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Game Preview: Defeat Monsters in a Shifting Labyrinth in Pathfinder Arena

Candice Harris
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Board Game: Pathfinder Arena
Italian publisher Giochi Uniti is launching a Kickstarter campaign on November 23, 2021 for their upcoming big release, Pathfinder Arena, from designers Flavio Anzidei, Giorgio Serafini, and Roberto Tibuzzi.

In Pathfinder Arena 2-4 players compete as heroes in a labyrinth-style arena to gain the most glory and be declared the Champion of the Arena . Pathfinder Arena is set in Pathfinder RPG's "Age of Lost Omens" setting and will not only will include highly-detailed miniatures of the most iconic monsters of Pathfinder, but also features awesome artwork from the prolific fantasy RPG artist Wayne Reynolds. The publisher kindly sent me a prototype copy so I could check it out and provide context on how it plays.

When you set up Pathfinder Arena, the first thing you do is assemble the game board with a variety of arena tiles. There are eight summoning tiles, four rune tiles, and four trapdoor tiles which are randomly placed in their designated starting spaces. Then the remaining arena tiles are randomly placed on empty spaces, leaving the central space, the Doom Area, open.

From gallery of candidrum
Arena tiles at setup (prototype components)

Each player chooses a hero sheet and takes the corresponding figure, card decks, and components to set up their player area. Hero sheets allow players to keep track of physical and mental abilities which can be improved over the course of the game.

From gallery of candidrum
Player area set-up for Kyra (prototype components)

The first player rolls the summoning die (d8) to determine which summoning tile the level-1 monster starts on, and then you place a number of ability tokens, element tokens, and item tokens on summoning tiles as well.

Pathfinder Arena is divided into four summoning phases which are played through a series of rounds where players take turns in clockwise order. Each turn begins with a hero phase where you spend action points to collect tokens, defeat monsters, move in the arena, and change its structure. After the hero phase, there's a monster phase where monsters attack all heroes within their reach. If there are no monsters left in the arena at the end of any hero phase, a summoning phase happens instead of the monster phase, spawning new monsters and allowing all players to level-up their heroes.

At the start of the hero phase, the first thing you do is reset your marker tokens. Your marker tokens could be on other players' hero sheets giving them temporary immunity from certain monsters, or they can be on cards you've activated, or on monster sheets. You take them all back at the start of your hero phase.

Then you reallocate your ability tokens to optimize your hero before performing actions. Over the course of the game you'll gain more ability tokens, either from collecting them on the game board, or from leveling up during each summoning phase. At this point on your turn, you have to carefully decide how you want to allocate your ability tokens, which is rarely an easy decision.

From gallery of candidrum
Ability tokens allocated on hero sheet and cards (prototype components)

On one hand, building your ability tracks up with a a lot of tokens is very helpful because you unlock other benefits with every two ability tokens you place on a given track. For example, the more constitution ability tokens you have, the more your base defense improves. On the other hand, your hero's special feat/spell cards and item cards require certain tokens in order to be activated and they can be very powerful too. This part of your turn can be really fun because you're customizing your hero, but it's usually a tough decision to figure out the best way to allocate your ability tokens for the upcoming round since you are thinking about preparing offensively for your turn, but also need to be prepared defensively for your opponents' turns.

After you've allocated your ability tokens as you see fit, you can spend action points to perform actions. Each player has a base of 4 action points, which can be increased by collecting and allocating more dexterity ability tokens. You can perform the same action as many times as you'd like as long as you have the action points available to spend.

You can spend an action point to move your hero to an orthogonally adjacent arena tile. By default, you cannot move through walls or into the Doom Area, but any number of heroes can stay on a tile at the same time. Moving your hero isn't the only way to get around the arena though. There are two different actions that allow you to manipulate the structure of the labyrinth.

From gallery of candidrum
(prototype components)
First, you can spend an action point to rotate the tile your hero is on, 90 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise. Even more impressive, you can spend an action point to magically, and more dramatically, change the arena's structure by choosing an arena tile orthogonally aligned with the Doom Area. You choose a tile and then shift all tiles between the chosen tile and the Doom Area toward the latter, so the Doom Area essentially replaces the chosen tile. Both of these labyrinth-shifting actions help create movement opportunities, block other heroes, bring monsters within a hero's reach, or heroes within a monster's reach.

Aside from enabling more flexible movement options for your hero, one of the ways you gain glory points (victory points) in Pathfinder Arena is having monsters attack your opponents on your turn. Therefore changing the arena's structure strategically can have many benefits, in addition to being a unique feature of the game.

Another key action in Pathfinder Arena is simply collecting a token. You can spend an action point to collect a token from the arena tile your hero occupies. When you collect a physical ability token, you also get to take any mental ability token and add them both to your hero sheet. When you collect an item token, you get to draw three cards from your hero's item deck and play one face-up in your player area to be used going forward.

From gallery of candidrum
(prototype components)
You can also collect element tokens which can be spent to modify damage from monsters (+/- 2), or modify a hero's action points (+/- 1). It's worth noting, the element tokens can be spent anytime, even during other players' turns. Meaning, you could have a whole plan for how you are going to spend your action points and then at the start of your hero phase, an opponent could play an Earth token making you lose one of your action points. You definitely have to keep an eye on which element tokens your opponents pick up and factor that into your turn decisions.

