Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (PACG – Rise of the Runelords) Solo Review – Cardboard Diablo
Posted On October 26, 2022
Always looking for a good deal, I got my hands on a cheap copy of the “Rise of the Runelords” base set of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. PACG was one of the top 200 solo board games in BGG’s people vote in 2021, which is how it got my attention.
Based on the reviews I could read (and not knowing a single thing about the pathfinder franchise), the game looked “ok” but a bit too generic for my taste. I only got the base set because it was really cheap, during a shopping spree last year.
The box had been sitting in my “shelf of shame” for almost a year, when I decided to crack it open a few days ago. Generic RPG settings are a bit like vanilla ice cream: ultimately, you get back to it once in a while because it’s never entirely disappointing.
So, how does PACG fare as a solo game?
Pathfinder ACG Franchise
Before I start it’s worth mentioning again that Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is a big series including multiple games, all with very similar (if not identical) mechanics rules, but all with their own characters and campaigns. It is my understanding that you can to some extent make cards of game A compatible with Game B (for example if you want to play with your favorite character in a different setting), but for all intents and purposes, these are individual games, with different campaigns, etc…
Bottom line: I played the very first game of the franchise because it’s the one I found for cheap, but the scenario/art of other versions might be more appealing to you.
Rise of The Runelords (the one being discussed here)
On opening the box, my first reaction was of slight disappointment at how empty it looked. The base game contains a “tutorial” adventure (3 scenarios) as well as the first adventure (5 scenarios) of a full campaign entitled “Rise of the Runelords“.
Honestly, the base game is more than enough to get a good feel of the game, with at the very least 5h of gameplay to complete the tutorial + the first adventure, and there is some level of replayability. It’s way more than what my base set of Arkham Horror TCG had to offer, for example. But that big empty box is carefully designed to make you want to buy the rest of the campaign, which is getting harder to find nowadays. Let’s put it this way: if you like the game, you’ll want the complete campaign, no doubt about it, so you’re looking at a total cost of about $100. Spoiler alert: I did end up buying the whole campaign! Amazon have the whole thing for a reasonable price. (Affiliate link)
The art on the cards is good, as I mentioned above it feels a bit generic (weapons and items in particular), but it’s ok. Some of the locations and enemies are occasionally gorgeous, I am particularly fond of the goblins which manage to look original, a bit goofy yet threatening.
Yes, Pathfinder ACG feels a bit generic, but it remains charming, and as a game from a decade ago, the art sits comfortably somewhere between nostalgic and modern, for me. Again, a bit of vanilla flavor, but that’s what I was looking for when I opened the box.
Pathfinder ACG – The first game session(s)
This is where I shortly go over the rules and my first few session to give you a feel of the game, but do not expect this to be a complete tutorial of how to play PACG! There are great youtube content creators for that, go watch a full gameplay session or something if that’s what you’re after 😉
Pathfinder the card game is a game in which you and your friends play as a team of heroic-fantasy adventurers who have to catch and defeat a bad guy (the “villain”). That bad guy is represented by a card hiding in several piles of cards, representing locations. You’ll have to “close” the locations by exploring them and fighting the henchmen that hide within, as well as find the villain, beat them, and prevent them from escaping to another location.
Each player chooses a character and builds a deck for them (in solo play you can create and use multiple characters, I’ve personally played with 2 characters, which is still manageable while enriching the possible strategies in the game).
There are specific rules and limitations to one’s deck, for example some magicians won’t have any “weapon” cards in their deck. Initially, your character’s deck is made of 15 cards (this evolves through the campaign). These represent the weapons, spells, allies at your disposal to defeat enemies and traps. But this deck also represents your health. If at any point you have to draw from it but it’s empty, your character dies. There are lots of ways to keep your drawing pile “alive” though, including doing nothing on your turn if that’s necessary (Typically not a good idea, but sometimes better than losing your character as death in the game is “permanent”.)
