Cardboard Children: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

By Robert Florence on September 17th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.


Hello youse.

I’m in a really good mood today, so I’m trying to blast this column down while the energy of pure positivity is flowing through me. Why am I in such a good mood? Well, there’s two reasons really. The first one is that I’ve realised that I am in complete control of my reality. I can do, or not do, anything I want. No law can restrict me, and no prison can hold me. That’s hugely liberating. I could have full sex with a microwave oven if I wanted to, and no-one could really do a thing about it. They’d just have to watch, from the point the door opens until the point we both go BEEP. The second thing to put me in a good mood is the PATHFINDER ADVENTURE CARD GAME, and you’ll be glad to hear it’s that I’ll be talking about after the jump.

PATHFINDER ADVENTURE CARD GAME
How refreshing it is to be talking about a new card game that isn’t a deckbuilder fashioned after the likes of Dominion. PACG is a card game, sure, driven by cards, sure, but it’s pretty much a light RPG in a box. It’s far more of an Adventure Game than a card game. The cards are mainly tracking your shit, your inventory, your powers and loot. What makes it so exciting is how simple it is to play, and how easily it generates a story.

Okay, first off, let’s talk about this cold hard reality of gaming. Roleplaying, Pen and Paper style roleplaying, is about as great as gaming ever gets. If you’ve ever properly played a campaign of a great RPG, like Call of Cthulhu or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, you’ll know what I mean. Nothing else on a tabletop ever comes close to that feeling of building a character over weeks and months, improving your character’s talents and equipment, and making some tough decisions with some good friends. No computer game comes close either. Playing an RPG is the best gaming experience out there, as far as I’m concerned, and I only wish I could do it more often.

But it’s a big commitment, right? You have to set aside a lot of time, and you have to have one person there who will run the game. And that person (it’s usually me whenever I play) has a shitload of work to do – generating enemies and a world to hold them. So wouldn’t it be great to have a game that gives you a light feel of an RPG with little-to-no prep time? And how good would it be if that game didn’t even need a GM to run it?


In PACG, you choose a character and build a small deck of cards for them, reflecting their abilities. There are suggested starter decks, so all of this stuff is easy to do. A fighter character will have some weapon cards in his deck. The magician will start with more spells. Every deck will have a different feel to it, and every character will have different powers and different dice to roll when making checks.


The adventure is easy to set up. You decide which scenario card you’ll play. You’ll lay out the location cards listed on the scenario card. You’ll then build decks for each location according to the instructions on the location card. This involves shuffling enemies, items, barriers, allies and such into a deck. You’ll take the big boss you’re all trying to hunt down, and some henchmen, and you’ll randomly place one of these into each location deck. You’ll have no idea exactly where the big bad guy is now. You’ll have to explore each location (turning up cards from the location deck) in an effort to hunt him down.


And so the game begins. You move your character to a location (one of the decks on the table) and you’ll start exploring the cards. Let’s say the first card you encounter is an enemy. You have to make a combat check to defeat it. You check what die you’ll be rolling. You can show cards from your hand (such as weapons) to modify your roll. And then you roll. Succeed and the enemy is banished from the game. Fail and you take wounds and the enemy is shuffled back into the deck to perhaps meet you again at that location. Checks are what the game is all about. Intelligence checks might win you a new spell. Charisma checks might win you a new ally. And these new things come into your hand as you play, allowing you to use them in that very session. You keep exploring the locations, defeating enemies and gaining loot, until you take down the big bad guys and close down the locations.

Now, let’s talk about your deck. Your deck represents your health. Starting with fifteen cards in your deck, you essentially have 15 hit points. There are some big decisions to be made with how you use your cards. Most cards will have different effects depending on how they are played. You might only have to show that you have a certain weapon in your hand to get one effect, but you might have to discard it to get a stronger effect. Indeed, you sometimes will banish a card from your hand for a really powerful effect, but that’s the card GONE. Back into the box. Out of the game. Anything simply discarded can return to your hand by healing. The game is light on mechanics, but heavy on decisions. Because get this – if you die in this game your character is DEAD.

And why does death matter? Well, after every session, win or lose, you will rebuild your character deck – and this time you might be able to incorporate new loot you found in that session. Cool, right? If you complete a scenario, you will get rewards too. These might be new random items drawn from the box, but they can also be boosts to the abilities on your character cards – giving you +1s to your die rolls or boosting your hand size. Or increasing the amount of cards you can have in your deck. Your character matters, because it will grow with you, just like in a proper RPG. Your character is YOURS, and your deck will contain stuff you found and won fair and square.


