Card Game Review: The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set from 2019

Roleplaying games are not for everyone. They take a lot of time, effort and most require a regular group. Due to this, I love the fact that there are so many board and card games coming out that attempt to capture the feeling of role-playing games without all of that commitment. The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is an excellent example of this style of adventure board game, that feels, at least in part, like playing a full roleplaying game.

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game 2019 Core Set is the newest entry point into the adventure card game system, with clarified and updated rules and a new card design that makes the game easier to learn and play.

Disclosure: Paizo was awesome enough to send us a review copy of this core set. Some links in this post are affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

What you get with the 2019 Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set was designed by Mike Selinker with help from Chad Brown, Keith Richmond, Aviva Schecterson, and Liz Spain. It features artwork from Jay Epperson. It was published last year by Paizo and is a follow-up and reboot to their already popular Pathfinder Adventure Card Game series. This boxed set is designed for one to four players and includes a short adventure path called The Dragon’s Demand.

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is a cooperative campaign based card game played out over a number of separate adventures each of which takes about an hour and a half once your group is used to how it is played. As it’s a campaign game, players will choose characters that will evolve and improve over the campaign. 

To get a look at what you get inside this new core set, be sure to watch our Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set (2019) Unboxing Video on YouTube.

The first thing you will find in the box is a quickstart guide. I suggest reading this before you open up anything else in the box. The main reason for this is that there is one specific deck of cards you should open first, and that should be the only deck you open before you try the game for the first time. I didn’t do this and ended up opening up a different set of cards during the unboxing video linked above. 

This quickstart guide is four pages long and introduces you to the game and its mechanics. It also walks you through the proper way to use the contents of this box.

A look at the wall of text that is the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set rulebook.Next, we have the Core Set Rulebook, which is one of the thickest and most intimidating board game rulebooks I’ve ever seen. Not only does it have a high page count, but the text is small and there’s a ton of it. If you ever want to know what someone means when they say “wall of text” just open up this book to a random page. There are a full twenty-eight pages of dense, RPG style, rules here, covering every possible possibility and contingency. 

This is not a game you are going to open up and start playing that same day. You are going to need some time to read through and digest this rulebook.

The final book in the box is the Dragon’s Demand Adventure Path storybook. This contains the background and rules for the first adventure path for this new edition of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. 

There are a couple of punch boards in the box that contains a mix of character standees (one for each of the eighteen included characters) and generic round markers with different colours and backgrounds that are also used for tracking Hero points. 

Lots of room in the box for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core SetUnder all of this, you will find one of the most empty boxes I have ever seen. I realize this is done so that you can add in expansion material, but I would say only about 15% off this box is being used with just the core set. The box insert is flimsy cardboard splitting the box into three columns. This will come as a big disappointment to players of the earlier Pathfinder Adventure Card Game base sets as all of those came with moulded plastic inserts with specific slots for all of the different components and spots for all of the expansions.

That’s all gone with this edition. Now we have something that’s more like the box you get with Marvel Legendary or one of the DC Deckbuilding games. 

The insert has a number of foam block spacers, four packs of cards, a pack of dividers, six plastic stands and a set of five blue polyhedral dice.

Digging into the cards you’ve got four hundred and forty cards total. These include a huge mix of weapons, spells, armor, items, allies, blessings, locations, monsters, status effects, minions, proxies and more. There are also cards for each of the eighteen characters included in this box.

All of the cards are of excellent quality and feature great Pathfinder artwork. These cards are very text-heavy, especially when compared to other deck-building games. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much information put onto a single card before. The biggest problem with this is the font size which is small and hard for ageing eyes like mine to read. 

How does the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game play?

The first step in playing a game with The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set is picking and building a character. This core set includes eighteen different characters to choose from including many of the “Iconic” characters from the Pathfinder lore. 

