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Another Balanced Review

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game


This is the fourth review in my series of allegedly balanced reviews (the rest of which can be seen here). I’ve appended the keyword “Epic” to the review, as it’s going to be a long one. If you’re not interested in my meandering thoughts about the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, Pathfinder gaming, the evolution of D&D and story games in general, this is probably where you want to get off the ride.

An Epic Release

Dungeons and Dragons was one of the first games I played heavily, going way back to the Basic set (this must have been around 1980) and then 2nd edition. I sorta missed the entire “Pathfinder” phase of the hobby, but it’s obviously an important development in the annals of D&D. So when the Card Game was first announced, I quickly caught up on the history and immediately placed the game on my watch list. D&D in card form? Solo or Co-op play? Leveling and legacy play? Sign me up!

But as the release came and reviews started to appear, the overall assessment was troubling. On the one hand, you had people saying it was innovative and fantastic. Tom Vasel loved it. Then you had Undead Viking absolutely panning the game, claiming the game provided zero D&D experience. Some reviews gushed over the game’s positive qualities, and some claimed it was nothing more than “turn card, roll, rinse and repeat.” So I held off on the purchase. Every once in a while I’d recheck the reviews and still the same – some loved it, but some hated it. I think I finally pulled the trigger for two reasons – first, the impending release of the second adventure path (Skull and Shackles) got me thinking about the game again, and second (and probably greater factor) the game was an absolute steal on Bookdepository.

At any rate, I’ve now played through the introductory Adventure, plus Burnt Offerings, the Skinsaw Murders, and the Hook Mountain Massacre. So while I haven’t completed the entire Adventure, I do have a good feeling for what the game has to offer. I also took the step of getting my hands on (and reading) the actual Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path Anniversary Edition, as I wanted to see what all the fuss was about regarding the whole “Pathfinder thing.” But allow me to go into a bit more detail here.

Rise of the Runelords


Rise of the Runelords, it turned out, was the very first Adventure Path released by Paizo. For the uninitiated, an Adventure Path is a series of 6 linked adventure modules. The Rise of the Runelords story arc sees the progression of 1st level characters cutting their teeth on goblins all the way to 18th level heroes contending against undead treants and giant frost worms.

Although I’ve played through literally dozens of D&D modules (as both player and DM), it’s been a long time since I flipped through the pages of a new adventure. The first thing that struck me was the focus on story. The creators of the adventure took great pains to give the DM guidance regarding the story elements – how to introduce the characters to the tale, how to build tension, how to keep even the most recalcitrant players on the case. And like any well-crafted tale, there was tons of back-story.

In the first module, the characters fight against an organized band of goblins. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, and as the story unfolds, it turns out the goblin raids are the beginning of an immense plot to resurrect an ancient evil (the titular Runelord) from a long-dead civilization. Overall, I was very impressed, and figured the Adventure Path would represent a goldmine as the basis for a card-based game.

So how did the D&D mechanics and intricate story of The Rise of the Runelord fare in its translation to a card game?

Components


I’ve seen complaints about the art, and I definitely have sympathy for that view. Most of the Items look alright, and the Spells seem ok. The monsters are a mix - the Zombie looks suitably threatening, but what the hell is wrong with the Shadow? Some of the character art look particularly silly – Lem doesn’t look fit to kill a rabbit much less a goblin, and Seoni looks like a Cosplay pornstar caught in a strong wind. I guess it’s a certain style – points for consistency – and you’ll either like it or not. But the overall look is disappointing. For the most part, the objects are pasted onto a white background. Apparently, it’s pretty much cut and paste from old artwork to the cards, and Paizo obviously didn’t want to blow too much money on new artwork.

The storage solution provided by the insert in the base set is fantastic. It’s crucial to keep the cards sorted into types, and the box does an excellent job in this regard. I also love the fact that they provided space for the Adventure Deck boxes.

