Pathfinder Accessibility Teardown


Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) – Accessibility Teardown

Context of Document

This is not a review of this game. You will find the review linked in the introduction.

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then please stop reading now. This will not be the blog for you, and we have no interest in debating with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

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Introduction

One of the intersectional issues that accompanies accessibility is the difficulty of scheduling compatible playing groups.  When someone has an impairment, it may not be their schedule that’s the key limiting factor.  It might be that of their carers, or of the supporting infrastructure around them.  Sometimes a game that you can play by yourself can scratch an itch that logistics would otherwise leave unscratched.  The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is a worthwhile experience – we gave it three stars, but I know there are other people that would give it more.  If you want a bit of low-fuss hack and slash adventure, can you play it?   Let’s roll our perception against a DC of 18 and find out.

Colour Blindness

There’s nothing in the game that requires you to be able to differentiate colours.  It’s almost entirely a card game, and no card uses colour as the only way of conveying information.

Colour blind characters

Nothing to worry about here

There are some minor colour cues on different kinds of cards – henchmen are red and monsters are yellow, for example.  Spells have a slightly different hue to armour, and so on.  None of it will interfere with your ability to meaningfully play the game.

Range of cards

Or here!

We give it a strong recommendation in this category.

Visual Accessibility

The largest problem with the game from the perspective of those with visual impairment is the sheer amount of information you need to cross-reference, and now small some of the text is.  Consider for example the Tome of Knowledge:

Tome of Knowledge

This isn’t too bad…

We have some keywords in the left of the image indicating that, where appropriate, it can be treated as a ‘book’, a piece of ‘magic’ and an ‘elite’ item.  The check to acquire indicates two possible skills you can use, along with a difficulty.  The card has a powers section and a recharge section.  It’s not too bad, right?

Now look at the battleaxe:

A battleaxe

God where’s my reading lamp

That’s a lot of detail you need to be able to make out, and cross-reference across cards.   Or consider the enchanter:

Enchanter

My eyes are up here

This has conditional logic based on difficulty, a before effect, and an after effect.  It says to adjust the difficulty by the scenario level, which you can probably track in memory but is otherwise in a tiny font at the top of a handful of cards:

Scenario

To be fair, you only need to remember the location number

It’s not the readability itself that’s the problem, but is instead the amount of cross-checking you need to do, especially against the tiny numbers on the character cards themselves.  These don’t lend themselves well to easy scanning:

Character card

You’ll be checking this card a lot.

That card will be in front of you most of the game, so you can examine it at leisure.  Some abilities though need you to be aware of the stats of other characters to use them most effectively.

None of these need be insurmountable obstacles, as Pathfinder is an inherently co-operative game and you can ask people for clarification when needed.  Larger problems are going to be involved if you plan on playing it solo, as even the basic job of setup may be difficult as you can see from the location card above. The setup list outlines how many cards of each type go into the deck.    I have difficulty making this out myself.  And then once you’ve set up the deck, you need to reference back to the scenario card for the villain and the henchmen.  All the while you’re cross-checking this against the box and what you’ve already placed into each of the existing decks under construction.   The cards have no tactile identifiers that show you to what category they belong.  The visual identifiers are only subtly different.  You need to be constantly checking the text along the top of the cards to make sure you’ve got the right deck composition.

Coupled to this, the box has a suggested insert layout, which is nice, but if you’re relying on that you better hope nobody has put anything into the wrong divider.  It’s quite likely too if other people are handling clean-up because the insert is clearly designed with half a dozen expansions in mind.  The slots provided for the base box are over-generous for some sets and ungenerous for others.  The natural order that the decks and sections would suggest is not necessarily the one the manual will recommend.

he game makes use of a subset of standard RPG dice – d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12.  The quality of the dice in the box is not good, and you’ll likely want to supplement them with either braille dice or over-sized dice.   Otherwise, some of the numbers are going to be difficult to make out.

All of this said, the game is likely playable with care for those with minor to moderate visual impairments.  For those with more severe impairments, the lack of any tactile cues or indicators is likely going to leave Pathfinder thoroughly inaccessible.

Cognitive Accessibility

There are very few deep decisions to be taken in the game.  In that respect the game is not complex.  Unfortunately, it is a game that is complicated as a result of an overwrought and highly interdependent rule set.

Let’s look back to the example of the shadow ambush from our review.  First we need to resolve that event, making use of whatever cards might be useful, against whatever skill we wish to use.  When we fail, we search through the deck for a monster, draw it, and trigger any of its introductory effects.  It requires a combat check, which is against melee or strength (although it doesn’t say it on the card) against a difficulty of 13.  We can reveal a weapon to increase our roll, and discard it to increase that roll further.  Except that if we’re playing the warrior discarding a weapon means that we instead recharge it.  We roll the dice, but each of those dice are at -1 because the combat is the result of an ambush.  The creature is immune to mental and poison traits, so if we’re attacking with something that has either of those it won’t have any effect at all.  If we defeat it, but our weapon wasn’t magic, we don’t destroy it.  Instead we put it back into the deck and reshuffle, adding in all the cards we took out in order to get to it in the first place.   If we don’t defeat it, we can then choose to play a card that would reduce damage, and then reshuffle the monsyter and the other cards back into play.