So yeah, there’s lots I haven’t time to mention. Like the blessing deck, and how it acts as a timer, and how you have to keep a close eye on it as it simulates the winds of fate – sometimes saving your skin. I haven’t time to talk about how you can best co-op with the rest of your team, or how you can find some nice synergy between characters. I haven’t time to talk about how fun the “corner the villain to kill the villain” mechanic is, or how it elevates the big bad guys into a proper team challenge.


What I do have time to talk about is how this elegant game creates little moments of story in each session that helps scratch that RPG itch. In my first game, one of the other players (a rogue) was exploring the woods when she encountered a Werewolf. Now, this werewolf was nasty. Super nasty. There was no way the rogue was killing it. Fortunately, she could evade it. That’s one of her character powers. Evading the werewolf shuffled it back into the deck. Of course, this meant the werewolf was in there, prowling, waiting. No-one wanted to go near the woods. We ended up with a situation where a werewolf in the woods was delaying our entire mission. (Is the villain we have to kill in the woods? Maybe. But so is that fucking werewolf.) And even with that – with just that alone – we started to feel that this game was something special. By random luck of the draw deck assembly, our scenario about hunting bandits had turned into a werewolf story. Seeing how the individual cards worked was just the icing on the cake. Take the trapped chest card – if you fail at opening it you take wounds and then decide whether or not to banish it. So you can decide that it explodes, taking the loot with it, and remove it from the game, or you can decide that it stays to allow you another pop at opening it. A little risk/reward game in itself, all in one card. In one card out of over 500 in the base set.

And more – the base set comes with a little introductory adventure, of three scenarios in size, and all the random shit that might get shuffled in when you build it. And then there’s the first adventure pack too, inside the box. That’s the first part of a big campaign, and brings new cards full of items and enemies and weapons and allies and spells and EVERYTHING. Apparently there are 110 new adventure cards being released every two months, advancing the whole story. Oh yeah, and remember your characters can level up and up and up and then can change career path and level up further. So there’s all that replayability too.

So maybe nothing beats an RPG. But if you just want that feel of exploration, loot gathering, exciting skill checks and die rolling and a light story – and one that every player at the table is discovering with each turn of the card? This game is the real deal. It’s one of the most exciting games I’ve ever played. I think it’s a hugely important design. I think we finally have the game that solves that problem many of us have – “I want to play an RPG, but I don’t have the time for all that prep!” Just gather some friends, assemble some decks, and go on a hunt. Or hey, play solo if you like. Watch out for the werewolf. Make sure someone brings thieves tools to get through that locked door. Don’t trust your allies completely – there might be a traitor in the caves.

Game of the year just became a much tougher (or maybe EASIER) decision.

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39 Comments »

  1. Reefpirate says:

    This sounds really cool. I might just buy it if I can find it!

    (one of your images seems to be broken, FYI)

  2. Quistie says:

    I got this game at PAX (signed by the creator who was lovely!) as it looked like a very promising co-op game and I haven’t been disappointed. It is fairly easy to learn and the way the co-op works is great, we always play with our hands hidden to allow for a little bit of self-interest in decisions.

    The scenarios can be quite different in tone and vary in toughness, for example one scenario is an opportunity to find new allies to help you at a village that you just saved.

    Also the rules summary on the back of the manual actually has a short reminder of 5 or 6 key rules that are often forgotten, great idea! Stopped some really obvious beginner mistakes on using more than one blessing etc.

  3. Random Gorilla says:

    Sounds tempting but it’s £50 on Amazon. Beyond my usual impulse budget.

    I assume that it comes with a brazillion cards?

    • Moraven says:

      3rd to last paragraph at the end:
      ” A little risk/reward game in itself, all in one card. In one card out of over 500 in the base set.”

    • Deano2099 says:

      It’s £30 on The Book Depository if you don’t mind waiting a couple of weeks for delivery. I won’t link direct as the comment will likely get caught in the spam filter.

      • Random Gorilla says:

        Perfect. Ordered. :)

      • Phinor says:

        Just a FYI: BD has been shipping pre-orders for few weeks now but the queue is still long. They are currently shipping orders made in August (my 30th of August has yet to ship) so it might take a while before your order actually arrives. But the price is pretty unbeatable at least in Europe.

