Review – Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Core Set

Running alongside the Pathfinder roleplaying game for the last six years has been the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game – exploring many of the same stories, genre staples, and innovations, but in an entirely different mechanical framework (there are dice in the PACG, but no d20; it’ll blow your mind). So perhaps it is no surprise that, as 2019 sees the first edition of Pathfinder officially gives way to Pathfinder Second Edition, so it sees a second edition for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.

As the second iteration of a longstanding game, there are two drastically different ways of approaching the Pathfinder ACG Core Set – those who are longtime players of the original, and those who have never seen it before. This review will start with the latter, laying out some basics, before moving into a section that addresses some of the pertinent changes and in so doing provides some more detail about the game. So if you’ve played the Pathfinder ACG before, feel free to skip the next part.

This review will, however, assume that you’re familiar with Pathfinder generally. In the event you aren’t familiar with Pathfinder at all then have I got a treat for you. Go check it out, and then come back here later. Trust me, it’s a better use of your time than reading this review. You’re welcome.

An Introduction 

The Pathfinder ACG takes some of the basic conceptual elements of a fantasy roleplaying game and shifts it over to a card-based format. Each player selects a character, and plays that character through a series of adventures, always facing enemies but also overcoming non-monster barriers (traps, social situations, NPCs in need of assistance), recruiting allies, acquiring better gear and spells, all while developing better inherent abilities. There are 12 characters available in the Core Set; the 12 iconics from the upcoming Pathfinder Second Edition core book (these are the same as the 11 core book iconics from the original Pathfinder RPG, plus Fumbus the goblin alchemist) – this means that right off the bat the character options cover alchemist, bard, barbarian, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin (it’s still paladin here, although it’s champion in the RPG), ranger, rogue, sorcerer, and wizard.

During a game of the Pathfinder ACG, the characters will (typically) be faced with several locations and a villain or other challenge that needs to be defeated. Characters will explore locations, encountering a semi-randomly seeded array of banes (anything negative) and boons (anything positive). Banes are basically divided into monsters and everything else (known as barriers, these include pretty much any sort of non-combat encounter). Boons include weapons, armor, spells, items, and allies. While there can be a lot more going on, the central result of encountering a bane or a boon is a check that involves rolling one or more dice. If the result is good enough, the bane is overcome or the boon is acquired. If the check fails, a boon will evaporate or a bane will inflict some consequences (and then get shuffled back into the stack of cards under the location).

Almost all monsters can be defeated with a combat check, but many have an alternative way of victory – perhaps a Survival check to deal with an animal, or an Arcane check to circumvent a magical being. Barriers require a variety of checks as appropriate – Diplomacy to talk your way out of a situation, Perception to notice a trap, or Divine to heal an injured warrior. The checks to acquire boons are usually an appropriate combat skill for a weapon, Constitution for armor, Arcane or Divine for a spell, Diplomacy for an ally, or pretty much anything for an item.

The sort of die or dice to rolled for a check is initially determined by acharacter card. The character card defines the character’s traditional six attributes in terms of die size, from d4 to d12. Each character also has some skills, which are represented by a modifier to the die roll. So, for example, Ezran the wizard has Intelligence d12, and Arcane: Intelligence +2. So when he’s rolling arcane, he rolls a d12+2. Having a skill can be important even if it is a +0 modifier, because it allows a roll at all. Some rolls call for either an attribute or a skill, and there the skill is just a bonus. But some rolls can only be made with the specific skill. So, for example, if a roll calls for a Disable check, then a character with Disable +0 can still make that check, while a character without Disable would not have the option for a raw dexterity roll.

Of course, a character isn’t limited to just their one attribute/skill value when facing adversity. A lot of what those various boons do is provide bonuses on the checks. For example, you will be shocked to learn that weapons provide dice for combat checks. A weapon might provide one die for a combat check if the card is revealed from hand, and then provide some other bonus if the character is proficient with that type of weapon, or if the weapon is discarded, or if the weapon is recharged (placed on the bottom of the player’s deck). Allies, on the other hands, are far more likely to provide bonuses on non-combat checks. And cards often can be played on other character’s checks too, especially when the characters are “local” (that is, they are at the same location). So I might recharge an ally from my hand to help you sneak past a guard, while you later discard a crossbow from hand to give a bonus to the combat check of a distant character (a character who is not at your location).

