March: 8 of 8

March was when we came home. Gone were the endless armies of midwives, the constant background noise from a dozen other babies, and the strange creaks and clunks of an ageing hospital.

Instead, we were back to just our little family at home – although our little family now included a tiny baby who doesn’t seem to think a lot of board games (or of sleeping, or being put down).

Once gain then, it was a very different month of gaming – there was still a fair amount of gaming happening, and a few more milestones reached, but with a definite shift.

8 of 8

7-Of-9
When I started drafting this article, I was on 7 of 9, which is somehow more satisfying…

Having reached 6 plays of 6 games in February, I was able to cross off the next level in March, with no fewer than 10 games making it up to 7 plays. By the end of the month, I’d gone even further, to 8 of 8.

Arkham Horror the card game was the first new game to cross the threshold this month. Arkham fits (just about) on the little folding table that goes in front of our sofa when our son is engaged in one of his mammoth feeds, so this was a relatively frequent appearance this month, being one of six games to tick past the “10 plays” marker. As an LCG, Arkham takes up more money than a lot of games, so it’s good to see it getting regular play.

Mummys-Mask-Card-Game-BoxPathfinder hadn’t really made it out of the box in 2017 prior to heading into hospital in February.

Once we were out though, I had the brand new Mummy’s Mask base set, set ready for reviewing (link will be added to the reviews section soon) – a return to form after a poor ending to the third set, this one leapt all the way up to ten plays in only a week or two. Lastly, the monthly Dice Masters meet-up rounded out the 8.

Aeon’s Beginning

aeons-end-card-game-boxI was also pleased that March saw Aeon’s End getting the table time it deserves, as I introduced it to my wife to generally positive feedback. After a victory in something roughly recreating the introductory scenario, we got thoroughly battered in most of our other games, but I still love the interactions, the decisions to be made, and the overall mechanics of the game.

There’s an expansion to this bubbling away on Kickstarter, and I must admit, I’m really torn: this type of marketplace game always thrives with more cards available, so getting this would seem like an obvious choice, but there are a few things about the project that I’m not thrilled by – I’ll talk more about that in a Kickstarter article I’ve got brewing elsewhere…

Turn of the Century: Zombicide

NecroAbom
Painting Zomnbicide has hit a bit of a backlog, so here’s a few older figures…

Due to its size (table space) and length (often 2-3 hours), Zombicide had fallen out of favour in February, and it only got 1 game in March. However, that single play was enough to take it not only to 10 sessions for the year, but 100 since we got it around this time last year. I’ve talked lots about Zombicide in the past, so I won’t wax lyrical any more today, but it’s still a fun choice when the baby allows.

Overall, I fell just short of having 9 plays of 9 games this month, but we’re definitely close, and I’m pretty confident that this year’s 10 of 10 will be done and dusted long before year end, probably by the summer – we already have over a dozen games played 6 times or more, and many of those will be looking to reach double figures soon.

 

Gathering Dust

Where March did see a big slow-down, was in games getting off of the unplayed list – with about 20 left to play, I’ll need to start giving this closer attention some time soon, as there’s only 1 or 2 I’d consider selling. Still, plenty of time left

 

What, How and How Much?

Investigators Book
I also picked up one of these recently – not a game, but a great tie-in product, and highly recommended to any Arkham Horror Files fan

In terms of theme and mechanic, March was something of a return to familiar ground. The thematic spread was fairly broad, with Lovecraft and Golarion being the biggest hitters, but there were significant appearances for Marvel, Tolkien, Zombies, Sherlock Holmes and a number of more generic settings

Cooperative was definitely the order of the day, with only a single game of Munchkin in the competitive column for most of the month, along with a scattering of Dice Masters and Zombie Dice as we reached the final days.

I sold a few more games in March, so gaming as a whole remains on a negative cost for the year. There are still some games which have dipped into the red in terms of value for money, with release schedules for Lord of the Rings and Arkham LCG getting ahead of us play-wise, and a rare re-stock for Mansions of Madness making me grab an expansion at a time when this rather lengthy game is struggling for table-time. As ever, I won’t be too worried, so long as I can drag things back on course long-term, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on those figures.

 

Looking forward

For the moment, it remains hard to guess how things will go over the coming months: predictability of nap times is a major factor in whether or not we can get games like Eldritch Horror back to the table any time soon, and feeds can take 20 minutes or 5 hours, which doesn’t exactly help with planning.

I hope that by the end of April, we will be back to something approaching a pattern, even if that’s a very different pattern to January and before. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get the chance to post a few proper articles, rather than just the monthly recaps…

Making the most of the Space

Typically, when you buy a board game, it comes in a box. If it didn’t, it would be fairly difficult to get it home, you’d probably lose things, etc, etc.

That said, there are boxes and there are boxes. Some games arrive in a box that is the perfect storage solution, whilst others are clearly not fit for purpose. Increasingly, I find myself building custom inserts for boxes, and thought I might offer a few thoughts in game boxes generally.

Vast, Cavernous and Empty

yahtzee
In opting for the “No box” approach, I may have lost one or 2 bits and pieces.

This was always the way games seemed to be done historically – If you think of a game like Yahtzee, it would typically come in a box the size of a couple of massive hardback novels, yet what you got inside was a pad of paper, 5 dice, some pencils, and a cup.

Given that the cup is superfluous, and most people already have pens or pencils at home, this could probably have been compressed substantially.

On the flip side, if you do despair of the massive box and chuck it, you may end up losing some of the components

dominiontray
That’s a lot of box for a few decks of cards and some metal tokens

Moving to move modern games, this is still a phenomenon we see regularly.

A Dominion set, or a new installment in the Legendary series will generally come in a large box, often with a plastic insert that looked like it could have been designed explicitly to fill out a box, and make it look like you were getting more than just a couple of decks of cards.

 

Expanding

machikoro Of course, one reason to have a big box is if the game is destined for lots of expansions. The instant I opened up Machi Koro for the first time, I could tell that they had expansions planned – the box insert is still blotting out about half of the available space in the box, but once you’ve added an expansion or two, at least the insert itself doesn’t look too empty.

When you do get expansion after expansion though, you need to decide at what point you start splitting or combining the sets. I’ve long-since ditched the box for Machi Koro’s Harbour expansion, which would potentially be an issue if I ever wanted to split them up  (for example to sell the expansion and keep the base game).

dominion-comparison
If I was still using the original boxes, I’d have another the size of the small box, and another 4 the size of the large one.

Beyond a certain point, it just gets silly. It’s actually been quite a few years since I ditched the boxes for my Dominion collection, but if I still had them, I’d be looking at 5 large boxes and 2 small ones by this stage – that’s pretty much an entire shelf on the gaming case.

Instead, I bought a really useful box – this holds all the cards, and 95% of what I need for any game (there are one of two other odds and ends, plus some unused duplicates that I keep in a lone small box.

No Room at the Inn

The other issue with expansions goes the other way: I have a very early copy of the Firefly Boardgame, one which came in a compact box that was absolutely rammed full of stuff- obviously, there is an insert here, but I don’t think I’d be saving much space if I took it out.

fireflybox The problem is, when I’ve looked at the possibility of getting expansions in the past, most of the smaller ones which caught my eye didn’t come in the sort of size/shape/solidity of box that I’d want to use for long-term storage. If I’d bought the later edition, with the longer box, I could probably have squashed them in, but instead I’ve left my Firefly collection without expansions beyond the original “Breaking Atmo” deck.

Looking for components in all the wrong spaces

Sometimes there are games which come in a box that’s plenty big enough for all the stuff you’ll need to fit in it, but the inset prevents you. This can be bad design on the part of the manufacturers, or it can simply be the result of a different design philosophy.

The Original

pathfinderoriginalplastic Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is the perfect example of this. Each version of the game comes with a very similar looking plastic insert, designed to hold the cards by type, with separate spaces for constructed character decks, and other slots for the various expansion adventures.

The space for the expansion boxes was always a bit annoying: once you actually crack open the later adventures and start playing them, the cards all go in with the others of that type. Putting the cards back in their boxes is something that would only be relevant if you were going back to the beginning of the AP and play through it again, and even then, it isn’t the only option available.