The Fumbus character card from the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core SetPlayers will take the character card for the character they like. On this card, they will find a deck-building list. This will tell the player how many of each card type they need to select to build their initial deck. For example my character Fumbus the Goblin Alchemist has a deck that has 2 weapons, 2 spells, 1 armor, 6 items, 1 ally and 3 blessings. Thankfully, for people new to this series, sample deck lists are included for four of the characters so you can get a feel for what you might want in your decks. 

Once each player has a character you pick an adventure to play from the storybook. Your first adventure should be the Tutorial scenario Rumble Road if you haven’t played a Pathfinder Adventure Card Game before, or Plans Gone Wrong if you have. After completing an adventure you will move on to the next one in the book until finishing the adventure path. The Dragon’s Demand adventure path also includes a final scenario for generating random adventures so you can continue to play your characters even after finishing the full story. 

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set a sample character deck.Each adventure will have you set up a number of location decks based on the number of players. Each location will list a number of cards to include in its deck and you will randomize which cards are in there from all of the cards you own of that level or lower. Before starting the game you decide if you want to play with small, medium or large locations which will affect the game length. A standard game uses medium locations. For example, The Trail location at medium size will have a deck consisting of 4 monsters, 2 barriers, 1 item, 1 ally and 1 blessing. 

Most adventures will also have you pick out a number of bane cards. These include dangers, a main villain and henchmen. The villain and henchmen are shuffled randomly into the location decks. 

The goal of a standard adventure is for the players to explore the various locations trying to hunt down and defeat the villain before time runs out. A part of this involves finding the henchmen and closing various locations. If a villain is met when other locations are still open when that villain is defeated instead of being vanquished they will escape to another open location. Time is represented by a deck of blessing cards called the clock.

Now the actual way this works involves a lot of little details and specific rules. There’s no way I’m going to cover everything here (did I mention the rulebook is almost thirty pages of two-column small font text?). However, I will try to summarise things so that it makes sense and gives you a good overview of how the game plays. 

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set being played. On a player’s turn they do the following things:

They can give another player at the same location as them a card from their hand. This way players can share equipment, allies, spells they have found, etc.

They can then move to a different location.

They may then explore the location. Flipping over the top card at that location and encountering it (more about this important phase in a bit)

If the character is at an empty location they can try to close it. Each location card lists how you do this and it’s different for every location in the game.

Finally, when done with these actions players end their turn which triggers some end-of-round effects like drawing new cards.

Encountering cards is the meat of the game. When a card is encountered you first go through any “when encountered” effects, then players can use any evasion abilities they have to avoid the card, if not avoided players then attempt any checks listed on the card. 

Fighting against a henchman in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core SetChecks are done to either acquire beneficial cards such as weapons, armour, allies, spells and items, or to avoid the negative effects of monsters, villains, henchmen, danger or barriers. Checks are made by rolling a number of dice based on your character abilities. Characters have different sizes of dice assigned to different stats, skills and attacks. These are modified by cards that the player currently has in their hand. Things like weapons will offer attack dice while items may offer bonus dice to check against specific barriers and blessings allow you to double the dice in your pool. Some cards will even offer bonus dice to other player’s checks! 

Once a player has all of their dice, they will roll them and add them together. If they beat the check number they either gain the card or defeat the hazard by returning it to the box. Cards gained this way can immediately be used by the character who gained them. Failed checks can result in a number of penalties. For most beneficial cards it just means the card is returned to the box and the item/ally/spell/etc is lost, but a failed check versus monsters or barriers usually causes damage. 

Taking damage in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game involves discarding cards from your hand to your discard. The number of cards is usually the difference between the total on your check vs. the difficulty of the check. Armor cards, some spells, and some items, can be used to mitigate this damage. Healing works the opposite way, allowing players to shuffle cards from their discard pile back into their deck.

If a character ever discards the last card in their deck they are considered dead and can no longer be played unless the player has saved up a hero point to spend to bring the character back to life. 

