Yar! Just when you thought you’d be able to finally retire that eye patch and bandanna, Paizo has released the new high-seas version of its popular Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Skull & Shackles.
Skull & Shackles is an entirely new stand alone game that looks nearly identical to its predecessor, 2013’s PACG: Rise of the Runelords. In fact, the two games are almost the same mechanically as well. However, a number of improvements and tweaks to the existing formula have made Skull & Shackles a more refined and polished product. Rest assured, if you enjoyed Rise of the Runelords, you’ll find much to love about Skull & Shackles as well.
But what if you weren’t previously a fan of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game? Are there enough improvements to win over the heart of even the most stubborn naysayer? Probably not, but I wanted to share five of the most significant positive changes to this year’s game for those that might be on the swashbuckling fence.
Non-combat is just as important as combat
In the previous game, the majority of gameplay typically revolved around combat. Characters that excelled in monster slaying were obviously great, while those that lacked in combat skills often relied on others to pull them through each scenario. Sure, classes like the Bard were still useful to have around to acquire allies and grant bonuses to other players. But the majority of time spent in each scenario normally involved killing monsters, and improving your combat expertise was never a bad option.
In Skull & Shackles, combat-only characters are going to find themselves struggling from time to time. Yes, you still kick the crap out of many monsters. But barriers play a much more prominent role this time around, sometimes equaling or exceeding the number of enemies to fight in each location. Classes with strong Dexterity and Constitution skills will find themselves being able to tackle these obstacles with greater ease than their Strength-based fighting machine companions.
Scenario objectives are more varied this time around as well. While you’ll often still be hunting for the scenario’s villain while defeating his/her henchmen, the key to victory won’t always rely on a combat check to win. In one of the early adventures, the villain can only be defeated via Diplomacy, not with a weapon. Thankfully, scenarios grant methods of assisting parties that may lack a certain skill that is required to win; in the aforementioned scenario, each acquired ally will grant a cumulative bonus to whoever is performing the winning Diplomacy roll.
Making sure your party can handle the frequent Wisdom or Fortitude checks will be just as important to winning as slaying bad guys, and goes a long way towards making the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game feel more dynamic and interesting.
The new classes have fun and interesting powers
While the classes within Rise of the Runelords were fun to play, many of them were fairly straightforward with their mechanics. Discard a card, get a bonus, and so forth. A handful of classes, such as the Druid and Paladin, had some unique abilities that made them versatile and engaging to control, but they certainly stood out against the rest.
The new Skull & Shackles classes have much more dynamic and complex powers right out of the gate. For example, Jirelle the Swashbuckler has no Melee skill printed on her character card. Instead, if she plays a weapon that features the Finesse trait, one of her character powers grants her “Melee: Dexterity (d10) +2.” In addition, if any of her checks utilize the new Swashbuckling keyword, she is allowed to re-roll one of her dice, keeping the new result. Many “Finesse” weapons also contain the Swashbuckling trait as well, meaning Jirelle’s two powers synergize well, granting her increasing combat capabilities on top of the insane usefulness of being able to re-roll dice.
Nearly all of Skull & Shackles’ classes are built this way as well. Damiel the Alchemist is able to recycle Alchemical items like no one else, while also having the ability to use said items to assist his or others’ combat checks. Alahazra the Oracle can cycle Divine cards back-and-forth from her hand to her discard pile and vice versa, making her incredible versatile by swapping spells on the fly. In general, the new classes are just more fun to play than their predecessors.
Its pirate theme is very strong
Rise of the Runelords was steeped heavily in the typical fantasy genre, featuring the types of weapons, armor, and monsters you’d expect. Fantasy is also a very tired genre even within tabletop gaming, and seeing orcs and goblins across 15 different games can induce fantasy fatigue.
However, while pirates have risen in popular culture over the last decade, there still aren’t a plethora of pirate-themed games or media out there. And while Skull & Shackles is still set in a more “medieval era,” being able to use weapons like boarding pikes, pistols and whips is much more flavorful than swords and bows. The enemies are much more varied as well; you’ll often face off against giant sharks, enemy pirate ships, and swarms of crabs, to name just a few.
The addition of a boat that the party controls also enhances the theme in a significant way. I love being able to quickly shuttle party members across locations while commanding the ship, and acquiring additional plunder to split at the end of a scenario is a fun new addition to the game.
Confusing wording has been cleared up
The Rise of the Runelords Base Set broke a lot of new ground when it released last year. While there have been persistent tabletop games before, none have ever attempted a campaign-style card game at this large scale. Because of its wholly original game design, there are a few elements within the previous game that could have benefited from clearer wording (just look at the size of the FAQ!)
Mike Selinker and his team have been able to redefine many of the confusing or vague aspects of Rise of the Runelords and update them for this new edition. There are fewer contradicting rules as written, and even the included rulebook has been cleaned up a bit to make itself more presentable and useful. If you had issues with grasping some of the previous version’s mechanics, you may find Skull & Shackles a more elegant and cleaned-up beast to tackle this time around.
New Adventure Decks will now release monthly
One of the worst parts of enjoying the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is waiting for new content to release. Previously, each Adventure Deck shipped on a bi-monthly schedule. If your gaming group was able to rip through each adventure within weeks, you were forced to wait up to two months for the next set of scenarios.
Now, new Adventure Decks for Skull & Shackles and all future PACG sets will release on a monthly schedule. For those that play often, this is fantastic news. And if you’re like me and take over a year to get through Rise of the Runelords, there’s no pressure to buy them immediately. They will be there waiting for you when you’re ready to move on to the next Adventure Deck. Or if Skull & Shackles’ pirate theme doesn’t interest you at all, you’ll only have to wait six months for Wrath of the Righteous, the next base set which features a more classic fantasy adventure through demonic wastelands.
So there you have it. The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Skull & Shackles is now available and completely worth it if you’re a fan of its predecessor. And for all of you soulless, fun-hating bastards that didn’t enjoy the previous game, there’s enough improvements within that just might win you over this time around.