I’ve enjoyed watching the deckbuilding genre emerge over the last several years. However, only a few of the deckbuilders have caught my attention enough to become regular members of my gaming catalog. Dominion (2008) and Ascension (2010) were both early members of that club, racking up 100 and 21 plays to date respectively. However more recently another one has really caught my eye: the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013). Though I’ve only been playing it since last April, I’ve already recorded 23 plays of the game, which has put my group almost halfway through the Rise of the Runelords campaign.
When I first played Pathfinder ACG, I wrote extensively about its interesting elements. With many more plays under my belt, I’ve decided to return to the topic — to talk about what else makes the game fascinating (and very replayable).
A Revised Opinion
The Cards Quickly Become Manageable. When I wrote my original article, I said that you could easily get lost in your hand. Because the cards are all quite unique, it’s hard for a first-time player to track everything that they can do. However, I found that this problem resolved itself within several plays. Now I can sit down with my familiar deck of cards and instantly know what everything does.
More of the Good
The Campaign Play is Almost Entirely Unique. In my original article, I also noted that the continuity of play — where you maintain and expand the same deck of cards from game to game — was a unique and interesting element. Having now played through 19 sessions, I want to put a big explanation mark on that statement.
The campaign really feels like a campaign. Previously, very few games had tried something like this — with a few exceptions like Descent: The Road to Legend (2008) and Risk Legacy (2011). However, I wasn’t entirely convinced of the success of those past attempts, as they sacrificed either the importance of an individual session (Descent) or the replayability of the game (Legacy) in the name of continuity. Pathfinder meanwhile manages things perfectly. Each session has a clear beginning, middle, and end, but at the same time you’re building something bigger as your character improves. Meanwhile, I can see starting over as soon as you finish a (very long) campaign of Pathfinder ACG, because you could select a different character and have a really different experience.
The Game is Largely in the Rebuilding. Because of the strength of the campaign play, the core strategy of Pathfinder ACG (and maybe even the core fun) comes in rebuilding your character at the end of each adventure. That doesn’t mean the rest of an adventure isn’t enjoyable. It is, but that’s primarily thanks to the preparation for that rebuilding, which appears as a constant, Skinnerian response to getting cool new stuff. That all comes together at the end of a game, when you trade cards with your friends, decide how to improve your own character, and decide how to improve your party as a whole.
The Game Changes Over Time. As I’ve played through nine months of Pathfinder ACG, I’ve been somewhat surprised to see how much the gameplay has changed. That’s because new cards are introduced as you play, and starting after a dozen or so sessions, cards are removed as well.The result is a clear evolution. Monsters become tougher, but loot becomes cooler as well.
Later cards also seem to be a bit more complex, and a bit more supportive of interesting tactics: in one of my most recent plays my group had to shuffle around our heroes a few times in response to some of the new challenges — such as when a troll appeared that needed someone with fire or acid attacks to kill him.
I haven’t seen many deckbuilders that have pulled off evolution over the course of a single game, so it’s particularly impressive to see it over the course of many, many plays.
The Sales Method is Brilliant. It might be crass to say so, but Paizo has done a brilliant job of continuing to sell the game after its initial purchase. Every five successful games, you finish up a scenario and then you plunk down $20 for a new box of cards. For us, that’s meant a $20 purchase every 3 months. Overall, it’s a really clever adaptation of Paizo’s existing roleplaying subscription methods to the deckbuilding world. I should say, I don’t mind this at all. It’s a small price for something that’s getting so much play, and it’s what allows the game to change over time.
By linking each core set with five boxed supplements, Paizo has effectively created the same methodology of card “blocks” that’s used by Ascension — where several supplements are intended to work together, but where you’re expected to move on to a new, separate game afterward. This is part of what allows for the extended play, but it also supports resetting every once in a while, so that expansions don’t continue on forever — warping the original game out of its original form, as happened with Carcassonne (2000).
This methodology even let Paizo design a great box that will hold all of your cards and supplements — whether they’re currently in use or not! I wrote recently about the problems that most deckbuilders have had with designing boxes that fit supplements, so it was great to see someone who was thinking about it from Day One.
All Told, the Game is Even More Innovative than I Originally Thought. When I wrote my original article, I was impressed by the Pathfinder ACG’s innovation. That’s only blossomed with time. The campaign play is everything that I’d hoped for, not just because I enjoy evolving my character, but also because I love having a game sitting around that everyone is enthusiastic to play again and again. Right now we’re doing our best to play one session of Pathfinder ACG a month and we always play two games back to back when we do. Few games ever enthuse us enough for back-to-back plays, and nothing has for this long, with the possible exception of Dominion (2008).
More of the Bad
Loss is Not a Danger. Since my original plays of the Pathfinder ACG I’ve come up with one more thing that I don’t love: it that’s losing an individual scenario isn’t a big deal. Sure, you want to succeed, so that you can see what’s next, and more through one new adventure supplement after another, but if you don’t win, no biggie: you just do it again.
