Thursday, October 29, 2015

Boardgames: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords

Over the past year, a regular feature of our week has been sitting down, myself, Zoe and Ewan, to play a scenario from the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords, or to shorten it here, PACG. The very fact that this has become a thing we can all do together (once Robert is in bed, unfortunately for him) means that I suspect that I would have warm feelings about the game no matter what, but as it turns out, PACG is a pretty solid co-operative experience, with some interesting that can do a pretty diverse range of things over the course of 6 adventure decks, of 5 scenarios each. 

PACG is modelled after the Pathfinder RPG, a fork of Dungeons and Dragons aimed at the more traditional number-crunching crowd as D&D wandered off in a different direction. Pathfinder has a large following, and a deserved reputation for good writing, and this first box of the PACG lifts it's campaign structure from one of their grand epics. Each scenario has specific objectives and some variant rules, and rewards upgrades to your characters (more on that in a moment) or new cards to add to you persistant character decks. As you move through the Adventure Decks (bought separately after the first) you get harder encounters, more complex rules and better rewards. So structurally, all very faithful. 

The mechanical heart of the game is deckbuilding. Everyone has a character, with a core set of recognisably D&D/Pathfinder stats. You also have a couple of abilities, and a deck of cards. To do any encounter (say, beat up a passing Goblin) you roll the dice corresponding to a relevant stat, and play any cards that add more dice to it, like weapons or blessing. Hit the target number of the encounter, and pass it. This lets you beat monsters and bosses, of course, but also aquire loot and allies and so on. These encounters come out of a series of "Location Decks", and the aim of the game is usually to close all the location decks and defeat the boss. 

This would all get pretty repetitive except for two things. First, the Scenario encounters get progressively more interesting - partly as the writers get used to their own mechanics - and quickly move away from simply grinding through locations to find villians. Although thats always a somewhat core mechanic. Secondly, the mechanics around locations and villians themselves get more interesting too. The game has a nice "keyword" structure around it that defines what a card is, and what it relates to, which promotes synergy for the players, but also more variety in what they're being asked to do. It's complicated, for sure, but also well laid and with very few times we couldn't work out how it was supposed to fit together. 

In fact everything interacts in a pretty elegent way - for instance, your characters personal deck is also your hit points, so you take damage by discarding cards and if you run out, you die. But of course you're also discarding cards to boost yourself or others in encounters, or explore faster, which is also effectively pushing you closer to death. You get to re-engineer your deck at the end of each scenario, but you can only do so out of cards "earned" in that scenario, so pushing yourself to get decent "boon" cards when they come up is as important as defeating the unpleasant "bane" cards.

Our experience with PACG has been a lot of fun. We only failed a couple of scenarios, one of which from a rules kerfuddle (its badly worded, which Paizo's website freely admits) but it's actually pretty well balanced. For every scenario we kicked around for free loot and giggles, there was one that took us to the wire with the last dice roll against the boss feeling like it was the only chance of victory we had left. Whilst we only played a single scenario each time, you could almost certainly do two infull evenings play, even given the large amount of  deck shuffling you end up doing! If you have a regular group, I totally recommend this.