Matt Carlson: Review of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords

Pathfinder boxPathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords

Primary Designer: Mike SelinkerPublisher: Paizo Publishing
Ages: 13+
Players: 1-4 (5 w/ expansions)
Time: 90 mins

It’s almost been a full year since the highly popular launch of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords at GenCon 2013.  The base game, and its six expansions have sold well enough to spawn a sequel base game at GenCon in just a few more days.  It is difficult to pin the game down to just one genre.  It is clearly some sort of adventure game, with its progressive episodes, dice based combat, and character growth.  It also has just a hint of a deckbuilding mechanic, but at such a slow deckbuilding pace it may not satisfy fans of the deckbuilding genre who like to quickly see how their deck stacks up.

The span of the adventure, the base game and its expansions, is set up to play over a few dozen game sessions.  Players begin with a set deck of cards, and rather than improving their deck during play, small improvements are primarily made after each game session.  The goal of any individual session (which can take an hour to play) is to explore various locations to find the big bad boss and then defeat him/her/it to “win” that game.

For the first game session, players select a character class and build their starting deck of only 15 cards.  Each class’ deck is slightly different, having more or fewer cards of each type: weapons, spells, armor, etc…  Later games will continue to use that same deck, but with minor additions and subtractions as players accumulate more powerful cards during their adventures.

pathfinder game setup

Each grand part of the game is called an Adventure, with individual game sessions within an adventure called scenarios.  To set up a specific scenario, players must grab out of the box the listed enemy/trap/challenge cards as well as any specific “loot” cards that might appear.  These cards are placed into stacks called Locations, with more Locations present when more players are at the table.  (The game can go up to 5 players if using the character expansion.)  Each location will have various challenges as well as a sort of “boss” card.  Defeat challenges by playing cards and rolling dice until the location’s “boss” card is revealed.  Defeat the “boss” and that location is considered Closed.  One of the locations will have the final villain of the scenario as its boss card.  Locate the final villain and defeat him/her/it and you win the game.  However, if you haven’t first gone through the other locations and Closed them the villain will escape to one of the free locations.  Thus, players scramble around to close as many locations as possible before hunting down and challenging the main boss of the scenario.  Win that session and your character improves via any special “loot” cards you found, and may also get to add a “feat”.

Feats are a nice way to represent the growth of a character (other than simply changing around one’s deck) from game to game.  Each character acquires abilities that can be earned through extended play through the adventures.  Some abilities are common to all classes; like larger hand sizes or more cards in their starting deck, while others are specific to a character class.  This helps to provide a bit of Role-Playing feel to the game, particularly since one selects their new abilities from a large field of choices, eventually making each character unique even to other characters of the same class.

Despite its role-playing roots, an actual game will consist of players drawing cards, visiting a “location” and responding to the location’s top card by playing cards and often rolling dice.  Success will earn a player some benefits, such as new equipment or spells, while others primarily advance the game along.  Gamers looking for a heavy deckbuilding experience may not like the frequent rolling of dice to solve challenges or the slow pace with which character decks change.  At the conclusion of one’s turn, there is the option of discarding in order to draw new cards.  This is a significant decision because a players’ deck is considered their life total, and discards are not reshuffled back into the player’s deck.  This brings me to the first thing I really like about the game.

Things I like:

pathfinder spell

The hand management in the game is quite compelling.  Unlike most games of this sort, it does not pay to just churn through one’s cards to find the best ones.  Discard a card here, and that’s one more set towards character death.  With that threat in place, a whole new set of card mechanics can be put in place.  Cards can provide a use through many sorts of actions.  Discarding a card for an effect is typical with other games of this type.  However, one can also Reveal a card and gain a benefit without it leaving one’s hand.  Other cards are Displayed, by placing them in front of you until they are removed by some later condition.  Cards can be Recharged (my favorite new mechanic) by giving a benefit by placing it at the bottom of the player’s deck – essentially used without a loss of life.  Finally, cards can be Buried (removed until the end of this game) or Banished (permanently removed from a character’s deck.)  Many cards give the option of two or more of these choices – providing more powerful benefits by limiting the future use of the card.  The card options are the core of what I enjoy about the game.  The actual gameplay is rather vanilla: visit location, flip card, roll die, celebrate or suffer consequences.  The strategy of choosing when and how much of one’s card resources to use provides the meat of the decisions in the game.

