The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game—ACG to all the hip nerds—is a cooperative fantasy card game spun off from the massively popular Pathfinder Role-Playing Game.
It took a lot of steps to get to the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. Dungeons and Dragons begat Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which begat a second edition, which begat a *third* edition, which begat Pathfinder, mostly because people got a bit tired of all the begetting that continued to a fourth edition of the world’s most popular role-playing game.
And finally, here we are with the acclaimed card-based offshoot. Let’s see if it lives up to to the hype.
Each player’s character is represented by a deck made of cards representing weapons, armor, spells, and just about anything else you can imagine a fantasy adventurer sticking into their rucksack. The numbers of these cards allowed in your deck vary from character to character—a wizard will have spells, a fighter will have more weapons and armor, and so on for all the usual fantasy classes. Each character also has stats and abilities you can use to take on the various challenges coming your way.
While adventuring, you’ll have the chance to score loot for your character, which immediately goes into your hand. At the end of the scenario, you and your fellow players can trade the spoils as you try to bring your deck back to your parameters.
Set up is an exercise in navigating filing systems. The large-scale Pathfinder adventure paths consist of multiple adventures, the adventures consist of multiple scenarios, which, hypothetically, will let you and your friends (or, possibly, just you) take on a large-scale fantasy campaign. (This one’s called “Rise of the Runelords,” which is about as cool as it sounds to you.) Each scenario will take place in a number of locations that scales with the number of players.
Once you have the easy part out of the way, you make decks for each location by referencing a spreadsheet on the card telling you how many random cards of each type to include. Then you shuffle up the villain with his henchmen, and put one of those cards in to each deck. Then, finally, you’re allowed to do something that looks like a game and shuffle the decks.
It’s fitting that when you open up the box, it looks like a filing cabinet full of playing cards. The Pathfinder Adventure Card game is, in a way, fantasy questing by way of a desk job. (Granted, the Pathfinder ACG is heavily inspired by roleplaying games, and the alternative there is homework.) I appreciate the inlay and the big sturdy box to keep things in order, but even then, this might not be a game you bring out on a whim. Better to schedule a meeting.
Once you have the locations set up and the characters ready to go, the players can move their characters between locations, facing challenges, collecting treasure, and ultimately trying to corner and defeat the villain in a timely fashion. On your turn, you flip over the top card of whatever location you choose to approach, and try to deal with it.
One of the brilliant things about the Pathfinder ACG is that there are multiple ways you can play a card. A card might just have to be revealed from your hand to be played, or “recharged” and placed on the bottom of your deck. They may be one use only, getting “buried” under your character card for the rest of the encounter, or “banished” back to the box. (“Banish” is a bit of a strong word for, say, drinking a potion, but whatever.)
Where it gets clever is the fact that your deck is, essentially, your life. If you ever run out of cards, your character dies. This isn’t just player elimination like in some other games—this is taking apart your kit and going home. If you want to play again, you’d have to start a new character from scratch. Damage is done by making you discard cards, and you have to draw back up to a minimum at the end of your turn. If you need to get rid of a card to use it, you’re not just playing a card. You’re wearing down your character, just a little bit—hopefully it will be worth it.
It just wouldn’t feel like the tabletop roleplaying game if there weren’t opportunities to roll some oddly-shaped dice. The basic mechanism is simple—your characters stats are the die you roll in that kind of situation, and more specific skills give you a bonus when they apply. A particularly clumsy character may only roll a four-sided die on their dexterity checks, while a more agile one gets to roll a twelve-sided die—and maybe even get to add two to their roll in their area of expertise, like ranged attacks or opening locks.
It’s an elegant system, but already in use by other RPGs. That’s not to say that it’s ripping them off—game mechanisms tend to spread around—but it is a curious thing that, while the name on the box says Pathfinder, the rules sometimes say Savage Worlds.
Naturally, playing cards out of your hand rapidly to try and draw what you really want to have in hand is a reckless strategy that will probably get you killed. Thankfully, the game design includes a few mechanisms that help ensure that your character is useful. Remember how your character deck has to follow certain guidelines? That helps make sure your wizard shouldn’t be wanting for spells, or your fighter won’t be caught without a weapon. Each character also has a favorite card type, which guarantees you get to start the game with at least one card of that type in hand. The refresh option on cards also lets you draw into your deck without thinning it out—you lose a card from your hand, and so you will probably have to draw a new one, but at least your deck didn’t get smaller and the cards at the bottom won’t stay there.
Unfortunately, for a game bowed around a party of adventurers, there isn’t a whole lot of teamwork baked into the rules proper. If multiple characters are at the same location, they can’t work together to face an obstacle. You can’t team up to take on specific opponent. Or, if the sneaky rogue and the tough fighter are at the location, and on the fighter’s turn a locked chest is revealed, the rogue just gets to decide how they watch helplessly from the sidelines as the fighter fiddles unsuccessfully with the lock. You might be able to assist your fellow players in other ways, but when it comes to any specific encounter, you’re on your own.
So, is Pathfinder the kind of game that will bring you and your friends together to make way through a whole campaign?
There are some brilliant ideas here, it’s quicker to set up and play than some other fantasy adventuring games, and you’ll probably have fun.
But, if you really want to get your friends together for some regular fantasy adventuring fun, you might get more mileage out of Descent, or Mage Knight if you don’t mind complexity, or Mice & Mystics if you don’t mind playing as, well, mice.
If there’s a saving grace to Pathfinder that makes it worth checking out, it’s that this is just the core set, and the expansions may just give you a more varied and fun experience. This is, after all, just the core set, and maybe they stuck to the basics and plan to introduce some variations on the theme later on.
Pathfinder has some great ideas, but overall, it doesn’t do much better than its competitors. In a year’s time, that may change.
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