Your turn will typically consist in moving to a location, “exploring” it (turning its top card face up), and facing the consequences of what you just uncovered: fight an enemy or a trap, retrieve some loot or an ally, and more. Most of these fights or skill checks are based on dice rolls. Which dice you roll and what bonus you may or may not apply depends on your character, each character having their own skills. A ranger might for example be able to use a d8 for a fight with a ranged weapon, but only a d4 for spells.
Occasionally, you’ll have to fight the villain or their henchmen, which have specific rules associated with them. The goal is usually to “close” all locations where the villain isn’t (that’s achieved either by exploring it completely until its deck has run out of cards, or defeating the henchman that’s hiding in it), and then defeat the villain.
The locations themselves add to the variety of the game, adding specific bonuses or constraints to your encounters, as well as defining what can be found in them. For example, a location named “The shop” will probably have more items and weapons than monsters and traps in it.
Your characters evolve as you play, mainly through two mechanisms: first, as you explore locations in game, you will acquire new items, weapons, allies. Secondly, as you complete scenarios, you will be allowed to permanently increase some of your skills. Both these aspects, combined with the fact that you reuse your characters in multiple scenarios over a complete campaign, give a nice RPG feel to the game.
There’s about 30 missions in the Rise of the Runelords campaign, and each adventure deck adds new enemies and weapons, which contributes to keeping the game fresh. Furthermore, as you progress in the campaign, you will progressively remove the easier enemies and the basic weapons from the game, meaning you’ll face stronger opponents (but will be rewarded with better gear) as you get through the campaign.
Pathfinder Card Game Rise of the Runelords – a note on 1st edition vs 2nd Edition
There are two editions of the 2013 PACG card game, and it’s worth mentioning that although they are theoretically compatible with each other, in practice the significant color difference on the back of the cards makes it a no-go.
I feel like I’m very permissive with this kind of issue (I’ve played Race for the Galaxy 1st ed with 2nd ed expansions), but in this case the differences are very significant, and can somewhat be game breaking: if you notice a 2nd edition back in one of the location deck, this can give you strong indication that the card could be something specific you’re looking for (whether a villain or some particular gear). This is even worse in your character’s deck, where you might have only a couple of 2nd editions cards in the deck, instantly giving away what’s hiding.
With that being said, I have been playing with a 1st edition base set and 2nd edition expansions. The issue kind of smooths itself out as more and more 2nd edition cards make it into the box, while “basic” 1st edition cards get progressively removed from the campaign, but basically I wouldn’t advise anyone to mix the 2 editions if you can avoid it. Unless you’re willing to sleeve the entire game, with is about a thousand cards. At that cost, it might be cheaper to buy a base set again.
Pathfinder – Rise of the Runelords review
There are a few games I’d like to compare RotR with, as I write this review. You might not have played these games, or you might think the comparison is uncalled for in some cases… but I like to “anchor” a review with other games I’ve personally experienced.
I’ve seen some reviews saying the game gets stale pretty quickly, with all the scenarios basically being “close all locations and defeat the villain”. It’s true, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. In terms of “freshness” of each play session and replayability, I’d say this is way above something like “One Deck Dungeon”, but possibly below “Lord of the Rings, the card game”.
Let me explain: I didn’t really like One Deck dungeon because after a few games I felt I had encountered all enemies and traps many, many times. That game got stale for me really quickly. I didn’t run into this issue with PACG because I feel there are many things that come to help with freshness: each scenario brings a new villain; there are, overall, more cards than in ODD; the content that you’ll meet evolves with time as the new adventure decks bring new content; and there is a variety of encounters (many of which can actually be positive, a.k.a boons) that does not compare to One Deck Dungeon. Last but not least, the “campaign” of the game, even if it feels light by any RPG standard, is way above the “campaign” that was tacked on One Deck Dungeon.
It is unfair to compare a $100 game to a $20 game, don’t get me wrong. But, setting the price aside, in terms of enjoyment there is no question for me as to which game I would keep and play with family.
