Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Games Review: The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

What we've started to do, as Ewan has got older, and (though he often pretends otherwise) increasingly interested in same array of geek stuff that his parents are, is play a lot more board games. As often said here and elsewhere, we are in a bit of a golden age for getting around a table and playing games, especially of the sort that are quick to pick up, and fast to play, without sacrificing too much depth. So on our recent holiday, for evening entertainment, we bought something different, something a little more complicated, to pass the late-summer nights. 

A game for fans of shuffling cards, the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, is a co-operative "rpg-lite" experience where you play a band of adventurers out for loot and glory in a world based on the Pathfinder RPG. The box is impressively large, and comes with everything you need to play through three "tutorial" adventures, plus the first of a series of six larger adventures that make up it's first campaign. We did the tutorial advantures over three evenings, and each one took us about 90 minutes, so it's pretty well paced. 

The first thing you have to do is sort out the cards. There are a lot of cards - weapons, armours, monsters, villians, henchmen, god knows what else and it is a little intimidating at first. The core game is about having lots of little decks that built for each scenario, as well as a persistant "character deck" that you progress with. Actually, it's a lot intimidating, but thankfully the rulebook is well laid out and the cards are well differentiated. There is also a set of "quick start" character decks which we used to avoid having to worry about the deck-building part of the meta-game until we'd at least played it a bit. 

The aim of each scenario is to defeat that scenarios' villian; a unique card that is hidden in one of a number of locations that varies by number of players. Each location has a randomly generated deck containing a different balance of card types - wandering monsters, weapon drops, allies, etc - based on that specific location card. You encounter these cards by exploring the decks, rolling dice and playing cards from your own personal character deck to defeat them until you hit the villain or one of his henchmen, and which point you can defeat them and "close" the location. If its the villain, he tries to run to any location that isn't already "closed" and if there aren't any, you win the scenario. 
This looks complex but actually is pretty intuitive once you start playing
I'll just let you read that again to make sense of it. 

What it's aiming to do is replicate the dungeon crawling side of old school RPGs with a neat deck building mechanic. Even playing the same scenario will mean that the locations will have different decks, and different characters have different special abilities as well as their own unique decks. Many of the better cards can only be experiences through play, not through the basic deck selection, so as well as gaining new dice to roll, your characters personal deck will also start to accumulate better cards as you play multiple scenarios - you rebuild your deck at the end of each game and keep it together to go to the next one with. Which is pretty cool. 

Most important of all, it's a lot of fun. There is a good balance to being able to help out other members of the parties but also enough risk and time pressure (you have a set number of turns to complete the scenario) that you need to split up and clear areas out on your own. Luck is a factor but not a decisive one compared to getting the right characters in the right places, and out of the three scenarios we played, we did all three first time, although one went right to the wire and another we completely steamrollered. The balance is pretty solid all around, although I expect at some point we'll fail simply from a series of bad match ups. 

There also a bunch of neat mechanics that play well together. For instance, your character deck also acts as your hit points; you take damage by discarding cards, which also limits your options. Healing is done by shuffling discards back to your deck, but some abilities mean you have to return cards to the box, taking them out of your access for future scenarios as well as the current one. And crucially, after a while it all makes sense, which shows a clarity of design that far simpler games don't manage. 

We've already agreed a regular session to get on with the first big adventure deck, so we're totally getting our moneys worth out of this.