On the other hand, the cards are pretty flimsy. And after only a few plays I noticed that the black border on some card corners was flaking away. Some claim that these cards cannot be played without sleeving, and I’m beginning to fear they are correct. But here’s my main beef – the cards of the Skinsaw pack that I ordered from Bookdepository don’t match the ones of the base set. They’re both taller and have obviously darker backs. This may not seem like such a big deal until you realize that it’s absolutely crucial for the gameplay that there be no difference at all between the cards. Apparently, this was caused by a switch between Chinese and US printers, and Paizo is “looking to improve this in the future.” Gee, thanks. Late adopters probably have less to worry about in this regard, but nevertheless I highly advise that anyone purchasing this game ensure that they get their hands on a matching set.

Rules and Setup

I don’t think I’ve ever discussed the rules of a game in one of my reviews, but I’m going to make an exception here. Simply put, in terms of rules, this game is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

When I’m not reviewing board games, I’m a CPA who spends the majority of his time parsing dense texts. I had no problem with Netrunner, Earth Reborn, or Conflict of Heroes. But I was totally stymied by Pathfinder. And I’m sorry to say, but simply “Following the Golden Rule” and “doing what the card says” (as suggested by the rules) will not cut it. It took downloading a “beginner’s guide,” going carefully through the immense faq at the Paizo website, and then playing through a scenario or three before I finally got a good feel for the rules. There are still a few nuances that I don’t have entirely clear. The rules are definitely a struggle.

Also note that setup is not for the faint of heart. Simply laying out the cards into the proper piles can be a real time-consuming chore. And if you’re interested in the legacy play, there’s additional management at the end of each session, as you go through acquired loot and decide which cards you wish to integrate permanently into your character’s inventory.

Gameplay

I’ve seen complaints that the actual gameplay is nothing more than flipping cards and making the appropriate skill check (i.e. rolling dice). I respectfully disagree. While I wouldn’t say that players are faced with the kind of choices you make in Le Havre or Caverna, players definitely have to make interesting decisions regarding hand management, pacing, player movement, player interaction and more. Undead Viking suggested that all choices in the game are illusory, as it’s always better to use a card than risk the penalty of discarding even more cards. Again, I respectfully disagree. Often, there is a push-you-luck element to the card play, and players will have to decide between definitely passing a check by immediately expending an important resource and probably passing the check by using a weaker one.

Overall, the gameplay is fast-paced and interesting. The skill checks are extremely entertaining. It’s just fun to roll a fistful of dice to try to get that special weapon you’ve been hoping for. It’s exciting to encounter the villain when some of your best weapons are still in the draw pile. As Rahdo correctly put it, if you enjoy wandering around and killing stuff for loot (think Diablo), you’ll probably love this game. This is Ameritrash, not a Euro, and it succeeds in its category. Gameplay is where this game shines.

Obviously, the theme is one of the game’s strong points. Between rolling polyhedral dice to smash monsters, adjusting real D&D character stats (as much as I love my Fallout, it’s just not the same as Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma) and fiddling with items after an adventure, I doubt if there’s much reason to elaborate on this point. It’s real fantasy D&D, and it feels like it.

The big disappointment is that Paizo should have done much more to add variety in terms of the scenario gameplay. Only a small number of the scenarios depart from the basic formula of cornering the boss until it’s beaten. Even off the top of my head, I can think of so many different types of scenarios they could have added. It’s just pure laziness. It’s one thing for the base game to be limited, but even the expansions don’t add much variety. So the gameplay tends to get “samey” once you’ve made it through an expansion or two.

Story

It was extremely interesting to see the characters in the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path brought to life in a board game. All of the NPCs seem to be represented by cards that serve as allies or villains. And those familiar with the backstory will understand at least some of the rationalization for the various powers granted to these characters. Ditto for the settings and the plot - those familiar with the Adventure Path will understand how the individual scenarios portray the major events that took place during the course of the modules.

Did you see what I did there? For me, one of the most disappointing aspects of the game is how little Paizo did to actually convey the unfolding story. Sure, you have all these interesting NPCs – Justice Ironbriar, Iesha Foxglove. But if I hadn’t read their stories ahead of time, I would have had literally no idea who they are. It’s just a random jumble of monsters and NPCs. Now I’m not a proponent of Mice and Mystics-style-storytelling (where the story is essentially read between game sessions) but even that would have been better than nothing (and in fact a fan went and actually created something similar). It’s all just a crying shame. Paizo casually discarded what could have been the most compelling aspect of the game. For players of Dark Souls, compare Paizo’s treatment to the immense amount of story and lore that From Software managed to pack into item descriptions, and you’ll understand the lost potential.

