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Co-op Case Study: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

This co-op case study was originally posted at Meeples Together, a blog focusing exclusively on cooperative game design. And, if you missed the Kickstarter for my upcoming book on cooperative game design, you can now preorder it with Backerkit.


Publisher: Paizo Publishing (2013)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Adventure Game, Campaign, Deckbuilding

Overview

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is built with a unique combination of deckbuilding, adventure gaming, and cooperative gaming — resulting in a cooperative campaign that can last for 30 or more play sessions! Over the course of many games of Pathfinder, players improve their characters by acquiring new cards while simultaneously fulfilling the scenario objective, which usually requires defeating a villain after beating up some of his henchmen as well.

Challenge System

The main challenge system in the Pathfinder ACG is a simple timer: each turn the active player flips over a “blessings” card, and when all 30 are gone, the group loses. The timer itself does contains a little bit of uncertainty: if a player fails to defeat the villain in combat, then the players can lose extra blessing cards that they weren’t counting on. However, it’s mainly a monotonic count towards doom.

The rest of the challenge system depends on exploration activation: players have to reveal (mostly unknown) cards at locations in order to eventually track down the villain and his henchmen. The results could be bad (a monster attack or a barrier) or good (an opportunity to gain some equipment). As in any well-considered exploration-activation system, players sort of know what they’re getting into: they can review the general composition of each location, which tells what types of cards it contains.

Because players must dig through the locations to find and trap the villain, these activations are required to beat the timer. If the players are unlucky, unprepared, or insufficiently aggressive in drawing from the location decks, they might run out of time before they find the villain and his henchmen. In other words, the uncertainly that’s missing from the timer itself is instead a part of the location system.

The Pathfinder ACG also includes a surprisingly strong anti-cooperative incentive. A character dies if his personal deck is emptied of cards. This can happen through character damage or through the normal play of cards; it creates another, personal timer.  This anti-cooperative incentive works better than most character-death systems for two reasons. First, it feels very tight: even at the beginning of the game, a player can look at their small deck and consider how close your character lies to oblivion. Second, it’s a big deal to lose a character, because the player could have invested many sessions of gameplay into him; by creating a cooperative campaign, Selinker has dramatically escalated the stakes for character death.

One of the interesting elements of the Pathfinder ACG’s challenge system is that it doesn’t really discourage losing. That’s because there’s no penalty, other than having to play the scenario again. Beyond that, there’s no tally of wins or losses, just a gradual movement toward the campaign’s end. As a result, if a character is wounded, that player may stop exploring locations, largely canceling the challenge system, to ensure that his character doesn’t get killed. In fact, players may even choose to concentrate on improving their characters rather than winning a game (prioritizing the group’s long-term viability over the win of a single session). Despite all of this, there is still tension in the game. Players do still want to win. It’s just not the literal do-or-die of many other co-ops. The fact that the Pathfinder ACG still is obsessively replayable despite this just shows the strength of its overall design.

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

Cooperative System

The cooperative mechanics of the Pathfinder ACG are all pretty simple, but there are enough of them that they create a critical mass of cooperation.

That begins at the strategic level: players will visit different locations at different times. Early on, they’ll choose to visit different locations based on their characters’ strengths or needs. Later, when they’re trying to capture the villain, they’ll remain stationed at different locations to keep the villain from escaping.

There’s also quite a bit of tactical cooperation. Most notably, players have blessing cards that they can play to help each other on their task resolution. There are enough of them for their use to be a constant possibility, but not so many that their use becomes too easy. It’s a delicate balance that’s been well maintained. In addition, some player abilities allow mutual aid, as do some items. Finally, players will sometimes want to tactically team up to fight the villain; this is specifically allowed by monsters who require multiple skill tests to overcome, ensuring that the greatest cooperation occurs at the most dramatically appropriate time.

Surprisingly, some elements in the game also discourage cooperation. The rogue’s ability to backstab monsters only applies when he’s on his own; while some later supplements include monster effects that hit everyone at the same locations (encouraging players to spread out). In order for this sort of cooperative disincentive to work, there needs to be strong incentives to balance them; absent that, the strategic cooperation often wins out over the tactical cooperation in the Pathfinder ACG.

Adventure System

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game has some of the strongest adventure game elements in the entire cooperative field — which is unsurprising because it’s derived from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (2009).

That begins with the character, which is individually defined, has lots of special abilities, and can improve over time. This is all enabled by Pathfinder’s unique card game system: though a player’s character sheet defines a few abilities and which cards a character can have, the actual cards define the majority of a character’s powers in play. During a game, players gain new cards, but they must drop back down to their limits at the end of each session. However, characters will still be improving from this influx of cards because they’ll constantly be throwing out less powerful ones and keeping more powerful ones (or at least more complementary ones). A character’s ability to grow over many sessions of cooperative play is what really makes the adventure system of Pathfinder stand out.

The Pathfinder ACG also contains a simple-test system: players are given a target number for a task, then get to throw a pool of dice which is defined by a character’s base stats, his equipment, and other card play. This same system is used for acquiring new cards, defeating monsters, and overcoming barriers.

Finally, Pathfinder is strong in its creation of an evocative world. This is built on its use of scenarios — which not only define the ongoing story of an “adventure path”, but also list which locations, villains, and henchmen to use in the game. The powers of those specific cards then influence how the game plays out. Beyond that, the individual cards all add color to the game.

Expansions & Variants

The trick with a scenario-based cooperative game is to ensure that it remains fresh. The Pathfinder ACG manages this with an ongoing stream of Adventure Decks. Each “adventure path” starts out with a big box of cards, which is then supplemented with six Adventure Decks — each of which features a total of 110 new cards to freshen up the play decks. This is a good model because it introduces variety to both the goals and the cards that the players see; it also allows the game to ramp up in difficulty over an extended period of play.

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game has proven quite popular, and as a result four different adventure paths were released for this original incarnation of the game: Rise of the Runelords (2013), Skull & Shackles (2014), Wrath of the Righteous (2015), and Mummy’s Mask (2016). A new Core Set (2019?) is planned to revamp the game, introducing more cooperation and more story; the fifth adventure path, Curse of the Crimson Throne (2019?), will then supplement the updated game system.

Final Thoughts

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is an extremely innovative deckbuilding game. However, it’s a bit more staid as a cooperative release. Its location-based challenge system and its piecemeal cooperative system both work well, but they don’t bring a lot of novelty to the category. Instead you can see the influence of classics like Arkham Horror (1987, 2005, 2018), which follow similar play patterns.

With that said, Pathfinder Adventure Card Game offers one notable cooperative design expansion: the cooperative campaign. Players level up their adventure gaming characters over dozens of play sessions and while doing so face ever-improving monsters and villains. Though there’s clear victory (or defeat) at the end of each session, there’s also constant momentum as players struggle to improve at the speed required by the oncoming Adventure Decks. No one else has tried to create an ongoing cooperative game of this sort (though obviously, it shares elements with legacy games); it shows the exciting directions that cooperative gaming could go in.

Mike Selinker

Selinker is an American game designer with an extensive professional career in the industry. He started creating puzzles for Games Magazine in 1985, worked for Wizards of the Coast from 1995-2003 and with Paizo Publishing from 2006-2009. He also formed his own game design studio, Lone Shark Games, in 2003 and turned it into a publishing company in 2015.

Selinker has done a lot of co-op work over the years. Besides co-designing Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004) while at Wizards, Selinker has also led the industry in adventure co-op design at Lone Shark. Following the creation of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) for Paizo, he co-designed the Apocrypha Adventure Card Game (2017) and Thornwatch (2018) there.

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