A hand of cards from the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core SetOnce you use a card during a check what happens to it will depend on the text on the card. Some cards just need to be revealed to be used. You show the card, apply it’s effect, and put it back into your hand (most armor works this way). Other cards are ‘refreshed’ which means putting them at the bottom of your deck (most spells work this way). Banished cards are removed from play and put back in the box. Many cards that provide strong benefits are discarded after one use. Single-use cards are buried and placed under your character card since they can only be used once per adventure. A big part of the Pathfinder Adventure Card game is manging your hand and your deck and making sure you don’t run out of cards while cycling through the cards you do have so that you have access to what you need for each challenge at hand. 

To make things interesting, all of this can and will be modified by your character abilities, the abilities on your cards, the text on the cards you encounter and the text on the location you are at.

For example, spells are normally banished, but if your character is proficient in the spell type they are instead discarded, or if a skill check is made only refreshed. Each location card has special rules that apply when characters are at that location. The blessing cards in the clock deck take effect and modify the rules for that tun if they have an effect that says “when this is the hour.” Some cards will call on you to face “The Danger” which changes with each adventure. This game is all about cards interacting with other cards. 

Play continues until players find and defeat the villain. At least for a standard adventure. Some of the adventures in the Dragon’s Demand Adventure Path have special rules with other victory conditions, but the standard game is explore the area, find the henchmen, defeat them to close locations and eventually find the boss monster and defeat it. 

Scenario 1 of the Dragon's Demand Adventure Path for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core SetIf you manage to complete the adventure you will get a reward as listed in the storybook. This often includes getting specific or random cards to add to your character decks and can also include hero points. Hero points are how you “level up” your character in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. Each character card has a number of boxes that can be checked off by spending one hero point for each box. These let you improve all kinds of things, like the number of each card type you can have in your deck, your stats and skills, and individual character abilities.

Hero points can also be saved to be used as re-rolls or for saving a character from death as noted above.

The final thing you must do at the end of each adventure is to rebuild your deck. You are always limited to having the exact number of each card type as listed on your character card. Cards gained during the adventure can be kept but they may have to replace cards you already had. You also always have the option to add level 0 cards to your deck from the box. You may have to do this if you were forced to bury cards from your deck during the last adventure. 

There is a lot to like in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set once you get past the learning curve. 

It has taken me a long time to get to this review of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. This game has sat on my pile of obligations longer than pretty much any other game, and the reason for that is the learning curve. 

Looking up rules is a common part of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core SetI already mentioned above when talking about the game components how thick and dense the rulebook for this card game is. It’s more than that though, it’s the way the rules are written that adds to the intimidation factor and difficulty of learning this game. It’s written like a roleplaying rulebook, which is more like a technical manual than your average board game rulebook. 

I think this is due to the fact that there is an organized play network built around the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. People go to local Adventure Card Game organized play events at local stores, and enter into tournaments and try to win prizes. In that way, this game is similar to Magic the Gathering and just like Magic the Gathering the rules have evolved to become almost what feels like legal documents. There are so many little rules and exceptions, and details in regards to timing and specific card interactions. 

This all combines to make one of the least accessible games I’ve ever come across. It’s like the complete opposites of much of the advice I talk about in my 13 ways designers can make games easier to learn and teach article. 

All that said, we found it was worth the effort. Sure the first few games we probably spent more time looking up things in the rulebook than we did actually playing. Even now after playing through a big chunk of the Dragon’s Demand, we are still having to look up a few things each game. I fully expect that even when we are on the last game of the campaign there will be something that will come up, some combination of card abilities and character powers that we will need some form of clarification on. 

One thing that has really impressed me through all of this is that we have found the answer to every single question we’ve had in the rulebook. There hasn’t been a situation yet that we couldn’t find an answer to. I’ve never had to google anything or go on BGG to look for an FAQ for this game. So I guess there’s something to be said for a game with a set of rules this verbose. The answers are all there, somewhere. 

Starting off an adventure in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core SetAs for playing the game itself, we have really been enjoying it. Deanna, my wife, actually really loves this game and she’s not usually a fan of cooperative games. It’s not that I don’t like it, I think it’s solid but she is enjoying it more than I am.

