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Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Paizo Publishing, 1-4 players, age 13 and up, 90 minutes; $59.99)

pathfinderboxRoleplaying was put on the map decades ago with the incredible success of Dungeons & Dragons. Using pen and paper, some polyhedral dice and lots of imagination made for a new genre of game play. From that moment on, there have been attempts to translate that experience into a board game type format. Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords – Base Set does just that.

Pathfinder is a Mike Selinker design and creates a fantasy world with elements familiar to anyone who ever delved into a dungeon or crossed the path of a maniacal mage. As with roleplaying games, there is no board. Rather, sets of cards create the fantastic world that adventurers will explore.

Each player chooses a role represented by a character card. Character cards tell you what skills, powers etc. your character has. There is also room on the card to “check off” advancements your character may obtain due to successfully completing a task or adventure. Once chosen, a “character deck” is built (the rules provide guidance for building your deck but you can modify according to your whims and preferences) from cards available which include various weapons, armor, allies, items, spells and blessings (more on them later). Player shuffle their character deck and draw a starting hand (the number of cards determined by the ability of their character).

Once a scenario is chosen, the game’s environment is created. The scenario card describe the goals and any unusual conditions that may apply to that particular adventure as well as locations in play. Each location will contain cards specified on the scenario card and to those location decks, the villain of the adventure and his henchmen are added.

The villain card is added to the specified number of henchman and the cards shuffled. Then, sight unseen, one card is added to each location deck. You know the villain is located in ONE of the locations – but you don’t know which one! Your goal, at its most basic, is to find the villain and defeat him! Thirty random “blessings” cards from supply are chosen to create the “blessings” deck. Finally, each player places his player card at the location he wants to explore (more than one player may explore the same location) and all players draw cards from their character deck equal to their permissible hand size (as denoted on their respective character cards). Now it’s off to adventure!

The first thing that happens is the top card of the blessings deck is drawn. Blessings are cards that grant you lots of good things when played from your hand. They can act as modifiers when making key dice rolls; in some cases, they can even be reused a second time or grant additional advantages. Still, as beneficial as these cards are, they also serve another very crucial function. As the blessing deck, they act as a timer. Should you be unable to draw a blessings card to start your turn and have yet to accomplish the goals you need to reach, time has run out and you have lost! Otherwise, it’s time to use your powers and skills by performing these actions in order.

Players occupying the same locations may exchange cards with each other, a useful ability if you have a card that another player can put to better use. They may then move to another location. At a location, a player may explore.

pathfinder2To explore a location, you flip the top card of the location deck. If it’s something you don’t like, you may evade it (IF you have that ability). If you’ve discovered a “boon” (something valuable and/or useful), you can attempt to acquire it. This requires a “check” of certain abilities that you may (or may not) have. Checks require dice rolls; which dice and how many depends on your abilities and powers. (The game comes with a set of polyhedral dice for this purpose.) You may also have cards in your hand that will help you succeed when played. If you pass the check, the boon goes into your discard pile where it will be recycled into your hand later. If it’s a “bane” (something bad or a monster), you need to defeat it. The bane will list what is needed for it to be defeated. If defeated, that card is removed. If not defeated, the bane gets shuffled back into the location deck, ready to pounce again, sometime down the line. Worse yet, undefeated banes can damage the unsuccessful adventurer. (Damage results in having to operate with a smaller hand size, a distinct disadvantage. Suffer enough damage and your character can die!) During play, some cards will be “revealed” (shown and then placed back into the player’s hand), displayed (placed face up in front of the player), “recharged” (placed at the bottom of that player’s character deck so it can be reused), “buried” (placed under the character card where it will likely be unavailable for use for the rest of the scenario) or “banished” (removed permanently from the game). Once your turn is finished, you draw from your character card deck cards to replenish you hand back to its specified card size (in the Dominion style).

As you explore, you may come across the villain of the piece, the very creature you seek to defeat. If you manage to defeat him at that point, you’ve only “wounded” him. The villain flees! He flees to ANOTHER location where he is shuffled into the deck, ready to fight once more. So, what you want to do is limit the villain’s avenues of escape. You do this by “closing the location”.

When either a location deck runs out of cards OR the henchman lurking in the deck has been defeated, players can “close the location”. Sometimes, a location will close down automatically (its card will say so). Other times, it requires a check of some sort (for example, passing a Wisdom or Survival check with a die roll). Once closed, that location card is turned face down. In game terms, this means the villain you are seeking can no longer run and hid at that particular place.

Play continues as you seek the villain. Locate the villain in the last, remaining, location and defeat him and you have won the scenario. With winning, surviving adventurers gain benefits that completing a successful scenario bestows (increases in various skills, loot etc.)

Fantasy games demand evocative artwork and the graphic quality of Pathfinder is exceptional. Lots of time, care and talent has gone into this. The rulebook is well laid out so that the flow of gameplay is easily followed (and certainly, no problem for experienced roleplayers). The box insert is large enough to hold all the cards in some semblance of order so that cards needed to be found can be found easily – with plenty of room to add cards from expansions. It would have been nice, though, to increase the size of the type face used on the cards. There is a LOT of information on display that larger type would have made easier to assimilate. Another possible issue with the cards, the character cards this time, is that you check off “improvements’ to you character (more proficiency with weapons, larger hand size etc.) which replaces those reams of paper used by fantasy roleplayers, back in the day, which is a good thing. The flip side to this though is that the cards become “damaged” in the sense that they are now “marked up”. (Not the first time that games have been designed to be “marked up”. Check out Risk Legacy – Winter 2012 GA Report – for a prime example.) For those gamers who like to maintain pristine (or as near to pristine) condition games in their collections, this may be a problem. Photocopying and laminating the cards may be the best compromise here.

While the basic mechanics of the game center on turning over a card at a location and rolling dice to determine the result, the entire package brings more than that to the table. Strategy and tactics come into play as you need to decide where to explore, whether to band together or strike out singly, and which artifacts to keep and which to discard (as you need to deal with a card hand limit). These decisions stress the cooperative nature of the game as the adventuring party wins or loses together and all of these decisions impact on further play. And, of course, the game builds on the deck-building mechanics pioneered by Dominion – Winter 2009 GA Report – as players create and build their own decks of cards which, in this case, not only can get recycled and reused but can also get “used up” (“banished” in game parlance) so that the pool of cards available to be added and utilized change as you go deeper and deeper into the Pathfinder world.

Pathfinder is more than just a single adventure, more than just a series of adventures. It is a fantasy roleplaying way of life! This game is the BASIC set. As you experience the adventures contained here (and the game includes the first expansion, the Adventure Deck Burnt Offerings). your character will grow in experience, skills and power – just like veteran roleplayers have come to expect. This is a wonderful marketing tool for Paizo as devotees of the game will eagerly commit to purchasing new Adventure Decks, some of which are already available with more promised for the future. It is also a wonderful opportunity for gamers as this brings new life and freshness to the game time after time. The downside to this, of course, is that play remains in flux and the base set will undergo changes as you play. Once you have done a scenario, the same character can not replay it. (If you wish to do so, you have to construct a new character.) For these reasons, replay value for scenarios is limited (typical with modules ever since the early D&D days).

When it comes to Pathinder, you have to ask yourself what do you want? If you have been waiting for a fantasy roleplaying game with a Dominion-like mechanic, stellar artwork and a narrative flow that promises a never-ending series of adventures, Pathfinder: Rise of the Rune Lords is it!


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