pathfinder character

While the story bits of the scenarios don’t really draw me in, the uniqueness of each character class provides the primary feeling of a role-playing game.  All players start a game with 15 cards, but the mix is unique to each class.  A fighter would have several armor cards and no spells while a wizard would have the reverse.  In a nice nod towards play balance and more role playing, each class has a favored card type.  If you didn’t draw that type of card in your initial hand, redraw a new hand until you do.  Thus, a wizard will always get to start with at least one spell while a fighter would always start with some armor.

pathfinder character 2

Each class has a unique little power and have a different broad specialty.  Some types lend themselves to taking a lot of damage, others are better at surviving skill checks better than combats.  Classes with the ability to draw many cards have to be especially careful as they can easily draw themselves to death.  Characters can also alter the basic rules of the game, able to help other players even if they aren’t at the same location or having the ability to “look ahead” on a location deck to see what’s coming next.  After a few game sessions, a character can specialize within their class.  Each class has two different options from which to choose after they’ve gone through several scenarios.  These provide new powers and power options in addition to the base class’ abilities.

I’m a fan of cooperative games and this has virtually no player competition.  I don’t consider a 1 vs many game to be a true co-op.  Players can visit the same location deck to provide some help to each other – passing cards or helping in skill checks.  Since there is no competition, the game works pretty well as a solo game.  While going through adventures with a single character is a bit tricky (depending on its class), it is not too hard for one person to run several characters at the same time.

Things of which I’m less fond:

The first thing I noticed about the game is that any real change to one’s character is a very slow process.  Playing the game and enjoying it requires a bit of commitment.  A character will grow in power and increase its unique “flavor” over time, but only in little bits and pieces.  Playing the entire grand campaign will allow the most change and development, but that takes a considerable commitment.   Unfortunately, even the first couple training missions do almost nothing to improve one’s deck (providing no trait increases and most “loot” cards are of the same quality as the initial ones) which only serves to delay the enjoyment of character progression.

This long-term development will mean for most groups that it will be played over several months of scattered game sessions.  This requires your gaming group to be fairly stable, unless specific class decks are preserved and just passed around to whomever is present.  This slower pace of play also detracts some from the theme of the game.

While the character decks are a great fit for a role-playing style game, the rest of the game lags behind in providing a thematic adventure experience.  Playing the game over long swaths of time will dilute events that transpired earlier.  More importantly, the game seems to simply be piles of cards without any overarching theme.  The main story, The Rise of the Runelords, comes from a set of six linked roleplaying modules in the Pathfinder roleplaying game.  Gamers familiar with those modules will encounter many familiar locations and villains as the play, but others who aren’t paying close attention will be hard pressed to piece together a larger storyline simply from the flavor text on the more significant cards in the game.

Gamers looking to develop the game’s theme, short of reading or playing the six RPG modules, have a few options to try to increase their involvement with the theme.  There is a free PDF that introduces role-players to the Runelords environment. While it doesn’t touch on the specifics of any of the adventure’s locations or characters, it does give a bit of background on the different factions in the area.  Another possibility is to listen to the hour long audio dramas written about each module in the series.  At present, the first three are available, with the final three coming in a few months.

pathfinder skinsaw deck

My last concern about the game is its cost.  The base set has an MSRP of $60, which is fairly standard for today’s boardgames.  This provides the base cards needed, a few starter scenarios to warm up to the game system, and the first of the six adventure decks in the story.  Gamers wanting more options can get ahold of the Character Add-On deck (MSRP $20) to double the available class choices and allow for a fifth player.  To play through the entire adventure series would require buying the other five Adventure decks (also MSRP $20).  Buying everything would set you back between $140 and $180.  Quite a bit for a single game, putting it more in the collectible card game category.  This is balanced by the amount of gameplay provided.  Playing through the entire series could easily take 30-40 hours.  Thats less than I might get in on one of my favorite boardgames, but more time played than I might get out of $150 worth of games of which I’m only mildly fond.  Value comes down to whether one makes it all the way through the entire adventure, and is even more reasonable if played through more than once.

