Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Paizo: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Skull And Shackles Review

For several years, from 2010-2012, I'd been searching for a card-based fantasy roleplaying game resource.  As a busy family man, it was difficult finding time to prepare for role-playing game sessions, and do all of the between-game record-keeping.  A card-based fantasy RPG resource system, I reasoned, would save time by allowing DMs and players to participate in adventures without the necessity for a lot of pre- or post-game preparation and record-keeping.

As nothing suitable was on the market, I'd gone so far as to develop a structure and color-coding of cards and a method of maintaining character decks from game to game (essentially having 18 card-slot tri-fold vinyl binders, within each of which a player's character resource cards would be stored).

In August 2013, Paizo published their Pathfinder Adventure Card Game ("PACG"): Rise Of The Runelords ("ROTR") Base Set.  As I've mentioned in the past, although I'm a big fan of Paizo, and have purchased their many resource card and miniatures sets, I'm not a Pathfinder RPG player.  I had heard the PACG system was similar, mechanically, to the Pathfinder RPG game, and was initially leery of purchasing ROTR, as I had little interest in playing DnD 3.75.

However, my disinclination towards complicated RPG systems was mitigated by my love of resource cards, and this game was reportedly bursting with them ... to the tune of 1,100.  I purchased the initial ROTR Base Set and all of the adventure expansions, intending to see whether this was my resource-card Holy Grail, but due to a transfer to another position and city, I never had an opportunity to open the box and play the game.

This summer, the squire and I attended Gencon 2014.  Paizo released the Skulls and Shackles Base Set and hosted a booth and gaming tables at Gencon, but the Paizo traffic was so heavy we never did obtain access to either (though we attempted a dozen times).  It was just as well, I suppose: I'd have bought the new Skull and Shackles ("SAS") Base Set, sight unseen, even though I really had no way of carrying it back to Canada, with my luggage already overstuffed with other, smaller games.

Returning to St. Albert from Gencon, I eventually dropped by my FLGS, Mission Fun and Games and purchased a copy of SAS.  But until this week, we had no opportunity to play the game.

The Skull and Shackles Base Set has an MSRP of $60 and comes in a big box.  A really big box.  In fact, other than those heavy gamer "coffin-box" games (event games that take all day to play) this may be the biggest game box on the market.  The box is big because it is designed to hold all of the planned adventure supplement decks. 

This is not the original insert for the SAS Base Set.
This custom insert is from Go7 Gaming.
The SAS Base Set includes roughly 500 cards, a set of rules and five polyhedral dice.  You will need more dice to play, since this is a multi-player game and you will routinely need to roll two, three or even more of one particular die.  The boxed set only contains one of each of four, six, eight, ten and twelve sided dice, but most role-players already have an extensive dice collection.  If you are not a role-player, presumably you will buy additional sets of polyhedral dice when you purchase this game.

The game includes all sorts of cards representing scenarios, adventure locations, ships, villains, monsters, henchmen, obstacles, allies, weapons, spells, items and other cards; enough content to easily provide several months or more worth of weekly gaming sessions.  The SAS Base Set comes with five built-in scenarios, and the first Adventure Path (included as a deck within the Base Set box) provides you with an additional five.  That's ten weeks (two and a half months) of weekly adventures in the box, with more Adventure Paths on the way.  Because the encounters of any adventure path are semi-randomly generated using the provided cards, you can play the same scenarios multiple times and they stay fresh.

The SAS Base Set also includes cards for seven iconic Paizo characters: Valeros the Fighter, Lem the Bard, Seltyiel the Magus, Jirelle the Swashbucker, Merisel the Rogue, Lirianne the Gunslinger, and Alahazra the Oracle.  Although some may be displeased, I'm happy that four of the seven included characters are female.  That gives the ladies of the house lots of character choices.

