Pathfinder Adventures

Rise of the runelords card game combat screen

Pathfinder Adventures: Rise of the Runelords is a cooperative RPG card game by Obsidian Entertainment and Paizo Games that combines deck building with dungeon crawling. Typical games last from thirty minutes to an hour, and characters are saved from game to game to be used in larger, thematic campaigns.  Pathfinder Adventures is a faithful port of Paizo’s very popular board game of the same name. If you are a fan of the board game and are wondering if this iPad title is worth your time, skip this review and download it. Its free to try, and the production value is high. You won’t be disappointed.

Players:
1 (more to be added later)
Multiplayer: Not yet…but eventually will be available
AI: Yes
Universal App: No
Purchase for iPhone: None available. Buy an iPad now!
Purchase for iPad:
Price: Free

I. Gameplay

pathfinder game interface

The premise of Pathfinder Adventures is fairly straightforward: assemble your team, explore locations, collect loot, and slay a villainous boss. When you’re done, level up your characters and have another go. Everything in Pathfinder Adventures is card-based, and dice determines the outcome of each encounter. Characters are represented by typical RPG statistics (Strength, Dexterity, Charisma, etc.) and each has a deck of items, allies, and spells that can be customized as characters progress through the game. Since the Pathfinder Adventures board game is based on a Dungeons & Dragons clone, the types of player characters and monsters to be found are borrowed from standard fantasy tropes. (We also have a review of the free-to-play D&D mobile game that you can check out).

What makes Pathfinder Adventures unique is the way that it handles the narrative aspect of roleplaying, while still allowing serendipity and strategic play to influence the outcome. Each scenario contains a single villain and his henchmen, who are distributed evenly throughout one of several locations. Characters delve into each location in turn, trying to unearth the villain or slay his henchman and “close” the location so that the villain cannot escape there. As the game progresses, the villain becomes progressively cornered until the last, epic (and hopefully successful) battle.  Along the way, characters will encounter monsters, traps, and objects to fuel or foil their progress. The serendipity comes in the form of a certain amount of randomness in the location decks, and in the way that characters choose to cooperate or not. Pathfinder Adventures provides a nice tension between having characters encounter the locations solo, or with other party members. Going alone is more dangerous, but it allows the party to spread itself across the locations in order to more easily corner the villain.

Characters take their turns one at a time, pulling cards from the location and encountering them individually. Cards drawn at a location require a single die roll to overcome. The difficulty of each check depends upon values printed on each card compared to the stats of the characters and bonuses conferred by cards, location characteristics, and fellow party members. Successful checks result in defeated monsters, acquired cards, or avoidance of trouble. Cards acquired will help bolster characters as they proceed through the rest of the scenario, and will be available in future games as well.  Loss in battle results in a temporary loss of cards, but since cards also function as hit points, too many defeats will spell the end of your character and maybe the game.

battle gameplay interface

At the moment, there are two working modes to Pathfinder: Adventures. Story-mode is the traditional set of adventures that longtime players of the board game will recognize. Each story is calibrated to have a narrative-arc comprised of linked adventures. The free iPad version of Pathfinder ships with a tutorial and Brigandoom! – an introductory adventure that will get players neck-deep in trouble as they seek to shut down the crime syndicate of a nefarious gangster. Quest-mode is new to the digital game. David Williams of Paizo Games explains that Quest mode was an attempt by the designers to create a sort of random-level generator to keep longtime players coming back. It basically takes the available missions, villains, and cards and mashes them together in as random a way as possible. (He explains that true randomness is impractical because it leaves the game unbalanced.) I have not delved deeply into this mode yet because, so far, the base game has proven itself to occupy more than enough of my attention. A third game-mode – multiplayer – is not yet functional but there is every indication that it will be soon. For now the only multiplayer option is pass & play using the two free characters. Perhaps it will be by the time you read this review.

In addition to the several game-modes, there is a game “store” with additional content to purchase. Except for the $24.99 “Rise of the Runelords” bundle, individual additional adventures, characters, and other purchasable goodies are currently offline. The bundle is pricey, but it comes with six complete adventures, each with multiple scenarios, all 11 character heroes, and bonus cards. I assume that these items will be available for individual purchase, but for the game completist, it seems likely that the bundle will confer a discount.