  4. Taidan says:

    Been playing this over the last couple of weekends, can happily add another voice to those claiming that it’s The Best Thing Ever.

    Would highly recommend going straight for the first expansion, with the extra characters.

  5. aliksy says:

    Sounds really cool. But.. If I hate d20 and pathfinder, am I going to hate the rules for this game?

    • Phendron says:

      What is it about d20 you hate? Too gamey for an RPG?

      • aliksy says:

        Classes & levels, hit point bloat, the fact that 1d20 gives you an equal chance of all results (as opposed to dice pool, where you’re more likely to get an average result than an exceptional one), spells per day, the christmas tree effect (where characters are more about their equipment and shiny trinkets than anything else)… probably other things, too.

        • uncleezno says:

          ” the fact that 1d20 gives you an equal chance of all results”

          Ignorant Shadowrun player here (six-sided dice). A d20 only gives an equal chance of everything happening if you’ve assigned twenty events to twenty numbers, right? So if you’re using a d20 system and you need to roll a 13+ to hit, it’s not even odds to hit or miss. It’s 4/10 to hit and 6/10 to miss. Am I totally missing your point?

          • Sheng-ji says:

            Let’s say you use a 3d6 system vs a 1d20 – in the 1d20 system, you have only one ratio which is what number do you need to roll higher than – on a 3d6 you have that ratio but also an uneven distribution of probabilities of each number which basically gives you an extra layer of complexity, an extra layer to have to think about making for a more strategic decision. Gain a strength point in D20 and it’s a linear increase, gain a point in 3d6 and it’s a weighted distribution built in without having to do any secondary stat stuff like D&D 2nd Ed. strength did.

            I think that’s what he’s saying at any rate.

          • aliksy says:

            On 1d20 you have an equal chance of rolling any number from 1 to 20. You are just as likely to get the best possible outcome as you are to get the worst possible outcome. In a dicepool system you typically have many rolls that give you an average result. (Like if you’re doing sum of 3d6, there are many ways to roll a 10.)

            If I was better at math I’m sure I could explain this better.

          • Harlander says:

            As uncleezno said, though, you don’t use a d20 to pick one out of twenty results. The probabilities are controlled by the target number, not the dice.

            Later, after a background process had been working on this for a while, I realised what you were talking about.

            d20s producing a flat probability curve vs. the bell curve shape of summing dice.

            Well…

            fair enough.

        • Phendron says:

          Sounds like you know pretty well what you enjoy in an RPG. I’d like to hear what games you prefer though just to get perspective.

          For me, traditional fantasy is all about archetypes, coming of age, and cinematic drama. Class, levels and HP all lend well to that idea.

          Not sure about Christmas trees, though to be fair I don’t generally get many games beyond level 8-10 and haven’t really cared for gaming beyond that level. Part of the reason why some games become loot-based is that is what mid to high level games are generally about: planar travel, direct interaction with deities and the hunt for artifacts. I like to think that magic items are core by design.

          Linear rolling has never bothered me, though I can see a yearning for consistency that d20 doesn’t provide.

          At any rate, it’s not the best system in the world by far but it’s great for bringing people into the fold.

          • aliksy says:

            I like the World of Darkness system well enough. The dice system is (relevant attribute) + (relevant skill) + (bonuses like tools or environment) = roll that many d10s. Any that come up 8, 9 or 10 count as a ‘success’, and you can reroll 10s for additional successes. It’s really fast, and requires no tables or lookups. (I forgot to mention I dislike tables and reference charts.) It also doesn’t have the arbitrariness of changing DCs, which I never liked.

            It may not be the best system, math-wise, but I like it. It also doesn’t have levels and classes, just attributes and skills to adjust. I think that anything you can do in a class system, you can do in a classless system. You can also do a lot more.

            I’ve successfully ported it to fantasy settings without any trouble. I’ve also done a stripped down version where I just ask the players to write down things their characters are good at, and divide 15 points among those things. Whenever they want to use that skill/attribute/thing, roll that many dice. That’s really fast, and lets you get right to the good parts. You need decent, imaginative players for it to be optimal, though.