Pathfinder Arena is all about defeating monsters, so naturally, you'll want to attack monsters. You can spend an action point to strike a monster in the same arena tile as your hero. In this case, you deal damage based on your hero's strength, which can be increased with more ability tokens. You cannot attack other heroes though, only monsters.

The rest of your action choices are based on your cards. Assuming you have the required tokens allocated, you can activate a card by spending the required number of action points. Cards have very different effects, such as special movements or attacks, and each hero has their own deck of feat/spell cards.

For example, had the player allocated a strength ability token on their Powerful Leap card in the photo below, they could spend two action points to move through a wall. They can use their Sly Striker card to apply x2 damage to an attack this turn since they allocated the required ability tokens on that card.
From gallery of candidrum
card examples (prototype components)


From gallery of candidrum
Monster sheet for Ettin (prototype components)
After you perform actions in the hero phase, there is monster phase where all monsters attack all heroes within their reach. The current player gains glory points when monsters attack other heroes.

There are four different levels of monsters based on the summoning phase. The game starts with one level-1 monster, then two spawn on the 2nd summoning phase, three on the 3rd summoning phase, and four on the 4th summoning phase. For each level, there are more monsters available than you will use in a single game, so you shuffle monster sheets to randomly determine which monsters will be in play and assign their initiative order accordingly.

After any hero phase, if there aren't any monsters on the board, a summoning phase follows, instead of the monster phase. Each summoning phase, more monsters appear and they are increasingly more difficult to defeat as the game progresses. Monsters have base stats such as life points, melee and range attack values, but most of them also have a variety of special attacks and abilities that make them even more challenging.

As the monsters get increasingly more difficult, your heroes also level up each summoning phase. Players are able to choose a new feat/spell card in addition to gaining an extra ability token. Then you also reseed the board with more tokens similar to how it's done during setup.

In Pathfinder Arena, heroes and monsters fight each other repeatedly. Both heroes and monsters can attack only if their target is within the reach of their attack. In order to defeat a monster, you must inflict enough damage equal or higher than the monster's life points in one turn. Each monster grants glory points at the end of the game. If you are attacked by a monster on your own turn, you get as many misfortune points as unblocked damage you suffer from the attack. As I mentioned earlier, you can also gain glory on your turn when monster's attack your opponents.

From gallery of candidrum
Glory point & Misfortune point tokens (prototype components)

When you gain glory points and misfortune points in Pathfinder Arena, you take the corresponding tokens (value-1,3, and 5) from the supply and place them facedown in your player area, so all players can see the amount of tokens your have, but don't necessarily know the value of the tokens until you score up at the end of the game.

A game of Pathfinder Arena ends when a player defeats the last level-4 monster. When this happens, players sum up all the glory points obtained and subtract their misfortune points from the total. The player with the most points is declared the Champion of the Arena and is the winner of the game.

From gallery of candidrum
Deity card example with its corresponding shrine tile (prototype components)
In addition to each hero's unique decks of feat/spell/item cards, the game also includes five special deity cards which you can claim when you have at least 2 ego and your hero occupies a shrine tile. By collecting charisma ability tokens, you can gradually increase your ego to meet this requirement. The deity cards provide another way for players to gain special abilities in Pathfinder Arena.

Deity cards are double-sided and can be powered up and flipped to the other side by further increasing your hero's ego. In addition, the deity cards also may grant glory points at the end of the game, depending on your ego level.

If you enjoy games with miniatures where you can customize heroes and fight monsters, you should definitely check out Pathfinder Arena on Kickstarter.

It's interesting and unique how players can manipulate arena tiles to position their heroes and monsters strategically to get an edge on other players. There also seems to be a decent amount of variety between the different monsters and each hero's special feat/spell/item cards which should keep things interesting over time.

While not necessarily thematically accurate, I really liked that when other players "take damage" from monsters on your turn, you gain glory, but the other players don't actually lose anything per se. So even though it has a take-that spirit, it doesn't really feel bad when it happens to you.

I would hope that they include player aid in the finished game so that you don't have to dig through the rulebook to remember how the different element and rune tokens work. I did not mention rune tokens above, but they are a different type of token you take (not as an action) when you land on or move through rune tiles that modify damage and defense values. Between these and the element tokens, it can be a lot to remember how each one works, so it'd be very helpful to have a player aid.

The Pathfinder Arena BGG page has an estimated playtime of 60-80 minutes, however my couple of 4-player games ran well over 2 hours. I'm not sure if others who have played it were able to complete a game in 80 minutes, but I would plan for a longer game depending on how fast and aggressive players are with defeating monsters. Also, as the game ramps up, it can take an increasing amount of time for players to decide how to reallocate their tokens, so that could slow things down as well.

Even though there weren't sample miniatures included for all of the monsters and heroes in the prototype I received, the ones that were included looked solid. I suspect the finished version of the game will be pretty epic-looking, and there may even be stretch goals for more monsters, so be sure to check it out!

From gallery of candidrum
(prototype components)
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