looking for.  If you have no interest in fantasy RPGs, this won’t change your mind.  If you want the full fantasy RPG experience, well, this isn’t it either, and it misses in a couple of key spots, including storytelling and character customization.  However, if you want a fantasy RPG experience but either find it too daunting to start from scratch, or too free-form, or can’t find the right GM or nobody wants to GM, playing Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game can deliver an epic fantasy role playing experience.  We had an epic time and if I ever find myself with a regular playing group again, I’d play one of the expansions like Skull & Shackles or Mummie’s Mask or something.  In the mean time, I’ll probably play through this on the iPad with a different set of characters so I can see more of it.

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