II. Implementation

Obsidian has done a nice job with this game. They have taken an already beloved, already time-tested board game and translated it into electronic form without drastically altering the mood or the feel. The art is colorfully rendered in typical fantastical-realistic style, and directly taken from or inspired by the physical game. Card-swipes are smooth, and although the UI has a considerable number of symbols and icons, a few playthroughs will suffice to train even the most stubbornly traditional cardboard-pusher to tap and swipe their way to victory. The game has a pleasant musical score, and sufficient swishes, dings, and bleeps to cover the mechanics of die rolling and card slinging. Atmospheric groans and growls fill out the ambient sound.

Pathfinder Adventures has a reasonably high degree of replay ability on account of its use of randomized cards. Additional purchases will only increase this. However, owing to the fact that each Story-mode adventure has a set cast of characters (with a sprinkling of randomness), games are not fully random. Replaying the same scenario again will yield familiar enemies and challenges, although not in the same order. Still, the game is predictable enough to enable players to make strategic choices about party movement and hand management – key aspects to what makes it a deep and fun game.

black fang card overview screen

Aside from strategic planning and character building, the other major key to success in this game is luck. Eurogame purists will find a lot to like about the mechanics of Pathfinder Adventures, but the frequent reliance on die-rolls to complete simple tasks like acquiring a weapon or picking a lock will frustrate some people.

As a person who has played D&D since the 1979 “Keep on the Borderlands” came out, I grow easily bored by intro-level RPG adventures. As much as I hate to say it, the thrill of slaying bandits and kobolds with short swords has generally left me. Unfortunately, Pathfinder Adventures forces players through standard D&D style monsters and obstacles in the opening campaign. The silver-lining in this is the fact that the mechanics of the game are interesting enough to get experienced RPG players through the intro material with minimal trope-fatigue, at least until higher-level encounters can be played to break the monotony.  Although I can’t say for sure that they will be a part of this game, splattering gelatinous cubes and blink-dogs with +1 battleaxes NEVER gets old, as all pencil and paper gamers can attest.

An additional critique I have with the game is the amount of text on each card. Call me a CCG curmudgeon, or a victim of the Twitter revolution, but if a card has more than about ten words on it I’d rather it stay in the box. Pathfinder cards often have multiple sentences, keywords, and abilities. This allows cards to have multiple powers, but new players will spend a fair amount of time just trying to absorb the text. Hopefully future iterations of the game will substitute some of the words with icons.

The final complaint I have is the fact that Obsidian launched it without full multiplayer access or a functioning store. The amount of time and effort they have already put into the game makes their decision to release it partially complete understandable, but one of the greatest aspects of the board game is that it is a multiplayer, fully cooperative card-game. Cooperating with oneself is probably an essential life-skill, but it makes for a less enjoyable game experience. I fully expect that this problem will be resolved soon, but I would have rather waited another few weeks or months for the complete release.

character overview interface

III. Closing Thoughts

Like its boardgame cousin, Pathfinder Adventures is a very, very good game. It is the only successful hybrid RPG card-game that I’ve ever played. It tells a story yet doesn’t require you to dress up like an Orc and sit around your kitchen table with your flatulent friends until 3 a.m. Its minor structural flaws and uninspired tropes are forgivable, and its programming omissions will be soon fixed.

I think this game will appeal to a segment of iPad gamers who love their board games but don’t want to spend hours sleeving and shuffling cards. Even though it is card-based, this game does not feel anything like Magic: the Gathering or Hearthstone, nor does it feel like conventional deckbuilding titles like Dominion or Thunderstone. Its unusual. Its big. Its fun. Its worth a try.

7.3
Get dungeon crawling!

Good Things

  • Unique roleplaying/deckbuilder hybrid
  • Dynamic characters that players can improve with time
  • Decent replayability
  • High production values

Bad Things

  • Familiar fantasy theme
  • Unfinished (as of May 2016)
  • Cards are text-heavy

The Breakdown


Gameplay
7
Interface
7
Artwork
8
Features
7