When I first heard about the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game I thought it was going to be a deck-building game, it is not. In this game, you build your deck at the start of each adventure, which is deck construction like in Magic the Gathering, rather than deck-building that occurs during play. While you may gain a few cards during play, it’s not actually all that common. It’s not like getting some kind of resource and using it to buy cards from a market every turn. Your deck starts off tuned and by making some checks during play you may gain a few more cards. Then at the end of the adventure, you will clean that deck up. Most of the time we’ve found that the cards you find during play aren’t any better than what you already have, and often your ending deck is very close to or the same as your starting deck. 

It’s during play that the game really diverts from deck building games like Tyrants of the Underdark. In those, you cycle through your deck multiple times during the game. In this game, if you run out of cads in your draw pile your character dies! Instead of being about building a deck during play this game is instead about using your existing deck to the best of your ability during play. Hand management is huge and the decision on how to use a card and when is a huge part of the game. 

All ready to explore the next location in this Pathfinder card game.Most of the cards in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game have multiple uses. For example, you may have a weapon that you can use over and over every round to give you a solid basic attack. However, that same weapon can also be used to assist an ally, if used that way though you either have to recharge or discard it, meaning you no longer have that weapon to use on your own turn. Watching what cards you discard is huge because your deck is also your health. Not only does discarding reduce your options, it also brings your character closer to death.

All of this leads to a very fascinating puzzle, that I really enjoy. I love that feeling of flipping over a card at a location during an explore action then looking at what I have to face and trying to best figure out how to use my cards to overcome it. Then there’s the fact that the other players may be able to assist you. The fact that you can use many of your cards to add to your ally’s checks builds a great sense of cooperation, something I find is often missing in other cooperative board games. The ability to trade items also adds to this feeling of cooperation. 

My biggest complaint about The Pathfinder Adventure Card game, something that is even worse than the learning curve, is the size of the font they chose to use on the cards. As noted above the cards in this game have the most text I’ve ever seen used in a card game on individual cards. There are full paragraphs of text on these cards! To get it all to fit they had to use a small font and that font drives me nuts. The amount of text on the cards and the sheer number of different cards also means that there’s little chance you are going to memorize the text on these cards. Sure you may learn your individual deck but you probably aren’t going to remember the special start of turn text on a wall of fire card. 

At this point, my wife and I have taken to having a magnifying glass at the table when we play the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. 

Only two locations remain in this game of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core SetOverall I’m extremely impressed by the new Pathfinder Adventure Core Set released in 2019. This was my first experience with this game series and, despite a significant learning curve, I have really enjoyed every play I’ve had of the game, even when we’ve failed to win an adventure. The Dragon’s Demand Adventure path has been fun and entertaining and we have really been enjoying levelling up our characters. This card game truly gives you some of that feeling of playing through a full Pathfinder adventure, without the need of a Game Masters, a full RPG group, and all of the work that goes with a full role-playing game. I really like the decision points in this game and enjoy trying to make the most of my deck of cards each adventure, as well as the joy of slowly improving that deck and my character between games. 

If you are a Pathfinder fan I think you will find a lot to like in this card game. No, it’s not the same thing as playing the roleplaying game but it does let you experience the Pathfinder world in another way. If you enjoy adventure games in general you will also find a lot to like here. This is a very different take on fantasy adventuring than say a dungeon crawling game like Descent, yet still very fun.

For anyone thinking of checking this game out, be aware it is not in fact a deck-building game, but more like a deck construction game with a campaign element where deck improvements will happen between adventures. What I do strongly suggest for anyone thinking of playing the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is to find someone who knows the game to teach it to you. It’s not the easiest game to learn from reading the rulebook. But, if you can’t find a teacher, I do think it’s worth the effort to learn. 

The 2019 Core Set is my personal first experience with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. I know many of you have probably been enjoying this series of games since it first came out in 2013. What I would love to hear about is what people who have played the older versions think of this new edition. Was it an improvement? Do you like the changes they made? If you have this kind of experience, please tell us about it in the comments.

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