            I’m actually running a game now that’s sort of a fantasy shadowrun thing using the WoD system, and it’s going reasonably well. One of the players had only played d20 before, and they said they like this a lot better. But that may just be I’m running a better game than their last group.

          • Phendron says:

            I’ve played a decent amount of White Wolf and liked it, even diceless where you just compare total dots in ability and skill to resolve things, makes it really fluid. Even really bare bones games like The Window that make everything as minimal and arbitrary mechanics-wise as possible.

            I respect that style of roleplaying, I’m just tired of gaming snobs who believe that there is One True Way to role play and pan certain systems like d20 and GURPS. What if I want more G in my RPG? I love boardgames, and sometimes I just want to drink beer and roll dice. Whether it’s Cop and Robbers or The Riddle of Steel, if your group is having fun then everyone wins.

    • Jahnz says:

      There are similarities with Pathfinder and the card game obviously, but the mechanics are very different. The characters that you can pick are based on the Pathfinder iconic characters, so they have the class feel to them. There are no d20s involved, but it does use the other polyhedral dice. Rolls are dice plus bonuses versus a fairly static difficulty on the card. Most of our rolls were something like d10 + d8 + 3 or d10 + 2d4 + 5 or something like that. Most commonly you are adding bonus dice to your roll so that your base is say d8 + d8 for a weapon and then another d4 because the fighter is in your area.

  6. Phendron says:

    Rab, I have 2-3 different Pathfinder games going on weekly. Is this game still for me?

    • Deano2099 says:

      It depends if you are consistently sat around for half an hour waiting for people to turn up I guess…

  7. kalidanthepalidan says:

    Thanks for the write up. I’ve been playing a lot of the Lord of the Rings LCG. This sounds similar, but different enough and for a different type of group. Might fit better with the types of games my siblings like to play. Can’t get anybody interested in the LotR LCG. :(

  8. Randomer says:

    What’s the average play time of an adventure?

    • malkav11 says:

      My first session with the game was three players and I would say scenario playtime was probably 1 hour 40 minutes to two hours-ish. We also had a fair bit of setup and character choosing/figuring out the rules time so it probably took us closer to 2h40 in total but I wouldn’t expect that to be the case from now on, nor would I likely expect subsequent scenarios to take quite so long as we become more comfortable with the game.

      That’s a scenario, mind you. The introductory adventure consists of three scenarios, and then the campaign (“adventure path”) proper, Rise of the Runelords, consists of six adventures, each of which consists of five scenarios. The first of these adventures is included in the base set in separate packaging.

    • Jahnz says:

      I just finished the first adventure deck with our lunchtime gaming group. We did the first half of the scenarios with 4 people, and the second half with 3 people. We almost always finished in 45 minutes to an hour (we only have an hour to play). Things went faster with only 3 people, but our 4th was also kind of slow in making plays.

      EDIT: This is for the smallest session. I can’t remember if that’s scenario or adventure or what it’s called.

      • malkav11 says:

        Scenario. And we ran again tonight and packed two 3-player scenarios, setup and all, into roughly two hours, finishing off the introductory adventure with time to spare in our evening. Though we did get lucky (ish?) with the first scenario in that we encountered a number of henchmen as the top card of their respective location decks, promptly defeating and closing each. Unfortunately, this was the Poison Pill scenario, which has a ton of boons and is light on threats, so though this sped things up, it also denied us a few good cards. Still, until you earn card feats your capacity for deck upgrades is fairly limited. and at this point all of us have a few cards that are significantly better than our starting set, plus a couple non-generic blessings.

  9. Benkyo says:

    So it takes the most boring aspects of RPGs, namely dice-rolling and skill checks, and bases the entire game around them?

    I’ll pass, thanks.

    • Groove says:

      I am a fan of rolling dice, but you’re still correct. Crunching numbers isn’t what makes RPGs the best thing, it’s being able to not be constrained by rules and choose unexpected solutions to problems.

      In a good RPG I believe you shouldn’t be rolling dice unless something important and challenging is happening. I like a system where you think of a solution to a problem, the GM checks your stats and if it’s well within your abilities then you just do it. Safely landing a plane in normal conditions might be an incredible feat if you don’t know how to fly a plane, but an experienced pilot shouldn’t crash and kill everyone 1 in 20 times.