I’ve had 3 Pathfinder APs now, and have taken a slightly different approach to each of them.

Rise of the Runelords

pathfinderwood Rise of the Runelords was the first AP, and it had a few issues – for one thing, the factory who printed the cards seemed incapable of getting the colours right, and the company behind the game decided to switch to a new printer- this made for a lot more stability long-term, but in the short-term, it meant a shift mid-cycle to noticeably different card backs. The card-back issue meant that in certain scenarios, you could identify the henchman/villain simply from the card-back, which is the type of information that you are definitely not supposed to have access to.

In the end, I splashed out for this one, and bought a wooden custom box insert. Broken Token seem to be the market leaders in this area, but availability outside of North America is not great, so I got mine from another company (I forget now whether it was Amazon or Ebay). The wooden insert is really solid, and offers a nice amount of flexibility. The only issue is that the rows aren’t wide enough for the baggy-fit penny sleeves that I normally use, and to fit properly, you have to have the more expensive standard-quality sleeves: For Runelords I’d decided to get those sleeves anyway, to hide the differing print-runs, so it wasn’t too bad.

This is definitely one of the nicest-looking storage solutions for a game that I have. It’s also, undoubtedly the most expensive. I don’t begrudge the spending on the sleeves that much, as the cards would have been shredded by now, given how many times we’ve played this game, but it probably wasn’t the most efficient way forward.

Skull & Shackles

pathfindercustomfoamFor AP2, Skull and Shackles, I made my own insert – I had the whole path in penny sleeves, and wanted to keep the costs down. I also had a growing number of the class decks, which arrive in impractically wide and shallow boxes that I wasn’t keen to keep, to I was able to accommodate a few of these as well.

Obviously this lacks the elegance of the Runelords insert. However, I doubt it cost me any more than a fiver in materials: the base is heavy card (artists’ mountboard iirc) and the walls are foamboard. A few of the dimensions aren’t 100% ideal – I wish I’d allowed more space to mix in class-deck cards, but overall, this feels very functional and efficient.

Wrath of the Righteous

pathfindergenericfoam Lastly (so far) was AP3 – Wrath of the Righteous. As I’ve talked about a length elsewhere, we didn’t really get on with this path, and whilst it contains some cool stuff we wouldn’t want to lose, I certainly wasn’t in any mood to go shelling out loads of cash on the box. Fortunately, I had these trays which I’d originally used for Runelords, they are all foamboard, and were done without less of the precise measuring than employed for the later sets – this means that some compartments are a bit too big, and others are quite snug, but it generally works a fairly multi-purpose tray.

 

Other crafting

Aside from the Pathfinder inserts, I’ve made foamboard trays for a few other games – For Lord of the Rings LCG, these have typically been open boxes that are the sole storage for that bit of the game.

mansionsopen The most recent, and perhaps the most ambitious was for Mansions of Madness. I’d already done some customisation on the figures, painting them up, and putting them onto clear bases (an idea I nicked from a guy on BoardGameGeek, but I now needed somewhere to put them – stacking all the loose components and the miniatures on top of the tiles was tricky, and with expansions in the works, it was clearly all going to go wrong.

mansionslidI made a foamboard tray for the tiles, with a shelf to go on top and hold the miniatures. The end section was left for the cards and tokens, but I had an added problem that the Star Spawn figures are so tall that they wouldn’t fit inside the box if I made their shelf as high as it would need to be to hold all the tiles – I therefore ended up with a split-level insert.

Typically I make these inserts fairly plain and functional, but I still had the original box insert from FFG – a really nice piece of art, printed onto some strangely-folded cardboard that could have been designed for the sole purpose of making it harder to put things in the box. I cut a few bits to size, and stuck them to some slightly more solid card to cancel out the folds and flaps and (after a few mis-judged attempts, and a fair bit of trimming, it was done).

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with this- it certainly makes it a lot easier to store in the short-term. Long-term, a lot of the aesthetics will be lost, when I have to add in the extra-large tiles, but I decided that I’d rather have them lying on top than sacrifice the support underneath the large shelf – better have it look a bit plain than have it cave-in.

Overall thoughts

I don’t think that there is a perfect solution to the question of box sizes – make it too small and there’s no room in the box for expansions, make it too big and there’s no room on the shelf (or if you don’t bother with expansions). Build it to hold sleeved cards, and unsleeved ones will rattle around and fall out, make it for unsleeved, and sleeved cards won’t fit.

alhambrabig Overall, I think that between foamcore and Really Useful Boxes, there’s generally a solution to be had, typically at a fairly sensible price. Obviously I’d love to have enough money to put all my games in Broken Token style boxes, but I need to be realistic.

I’m just going to leave you all with a picture of the Alhambra Big Box, undoubtedly the best storage solution I’ve found that comes with the game itself. Of course, even that has its problems, as I’ll be talking about soon…

Going on an Adventure!

 

im-going-on-an-adventure When we first got into board games, a lot of what was being played seemed to be about building and controlling – lots of worker placement games. Settlers of Catan was about building cities and getting resources. Carcassonne was about control of the growing road and city networks of the area. Even Ticket to Ride was ultimately about getting control of the crucial Rail networks before anyone else could.

In recent times though, I feel like there’s been a bit of a shift. Certainly in terms of what gets played in our house and, I think in terms of what’s being made. Not that there aren’t worker-placement/area control games still being made, but the alternatives out there are growing in number and (generally) in quality.

The new fashion in games seems to be the Co-operative Adventure/Dungeon-Crawl game. Now, the instant I write those words, I’m aware that I have a problem. For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of agreement on what a Dungeon-Crawler is: you’d think that it would definitely involve going through a dungeon, but whether the most important element is finding loot, battling monsters, or a bit of both, is open to debate.

Just sitting down to make a list of all the Dungeon Crawlers and Co-Op Adventure Games out there proved an impossible task. I asked Board Game Geek for their suggestions, and got an incredibly broad range of responses, much more than I could put into a coherent article.

In the end, I decided that the easiest thing to do was to look at these sorts of games from a purely personal perspective – obviously your experiences may well be very different to mine, but hopefully it at least means that I can be clear on what I’m talking about.

 

Adventures

Mistfall First of all, the Co-operative adventure games. I think the definition here is fairly simple – it has to be cooperative, with the players working together against the game, and it has to be an adventure. The adventure aspect is the harder one to define, but generally we’re looking for a sense of narrative and progression, with a defined end-goal.

A lot of games out there are looking for the most points/gold/etc. after X rounds, or once someone builds their nth Y: those are not the sorts of games we are looking for in this exercise. A lot of the time, finding and defeating ‘the boss’ will be a common theme, but not exclusively. Quest-style objectives, exploring locations, delivering messages, or the good-old escort quest all work in this vein too.

The 2 true Big Beasts of gaming in our house over the past 3 years or so both fit squarely into this category: Lord of the Rings Living Card Game, and the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (the clue was in the name for this one) – I’ve talked a fair amount about these two elsewhere in the past, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here.

Our next big Adventure game looks like being Mistfall: Heart of the Mists. To an extent, this is me doing things the awkward way round, as this is a “standalone expansion” – playable by itself, but probably designed more as an add-on. I’m doing things backwards, simply because I won a Kickstarter copy of this. It’s a fully co-op game where your hero has a fixed deck that you can upgrade as you make your way through a randomised board set-up, fighting various monsters en-route to a final objective or showdown. If it turns out to be any good, we’ll probably end up going back for the original.

 

I think the biggest challenge for an adventure game is story – too often, especially if a game has lots and lots of expansions, the game complicates to a point where you lose track of the story. At the other extreme, if you’re making a game really story-heavy, it can lose its replayability value – certainly the thing which dissuaded me from getting Legends of Andor was a sense that we would all too quickly reach the point where we had completed all the quests enough times to not to bother again. Middara is a very striking game visually, that has caught my eye, and it looks incredibly thematic, immersive etc – but again, the element of concern was what I’d be left with once we’d played the campaign through once. In the end, I passed on this as I just didn’t have enough spare cash around.

Dungeon Crawl

Descent The Dungeon Crawl game is a type that’s fairly new to us, and I hadn’t really realised until very recently just how controversial the term was, or how difficult it is to pin down games in this area.

