Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Review


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Posted by Byron on Apr 13, 2015

To understand the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, you must understand its release format. Pathfinder ACG (i.e. the subject of this review) refers to a game system, not any individual product. Within Pathfinder ACG, you'll find several discrete Adventure Paths, like seasons of a TV show. Each of these sold-separately product lines begins with a Base Set (the season premier) and continues through five consecutive Adventure Decks for a total of six Adventures. Just like a TV show, you're not meant to play these "episodes" out of order or skip back and forth between seasons. To get the full experience, you're expected to pick a Base Set and continue through each Adventure Deck in release order.

Unlike most TV shows, Pathfinder ACG's "seasons" are unconnected except by a common play style—you can play one Adventure Path or several, in any order, and your progress in one campaign has no bearing on the next. You shouldn't mistake this for limited replayability, though, since each complete Adventure Path contains 33-35 scenarios and 7 heroes (11 with an optional expansion). After several months, when you finally reach the end of an AP, you can start all over again with a new party or replay the same character, making different choices. Yes, your original character's story essentially ends after 35+ play sessions, but odds are, by that point, you'll be itching to swap your fighter for a cleric, wizard or rogue.

Whichever Adventure Path and Adventure Deck you're in, playing Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is somewhat like playing a tabletop RPG without a GM. Before you get too excited, think carefully about what that implies. Without a GM, there's nobody to assemble the plot elements into a coherent narrative. Without a GM, there's nobody to rebalance encounters on the fly to give the players a consistent challenge. As a result, PACG suffers from unpredictable peaks and valleys in difficulty (more valleys than peaks) and virtually no sense of an overarching storyline. Like most adventure games, creative players can find a narrative in their string of random encounters, but the bigger questions, like who the heck this villain is and why you're fighting them, go unanswered. This is a serious missed opportunity from publisher Paizo—without the emotional tension of a good story hook, the game relies completely on its mechanics to keep players interested, and they don't always live up to the task.

In other ways, though, the game has all the hallmarks of a classic RPG. Working cooperatively with the other players, you'll make skill checks, collect enchanted weapons, learn spells, and cut down a menagerie of monsters. You'll grow and customize your character over the course of many play sessions, improving your base stats, learning new skills, and tricking out your inventory. You'll roll innumerable polyhedral dice. Your chosen class and role isn't just superficial; it has a meaningful impact on how the game feels.

Ultimately, though, it's Pathfinder's unique release format, not any specifics of gameplay, that makes it tick. There's always a carrot dangling in your face as you progress through the Adventure Decks, whether it's the character upgrade you'll get when you beat the scenario, the excitement of shuffling in a new batch of higher-level cards when you start a new Adventure, or the thought of subtly tuning your deck at the end of each game, win or lose. Yes, the general format of each scenario—explore several locations containing specific ratios of good and bad cards, trying to find and corner the scenario's villain—gets old long before you've finished the Adventure Path, but you'll keep playing anyway, conditioned by that constant trickle of small rewards. Before long, the actual content of each game session becomes a means to an end. This is a game that's more addictive than it is fun. But it's a pleasurable addiction, its own form of fun.

You currently have three Adventure Paths to choose from. Whichever one you choose, you're playing pretty much the same game, although the individual cards and flavor of the campaign will differ. Rise of the Runelords, the original AP, is also the most basic. Its characters, setting and storyline stick closely to basic fantasy tropes—you'll battle goblins, ogres and giants and explore ancient ruins. It's also the most basic approach to the mechanics. As a result, Rise of the Runelords is a good starting place for groups who just want to have fun in a fantasy world without changing things up too much between sessions.

Skull & Shackles, the second AP, layers a pirate theme on top of the same fantasy adventure world. It's admirably consistent—from your first game to your last, you'll equip eyepatches and peglegs, fight sharks, engage in ship-to-ship combat, and attempt checks requiring the "swashbuckling" trait. S&S also includes more scenarios and individual cards that "break the rules" than its predecessor did, making this AP more appropriate for gamers who crave that extra challenge.

The newest AP, Wrath of the Righteous, returns to a pure fantasy setting, but with the word "epic" in front of everything. Your heroes are paragons of righteousness fighting demons and dragons on your very first Adventure, and things just get bigger from there. Eventually, you'll even get to roll a d20, something never before seen in PACG. Heavens.

How much you enjoy PACG depends entirely on how willing you are to buy into the idea of progressive character development over more than 3 dozen scenarios. That's the product Paizo is selling with each Base Set and Adventure Deck. If you want it, you'll just have to accept the sameyness of the scenario design, the fact that higher-level cards are all too often just the same thing with bigger numbers. Because there's really no other game on the market that'll feed this special addiction. Eventually, another game might combine PACG's satisfying persistence with a deeper set of base mechanics, but until that day comes, this is the only choice we've got.