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I recently picked up a copy of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, Skulls & Shackles. The 18th and 19th century fantasy pirate genre (Pirates of the Caribbean), while still being worthy and all that, never really interested me as a gaming topic. 16th century golden-age piracy a little bit more. High fantasy pirates, as this is kind of geared to be, fits into my current Parsantium campaign with some simple modifications.

This blog article is in two parts: actual review of the game as a mechanical exercise, and the story that I managed to tell myself in the Parsantium context using these cards and mechanisms.

The game review

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (PACG) system uses a sophisticated card draw mechanism that pits a ‘Character’ card (in the traditional RPG sense) that has characteristics, against a randomised set of opponent and circumstance cards.

Victory is achieved by encountering and defeating cards using the talents your character possesses. These talents include any innate skills your character may have, along with the usual array of fantasy elements of weapons and armour and spells and equipment and so on.

There are many different cards types and getting into the game at first is daunting. I watched several YouTube videos of game play before I got the general gist of things and then could make sense of the printed rules. Having said that the basic idea is simple: sort the cards into types, and there is a handy visual guide to advise you how to stack them in the pre-formed box. Your character has a preferred set of equipments (weapons, armour and so on) and you select these from those relevant decks. Once done you have a deck of 15 cards. This is your health, or hit points. Damage costs you cards. Using items that are lost costs you cards. Run out of cards and you’re dead.

Following the prescribed set up there are adventures, that have scenarios, that have locations. Each location has a similar set of cards that are randomly aded to make their deck. These include the major villains and their henchmen.

Each turn, you expose a ‘Blessings’ card. This is the timer – run out of those and the game ends and you’ve lost – but they also have effects that you can exploit. This is a subtle meta-game element that I like. Mechanically it is simple, but it carries a strong sub-conscious message that this is a fantasy world where inexplicable stuff happens and fate can have a meaningful effect on you.

Then you put your counter on a location card, indicating that you are exploring there, and turn over the top card of that location. It may be a monster, or loot to pinch, or some kind of impediment to progress (a ‘barrier’). You roll dice based on the particular challenge, adding and subtracting factors depending on the relevant skills you possess, and objects, and weapons and spells… and so on.

And repeat.

Until you find the main villain and defeat them, or die.

It is a procedural game. Set the clocks and crank the handle. Once you get over the learning curve the process is straightforward, but since every card is an exception it can appear more complex as you take into account the ‘if, then, but, plus, minus, unless’ that is a result of the many cards up and exposed and in your own hand.

Final verdict?

It’s no Reiner Knizia masterpiece of elegance and choice. It is a game of detail and complexity posing as depth. But that’s not a bad thing. It does deliver plenty of atmosphere if you are willing to slow down and read the cards and think about what’s going on and, dare I say it, make a story out of it.

Admittedly I have only played once and solo, so I cannot speak to the experience of having the preferred four players interacting. But from that solo perspective I got a lot of pleasure out of this on a rainy day-off-work by keeping a notepad and thinking about what each turn of the card would look like if this were a full social RPG. But I could easily imagine it becoming tedious if your objective were to turn cards and treat it as no more than a mathematical problem.

Price wise, it’s pretty reasonable as these things go now days. While not exactly comparable because the tactical miniatures element is missing, one can still say it compares favourably.

As a final measure of value I do believe that I will play this again – and there’s no higher praise than that – though I am now very much looking forward to this as it is well more in my core interest zone.

The story

[I removed all the firearm related cards from the decks]

Once upon a time there was an assassin called Naseeba Hamid (using the characteristics of the Rogue Wu Shen) who was in the employ of the Great Caliph of Aqhran. The Caliph had become concerned over the increase of pirate activity in the Corsair’s Sea. Trade to Loranto and Parsantium had been attacked, of course, but so had the routes to the wilds of Ferez and Qardib. Attacks had become more common. Something had to be done. The Caliph summoned his Chancellor and outlined the actions: an agent was to be sent to investigate what was at the heart of this increase.

Naseeba started the search at the Floating shipyard near the port of Ferez. Following a tense diplomatic encounter when one of the pirate ships pulled in for repairs she joined a treasure hunt that eventually confronted a swamp ghoul. The ghoul was too tough for her and, severely wounded, she followed a new clue to Lonely island, a dot of land in the gulf to the east of of Rezana (Lonely Island). There Naseeba wandered, avoiding an ambush and then finding magical weapons locked in stone that she could not shift, even when using the Onyx of Constitution.

After much searching she found Adaro Barbarian, a Sahuagin (the card said merfolk – could be any aquatic creature I decided) chieftain who seemed to be in charge of everything. Taking careful aim with her crossbow, and tipping the bolt with poison, she nailed him, but he survived and fled. Following him back to the Floating Shipyard she again attacked the swamp ghoul. The battle raged for many hours, with Nasseeba using every trick in her assassin’s book until at last the beast was dead.

But alas, in her weakened state she was no match for the recovered Adaro and he killed her before she had a chance to report back to the Caliph.

So what do we know?

  • There is an island off the coast of eastern Bathura that is the pirate’s base
  • That a major leader is a Sahuagin, implying a whole bunch of plot elements
  • That there is a haven for pirates off the port of Ferez
  • The Caliph does not know who or where the threat is coming from
  • The threat has not been removed

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The ‘game’ lasted 17 turns. One could slow down a lot more and flesh out an entire story this way.