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Co-op Case Study: Pathfinder ACG Core Set

One of the exciting new releases of 2019 is a pair of new supplements for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set and Curse of the Crimson Throne. Together, they notably renovate the original game.

This article was originally published on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Paizo Publishing (2019)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Adventure Game, Campaign, Deckbuilding

Overview

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set is the lead product for the revamped Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013). Paizo hasn’t been calling it a second edition, but it really is — albeit, a somewhat compatible second edition. As with the first edition, the Core Set mixes deckbuilding and adventure gaming with cooperative play. Each game, players explore decks and (usually) capture a villain, and over multiple games they improve their characters as part of long campaigns — now running 10 to 26 games rather than 30+.

Challenge System

The challenge system in the Core Set is identical to that in the original Pathfinder ACG. Players explore locations represented as decks of cards while racing against an “hourglass” timer. If they can close enough locations to corner the villain before the timer runs out, they win.

With that said, the challenge system in the Core Set feels a lot harder. That’s not due to any changes to the challenge system itself, but instead the resulted of new limitations placed on the game’s cooperative mechanics.

Challenge System Elements: Exploration Activation; Card Trigger; Timer; Campaign; and Combat & Skill Threats.

Cooperative System

In the original Pathfinder ACG, characters faced challenges that could be defeated by the roll of dice, with dice being added to a pool based on the play of cards. Each player could only play one of each type of card, for example one weapon, one armor, and one spell, but collectively the group could play as many cards as they wanted. Practically, this meant that the active player played the core cards for a challenge, such as weapons and most spells, but if other players thought the challenge was important, they could pile on “blessings”, each of which added one or two more dice to the pool.

In the Core Set, the entire group is now limited to just one card of each type, with the exception of some cards that can be played “freely”. This purely mechanical change creates a huge new restriction on cooperation. Previously, support was widely possible with some geographical limitations (though blessings could be played without restriction, other cards and some powers could only be used by local characters or in some cases, remote characters), now there’s a simple quantity limitation that makes a big difference in the game.

This new rule is paired with a general reduction in power in the game. Many of those blessings, which used to provide two dice of support in specific circumstances, now provide just one. In addition, some of the more overpowered characters have been toned done. Those these “nerfs” aren’t explicitly cooperative limitations, they do nonetheless limit a player’s ability to help his fellows, albeit in an almost invisible way (since it’s just the way the powers and cards work).

An inevitable question here is: does making a game more difficult make it more or less fun? The Captain is Dead: Lockdown, another recent co-op sequel, demonstrated a situation where the updated game’s limitations were so restrictive, and so limited player agency, that they reduced enjoyment in the game. The Core Set’s limitations are much less extreme, and so less likely to go down this path.

Interestingly, while restricting its cooperation for shared tasks, the Core Set also introduces a new type of serialized cooperation. A new mechanic called “avenge” allows a player to immediately face a challenge that a local character failed to overcome. This is clearly meant as a balance to the reduction in simultaneous support. And, it’s a neat balance because it can grant players extra opportunities to succeed at a challenge, even if each individual attempt is now harder.

This is pretty important for Pathfinder ACG, because under the previous system, a bunch of players all adding a lot of support to an important challenge could (and would) make it a near certainty, destroying the tension that’s so crucial to cooperative games. However, if players instead take on challenges serially, but with more limited support, the group still has a good chance of eventually overcoming the challenge, but there’s now opportunity for failure before success, which is a great model for tension in a game.

(To put it another way, by the old mechanism the players might give themselves a 95% chance of completing the challenge, while by the new mechanism, they might have a 75% chance on a first try, then another 75% chance on an avenge try. The overall odds are almost 95% either way, but the latter is a lot more exciting.)

Adventure System

Pathfinder ACG always had a strong adventure system, but the new Core Set demonstrates how to push that sort of evocative story content even further. That comes in large part through the “Storybooks” that now accompany each campaign. Previously, story had been summarized in a few tight paragraphs on a card, but now the players can read a page or so of story, including dialogue. After each game, there’s also additional text describing the dénouement.

However, the improvements to Pathfinder ACG’s adventure system go far beyond simple story text. The cards depicting characters, locations, opponents, and treasure were always evocative, but they’re now improved. Locations, for example, have traits such as Underground, Urban, and Wild that can trigger specific effects. Each adventure also has a Danger such as “Rescue” or “Collapse” that presents a potentially recurring challenge that is appropriate to the story. In both of these cases, the adventure system has been improved by using Traits and card types to tie cards together to create more evocative results. Finally, many cards have had their effects rewritten to feel more appropriate to what they are and what they should do; this last bit is sort of black magic for adventure card game design, but cards usually become more evocative the more distinct they are.

Expansions & Variants

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set is theoretically compatible with the four major sets and the many class decks that came before it. However, there are sufficient changes to balance, to graphic design, and to rules that it may be better to play it with other games from the revamped PACG line, which currently means Curse of the Crimson Throne (2019), the first full-length adventure path for the updated game system.

Final Thoughts

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set retains its innovative design, but has been cleaned up and polished. The biggest change is certainly to the challenge level. The new Core Set offers an excellent example of how to notably change the challenge level with a minor rule change; it also demonstrates how cooperation can happen in different ways, each collectively or serially.

“The major impact it has is to cut down on the situations where a group could unload nearly their entire hands at a key moment. What we were seeing is that large groups could, with a little planning and effort, reliably drop this sort of massive card play on key checks, so much so that they were frequently removing the tension from these dramatic points. With this small adjustment to the rule, plus the ability to sidestep it when we want to with the freely exception (it’s used by a LOT of cards), we were able to leave in the option for overkill while restoring much of the tension to those key dramatic moments.”

—Chad Brown, “Core Principles: Encouraging Teamwork in the Pathfinder ACG”, Paizo Blog, https://paizo.com/community/blog/v5748dyo6sgl5

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples