In the last year I’ve been impressed both by the number of deckbuilder games that have made it to market and by how many different niches they fill — from pure deckbuilding to an increasing number of games with hybridized deckbuilder mechanics. Mike Selinker’s Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is one of the most interesting because it takes deckbuilding in some extremely innovative directions.
Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013), by Mike Selinker, is a card-based cooperative campaign game. Players each get decks that represent both the abilities and equipment of their character and their character’s life points — so unlike most deckbuilders players have to be careful about their card plays, lest their character die!
The actual gameplay of Pathfinder centers on players exploring locations, which are also represented by deck of cards. When they encounter cards they’ll usually have to engage in a skill challenge by rolling dice — with card play by any of the players potentially improving the odds. The ultimate object is to close down enough locations that it’s possible to kill a scenario’s villain without him escaping. These are all pretty standard elements for cooperative play, but not something seen in many prior deckbuilding games.
Because Pathfinder ACG is a cooperative campaign, it can be played out over many sessions. In each session, players will take on a different scenario, with different monsters,villains, and goals. Continuity is created by the fact that a player carries his character deck from session to session, rebuilding it at the end of each session and slowly improving it as time goes on.
The campaign elements of Pathfinder ACG are very unique for any sort of board game, with cooperative adventure games like HeroQuest (1989) and Descent: Journeys in the Dark (2005, 2012) being some of the few to try this style of play. Pathfinder ACG is much more comprehensive in it ability to meaningfully improve a complex character from one game to another. The deckbuilding elements of Pathfinder ACG are also quite unique, taking the core idea of building a deck and going in very new directions from that starting place.
Self-Defined Starting Decks. Each character is defined by a list of what sorts of cards his deck can contain. A wizard might get eight spell cards and some items and allies, while a fighter focuses more on weapon and armor cards. Though a player can begin with a standard set of cards, he can alternatively build his own deck as he sees fit using the basic cards available in the game. Even using a standard list of cards, this high level of unique detail for a starting deck is pretty unprecedented among deckbuilders and helps play to get off to a quicker, more interesting start. The fact that a player can go further and pick precisely how to define his decks is entirely unique.
A Variety of Card Plays. Most deckbuilders limit you to playing cards, discarding them, and trashing them, but Pathfinder ACG isn’t constrained by those standard mechanics. Instead it creates totally new things that you can do with the cards, complementing some of the realities of the game. First, a player can reveal a card (showing it and putting it back into his hand) or recharge it (putting it to the bottom of his draw pile); these link up to the fact that a player doesn’t want to go through his deck because it represents life — but still allows for cards to get temporarily used up. Second, a player can bury a card, which generally takes it out of play for the rest of the session, but doesn’t permanently destroy it — which reflects the fact that each game is part of an ongoing campaign.
Though these mechanics were probably required for the rest of Pathfinder ACG to work, they suggest that other deckbuilders should consider moving away from the play-discard-trash paradigm, to see if there’s more that should be done with their cards.
Life or Death Decisions. As has already been mentioned, the decision to draw and discard cards is literally a life-or-death decision within the game. There’s no other deckbuilder that makes the discard decision so important, but it’s a great choice to have.
Intriguing Hand Management. When you put together the innovative methods of card play and the life-or-death decisions implicit in them, you have very interesting hand management that goes far beyond the simple choices to-discard-or-not that show up in deckbuilders like Eminent Domain (2011) and Nightfall (2011). On the one hand, you have the problem of your hand getting clogged with cards that you don’t immediately need, while on the other hand you have the possibility of death if you go through too much of your deck. Pathfinder ACG does a good job of turning this dilemma into a tactical decision through its “recharge” mechanism, which sometimes allows players to move useful cards to the bottom of their deck in the hope of getting them back at a later time.
A Continuity of Play. The most innovative design element in Pathfinder ACG is probably the fact that you continue to use the same deck of cards game after game. To keep decks from growing out of control, at the end of each game you cut your deck back to a specified number of starting cards. Nonetheless, your deck should improve over time because the quality of the cards in your deck will improve.
Multiple Sorts of Decks. Pathfinder ACG has both player decks and location decks — the latter carefully built up using specific formula described in each scenario. It’s not the first game to have multiple sorts of decks — as seen by the monster decks in Thunderstone (2009) and the super-villain deck in DC Comics (2012). However, I think it’s always a strong deckbuilding design choice to think about how to use the same cards in different ways in the game.
Strong Use of Traits. Finally, Pathfinder ACG takes advantage of its roleplaying roots by making heavy use of traits in the game. Armor can be heavy, light, or a shield; monsters can be humans or giants; magic can be arcane or divine; and weapons can be bludgeoning or piercing. These traits are then activated by other cards, creating intricate webs of interaction that make the game more colorful and more thematic and also create tactical opportunities. You can find some of this sort of design in Ascension (2010), thanks to its origins in Magic: the Gathering. It’s also lightly scattered among other deckbuilding games. However, Pathfinder ACG uses it to much more constant and better effect, and clearly enriches the game by doing so.
Overall, Pathfinder Adventure Card Game shows just how unique a deckbuilder can be, and through its innovation it introduces lots of new elements to the genre.
Can Get Lost in Hand. Pathfinder ACG has lots of complex individual cards. This is overall great because it means that you have lots of options and lots of color in your game. However, it’s done to such a high degree that it’s easy to get lost in your hand, forgetting what you can do. This would be a major problem in most games, but in Pathfinder ACG you’re liable to slowly come to know your major cards over the course of several games, and so the trouble should decrease over time.
A Very Slow Burn. Over the course of a single game of Pathfinder ACG your deck isn’t going to get a lot better. At the end you’ll be able to swap out somewhere between a few and several cards, improving your deck just that much before its next play. To really see the full scope of deckbuilding like you might expect to see in a single game of another deckbuilder you have to play many times — both to have enough opportunities to get improved cards and to see the better cards that come out over the course of a campaign. Like the previous problem, this won’t be an issue if you plan to play many games, but if you’re looking for a single play, Pathfinder ACG probably ain’t it.
Other Mechanics Are Less Innovative. Though the deckbuilding of Pathfinder ACG is extremely innovative, I can’t say the same for the cooperative and adventure game mechanics. They’re both relatively standard, with the only big innovation being the campaign-style play. This means that you might find the cooperative mechanics a little underdeveloped and that you might find the constant skill tests a little repetitive. The success of the game will mainly depend on whether the great deckbuilding mechanics are enough.
Though most deckbuilding games have built on what came before, just a couple have massively innovated the deckbuilding genre. I’d list the role-selection-style play of Eminent Domain (2011), the integrated wargaming of A Few Acres of Snow (2011), and the balanced worker-deck play of Copycat (2012) among the previous innovators. To that list I’d now add the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013). The most obvious innovation is, of course, it’s slow-burn of a long-term deckbuilding game, but even in its turn-by-turn play of card there’s a lot that’s new.
The result works well and opens up whole new realms of deckbuilding possibilities
The main picture of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is courtesy of rexbinary (rexbinary at BGG), who released his picture into the public domain.