The above is true on a grand scale, and it’s true during individual actions. Paizo made little effort to ensure that the story elements are internally harmonious. In the Adventure Path, the Bunyip (an aquatic creature which looks like a mutated manatee) resides in a cove. But here, you might encounter the monster in the academy, which makes no sense. The idea (suggested in several reviews) that players should simply apply their creativity to create their own backstory to rationalize the encounter is, with all due respect, asinine. So what you end up with is a random collection of story elements and encounters, some of which are nonsensical.

My point is not that the above harms the gameplay, just that it’s really jarring and represents a missed opportunity.

So is it D&D?

So how does it all feel?

My overall assessment is that this is a game where the experience is greater than the sum of its parts (and for some perspective, I’ve only said that about one other game, that being Chaos in the Old World). It’s a dash of theme, a sprinkle of mechanics, and a touch of story continuity. But overall, it really did give me some of that D&D feeling. It’s paradoxical, I know, but the fact is that this game feels more like a true D&D adventure than any other board game I’ve played, including the Dungeons and Dragons Board Games (e.g. Castle Ravenloft). While we do our best to elevate role-playing to epic storytelling, there will always be a certain element of lovingly pouring over stat tables, random monster encounters and lists of spell effects. I suspect that this is why this game succeeds, despite some of the issues I’ve mentioned above. It just feels like D&D.

Pathfinder definitely isn’t the end of its evolutionary tree. As detailed above, there are many potential areas for improvement. It may be that Paizo will improve some aspects (though apparently the next cycle in the series is extremely similar to this one) but it’s also probable that another developer will build on the foundation established here to create an even more engrossing roleplay/story experience.

Nevertheless, even on its own merit Pathfinder deserves the accolades it’s received, as the game system really is innovative. If you’re looking for a fun and interesting card game that does an admirable (if not perfect) job of capturing the feel of a roleplaying game, there’s currently no better choice than the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.


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Brian Kelley
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Thanks for this review. Like you, I've been on the fence about picking up the card game. I'm familiar with Pathfinder as I run the RPG, just not in the Inner Sea setting where the card games are based. You've answered the very questions I had with regards to the game and while it sounds like it can be fun, there are enough shortcomings that I'll use my budget elsewhere.
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I have that user created file that is set up to have you read chunks of back story inbetween each scenario and it helps immensley.

Jorune
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Jorune wrote:
I have that user created file that is set up to have you read chunks of back story inbetween each scenario and it helps immensley.

Jorune

Seconded. I've played through the campaign twice, once reading the tiny blurbs on the back of the cards and then again reading the excellent storyguide. The story helped immensely, not just in giving background to the NPCs but also giving some shape to the scenarios, such as why which locations were included or why a special rule was in place.
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Jorune wrote:
I have that user created file that is set up to have you read chunks of back story inbetween each scenario and it helps immensley.

Jorune


Link or name?
Thanks
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Kevin B. Smith
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Mosker wrote:
Jorune wrote:
I have that user created file that is set up to have you read chunks of back story inbetween each scenario and it helps immensley.

Link or name?
Thanks

Rise of the Runelords Adventure Guide v1.7

And I also heartily recommend it.
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Robin Reeve
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Thanks for your excellent review!
As a player who knew nothing of the RPG original adventure path, the string of the story nearly totally escapes me.
Hack 'n slash and loot are nice, but the quasi absence of detailed descriptions of the adventures and NPCs is one of the weaknesses of the game.
I personally scale it as average to good.
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Robin wrote:
As a player who knew nothing of the RPG original adventure path, the string of the story nearly totally escapes me.
Hack 'n slash and loot are nice, but the quasi absence of detailed descriptions of the adventures and NPCs is one of the weaknesses of the game.
I personally scale it as average to good.
This, except I scale it as average to bad.
 
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