The most common way of winning a scenario is to to defeat the main villain, or close all of the locations. Closing locations usually requires a particular check, which can be attempted once all of the cards under the location have been explored (or when the villain or certain henchmen monsters are defeated there). Truly defeating the villain typically requires all other locations to be closed (or guarded, which is like temporarily closing the location) or else the villain escapes to another location (sorry, no ending the scenario in 5 minutes because you randomly hit the villain on the first explore). These tasks are run on a timer, which uses its own stack of cards (called the hourglass).

Going all the way back to picking characters, a character is represented by a single character card, plus a small deck. As noted above, the card defines attributes, skills, and proficiencies. Each character also has a power or three. For example, Ezren (the wizard) can look at the top card of his eck, can recharge spells to look at the top card of the location, and can get bonuses against magic cards when exploring. The character card also defines hand size. A higher hand size is obviously helpful in giving more options. But a higher hand size also represents physical fragility, because characters take damage by discarding cards. If a character only has two cards in hand when they take damage, they can only ever take two damage. If a character has six cards in hand, they might lose all six – and running out of deck is out the character dies.

And a big thing the character card also defines is what sort of cards the character gets in their deck, by defining what spread of boons they can include. Ezren the wizard gets 7 spells, but only 1 weapon, no armor, and no blessings. Harsk (the ranger), on the other hand, doesn’t get any spells – but does get 4 weapons, 1 armor, and 4 blessings.

All of these can be improved over the course of a campaign (the Pathfinder ACG can be played as a one-shot, but it’s really a campaign game). Most scenarios reward a hero point, and a hero point can be used to unlock bonuses on the character card. A character card typically allows adding bonuses to attributes (e.g., adding +1 to all Dexterity rolls), increased hand size, additional proficiencies, boosts to powers (e.g., changing the cost of a power from discarding a card to recharging it), and adding more card slots to the deck (e.g., now Ezran can have 1 armor in his deck). The actual cards to be added are typically gained from the scenarios – boons that are acquired during play can be added to the character’s deck (replacing existing cards as needed to follow the construction rules for that character), slowly improving their arsenal.

Pathfinder ACG campaigns follow adventure paths from the Pathfinder RPG. Included in the core box is a shorter one, the Dragon’s Demand (the first full-size adventure path, the Curse of the Crimson Throne, was released with the Core Set; I haven’t had the chance to play that one yet, although I’m looking forward to it since the RPG original is spectacularly good). Each adventure path consists of a series of scenarios, told through a story book, with specific setups of locations, villains, and dangers for each scenario.

In addition to the inherently campaign-oriented nature of improving a character, the phraseology on the ACG cards is geared towards repeat play. There is a lot of precise terminology in the cards. This allows for cleaner phrasing and a wider variety of card effects (a card in hand can, for example, be recharged, reloaded, discarded, buried, displayed, or banished), and it works very well once you’re familiar with it. However, all of the terminology makes the game harder to pick up and play on a lark than many board games these days. There is, thankfully, an excellent index in the rulebook, which at least makes it relatively easy to look up the meaning of a particular term.

Further Thoughts (aka, Welcome Back to the Article, Enfranchised Players)

I’ll start this section where I ended the last one, with card phraseology. It’s definitely cleaned up in the new Core Set, with phrasing generally being more precise and shorter (thus allowing more meaningful text, instead of repeating longer bits of boilerplate). One of those cleanups is the recovery phase, which puts off until the end of the turn all of the checking to see whether cards are recharged, discarded, etc. (and keeps those cards off in a special zone until then, so no attempts at loops). There are also a wider variety of effects on cards, especially on armor. There are more traits running around than there used to be, such as on locations, and they get used more broadly, such as a wider variety of proficiencies.

That isn’t to say that ambiguities have been entirely avoided, and it relies on a rulebook presentation that isn’t always 100% – that index is amazing, and thank the maker, because without using the index I have a doozy of a time finding anything in the rulebook. Plus it doesn’t help to have precise terminology on the cards if the rulebook doesn’t explain that terminology (I mean, maybe it says somewhere in the rulebook that “heal” means one card unless a different number is specified, but I only found it in a blog post on Paizo’s website).