For one thing, if I’m thinking about getting a game for us to play at home, I’m still looking for that fully co-op experience. The difficulty with Dungeon Crawlers, is that often there’s a need for a Dungeon-Master to take charge of the monsters, meaning you only get a co-operative experience with a big group (1 versus many). These may well be good games, but I know from experience, they aren’t going to offer what we’re after.

As an aside here, it’s worth mentioning Descent, which seems to be a lot of people’s #1 pick for the best modern-day Dungeon Crawler, but which does require an “Overlord” to play the Monsters. On this basis alone, I’d never really considered it in the past. Recently though, Fantasy Flight have released an app which automates the monsters, and allows a fully coop experience: this has brought it back on to my radar, and lead to the genesis of a plan which looks something like “Next time I review something big that I don’t really enjoy, try to trade it for Descent.”

Dungeons

DungeonWorldIt’s also hard to discuss “Dungeon” games without running in to that biggest of beasts, Dungeons and Dragons. A lot of people who play Dungeon Crawlers have played D&D at some point and, inevitably, comparisons will be made. It’s virtually impossible to offer the breadth of options and thematic immersion in a 2-hour board-game that you can get from a pen & paper RPG masterminded by a sentient controller. As a result a lot of these games can feel like a trade-off between experience and time/resource investment.

Exploration is also a big concern for a lot of people: for them, a Dungeon Crawl should involve an ever-expanding board, where you move through and uncover things. In this situation, a static board feels to some like a lack of exploration opportunities.

For us, a Dungeon Crawler probably needs some kind of linear progression, although it doesn’t need to be randomised. I think Loot is also an important element, stuff we find just as we progress, and stuff we gain as a reward for beating some of the bigger baddies.

 

Current Favourites

massive-darkness-preview1 The Dungeon Crawler that’s occupying many hours of my attention right now is Massive Darkness. Coming from Guillotine Games and Cool Mini Or Not, the Team who brought us Zombicide: Black Plague, this is a game ‘based on the Zombicide engine” but with its own twists. There is a more linear nature to the game, as Heroes grow more powerful over the campaign, and the large “Wandering Monsters” don’t just carry loot items and weapons, but some of them will actually wield those against you.

The Kickstarter for this game wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, so we still only have fairly sparse information on how it’s going to work. A lot of people took issue with how much (or how little) depth the gameplay will have, but it definitely looks interesting, and I’ll take the plunge, although only for the base game and the Zombicide cross-over kit. (For an $8 add-on, you can use 15 Zombicide Survivors in Massive Darkness, use your Zombies as Monsters, and play the Massive Darkness heroes in Black Plague, which feels like a massive boost to game-play variety without taking up too much shelf-space). There are some fairly impressive add-ons available too (the Hellephant looks very cool, but will be available at retail once I’ve had a chance to check whether I actually like the game)

SuperdungeonBox I’ve also recently acquired Super Dungeon Explore, a game which feels like it can only be a Dungeon Crawler with a name like that. As we were looking for the co-op experience (“Arcade Mode” in SDE), we started with the Forgotten King box, meaning that we have a slightly unusual twist on aspects of the game, [it’s a stand-alone expansion, playable by itself, but it means that we have “expansion-y” things like forest tiles, but not tiles to represent an actual dungeon! (these came in the original box)].

The thing I really like about Super Dungeon explore is the way that killing monsters gets you loot- it’s a very direct correlation (draw a loot card for each monster you (collectively) killed this turn [max 3]).

Emerald Not all loot will be of the same standard / the same use to your particular character, but overall, you do get a good sense of powering-up as you go along. The basic game comes with a fairly limited set of monsters, but as I got the game in trade, swapping for a review game I hadn’t paid for, I didn’t mind spending a bit on a couple of expansions to get some more variety: the monster and hero options now feel fairly ample, although I’m undecided on whether I need more tiles. A “Legends” box which will introduce a campaign option is currently in the works, but I’m not sure on whether that is compatible with Arcade Mode, so it’ll be a case of keeping an eye out.

 

Pocket-Sized

PocketCrawls There are some truly massive games which exist in this genre, leading to an inevitable reaction as people lurch to the other extreme. In recent times I’ve come across a few attempts to create a pocket-sized Dungeon Crawler, something which has generally been done with rather… mixed success.

100 Swords is a bit of a mash-up: half dungeon-crawler, half deck-builder (ala Thunderstone, albeit greatly simplified). I reviewed this one for Games Quest, so I’ll let you go there for the full details, as a TLDR version, I’ll just say it’s an ok game, but it’s clearly limited by its size.

Side Quest is a rather more interesting offering – everything is still rather stripped down, as you’d expect from a game of this size, but you have some meaningful decisions to make, decent scaling for varied player-counts, a good sense of progression, and even a reasonable amount of theme coming through. The art is all stock-images, and aesthetically, this game is kind-of underwhelming, but it’s a pleasant enough way to pass half an hour.

One Deck Dungeon is another game in this wave: sadly, the realities of real-world economics meant that backing this game on Kickstarter outside North America would have meant paying almost double the RRP by the time postage has been factored in – I gave it a miss on that basis, but will keep an eye out for a retail appearance.

 

The Future

Middara The next year or so looks like being a veritable golden age for Co-operative Adventures /Dungeon Crawlers and although I’ve not had a chance to play any of them, there are a whole list of things in the near future: the two that particularly caught my attention were Sword and Sorcery and Midarra, both of which looked tempting for trying to get in on a very late KS pledge, although I ultimately decided to stick with Massive Darkness, and didn’t have the cash for others. Beyond that, there’s Darklight: Memento Mori, Masmorra, Gloomhaven, Gloom of Kilforth, Aeon’s End, Fires of Eidolon, and Folklore: The Affliction, all due out within the next 12 months, none of which I’m likely to be able to afford, but any or all of which I’ll happily review if I can get my hands on a copy.

Just to pre-empt the spammers, yes I have heard of Dungeon Crusade. No, I’m not interested in backing it on Kickstarter (maybe it’ll hit retail and be amazing, but right now it just looks like a confusing mess).

This article has been a bit vague, a bit of an overview. Hopefully I’ll be able to get into some more specifics in future, but I wanted to set the scene first.

I’d be interested to know what games other people out there are playing in this area. Are there any I’ve missed out that you’d recommend?

Review: Wrath of the Righteous Adventure Deck 6: City of Locusts

The Good, The Bad and the Abysmal… sorry, Abyssal.

This review could just as easily have been called “The adventure that killed Pathfinder” – we’re big fans of Pathfinder in our house. We picked up Rise of the Runelords in April 2014, and have now played it all the way through with 4 or 5 different groups of characters. Likewise, Skull & Shackles with 2 different groups, and once through Season of the Shackles.

Altogether in 2015, we played 265 games of Pathfinder. When a new adventure came out, we’d typically finish it inside a week with the first group, then return a week or two later to take the second part through it in a similar time-frame.

Up until adventure 6, that is.

Deskari
Maybe we’ll just leave you alone for now…

We began playing adventure 6 at the beginning of November. It was the best part of 2 months later, after 14 play-throughs, that we finally staggered over the finish line with our first party. We had no interest in attempting the bonus scenario, and the Wrath box went back on the shelf, with no desire to open it again for a month or two (until I needed to take pictures for this article).

I have a lot of respect for the designers of Pathfinder. I’ve seen glimpses of their hard-work, and never played a board / card game where the designers engage with players to the same degree. I still look forward to when my Kickstarter edition of Apocrypha arrives later in the year, and I’m still buying all the class decks, but this pack ended this particular path on a sour note.

The Good

Miracle Before I go too far in to all the negatives, it’s worth acknowledging some of the great stuff which did come in this Adventure pack – for spell-casters in particular, there were some real mind-blowers. “Miracle” lived up to its name and offered a completely unprecedented level of flexibility, and although we never managed to pull-off the combo with “Time Stop” this was definitely a well-appreciated shot in the arm.

