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Cardboard Children: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

This Cave Yawns Open

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.

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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