Now I’ve played a bit with the design of an ongoing cooperative game, and I’m not sure how to best manage this. Because if you punish the players for a loss, you’ll make it harder and harder for them to continue forward, and that’s not fun. But on the other hand, you don’t want a loss to be a total non-issue either. So it’s a tough issue. The second Pathfinder ACG set, Skull & Shackles (2014), has addressed the issue a bit by giving out loot that you lose if you fail the scenario, but it’s still an open issue.
Mind you, Pathfinder ACG does give one other option for loss: a character can die. Though the cards used by the character are put back into the party’s card pool, this can still be gut wrenching, as you might have played the character for many, many hours. So, perhaps we should just count that as the true loss option in Pathfinder ACG — though you can usually avoid it too, if you’re careful, and are willing to lose a scenario rather than risk a character.
A Few Interesting Options
Since they released the original game, Paizo has made two big expansions to the Pathfinder ACG game. I’m not entirely sure they’ve been successful — and I think that’s in part due to the fact that they were designed after the fact. However, they’re interesting.
The Class Decks. Late last year, Paizo introduced class decks, which are new cards specifically meant to complement the abilities of one of the existing character types in the game. We’ve so far had the Rogue Class Deck (2014) introduced to our game, and I’ve enjoyed seeing the new cards when we play.
Unfortunately, the Rogue Class Deck has introduced an implicit inequity: we now see more rogue items than we do anything else. It’s not a huge imbalance, as it’s somewhat less than 100 cards introduced in a total pool that’s about 10x that size, but it’s enough to be obvious. It’d balance out if all the players bought their own class decks, but we haven’t seen the reason to do so (and actually there aren’t class decks for every player type yet).
I’m probably more peeved by the fact that the character decks mess up the careful design of the Pathfinder ACG box. It’s a really neat box that not only has the space for the cards that you might be playing at one time … but also for all of the expansion deck boxes. Unfortunately there’s only space for seven boxes — which would be six scenario boxes and one bonus character box (which lets you play with more players). There’s no space for the class boxes. (I suppose that’s why you might want to get Broken Token’s Pathfinder ACG organizer, despite the great insert that comes with the game itself; thus far I’ve resisted, though I’ve now picked up almost half-a-dozen other Broken Token game organizers!)
The Organized Play. Organized Play has long been a vital part of the roleplaying scene. Players come together at a game store or convention, bringing with them an officially approved character. They play an official scenario, gain experience for their character, and then have someone slightly better to play the next time around.
The analogy to the Pathfinder ACG game is obvious, since you likewise have an ever-improving character that you’ll play over many sessions. Unfortunately, the ideas of organized play don’t work well with the adventure card game’s components, which all belong to one person. Enter the class decks. Now each player brings his own class deck to each Organized Play session. His character is built exclusively from his class deck, and when he wins new stuff in the game, he then replaces it at the end of the session with cards from his own class deck at the same power level.
I’m impressed by the ingeniousness of the idea, which could really advance board games in a whole new direction (much as the Pathfinder ACG already has). I’m less impressed by the specific implementation. Mind you, I’ve never engaged in the Organized Play, but I find it confining to have to develop your character just from your own small set of cards, and I find it disappointing to get cool stuff in an adventure, and then replace it with something arbitrary from your own cards.
But, I understand why you’d have to do things this way to preserve individual ownership of cards, and it makes me understand the absolute necessity for the class decks, which I might have otherwise seen as a cash grab. (I totally don’t because of the Organized Play connection.)
The Scenarios. Meanwhile, Organized Play has introduced a great new idea: scenarios. When you play in Organized Play you don’t play the original adventures from the Pathfinder ACG boxes. Instead you play new scenarios that you purchase from Paizo. They use the same ‘ole cards as the normal game, but put them together in new ways. This makes it obvious how expandable the Pathfinder ACG is. Even after you’ve played through every adventure in a core “adventure path”, you could move on to other scenarios, created by yourself, your friends, or Paizo — and so reuse your existing cards without just rerunning the same path. The first Organized play is for Skull & Shackles, but I really hope to see a new path of scenarios for the original Rise of the Rune Lords (2013) at some point. (Could we have a nice hardcover book, please, Paizo?)
When I first played Pathfinder Adventure Card Game I realized that it was really innovative and that it offered a whole new type of play. However, I didn’t realize just how innovative it was, nor did I foresee it creating a whole new genre of play. But, that’s exactly what seems to be happening. Shadowrun: Crossfire (2014) similarly lets you carry over cards between games, though there’s apparently less consistency. I’ve also heard word of at least one more continuity-heavy deckbuilding game coming out.
Pathfinder ACG requires a lot of commitment both in time and money. At 19 sessions, I’ve probably put in 25-30 hours of play, and since I got the $60 core game for Christmas 2013, I’ve purchased $60 more in scenario decks, and one of the players has bought a $20 class deck, for $140 total. So, that might not be for everyone. The requirement for a relatively stable group of players is also tough. Still, putting in this commitment has resulted in a great ongoing game.
This idea isn’t limited to adventure game co-ops like Pathfinder. I can see the potential for continuity in more abstract co-ops or even in pure eurogames. The question is whether the market is there. I certainly hope so!
The main picture of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is courtesy of rexbinary (rexbinary at BGG), who released his picture into the public domain. Other pictures courtesy of the Paizo store.