      I once took part in a game where checks were 2 dice of D4-D12, one for stat score and one for skill score, and a double one was a critical failure. If you had 0 points in a skill then you didn’t get a die roll, and a D6 only meant low-average, so an unskilled check would be critical failure 1 in 6 times. An ovezealous(/stupid) GM turned this into making people roll tests for your senses if something was hard to notice, and no-one took points in sense skills unless you had a particular affinity as they were all different skills costing as much as different types of firearm or different engineering disciplines. The end result was my character trying to identify what was for dinner by the smell and promptly taking damage.

      • The Random One says:

        How did that happen? Did you lean forward so eagerly that the chair gave way under you? Did you focus so hard on the smell you absent-mindedly placed your hand on a bowl of hot soup? Did the smell cause you to sneeze so hard you had a small aneurysm? Did you step on a rake?

        Or did the GM just say “critical fail, you lose ten hit points”? Because that would honestly make me walk out of the table.

    • limeylassen says:

      Wrong expectations. This isn’t a roleplaying game at all. It’s like… Thunderstone Legacy.

  10. DrMcCoy says:

    A Call of Cthulhu /campaign/?!? Over months? You mean, your characters don’t end up dead or insane or both after each session?

    • malkav11 says:

      Campaigns generally tone down the lethality/insanity factor a touch, but you’ll certainly want backup characters.

  11. malkav11 says:

    Just like to point out here that -some- RPGs, most notable among them D&D, involve significant prep time and a GM role, but there are plenty of RPGs from the indie space that involve little to no prep time and some of which don’t even have a GM role. A couple of recommendations – Apocalypse World, by D. Vincent Baker, a rules light, improv-friendly post-apocalypse game full of great ideas which has been modified to support a bunch of other themes and settings (e.g. tremulus, lovecraftian horror; Monsterhearts – Twilight/Buffy-esque teenage monster drama; Dungeon World – D&D but with an emphasis on the cool bits; The Regiment – war movies…or Aliens, with a hack of the hack; Monster of the Week – X-Files/Supernatural/Buffy; etc) and Fiasco (a GM-less improv game ideal for one-shot sessions that produces, well, fiascos. Think Coen Brothers movies like Fargo or Burn After Reading.). Frankly, there’s some really exciting stuff out there.

    (Also, have a link to Shut Up and Sit Down discussing Monsterhearts: http://www.shutupandsitdown.com/blog/post/monster-hearts/ )

    PCAG is pretty neat, though.

    • svendelmaus says:

      Also needing minimal prep are Geiger Counter (for horror movies), Inspectres (normal people get a Ghostbusters franchise, with optional confessional-to-the-camera style narration control), Prime Time Adventures (for serial television, with a neat “who succeeds and who narrates the success can be different” mechanic, and the idea of other players giving you Fan Mail for entertaining play), 3:16 (space marines shooting swarms of aliens), The Mountain Witch (a group of ronin are hired to travel up the mountain to talk to the witch; each has a secret that not even the GM knows)… all good fun

  12. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Seems like a good introduction to rpgs for people who are used to boardgames.

  13. Jahnz says:

    My group finished the first scenario/adventure thing a couple of weeks ago (Burnt Offerings). I thought it was a lot of fun, and had some of that compelling character progression. The rewards at the end of some of the games were a little weak. For example everyone gets a random weapon card out of the box when one of the characters can’t use weapons.

    Mechanically I feel like there could be more opportunity for interaction between characters. There are some things, like the fighter’s ability to help combat checks, or the bard’s ability to help any check for a price, but I felt like fighting the big bad was too much of a solo process.

    • malkav11 says:

      But you can trade cards at the end of each scenario, so that’s still another chance at a good weapon for the characters who can.

  14. alchatron says:

    “No computer game comes close either. Playing an RPG is the best gaming experience out there, as far as I’m concerned, and I only wish I could do it more often.”

    Don’t forget online-roleplaying. Very different (a lot less gamey on the best servers, eg WoW’s) but certainly you can and do get player-invented rulesets and campaigns like tabletop RPGs. And you get the benefit of constantly running into actual player-characters along the way.

    I take your point that no commercial computer game deliberately comes close, though – it’s all emergent.

  15. Shadowcat says:

    Card: Treacherous Cave

    Card art: At the top of a massive stair case, the gaping mouth of a gigantic carved skull forms a cave entrance in the bare rock face.

    Card text: “Hidden at the base of an overgrown cliff…”