It’s the post-convention game season — when publishers uncork a flood of new games they wish they could have finished in time for the summer’s gaming conventions — and there are several games in the landing pattern for the Not So Big Anymore Table. So, of course, here I am fiddling with a card game.
Newly deployed to the desktop here in the swamp bunker is Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. That’s right. A card game based on the themes from the popular Pathfinder RPG. No counters; no hexes. But it does have dice, and some of the cards have stompy things on them like swords and warhammers and spells that go ker-blooey. So I like to think of it as a second cousin to some sort of wargaming.
I’m generally not a fan of card games for a number of reasons. Collectible card games seem like more of an economic struggle between players’ personal pocketbooks than a gaming experience. Some of them aren’t very thematic; others seem simply too complex for my aged brain to comprehend. Hardly any of them are amenable to solitaire play. Pathfinder ACG, however, is looking like a strong favorite to break past my typical objections.
It has a strong RPG theme, although it’s definitely not any sort of attempt to convert an RPG into a card game. There are some role-playing aspects to it, mainly regarding story arcs and character advancement, but that’s about where the mechanical similarities end. Although it’s a multiple-player cooperative game at its heart, it’s easily played solitaire with only a slight loss in fidelity.
My biggest take-away after playing through seven scenarios is that the number of characters on the table has a tremendous influence on the game play experience. There’s a note in the rulebook about playing solitaire with just a single character, and I think that note steers players in the wrong direction. Frankly, with just a single character the game is kind of dull. There’s not much strategy to it, and the decision making is fairly lightweight. Putting a second character in play sharpens things up a little, but I think it absolutely shines when you have at least four characters in the game.
Importantly, the number of characters also determines the number of locations set up. Until you have at least five locations in play, you’re not going to feel a lot of pressure from the game’s timing mechanism, the Blessing’s deck. Figuring out how to work around the limits of the Blessings deck puts an entirely different spin on the game. In single- or two-character play, cards like Allies or Blessings are simply buffs to the various checks you have to pass. But when you get five or six locations going, you’ll have to use some of those cards — a lot of them, in fact — for additional explorations.
It’s obviously a balancing mechanism. With one or two characters, at some point in the game you’re going to run into checks that you don’t have the right attributes or skills to defeat. Playing a Blessing is the only way you’ll have a chance. That option is still available with more characters, but you also might be smart enough to have a character with the right skill in place (say, to pass that Divine check to close a location). The decision making process becomes a lot deeper when you have more characters on the table.
Card games as ambitious as Pathfinder ACG can be fairly complex affairs. It’s not that the rules are particularly daunting (at least not by wargame standards), but the rules’ interaction with all of the ‘stuff’ printed on the cards — some of which modifies or overrides the rules — require a touch of judicial interpretation. PACG has generated plenty of questions (and thank heavens for online forums), but a lot of the chatter simply reinforces the point that different people can interpret the same presentation differently. There are a few bothersome card typos, for example, and the rules themselves could have been written more tightly. But I think the ‘error rate’ in PACG compares very favorably with what I find in most contemporary wargames, and it certainly doesn’t seem to have produced any post-publication discoveries of killer card combos (mostly because the system doesn’t lend itself to that) or other sort of narrative-ruining ‘gamey-ness’ that’s found in some card-driven games.
The proof, of course, is in the playing. I’ve found it compelling enough that it’s the only game I’ve played since it arrived here at the Swamp Bunker. I’m two scenarios shy of finishing the Burnt Offering adventure, and it’s been a lot of fun. The character progression aspect of the game is especially interesting and introduces a strong RPG flavor. After I complete Burnt Offerings, PACG isn’t likely to remain my sole gaming focus but the variety of characters is such that I’ll probably keep it in action for a while longer and poke at repeating Burnt Offerings with a different card-based crew just to see what happens.