There are now cards identified as story banes – villains, henchmen, and some barriers. One of these might be identified as a ‘danger,’ which allows the game to call for that card from multiple locations (and possibly multiple times). In some scenarios, some of the henchmen are ‘closing’ henchmen, which allow for closing locations just like villains. In addition to these story banes, there are also proxy cards. These are used when the same bane (especially henchmen) needs to be shuffled into multiple locations. On any one play of any one scenario, it may feel a bit silly – why not just give me two copies of this one henchman, instead of one copy of the henchman and then two proxies? And with smaller player counts, the proxies may be rarely used. But, ultimately, I think they serve to save card printing when considering higher player counts and additional adventure paths. With a six-player party and expanded number of locations, 3-4 copies of henchmen will be needed on a regular basis. Not having proxies would mean that every AP would need to have that many copies of any such card its using – with the proxies, there’s never a need to print more than one of a given henchman. Also, there’s the nice side effect that you don’t need to memorize what that henchmen does, because the card itself is still sitting out.

There are also some component differences in the new Core Set. I find most of them positive, although I’m not a fan of one aspect of how they rearranged the card layout.

The (literally) first thing I noticed and appreciated about the new Core Set was that it was in a much smaller box. I store most of my games in those cubic storage shelves from IKEA, and that means that the Pathfinder ACG base sets did not fit on my usual game storage shelves. The Core Set fits just fine.

Beyond that, the easiest upgrade (if a small one) is that there’s now a pawn for each character to mark where they are. These are just like the Pathfinder Pawns I love from the RPG, and they’re great here as well. There are also now tokens to keep track of hero points (aka, xp) and to keep track of scourges. For scourges, there will be a scourge card – when someone first suffers the scourge, one type of token will be selected to represent that scourge (the tokens are all circular and there are a half-dozen copies of each one). One token goes on the scourge, while the others are used as needed to mark characters affected by the scourge. So, for example, the first time poor Fumbus gets Engantled, the Entangled scourge could be marked with, say, the wavy-blue-line token, and Fumbus gets one as well, to show that he is Entangled. And anyone else who gets Entangled can take one of the same tokens.

The insert in the Core Set is now a simple three-row affair, instead of the more elaborate plastic insert from first edition base sets. While less fancy in some sense, it is far more functional. I have way, way more multi-expansion card games than any sensible person would ever contemplate owning, and if I have learned anything from this experience it is that what I want in the insert for the core box is some way to be able to cram in as many cards as possible. This is why I own the DC Deck-Building Game Multiverse Box, and also why I have a tendency to stare daggers at all of those Dominion boxes with their fancy plastic inserts with the card labels that only work if you have everything in exactly one particular spot and never mix anything from different expansions. The Pathfinder ACG Core Set gives me exactly what I want – card row liners that hold the cards efficiently, and labeled dividers that make it easy to see where in the box the different card types are.

The cards are now more vertically aligned, with the text box running up the left side of the card instead of taking up the bottom half. Check to acquire/defeat is in the top left, and any traits are in the bottom right. If the text box needs to be bigger, in can extend way up the left side. If there are a lot of traits, they can crawl at least a half-dozen high up the bottom right. But if there isn’t much text, the text box can be small, and if there are only a couple of traits, they end up way down out of the way. But for all that flexibility, there’s one part that isn’t very flexible, and that’s the art box. You may have noticed that top left, left side, and bottom right were all taken up. For almost all of the cards, that leaves the art forcibly cabined in the top right. The size of the art changes, but it can’t change by much for most of the card types. So when there isn’t much text, you just end up with wide swathes of the background pattern for that type of card (the spells are an exception, as their art takes up most of the top half of the card, with the acquisition target allowed to cover part of the art). I can see doing this for things like items, armor, and weapons – their art is just a static picture of the object in question, so expanding the art box wouldn’t change much. But monsters, story banes, allies? Pathfinder generates some great art – I’d love to be able to see more of it, and with the card redesign we get to see less.

With regards to compatibility, you can make the new and the old cards work together (there’s some guidance in the Core Set rulebook and Paizo’s published a conversion guide), but it’s a sufficient amount of effort such that I can’t see bothering with it.

Wrap Up

The central play of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set remains the same as it was in the first edition base sets. An interest in the theme is almost a must – the mechanics and the theme are so tied up together that I’d wager if you don’t like the whole fantasy adventure thing, the ACG isn’t going to be a hit for you. The ACG is going to appeal the most to someone who likes the theme, is interested in putting a little time into the game, and who isn’t going to lose it when their barbarian keeps running into spell cards that they can’t possibly acquires (that is, there’s definitely some randomness when one deck of cards is exploring another deck of cards, and using dice to resolve things). Getting into the story of a particular scenario (beyond just the theme) is a plus as well, although not required.


Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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