Each character is represented by a set of skills and powers on a small character card.  The more proficient a character is in a category, the higher the related die they get to roll.  For example, Jirelle the Swashbuckler has a d10 for dexterity-related dice-rolls, but only a d4 for intelligence-related dice rolls.  Character also have several special powers and, in addition, are represented by a deck of 15 cards: those cards are both the abilities, spells, weapon and equipment of the character, and also their health.  Once they run out of cards in their deck, they are dead.  Thus players must balance the benefit of using (and thus discarding) cards from their hand, against the risk of depleting their deck and perishing.  Collecting new cards, healing spells, and other rules allow you to recover cards, but death in SAS is serious business.  When you run out of cards in your deck, your character dies and you have to start a brand-new character.  Severe!

In a four-player game, each scenario is represented by a scenario card, and six adventure locations.  The adventure locations might be as intimate as six chambers in an underground complex, or as broad as six widely-dispersed islands on the high seas.  The scenario card provides overall backstory to the adventure and identifies the villain or objective, while each location card includes a stack of ten randomized cards, some of which are beneficial, while others are harmful or antagonistic.  Some ten-card locations might contain five spells.  Others might contain five treasures.  Still others might contain five antagonists or five allies.  Each location identifies the number of each kind of cards that are waiting to be discovered there, so the players know which location the Fighter might be best at, which the Sorceress should visit, and so on.  But there are other types of cards at each location, so there still some risk involved.

There is no Dungeon Master.  The players take turns sending their characters to various locations, with optional accompaniment from other party-members, and dealing with their resulting encounters.  When a character arrives at a location, they have the option to have an encounter (flipping the top card of the location deck face-up and following the instructions on the card).  Sometimes bringing your party members along is a good thing, while other times characters and the party benefit from someone attempting to face an encounter alone.  But each player has to take their own character's turn using their own abilities and own cards, with help (where permitted by the rules) from other characters.  That is, if it is my turn and I encounter a Troll, another player cannot fight the Troll, only I can fight it, even though other characters may assist.

A count-down timer, represented by a deck of 30 cards, propels the game forward.  During each player's turn, they flip over one of the cards in the count-down timer.  If you run out of timer cards before you complete your objective, the game ends and you fail the scenario.  Oddly, failing a scenario is less disastrous than dying.  If you fail the scenario due to exhausting the timer, you get to keep the beneficial items retrieved and replay the scenario; if you die, you lose all of your items and character upgrades and must start with a completely new character.  Those two outcomes hardly seem proportionate.  Hopefully Paizo fixes this rule before the next Base Set is released.

Successfully completing a scenario provides you with several rewards.  The first is that you get to keep the loot you personally collected during the scenario, with the following caveat: each character has a "deck-limit" size of 15 cards (more as you level up) and if you end up with more cards than your deck-limit, you must discard the remainder, or give them to your fellow players to augment their decks.  This is not as great a problem as it sounds, since much of the loot you acquire is better than your starting equipment, so discarding the obsolete items will be a minor discomfort.  The second reward is the ability to level up your character.  Each player's character card has checkboxes, and as you check a box as your scenario reward, your character becomes more powerful in some way.  The third reward, exclusive to Skull and Shackles, is booty in your ship's hold.  You will collect booty during your adventures on the high seas, and at the end of the scenario, any booty on your ship will be divided between the characters.  You can then take your new and improved character and attempt the next scenario.

If you are finding that you no longer have time to role-play, but still want that role-playing experience, the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is the game for you.  Each scenario takes less than two hours to play, does not need a Dungeon Master to move the story along, and since PACG is a cooperative rather than competitive game, it is easier to entice new players to the table.  The one downside is that in four-player games, the scenarios do follow a standard format of six adventure locations, which risks feeling a little samey.  But each of the ten introductory scenarios have different villains, objectives, monsters and treasure, so the scenarios themselves should help ameliorate that problem.

If you like overcoming obstacles, defeating monsters, collecting treasures, leveling your characters and enjoying a cooperative game, check out the Skull and Shackles Base Set for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.

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