Dire Griffon For Alain, the Dire Griffon was a welcome upgrade from the Warhorses that he had been relying on since adventure 2, and offered him the power to crush most things in combat [well, it would if he had managed to get one before the end-of-AP-deck-rebuild, but we can still appreciate the sentiment]

Nocticula
Very much the “Game of Thrones” of Pathfinder cards – you win, or you die…

There were also some cards which I liked from a flavour angle – ally Nocticula felt like she did a particularly good job of encapsulating all that Wrath was supposed to be about – a character who was functionally the villain two Adventures ago is now an ally. The effect is suitably ridiculous to make it unplayable most of the time, but Alain managed to get hold of her and use her on the last-ever combat check to win the scenario.

The Bad

Unfortunately however, the “bad” side of things was the dominating element in this adventure, and for a lot of the time, it sucked the fun out of the good things.

Armies First up, we had Armies again. The Army was a nice concept – something to counter the ability of big groups to hammer henchmen and villains by hoarding boons and using them all at the key moment. The trouble is though, that the maths just doesn’t work, particularly with a group of 6. As a group of 6, you will already be pushed for time, and need to burn more allies and blessings on exploration than a smaller group. At that point, moving from 7 to 42 checks to defeat Henchmen is a virtually unbearable burden – add to that the fact that the Army Henchmen have exactly 6 checks to defeat, several of them in skills which are not possessed by all characters (and realistically, you don’t just need to be good at this skill, you probably need to be mythic), and the result is a mess.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m not a fan of when games seem to offer a wide range of options, but are in fact only possible with a narrow, “optimum” set. For the sake of clarity, I feel then, that I should offer a bit of clarification on the party we took to this adventure. With Alain, Balazaar, Kyra, Adowyn, Shardra and Crowe, we had a spread of strength and dexterity based fighters, as well as both Arcane and Divine spell-casters. We had the exploration power of Alain (whose errata we are ignoring for home play), scouting and some limited evasion from Ygritte… Sorry, “Adowyn” and, in Kyra, we have a character who can use her character power to get around one of the skills which we lack as a group (at least for the army that is undead).

Adowygritte
You know, the red-head with the bow and arrow, usually seen hanging around with a wolf and a Crow(e)…

This particular adventure has multiple different army banes, but the basic bottleneck of too many checks for big parties remains the same. Having spent A LOT of time head-butting an army-shaped wall earlier in the campaign, we decided fairly swiftly that we would switch to 2 parties of 3 and hope to force our way through separately. This is still a big disappointment (If a game says 1-6 on the box, it should be fully playable with 1 to 6, not 2-4), but at least we were prepared enough for it that we didn’t waste too much time on pointless run-throughs.

Whilst the Abyssal Army is the poster-child for the painful difficulties of this adventure, it isn’t the sole culprit. Even without the brutal nature of the individual henchmen, several of these scenarios have other bits of foulness which are less than fun.

Terendelev Possibly even more annoying than the armies (quite a claim, I know) is Ravener Terendelev. That dragon who died in Adventure 1, and whose scales you carted around for a while until you decided they were kind of pointless, is now back- he’s undead now, and more to the point, he’s going to harass everyone at your location, stripping away those mythic charges just at the point when you really need them (for that endless series of big henchman checks). The inability to evade on all of the most irksome banes in this set just puts a mockery on any time or effort you’ve invested in evasion.

All the way up to … 12?

As I’ve mentioned before this adventure path seems, very consciously, to have pushed all the dials up to 11. The checks are bigger, and you get more feats, and more things to do with them all.

BalazarPower
Oh good, more power-feats: I really wanted a hand-size of 9, so I could die more quickly…

The trouble with this – much like when I’ve played fan-crafted “Adventure 7s” for earlier APs, is that you reach a point of diminishing returns. By the time you reach the scenario that offers you “X Power Feats” based on the number of times you’ve fought the villain, chances are that you don’t particularly want any more power feats – at best, these are simply the less interesting options that had been left until last, and at worst (Balazaar), they are steps to an even bigger hand-size which just seems to be inviting death. Indeed, if you face the villain more than a couple of times, you could potentially end up with all the power feats checked for your character, and no boxes left to put your final tick(s) in.

The Verdict

Pathfinder has (broadly) been getting harder for a while. Whilst there were points where the characters got a little way ahead of the locations, Wrath has generally been the hardest of the 3 paths released to date, particularly for large groups.

Vorpal
I was also disappointed that this didn’t have the flavour text “snicker-snack” but now I’m just being picky…

None of that was a surprise, and whilst I don’t mind “easy” nearly as much as some out there do, I would have coped if it was just hard. The problem with this adventure was that for most of the time, it didn’t feel fun – something which had only ever been the case in very isolated scenarios up until now.

To an extent, writing a review of adventure 6 of 6 in an AP is a slightly pointless exercise – if you’ve got this far, chances are that you’ll get this anyway, and that you’ll play it until completion, because that’s how you finish. Just don’t expect it to be as much fun as the Pathfinder you’re used to playing.

Review: Wrath of the Righteous Adventure Deck 5: Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth

The Good The Bad and the Herald

Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth is the 5th adventure in the Wrath of the Righteous Adventure Path, and it offers some interesting changes of pace from the previous scenarios. Where adventure 4 was sometimes a bit unclear on the narrative details, adventure 5 presents the players with a far more explicit statement of their task.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

In this adventure, players begin by seeking an audience with the Lady of Valour, an avatar of the goddess Iomedae herself – having convinced her of their worthiness, they must then venture into the Ivory Labyrinth, the fiendish maze which gives the adventures its name. Within the Labyrinth, the heroes must make their way through numerous confusing networks of locations and twisting passages, in order to rescue Imoedae’s former herald who has been imprisoned in the maze by Baphomet, and driven mad by the torture to which he has been subjected. From the outset then, it’s a clear mission, and one which most characters can get behind with few qualms.

ElementalBombardment The general level of shiny things for the players in this adventure is pretty good: There are some interesting new weapons, and some brilliant combat spells. Given that we still have several characters wandering around with only Divine + 2d4, the prospect of “1d6+1 for each of your mythic charges” is very exciting. There are also new armours with uses outside of damage reduction, and a few scattered items with good potential. The new blessings are a bit of a let-down: there are two, both corrupted, and the Blessing of Sifkesh in particular offers a very strong draw-back for a not-very-powerful-effect.

DSC01129
The effect is powerful, but that’s a lot of irritating henchmen to get there…

The allies in adventure 5 take things in an interesting new direction – lots of unique characters with a “none” in the check to acquire box. Typically, these require you to pay a high price, such as adding monsters to all locations, milling out the blessings deck, and fighting the oh-so-irritating Vescavor swarm, but in return, you can gain bonus Mythic charges, search a location for the villain, or permanently close a location without needing to empty it / find the henchman.

The Good

Theme – Worthiness

RiteObviously, the designers had this adventure wrapped up months before adventure 4 went on general release, so we can’t claim any responsibility for the change, but after a lot of thematic misses in adventure 4, it feels like they got this one spot-on. The first adventure is low on combat and banes, with the primary focus being on proving worthiness to Iomedae, first by passing her rites of heraldry, and then by confronting the lady herself. Touches like the requirement to have no corrupted cards in hand when confronting the henchmen fill this out nicely.

Getting Lost in the Sights

Tapestry For the later scenarios, the sense of being lost in a labyrinth is also well-captured: Two locations regularly redirect you elsewhere, Blackburgh requires you to summon and build the maze, and various random movement effects give the lingering possibility that you could wind up in the Middle of Nowhere, a location with little purpose at all besides slowing you down, and representing the fact that you’ve got lost. The generic banes for this set also tie in to this theme – the Maze tapestry is an irksome barrier which sees you summon and build the location maze, whilst failure against the corruption demon will get you packed off to the Middle of Nowhere.

Progression

In a recent article from the designers on the Paizo blog, they talked about how they wanted characters to be able to feel a real sense of progression by the time they reach adventure 6, and that’s something I’ll think about in more detail when I get there.

How the mighty have fallen
How the mighty have fallen

Already, in adventure five though, there are elements of this creeping in, and I think that it’s best shown up in what happens at the end of the adventure, when the players have the option to fight an additional villain – Baphomet himself, no less! This can also be seen in rather less obvious touches, like some of the adventure 5 allies – one of whom is a Runelord! From end-of-AP-villain in the first Path, to coincidental ally in the third.

