The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is deck building and narrative card game set in the world of Golarion and based on the Pathfinder RPG. I'm playing through the Rise of the Runelords adventure, and this is my log for each scenario.
The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is a deck building game. You opponent are location decks, populated with random cards in a ratio specified by a location card with a few specific henchmen and villains mixed in for story purpose. You get to build your character deck, limited to a ratio for each card type depending on your character class.
If you've never played a deck building game before, like Dominion or Magic the Gathering, then you might find deck building confusing. First, you have to get used to the idea that you actually get to pick which cards go into your deck! It seems too good to be true. Why not just pick the best cards? And funny enough, that's actually the right strategy. Yes, you should put all the best cards in your character's deck.
And then you learn that all cards are the best, but not all of those best cards are the best for your character. Once you get used to determining which cards are actually good for your character, the next lesson is that the card you need at any given moment seems never to be the card you draw.
These are all fun and frustrating lessons to learn, and it's the eternal puzzle you get to try to solve each time you sit down to build and rebuild your deck. The nice thing about Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is that it has a lot of cards with lots of abilities and restrictions to choose from, but not the 20,000 that Magic the Gathering famously has. You can kick your feet up on a lazy afternoon and sort through Pathfinder cards and have a really good time choosing cards. The deck sizes are manageable and the card choices are finite, so it's not an all-day event. It's a perfect mix of an impossible puzzle, finite components, and endless possibilities.
In the second scenario of the Rise of the Runelords game, you wander around the Sandpoint, which you've just saved from a goblin raid, and get to know the locals, or at least a few locations. The ability of this card game to convey a story took me completely by surprise. I already knew that a sense of story was possible, because I've played the introductory adventure Brigandoom, and the locations in it successfully demonstrate the idea that your characters are hunting for a villain in unique places. Many modern card games involve stories, but usually the story and the game are separate items that reference each other strongly. But in this card game, the card game is the story.
With two players, Sandpoint consists of four locations. The general store is mostly populated with item, weapon, armour, and ally cards. There are a few nasty encounters there, but it really does feel like a general store. And when you close the location, you get a random item for your deck, just as you would from a store. In the woods, however, you encounter monsters that, if undefeated, disappear back into the woods (specifically, they're banished, or put back into the card box, such that they don't come back into play). The cards convey location but also events within those locations. It's a brilliant system of storytelling, and I think any RPG could take notes from this model.
I realised, upon rebuilding my character decks for this scenario, that I'd mixed in non-basic card types into my decks in the previous game. Because the cards rotated a lot, it didn't end up making a difference, but I fault the documentation for this error. The rule book for this game isn't the worst I've seen (that dubious honour probably goes to Dungeoneer, which is a great game with a truly horrible rule book), but it's not the best. There's no overview, and there are lots of little rules that they throw at you in one paragraph and then never mention again. The cards themselves don't help much, either. If someone's never played a tabletop RPG and is attempting to play this card game, I'm pretty sure it would be incomprehensible, because terminology and conventions from Pathfinder are present here. On the one hand, you might expect that, but on the other hand, it's not explicitly stated and I can definitely imagine someone getting this card game because they want an RPG experience but aren't ready to join an RPG group.
This time around, I built my decks correctly, using only cards with the Basic tag. It's not clear to me when I'm supposed to be able to include cards better than Basic, or even what I'm meant to do with the cards (especially the ones that are not Basic) I collected from the locations. My hypothesis, right now, is that I'm supposed to build my character decks for the next scenario with the Basic cards I started with plus any card I've collected, Basic or not.
I beat this scenario fair and square, unlike last time when I had to "cheat" a little to revive Seoni. This scenario had no henchmen (well, it wasn't supposed to, anyway, but more on that later) and no villain, so beating it wasn't too difficult. I really liked this small respite from a big villain. After all, in the story my characters have beaten the goblin raiders and are wandering about town. There's no Big Bad here. This is downtime.
Well, it was supposed to be. What actually ended up happening is that I sent my weakest combatant to the waterfront location, which had monsters galore. I sent Seoni there because it bears an inherent penalty to weapon checks, and she uses no weapons, so I thought I was being strategic. Instead, she would have surely died again, except that I'd learned from the last scenario and buffed her with several healing items and some Arcane Armour.
Once I figured out that Seoni was in the dangerous location and Valeros was just meandering around the general store, I brought the party together to fight in tandem. The scenario got much easier after that. I mean, it got easier until I drew a barrier card that required me to draw henchmen from the box, which each promptly attacked both Valeros and Seoni. They both survived, but it goes to show just how dynamic the game can be with such a wide assortment of really fun and really powerful cards.
It's worth noting that your "mana" base (in Magic terminology) and your HP (health points) in this game are both represented by the character deck. It's pretty clever design. You can spend cards from your deck to boost your character abilities, but when you do, you also know that you're using up potential life points, because when your deck is all discarded, your character dies. This means that reducing damage and recharging cards is a vital mechanic that you, as the player, learn quickly to value highly, and this influences the way you play. There were several times that I made choices exclusively based on Seoni's ability to recharge Arcane cards automatically.
This scenario was about story development rather than combat, and the fact that I'm saying that about a card game doesn't escape me. Two scenarios in, and I admire the game all the more. Sure, the wording of the cards can sometimes be confusing, and it's probably unintelligible to someone not used to playing D&D, but the story is a pleasure to work through. And once you get a feel for the mechanics, and you're familiar with the rhythm of game play, it's a genuinely entertaining and captivating game.
Not only that, but it's captivated my deck-builder impulses. I admit, the art on the cards is far, far from Magic the Gathering. These aren't cards I want to gaze at lovingly, they aren't inspiring or even intriguing. They're demonstrative and precise. You get a long sword card, and you see a drawing of a long sword. You don't get the image of a hero swinging the long sword in a blur of glimmering steel and goblin blood against fiery battlegrounds, you just get the long sword and the text describing its abilities, and some numbers and keywords that attempt to describe its requirements (they fail to do so, without the rule book). But the cards are functional, and they've got my full attention because I want those cool abilities, and I want to make sure I'm choosing cards with abilities that will help me defeat the next henchman I come across in the next scenario.
In a deck building game, it's the cards that matter. The art may not be as fun and inspiring as Magic cards, but the cards support the mechanics, and the mechanics support the story, and the story is key.
Next up, trouble in Sandpoint!