After posting the prologue/epilogue news, I’ve received several people You can’t think of Pathfinder the same way you think of your other boardgames. It’s not a box of stored pieces, stored in some neutral pre-game state of tabula rasa until your next session. Playing means changing the way the cards are organized as characters earn new equipment, allies, and powers. Eventually, you’re supposed to buy new add-ons and shuffle into the box more monsters, more weapons, more spells, more traps.
You draw from these to set up your adventure. And even further down the line, you’ll cull the weaker cards from the collection. At any given time, your adventure has a level number which affects certain cards. A copy of Pathfinder is a persistent and evolving entity, similar to the way a copy of Risk Legacy changes, the way it becomes different from anyone else’s copy of Risk Legacy.
The most significant part of the box is the sets of cards each character has accumulated. My sorceress had a formidable frost ray, a toad familiar, and a pair of wands. My monk had a grand set of carefully tailored blessings. My druid’s holy light and inflict spells mean he packs a divine punch. You even mark up the character cards to mark their progress by upgrading powers and stats. When they die, well… I hope you used a pencil to mark up your cards.
It’s a cooperative game, but it feels different from the usual co-operative game, where everyone races a clock or holds back some sort of onslaught. The basic structure is that you’re searching through piles of cards, each representing a location with unique properties. You’re trying to find the main villain shuffled somewhere into one of those piles. Is he in the Woods? On the Waterfront? Could he be in the Academy? But it’s not enough to find him. You have to corner him to set up the kill, which is a matter of card management. Mechanically, Pathfinder is a smart system with unique dramatic tension.
Everyone wants to beat the main bad guy to earn the scenario’s reward, but there’s something far more important at stake: you benefit personally from treasure you find.
So Pathfinder is only as co-operative as any tabletop RPG or any need or greed roll in an MMO. Furthermore, the threat of death, which is mostly manageable, is a matter of how boldly you want to play the odds. When you die, it’s your fault. My sorceress never should have been fighting when she was that weak. I pushed too hard getting my monk ready for fighting and didn’t think to expect a magical trap. I should have just walked away and tried again later. Because Pathfinder is first about personal gain and second about vanquishing evil, which can wait. You’re mainly here for the loot so your character will be more powerful for the next adventure, which will have even greater rewards. You’re playing Pathfinder for much longer than just tonight’s boardgame night.
Unfortunately, that’s also how Pathfinder is sold. This box is clearly labeled “base set”, and it’s not lying. It’s missing a lot of gameplay. You can get through the included adventures in a few nights, at which point you’re hanging fire for the next set of monthly cards. Many of the traits on these different cards might as well be flavor text. Oh, sure, I love when I have holy water in my hand and I come across something with the undead trait. But that’s so rare. This is a box full of useless cards and cards with useless stats. For instance, most of the particulars of damage type are mostly irrelevant. So what if zombies are immune to poison and mental damage? So what if fire damage is boosted at that one location? Pathfinder’s base set is full of empty sockets.
Conversely, there are plenty of gameplay plugs and nowhere to put them. Why would I bother toting around a potion to help with a survival check when I can count on one hand the number of survival checks I’ve had to make? Oh, hey, these awesome subclass cards for each character sure do look cool! Will your bard become a virtuoso or a charlatan? Hold that thought for a few months of play …
Furthermore, the strength of the system — persistent characters carried over between games — means Pathfinder won’t work for a lot of boardgaming groups. Because it’s a set you’re supposed to arrange and mark up based on your various play sessions, there is no provision for adapting this box to the usual vagaries of tabletop gaming. That said, I like the game so much that I have the 3 first boxes that came out, with all the adventures + playmats + character addons decks that are out there. I am waiting to complete those before jumping into the last released set that was released recently.