And the party’s reward for successfully completing the various tasks before them includes the option to take a new mythic path entirely, representing the favour of Iomedae, and allowing them to add their mythic charge bonus to 3 skills instead of 2 – an absolute (and literal) god-send for Seelah the Hierophant, who finally has mythic combat power.

Paths

The Bad

Obviously, no game is perfect, and there are still issues with this adventure. One thing that stands out in the first scenario, to beat an old drum, is the question of scaling. I don’t want to spend too long on this, particularly as it will become a major theme again when I post the review for adventure 6, but I still think it’s worth considering one specific case in some detail.

In the first scenario, as described, the players must confront the Lady of Valour, and prove their worthiness: this comes in the form of a villain shuffled into the Blessings deck, and a random character having to encounter her. She is a check of 20, made on a choice of 4 skills, all of them secondary, and none of them combat (melee, divine, fortitude, diplomacy) – that’s perhaps a little on the low-side for adventure 5, but the random element, coupled with the chance that it will be a character who lacks the relevant skills and can only roll d4s go some way towards balancing it out.

LadyOfValor All of which is fine, until you spot the extra line which notes that “the difficulty of the check is increased by ten times the number of characters” – so, just to spell that out, that means a check of 80 for our 6 party group. The fact that the villain is in the blessings deck, rather than a location deck, means that there is no way to wait things out and run-down the clock, so repeated failed checks could easily lead to a total party kill – d10 irreducible force damage to each character after a failed attempt is definitely not nice.

We eventually got lucky, with Balazar encountering her at a point when Kyra had 3 Blessings of Iomedae in hand, and he had taken a power feat to allow himself to use his strength (and therefore his pet chicken) for Fortitude checks, but if the shuffle hadn’t made our third encounter with the Lady the final turn of the game, it could have all ended very badly.

Whilst the cautious side of me doesn’t really like the “Villain in the Blessings deck” mechanic – it’s a little bit too do-or-die – I can appreciate what they’re trying to do: I just think that a higher base value for the check, with a smaller degree of scaling would be helpful (i.e. a check of 40 with the difficulty increased by 5x the number of characters).

Get Lost

This place is, quite literally, a waste of time...
This place is, quite literally, a waste of time…

The other major draw-back to this adventure, ironically, comes straight out of one of the strongest aspects. As I said above, this adventure does a really good job at capturing the sense of being stuck in a labyrinth. The trouble is, nobody likes being stuck in a labyrinth. Card effects which move you to random locations, scenario effects which move random locations to you, and summon-and-build effects which can move you upto ten locations in total all make for a long and tortuous process.

This is just too many locations, notwithstanding the not-so-deliberate-mistake you might be able to spot...
This is just too many locations, notwithstanding the not-so-deliberate-mistake you might be able to spot…

For me, the undoubted low-point of the adventure was scenario 3, which features all of these things. The biggest problem with this scenario, is the sheet amount of dumb luck involved: you can explore quickly, pass all your checks, and still run out of time due to (literally) going round and round in circles.

Despite this being a brilliant thematic scenario overall, there are one or two oddities which linger – most puzzling for me were the blessings of Baphomet, which can not only continue to be used after you have fought and killed Baphomet, but can actually be used against their bestower. Let me know if you can explain that one…

The Verdict

A thematic return-to-form, this adventure does a good job of continuing the mythic level of quests you send your characters on, and offers some fun toys to help you with it, whilst dialling back slightly on the crazy bane abilities from adventure four.

That said, this is an adventure through a Labyrinth, and you can expect to get lost. Probably more than once: to begin with, this might just feel fun and thematic, but don’t be surprised if it starts to get old pretty quickly.

Pathfinder ACG – Multi-Classing

If you’ve played through more than a few scenarios of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, trying to use only cards from a class deck box, the chances are you will have encountered frustration. Particularly in the first wave of seven class decks, the card pool was stretched thin trying to cater to the needs of 4 different characters, and there was often a major short-fall in cards of the appropriate type.

To take an example, a wizard, using only the wizard class deck starts off in a good position, with attack spells available at base-set level, which offer him his arcane +2d4. In adventure 1, there are a pair of 2d6 spells, and another in adventure 2, but after that, everything goes quiet. In adventure 4 (and realistically the first few scenarios of adventure five at least) the 2d6 spells are still the best available, and given the poor selection of weapons for wizards (not to mention their lack of competence in using the things), if he wants more than 3 spells, he’ll have to fall back to the D4s.

Prompted by concerns like there, there has been much talk of multi-classing – finding a way of accessing better cards which exist in other class decks.

(Disclaimer: I only play the ACG, I have never played an RPG, Pathfinder or otherwise, so my use of the term “multi-classing” may be jarring/mis-used to RPG-ers. Apologies if so.)

Multiclassing: Prototype Rules

If a character has a role-card, she may choose to Multi-class

  • In order to multi-class, after successfully completing a scenario, a character may forfeit the deck upgrade to unlock 1 type of card (weapon, spell etc) from one class deck (Ranger, Fighter etc).
    • Each character may only unlock 1 other class deck for multi-classing. (Exception, if your character is a Bard, you may multi-class from 2 decks)
    • Each character may only unlock 1 card type from their chosen secondary class per adventure.
  • When taking a deck upgrade from an unlocked deck, treat the acquired card as if its adventure deck number was 1 lower than printed.
  • If a player has insufficient cards of a given type, they can only fill the gaps from their own deck- there is no circumstance under which a player may take multiple cards from their secondary deck after a single scenario.
  • Only characters with the divine skill may multi-class for Blessings, and they may not select set B blessings if they do so.

Example:

DaragoBoltDarago completes 4-1 successfully. Instead of upgrading his deck, he opts to multi-class, and choses “Bard: Spell.” He then plays 4-2, and acquires a spell with adventure deck number 4. When upgrading his deck, he may take a spell of adventure 4 or lower from his own deck, OR a spell of adventure 3 or lower from the bard deck.

During scenario 4-3, Darago has several cards banished from his hand, and is missing two spells at the end of the scenario. No-one else in the party has acquired a spell. He must there rebuild his deck using the standard rules, from the Wizard deck only.

After successfully completing 5-1, instead of taking a deck upgrade, Darago could unlock another type of card. As he has already chosen “bard” as his secondary class, it would have to be another card-type from the bard deck. As he does not have the divine skill, this card-type could not be “Blessing.”

 

Rationale

I added the restriction on Blessings, because I felt this was an area where it would be very easy to significantly skew the composition of a player deck. Most Class decks will limit you to 2 or 3 blessings of a given deity without using upgrades of higher adventure deck numbers- however, the right multi-class option could allow you to trade in pretty much any blessing to get a full set of your deity of choice, potentially game-breaking if you have a power that allows you recharge this blessing rather than discarding them.

I put in the restriction of 1 class per character to stop people just cherry-picking the best spells from everywhere, likewise, the one card-set per adventure means people can’t just unlock anything everything whenever there’s no upgrade worth taking. The relaxation of this requirement for Bards was based on a note I found on an online article about RPG multi-classing.

Evidently, this approach is designed specifically for characters who already have an existing class-deck. Other characters, which are already a hybrid class, such as the Magus present a different challenge – it’s hard to think of an approach which would save Seltyiel from being hideously underpowered in terms of either spells or weapons for much of the AP.

Play-testing

DSC01057 In terms of a test, I’ve taken a group that my wife and I have been playing. We have 4 characters: Zarlova and Flenta for me, Wu Shen and Darago for her.

We’re taking this group through Rise of the Runelords, using a modified version of the OP deck-upgrade rules – we start with the default class-deck approach, of only cards from that pool, and only 1 upgrade per scenario, based on a card type and adventure number. However, we do allow ourselves Loot (as and when awarded for scenario/adventure completion) as well as a few Promo cards (currently I think we have Poog and a Horsechopper +1), which we’ve allowed characters to keep in their decks.

We’re also using the OP-style rules of purging all the basics (boons and banes) at the start of adventure 3 [except Blessings of the gods which we remove as we banish them], and all the elites at the start of adventure 5.