Replay value is there, primarily through class choices.  Playing the game with a different class or mix of classes will give the game a different flavor, even if the scenario and location decks have only minor changes.   So replay value comes down to one’s enjoyment of character development (which is unfortunately quite slow) vs one’s tolerance for going through all the same scenarios again.  I suspect later playthroughs will be best appreciated in the latter stages where new characters and classes will be significantly different from each other.

Final thoughts:

Deckbuilding fans may enjoy the use of the mechanic (albeit occurring slowly) in a fresh way, or find change too slow for their liking.  Roleplaying fans will either enjoy the comparably fast pace of the card game (vs an actual roleplaying campaign) or may feel the game falls short on theme.  Strategy purists may shy away from the frequent die rolling challenges, while those in for a slightly more casual game will embrace a bit of the risk/reward fickleness of fate.

As for me, I like the game. I want to like the game more, but the sheer length of time to play through the whole adventure is a hindrance.  My life situation simply does not currently let me drop 30+ hours on a single game in a year’s time.  The price is also an issue, but since it can be acquired slowly over time ($20 every couple months vs $180 all at once) that isn’t as much of a concern.  If I had a better feel for the story arc of the adventure (such as having played through the roleplaying modules) I think the game would be much more satisfying – even playing in short bits.  Without that link to the overall storyline, the majority of the “adventure” part of the game lies in the character development; requiring one to play through as much of the game as possible in order to see that development occur.  Players wanting to try and increase the “theme quotient” could invest in listening to the audio plays or even reading the original roleplaying modules – it would probably be fairly easy to find an inexpensive used copy of the modules.

As with games of any type, your enjoyment of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords will increase the more time you invest in it.  At least it’s slightly quicker to say the name than it is to play.

 

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Larry:  I might change my mind on this one once I play it some more, but for now, I’m mildly disappointed in the way the game plays.  I’m not a fan of cooperative games in general, but I decided to give Pathfinder a shot because I was hoping there would be a nice roleplaying aspect to the game and I like games in which there is long-term character growth.  Unfortunately, the roleplaying didn’t work out.  The game itself is just too abstract–you’d think you could ham things up a bit, but it’s far easier to just draw your card, roll the dice, and then let the next player take their turn.  There’s just not enough of a story to let the players be engaged enough for proper roleplaying.  Not to mention, it would slow things down a lot.  As for the character growth, as Matt says, it’s very slow.  Matching what he said, I’ve played several games and my character is essentially the same as it was at the beginning.  This reduces my interest in the game quite a bit, as it seems much less dynamic than I hoped it would be.  I’ll probably continue playing Pathfinder, as I hope things will pick up with the later adventures.  But at this point in time, the game hasn’t lived up to my expectations.

Ben McJunkin: My thoughts largely track Larry’s (which should not be a surprise, since we have played our campaign together).  With rare exception, I am not a fan of cooperative board games.  But I do have a background in D&D, so I was hoping that I could overlook the gameplay and immerse myself in the nostalgia of group adventuring.  Sadly, this was not to be.  The game’s mechanics are simply too simplistic and artificial to allow for any meaningful sense of roleplay or narrative immersion.  And the actual gameplay is rather repetitive: go somewhere, flip a card, play a few cards, roll some dice, rinse and repeat.  It’s not exactly a bad game (I actually look forward to continuing our missions when the next opportunity arises), but it’s not one worth recommending to others.

Ratings Review from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it!
I like it.  Matt Carlson
Neutral.  Larry, Ben McJunkin
Not for me…

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About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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