Compared to Lord of The Rings TCG, another game I’ve played a lot, which also happens to be a card game with locations and villains to defeat. There is no question to me that LotR LCG has much more variety in its missions than PACG. However PACG has that RPG feel of improving your character as you progress, that LotR LCG doesn’t have at all. In Lord of the Rings, each mission is fairly independent, and I’d argue that you have to build the proper deck for each mission, giving me more the feeling of some strategy wargame than that of an RPG. I’ve rarely kept the same heroes from one game to the next in LotR LCG, with each game feeling more like a deck-crafting puzzle than an RPG mission. But each mission in LotR feels fresh, while PACG’s mission are, essentially, always about defeating the villain somewhere in the deck. As a side note, from a cost perspective though, I want to mention that I’ve had much more hours of gameplay with $100 worth of PACG than I could with $100 worth of LotR. (See, I have this pet peeve with LotR LCG that the game only truly becomes fun once you can actually build the perfect deck for each scenario, which requires owning pretty much all of the cards)
LotR LCG does manage to be significantly richer thematically. Of course it’s got a headstart, being set in the LotR universe, but each mission also has appropriate enemies and traps. If your LotR scenario’s named “Orcs of Mordor”, you’ll get to face mostly orcs as your enemies. PACG is much more random, and you’ll occasionally have to fight a sea monster in peaceful Town Square, which is not super thematic. (there are fanmade variants for PACG that try to fix that, but they reduce the randomness of encounters, meaning they tend to make the game even easier than it already is).
With that being said, PACG has generally been more fun to me, because it almost feels like Diablo: the card game. Kill some small monsters, get some loot, defeat the occasional boss, improve your stats, move to the next level. It’s repetitive in its gameplay loop, but that’s not what we’re after here. Getting more gear and items to feel like an actual fantasy hero/badass is what this is about. Also, PACG is way easier than LotR LCG. And frankly, I sometimes enjoy a game where I know that I’ll most likely win the scenario.
This brings me to the difficulty of PACG: the game feels extremely easy (playing with 2 characters), and some people have complained about that. While you may house rule some of the difficulty, by default, the game is easy (again, especially compared to brutally hard games such as LotR LCG). But because the game is all about growing your characters, and there is technically a permadeath in the game, I do understand (and appreciate) why it’s so easy. Losing a scenario would, in many cases, mean losing a character you’ve built over a campaign of dozens of games. I feel that would be counterproductive.
I think the game designers could have amped up the difficulty a notch, and find some better mechanic that the permadeath they have put in place. But, after everything is said and done, I do appreciate that the game is fairly easy, and the pleasure I derive from it is not that I managed to beat a scenario, but the excitement of getting new gear, new allies, and facing a set of fresh enemies in the next scenario.
Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is a fun little game. Game sessions are short enough (45 minutes), while still providing a feeling of grandeur due to the overall campaign. It does feel like playing a rogue-like on easy mode, and is a nice change of pace for me after hitting my head against difficult games such as LotR LCG. The game stays fresh throughout the whole campaigns thanks to new cards (enemies and loot) being added progressively.
Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is the kind of game I’d happily play with my family, it’s not too difficult to understand while not being completely dull. The game probably won’t stay long in my collection after I’m done with the campaign (a lot of the fun comes from discovering new items and enemies, and that will get old after finishing the campaign once), but by then I will have had almost 50h of gameplay with the game, which is more than enough in my opinion.
What I liked about PACG
The feeling of freshness every time we open a new adventure deck, which adds new loot and enemies waiting to be discovered
The game is simple and easy, meaning we can focus more on growing our heroes and their gear, rather than overthinking each single scenario
There is about 50h of gameplay for about $100 (base set + all adventure decks). Double that if you decide to replay the campaign with another group of adventurers.
what I didn’t like about PACG
It can sometimes feel like a very generic heroic-fantasy RPG setting
The missions can feel repetitive (close locations, beat the villain)
luck of the draw in location decks can mean a mission turns super easy or very ugly, quite quickly.