Despite the generally low-level of difficulty in Runelords, this is a group that showcases some of the biggest difficulties of the Class-Deck system.

Zarlova (Theurge) is queen of the Divine attack spells, but as she’s unwilling to use Inflict (because really, what’s the point in adventure 4) she is stuck with a single Holy Light and a single Fireblade – making it much more likely that she starts with a support spell in her opening hand instead: she has no weapons.

FlentaDark Flenta (Arcane Pretender) is just Flenta, she spends most of her time looking confused. Her weapons are not great, although this is largely due to failing to acquire cards to upgrade with, rather than her class deck per se. In keeping with her Arcane Pretender role, she has scattered skill feats here and there (one on her intelligence, one on her charisma, and two on strength).

Wu Shen (Prey Stalker) really likes finesse weapons. This is why she is still using a rapier and a cutlass in AP4. On a good day she draws the acidic whip +1, and there is a disrupting rapier in her own deck that would make life easier, but she would still be left with one basic weapon if sticking to “finesse.” The latter half of Runelords is actually a little less problematic for her, as there are fewer undead enemies to worry about, which means that she can make use of her poisonous bag of tricks.

Darago (Necromancer) would like some attack spells which aren’t 2d4. He has a couple, but they are the minority. Darago’s combat options are a little confusing: he starts the game with two weapons, but armed combat is a bad idea with D4 strength, D6 dexterity, and no proficiency.

Over the first three scenarios of adventure 4, Darago chose to Multi-class spells from the Bard deck, Zarlova took Spells from the Ranger deck, and Wu Shen took Weapons from the Ranger deck. After unlocking the spell options, they didn’t pick up anything better than a spell 2, which was one level too low to take a spell-2 from the multi-classed deck. (we spotted later on that Zarlova could have taken an extra Holy Light, although the “fire” trait on the Fireblade was handy.)

Flenta picked up a weapon 4, and was able to replace a Greatclub with a Greatclub +3 – good news for her, less so for the spectre she’d been batting around the guard tower, unable to shift due to the lack of magic. She has yet to multi-class.

Blazes
Not really sure what the logic is behind the 2-adventure difference

As already noted, we’re following the OP-style approaching of purging basics and elites en masse, so at the start of adventure 5, there was a sudden jump in the cards we were encountering (and therefore able to acquire). Even with some disappointing failures, we came out of 5-1 with a spell 4 and a spell 5 – Darago was able to take his own Icy Prison, and Zarlova took the Divine Blaze from the Ranger Deck, where its adventure number was 2 lower than in her own! This meant that when she picked up another spell 5, she was able to ensure that she now has 2 Divine Blazes in her deck.

A few more games later, this group has completed Rise of the Runelords in its entirety. Flenta never did take a multi-class option, and Wu Shen never managed to pick up enough weapons to benefit from drawing something from the ranger deck, but Zarlova and Darago definitely benefitted from the wider pool of spells available, taking 2 or 3 apiece.

Review

Overall then, I think it’s clear that Multi-classing has enabled the characters to have better decks than before. This is good – it was the entire point of the exercise. I also don’t feel it’s made them massively overpowered. Zarlova may have 2 copies of a powerful spell instead of 1, but she was also still carrying around a Fireblade and trying to use it to take down adventure 5 monsters. (She eventually ditched the Fireblade for a second Holy Light, after getting herself into some tricky situations in a scenario where the henchmen (and the villain, who we fought 3 times) were immune to fire.

I think the restriction I threw in (almost without thinking) that characters couldn’t take cards from the multi-classed deck when filling gaps (either due to banishing cards, or to taking card feats) had a much bigger impact than I anticipated. The ability to simply take a card from 2 decks below in 5 or 6 is a very significant one – I think a case could definitely be argued for letting people do the same with multi-classed cards (potentially at adventure -3 instead of -2) if the system proposed above was considered under-powered.

Zarlova I also found it interesting how this influenced my decisions on power feats- I had already given Zarlova +2 to acquire and recharge spells, and had been intending to take +2 to arcane combat checks when I was still limping around with all the set Bs. Now, however, I’ve decided to up the recharge boost to +4, as failing to recharge Divine Blaze (14 on D10+9 is only just above 50/50).

In some ways, I was already limited in my feat choices by the class deck – Zarlova does have the option to gain the Arcane skill, and put recharged arcane spells on top of her deck too, but I never really considered these options, due to the complete lack of arcane spells in the cleric deck (& the fact that we had a wizard in the party) – this approach to multi-classing seems to offer an option for people wanting to explore the full range of directions in which characters can be taken.

Overall, I think for Runelords, we could probably have survived without the multi-classing upgrades, but it certainly helped remove some of the frustration of never being able to go beyond the basic cards (or even of a full-caster with a hand-size of seven and only 2 attack-spells) but for other Adventure Paths where the difficulty level is more challenging, I think this is probably the sort of tweak necessary to make things manageable.

Feedback

As I hope is clear from above, this is purely something I’ve dreamt up myself, drawing inspiration from message-boards and the internet, but without any input from other PACG players, aside from my wife. For that reason, I’d be interested to know other people’s thoughts – have you tried anything along these lines, and how have you found it played out in practice? Obviously I’d be particularly happy if someone else wanted to do a bit more play-testing of the rules I’ve created here.

When is hard too hard? and what should be done about it?

How hard can it be?

Not, surprisingly, a rhetorical question.

Ever since the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game was launched, there seems to have been an ongoing discussion about the difficulty of the game.

The first Adventure Path, Rise of the Runelords, was fairly generic fantasy in theme and – in the view of many – too easy. As the players scaled up through the six adventures, not all of the monsters they had to face scaled with them: defeating a bandit who has a combat check of 8 might be risky when you’re rolling D10 + D6 + 2, but once you’re rolling 2D10 + 6, the jeopardy has entirely gone.

The shark starts out at +1, and just keeps getting stronger
The shark starts out at +1, and just keeps getting stronger

Difficult was what the people asked for, and difficult was what the people got. The second AP, Skull & Shackles, sent players on a Pirate-themed set of adventures, and it was immediately noticeable how things scaled – instead of simply having a generic couple of henchman who cropped up all over the place and were quickly outpaced, the players were faced with cards like the Hammerhead shark, who could not be evaded, and whose combat check scaled with the adventure deck number.

Changes like that were probably needed – other things, like the increased focus on barriers, and the need to ensure that your characters could deal with a wider selection of checks that simply their prime combat stat also added to the decision-making required by players, and the overall longevity of the game.

This growth in difficulty wasn’t universally well received. On top of the boosting of the standard level of bane difficulty, there were also an ever-growing band of locations with nasty effects, and some truly hideous henchman / villain / scenario powers, that at times it just felt like a perfect storm of hideousness, devised solely to see just how hard a scenario could be made, without reference to theme (Best Served Cold – I’m looking at you).

Moving on to the Third AP, Wrath of the Righteous, it looked to those cracking open their base set as if the difficulty had been taken up another sizeable notch. The introductory adventure blighted players with hideous swarm-summoning barriers, combat-13 monsters that were immune to spells, and a Tree that dealt you 2 damage (2 lots of 1 damage in fact, to stop you fending it off with armour) even if you did manage to survive the combat 13.

Adventure 1, by contrast, was remarkably easy- so much so, in fact, that there were many suggestions – including from official sources – that the level B adventure was best handled by a group that had successfully completed Adventure 1 already.

Adventure 2 brought armies: Banes that had to be defeated by each character, with a fixed list of 6 different checks to defeat them, and no repetition of checks allowed – not too tricky with small groups, but thoroughly hideous for parties of 6. Add to this a scenario where the locations had to be explored in a linear sequence, and cards from the closed location were shuffled into the next rather than banished, and the 6-player experience reached a point not too dissimilar to repeatedly head-butting a wall. Having previously completed 6 complete run-throughs of an Adventure Path / Season, our group were forced to split the party for only the second time ever, in order to get through this one.

After adventure 2, the difficulty seemed to calm down, and 3 and 4 were at a less crushing level. By adventure 4 though, the question of difficulty was being raised once more, and the “too easy” crowd had one character firmly in their sights.

Alain

Alain Alain is a Cavalier who, as we were told many months back, comes to the PACG with “a shocking lack of tragedy in hid backstory.” A charismatic melee fighter always accompanied by his trusty horse Donahan, and capable of crushing most monsters from horseback.

Alain starts with a strength dice of D10 and +2 for melee, and the chances are that you’ll be putting the first few skill feats into his strength too. At the end of adventure 1, you get to choose a Mythic Path for Alain, and in all probability, that will mean a further boost to Alain’s strength checks – probably a static +N (where N is the current adventure deck number) with the option to toss in the occasional D20.

Wrath of the Righteous has introduced a new-subtype of cards, those with the mount trait, and Alain is the prime exponent of the mount: if you have a Lance (or one of its upgraded cousins), then you can reveal a mount on the first exploration (*combat?) of the turn to add an additional dice. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you want Alain equipped with as many lance-style weapons as possible.

You get the idea...
You get the idea…

By the start of Adventure 4 then, chances are that with even the most basic weapon in hand, Alain starts his combat check at +10, and with a lance and a horse, that’s more likely to be +12, rolling 3 dice. There is no denying that this is powerful – after all, who wouldn’t want a floor of 12 on their combat checks?

Alain has generated a lot of discussion on the message-boards concerning his power level, not solely based on his combat, but also on some of his exploration powers, particularly those which come with his role card.

If you take Alain’s “Lancer” role, you gain the option to recharge a card from your hand to search your deck or discard pile for a “mount” card. This has various possible uses: for one thing, you can use a mount to take an exploration, then recharge a card to fetch it back. Furthermore, if you have to take damage, any time that you discard a mount for that damage, you can “heal” it back by recharging a card to retrieve the mount. There have been a lot of comments which suggest that this feat is over-powered, and these criticisms broadly fall into 2 groups – the idea that the Blessings deck (the game’s timer mechanism) is rendered obsolete, and the idea that this “healing” ability makes damage irrelevant.

Explore, Explore and Explore Again

Warhorse Those who believe that Alain renders the Blessings deck irrelevant present a fairly simple scenario which allows Alain to clear a single location on his turn: the idea is that you explore once for free, then discard a mount to go again (ideally a warhorse, which allows you to treat combats that turn as the first of the turn). You then pull the mount back to hand by recharging a card, and repeat infinitely.

As simple as this may seem, there are, of course, a number of problems to this. First of all, you need cards to recharge for this ability. If you’ve put 2 feats into his hand size (not massively unlikely, but certainly not a given), Alain can start his turn with 6 cards (assuming he hasn’t had to use any to fight off hordes of demons of bless his companions during other characters’ turns). One of these needs to be a weapon. Given the amount of damage in Wrath, one probably needs to be an armour. 2 need to be mounts (Donahan + an exploring ally). That’s 2 cards in hand that you can use to fetch your horse back – 4 explorations.

Obviously, any cards you pick up during your turn are potential extra explorations, and the “Alain is too powerful” camp argue that Alain can acquire anything and everything he comes across, but again, I’d want to look at that in more detail.

First up, what is Alain doing? As noted above, he’s very good at riding around on horses and hitting baddies with a big stick – chance are, then, that you want him in the locations that contain lots of baddies for him to hit, and not being a “Mancer” he isn’t going to be picking up any of those monsters.

Boon-wise, you might hope he’s on better ground: strength-based weapons are certainly ideal for him to acquire, and with D8 charisma +3 diplomacy, humanoid allies are a good bet too. On the flip-side though, he has d4 dexterity, d6 wisdom and d6 intelligence, so you can’t bank on him acquiring any dexterity-based weapons, any wisdom-based allies, or any spells.

All of this of course, is also based on the assumption that you don’t need to expend any blessings or other cards during your exploration – Alain’s dismal lack of dexterity and mediocre wisdom make him very vulnerable to barriers. In adventure 4, if you run into the servitor demon, you’ll need to pass a Constitution check to be able to use a weapon, and that’s likely to cost you a blessing at least. It also doesn’t factor in the issue already raised that there are still plenty of cards out there which can force characters to make additional checks / take damage during other characters turns.

Lastly, whilst Alain’s combat stats are clearly very good, he’s not indestructible and there are still a significant number of monsters whose check is above the average total he will be rolling, in which case you’ll either be expending blessings, using Donahan to get an extra boost (in which case you’ll need to use a card to fetch him back), or taking damage. All of these are actions which will reduce the number of cards available for extra explorations

There is another power that Lancer Alain can take, which allows him to move mid-turn and examine the top card of another location.  This means that if you are somehow pulling off the infinite explorations trick, for another power feat, you need no longer be bound by geography, and can go through all the locations, instead of just one. However, for the reasons noted above, I just don’t buy the idea of infinite explorations, so I’m not going to dwell on this in too much detail.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Other mounts are available
Other mounts are available

The other point about Alain negating a key element of the game, is the idea that he becomes essentially indestructible as he just discards horses for damage. As has been noted though, a lot of the ways of doing this are actually not allowed within the timing rules of the game – specifically, you can’t trigger an ability (such as “recharge a card to fetch a mount”) during a stage of an encounter that it doesn’t relate to. In other words, if you are dealt 3 damage during an encounter, and want to discard 3 mounts for that damage, then you needed to have 3 mounts in hand before the encounter.

This, as people have noted is probably one of the least understood / adhered-to elements of the game – the restrictions on when exactly players can or can’t play cards. Some of the time we may be fully aware that we are relaxing things to make life easier for ourselves, some people may be unaware, but either way, it doesn’t seem worthwhile spending too much time on a “game-breaking” situation which only arises if a player a.) isn’t following the rules accurately, or b.) is prepared to go around with a hand containing nothing but horses.

There's more than one way to generate extra explorations...
There’s more than one way to generate extra explorations…

Overall then, despite most of the concerns people have been citing, I don’t feel that Alain is overpowered. I would say that 3 or 4 explorations per turn seems about average for an Alain, certainly not too shabby, but something which feels much more like a necessary corrective to the general difficulty of Wrath, where allies and blessings need to be poured into checks rather than saved for exploring. In a six-player game, you have to generate extra explorations from somewhere (80 cards to potentially encounter, 30 turns to do it in), and Alain seems like one of a set of legitimate ways of doing this (other possibilities include Imrijka or Ranzak taking bonus explorations, characters like Damiel exploring aggressively then cycling healing potions and tot-flasks or, or even something as simple as a scrying ability which moves all the boons out of the way to get to the henchman quicker).

The point has been made that whilst a 6-character party has more cards to get through, it also has more resources with which to do so. This is a tricky one. Obviously, in terms of basic numbers, a 6-character party will have (roughly) twice as many cards in hand as a 3-character party (depending on choice of character, hand-size etc. However, they also have to wait twice as long between turns – i.e. twice as long before they can reset their hands, so playing a card out of turn can feel more of a cost. Big groups, I think, are better set up to smash a villain if they can spot him early and take some time to prepare, but in terms of resources for each individual turn/check, I’m not sure it’s all that simple.

A lot of it will be psychological. In a 6-character game, no character is likely to get more than 5 turns (unless something weird is going on), so yes, they can spend cards more aggressively than if they were in a 2-character group and were going to have 15 turns to survive. However, that doesn’t make it any less terrifying to be sat with a deck only as big as your hand-size half-way through the game.

Difficulty Curves

As I say then, I don’t see Alain as broken, but there is a wider issue to consider – if he (possibly along with 1 or 2 other characters) is more powerful than most, where exactly is the problem? Is he too powerful? Are others not powerful enough? Is the Adventure Path as a whole too difficult?

The difficulty of Wrath of the Righteous prompted enough discussion that Chad Brown, one of the designers actually posted an article discussing the difficulty curve of the game. It was noted, explicitly that Wrath is meant to start out as a mad panic with characters struggling to cling on, and then growing suddenly in power, particularly as they become “mythic” – he also adds the important note that even D20s roll 1s sometimes, so whilst characters in Wrath have great potential by the later stages, they can still fail spectacularly.

Wrath is contrasted with other APs where the levels of character-power and scenario difficulty scale at different rates relative to each other: in each setting, this was tied deliberately to the narrative events of the Path.

There are still difficulties with this: first of all, as I’ve noted in my most recent review, the theme of this AP can feel patchy at times- ok, it’s obvious that you’re fighting lots of demons, and that the Abyss is a big deal, but the details of what’s actually going on can easily get lost at times. I certainly don’t think there’s a clear sense of “Oh, I’m supposed to be really powerful at this point” or “yeah, this definitely feels like it’s deliberately difficult to reflect the horrors of the Abyss unleashed.” A large part of this may well be to do with the question of group size and scaling – as I mentioned in the overview above, there are scenarios in Adventure 2 which are brutal, virtually impossible with a group of 6, yet when we split the party (something we’ve only ever done twice with this game) and tackled it with 2 groups of three, it immediately became almost laughably easy – there’s no obvious thematic reason for group size to impact difficulty nearly as much as it does.

An Official Response

Since the blog article mentioned above, there has been no further comment on the difficult of Wrath generally, just as there has so far been no official ruling on Alain’s Lancer power, although the comment from Mike (Lead Designer) that “We think we’ve seen enough to make a change. More info soon” very strongly suggests that there is something in the pipeline.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record for regular readers of the blog, I just wanted to set out my general position on games, errata and difficulty.

  1. Don’t errata something unless you have to.
  2. If you’re playing a co-op game, and you think something makes the game too east, just don’t use it.

I think point 1 is fairly self-explanatory: people buy games with cards in, we want those cards to do what they say they do, not to have to remember (or worse still, explain to their friend who doesn’t own the game) that it doesn’t do the thing it claims it does. I understand that sometimes it needs to happen- and generally, I think PACG has done fairly well on limiting when this gets used, but I’m never a fan of it happening.

When someone complains about a game not being difficult enough in general, it often comes across as the person just showing off: “this game is too easy” feels a lot like “I am better at games than the rest of you.” I’ve encountered this with one of my other games, where every time a new game came out, the same guy would appear on the forums complaining that it was much too easy, causing significant frustration for the large numbers of people who had suffered the sometimes brutal reverses the game could throw at people.

When there is a specific aspect of the game in view then, for me, that’s more puzzling. It’s like the man who says to the doctor, “doctor I get these strange pains when I do this” and the doctor responds “well, don’t do it then.” If you think Alain is overpowered, don’t play him / don’t take the Lancer role / the feat to recharge the mounts. Not taking something which exists is an option you always have, taking something which doesn’t exist isn’t. The complaint is particularly baffling to me in the examples people have given of groups where the other non-Alain characters all play blessings to ensure that Alain can acquire cards he doesn’t have the skillset for (dexterity weapons, spells, etc). They do this, it seems, not because other characters want them – of course Enora’s going to give you brilliance and a blessing to pick up that amazing Arcane attack spell – but simply to allow him to recycle his horse once more. Then a few turns later, those very characters complain that Alain is hogging all the turns – a very simple solution would be for them to play those blessings on their own turn instead, to boost their check, or take an extra exploration for themself.

Am I the only one who finds the prospect of Alain riding a dog hilarious?
Am I the only one who finds the prospect of Alain riding a dog hilarious?

For all the hue and cry around Alain at the moment, it is tempting to see it all a storm in a tea-cup. As is often said on the blog: it’s your game, you decide how you play it. However, there are two issues with this.

Firstly, this game does have a growing level of Organised Play- if you’re playing in the Season of the Righteous, reporting your character, then you are not at liberty to house-rule. At some point, hopefully, there will be a Cavalier Class Deck, and at that point, only the “official” version of Alain will be allowed, whether that be the “over-powered” one currently running amuck, or the “nerfed” one sat floundering amid a horde of demons. Secondly, high-profile incidents like this can show us a lot about the health of the game overall, the direction it is taking, and generally how the players and the designers interact.

Are All Characters Created Equal?

PZO1125-Valeros
Now who’s Mythic?

I think it’s worth considering the question of whether all characters are created equal – As I’ve argued above, I think Alain’s power-level is entirely reasonable in Wrath of the Righteous. He’s a powerful fighter coming up against some powerful foes. What happens though, when you take him and drop him in Rise of the Runelords? Does Valeros slink off looking embarrassed and obsolete?

Well actually, at first glance at least, the answer would appear to be “no.” The earlier APs have neither mounts, nor lances, nor Mythic paths, so he becomes just another fighter, albeit one with a powerful, if incongruous, cohort. Donahan remains handy for avoiding those “at the start of your turn do X” locations, and the ability to stick him back on top of the deck could be handy later on, but by-and-large, I’d say there’s no real question of him being over-powered.

For later APs, the question is an open one- will Mummy’s Mask (or whatever lies beyond) have mounts? Will it have lances? Will it have scenarios that can be broken by cycling those mounts? At this stage, there are only a very small number of people might know the answers to these questions, and they aren’t telling us yet (nor would we expect them to).

Of course, there are potential game-breaking situations. If you take Alain to Rise of the Runelords, mix in the mounts and the lances from the Paladin Class deck (or the Lancer deck once we get one), does that break the game? – perhaps it does, but I think there’s a point at which we have to draw the line and be realistic about how much back-and-forward compatibility the designers can realistically be expected to include.

Are All Players Created Equal?

One last thing I’d want to draw attention to, was a comment in the Alain debate thread, made by one of the players who felt that Alain was a corrective to the difficulty of the game, rather than being the error.

“What annoys me personally is that as soon as there’re cries of “game too easy!” – here come the official FAQs. However, when people where complaining about cards and scenarios being absurdly difficult with 6 players – we were basically told “home-rule your game” (the AD1 before the base adventure thing) or with no response at all. It’s this perceived (admittedly, maybe only by me) double standard that irks me. [Longshot 11]

The answer for the struggling six-player group?
The answer for the struggling six-player group?

I recognise the difficulty that designers have in keeping everyone satisfied. As one of them has noted in the past, the hard-core gamer groups tend to be the ones who optimise their decks, plan most strategically, and generally do everything to make the game easier – then complain about the difficulty. I think though, that it’s definitely possible to see the trend of changes to the game being predominantly, if not exclusively in the direction of making it harder.

Unless Paizo change their marketing – and game shops change their stocking policies – so that Rise of the Runelords is constantly in stock everywhere, and pushed heavily as the “entry” AP, whilst newer ones are marked as being for “experts,” then all Adventure Paths need to be accessible to new players to the game. It’s on this basis that I think difficulty, especially when in dispute, should be pitched at the lower end of the options designers are considering – the seasoned veteran playing their third AP is more likely to put in the time to figure out a way of house-ruling or tweaking their game to make it fit their own play-style, than the new recruit who has just picked up a box of the shelf and knows only what’s written in front of them.

Conclusion

From the limited contact I’ve had with them through internet forums, I know that the developers of Pathfinder ACG listen to and respond to feedback from players at least as much as the developers of any game out there – I don’t think that anyone can fault them on their commitment to making this game good.

That said, I do feel that – for whatever reason – the designers idea of “making this good” does involve taking the difficulty level to places where significant numbers of the people playing the game find the fun sucked out of it, as it becomes just too damn hard. Whether this issue of difficulty stems from lack of player expertise, or from choosing and upgrading characters based on thematic preference rather than considered party optimisation, there has to be a place for these players. I’d love to see future APs come with included suggestions of designer-endorsed ways to increase / reduce difficulty, such as you’ll find in the core rulebook for Marvel Legendary – evidently, this would increase the amount of play-testing required for the game, and this might be why it’s not currently available, but I’d like to hope that the designers would at least consider it.

For the future, I hope that Errata, particularly of the character-nerfing variety is kept to a minimum, but I’d rather be involved in a game where the designers respond that one where you can risk taking home a broken product and being told “you bought it, no longer our problem.”

I’d also love to see (and would be prepared to pay the appropriate extra for) a story book, probably on a similar size and scale to the rule-book, which helped to flesh-out the narrative that can’t always be crammed onto the cards, and could provide the thematic logic for periods of calm sailing and for the suddenly crushing return of difficulty.

I’d be interested to know what people think – not just about specific issues, such as individual characters like Alain (feel free to share those too), but more generally about the way a game publisher and its team with designers deal with the community of players, to ensure the ongoing life of the game.