That’s an average encounter and some of them get much more obtuse.  The intersections of spells, locations, monsters, heroes, weapons and multiple players can become bogged down in conditionality.   So much of Pathfinder is locked into the dark, sinister anachronism of ‘if this, then this unless that and except…’

This is a feature of most deck-builders, where chaining together synergies is a key element of effective gameplay.  It’s hardly an issue with Pathfinder specifically.  It does put the game comfortably out of the category of ‘cognitively accessible’ though.

Game flow is reasonably consistent in terms of turn order, but modified at many stages by the specifics of location and monster.  Some monsters (such as the enchanter above) will inflict damage separate to basic combat.  Some locations have special effects that modify how the rest of the game works.  In my walkthrough of the first scenario, I forgot that battles in the waterfront are conducted at -1 on each die.  Or that I could discard two cards at a time to explore again.   In the woods, when you fail to defeat a monster you banish it anyway.  The guard tower needs you to defeat a bandit every turn.   At the mountain peak, you’ll lose a card if you fail to pass a skill check.

Location decks

Each location feels very different

Some of this conditional, cascading complication you’ll layer on to encounters yourself as you play cards.  Most of the gameplay is to be found in using your cards to accomplish the goals in front of you.  In order to do that you’ll need to know what you’re giving up and the benefits that come from doing so – that can be difficult to work out when you consider all of the possible ramifications.

All of this localized conditionality adds to the thematic heft of what you’re doing.  It means though you can’t really get into a pattern of action because everything changes depending on the specifics of what you’re facing, and where.   The range of sources from which these modifiers come mean that simply remembering all the things you need to check to build up an accurate picture can be extremely cognitively expensive.

Attached to all of this is the need to read and understand not only the language of the game, but also navigate a perversely specific special jargon.  Discard versus bury versus recharge versus reveal versus display versus banish.  These are all words used, specifically and consistently, to refer to particular ways of dealing with your cards.  They all have different long term impacts, so you better be sure you’re using them correctly, and that you’re paying attention to special rules and modifiers that tell you to temporarily replace one kind of manipulation for another.

Finally, the game is based heavily on dice-rolling, and most often dice-rolling with modifiers and varied faces.  Dice combinations such as 2d10+1d8+1d6+4 are common, as are compound modifiers such as (2d10-1)+(1d8-1)+(1d6-1)+4.   You need a reasonable degree of numeracy to be able to do this with confidence, especially when the base game comes with only one of each kind of die.  You’ll almost certainly want to supplement that meagre provision with dice of your own, otherwise you can add a memory cost to each time you need to reuse a dice of a particular face in a roll.

We suggest you avoid Pathfinder for both categories of cognitive impairment.  The cognitive costs are less intense for memory than they are for fluid intelligence, but even then we’d still advise you look for other titles.

Emotiveness

The difficulty curve of Pathfinder wavers considerably from game to game.  It’s entirely possible to set yourself up with a losing scenario right out of the gate, with nothing you could do to improve performance except ‘roll better dice’.  There is no system of balancing the location decks – you’ll get what you get.   You might get nothing but good things.  You might get nothing but ogres and giants.  You might be merrily chopping away at goblins.  You might be constantly beset by indestructible ghosts.  You might have the equipment you need in your hand.  You might be stuck sacrificing cards for turns until you find the combination that will safeguard your success.  Bear in mind that the cards you have represent not only inventory, but health.   As you discard them, you’re effectively draining yourself of lifeblood.

Even the easiest monsters have a steep difficulty – the lowest combat difficulty in the deck is 8.   With Valeros’ d10+3 melee attack, that gives a 60% success rate without supporting equipment.   A hill giant has a difficulty of 15, and with a d10 and a revealed quarterstaff (1d10+1d6+3) it’s a 26% chance to  kill it.  That’s all perfectly fair and reasonable, but not necessarily fun or even intuitive.  Sid Meier gives a great talk at GDC where he explains that with 2:1 odds, players will expect to win 95% of the time.  Anything else seems unfair and arbitrary.  A lot of Pathfinder can feel that way, especially when you may have lost equipment in order to stack the deck in your favour, only to find you lose anyway.

And then there’s the cost of failure.  When a character dies and doesn’t get resurrected during the course of a scenario you’re supposed to lose all the progress you accumulated.  That means all the equipment, all the feats, and all the rewards.  Nobody is going to come along and force you to do that, but it’s a bit like playing a Fighting Fantasy gamebook with a finger holding open the previous passage.  Sure, you’ll win but you’ll lose all the sweetness from the victory.   You’ll always know that your character is tainted – that they were supposed to go down one leg of the trousers of time, but you’re still hanging on to the shade that didn’t.  The rules seem to assume that you’ll be playing honourably, even pointing out that solo play is a useful way to ‘catch up’ to the levels of other characters.

Games of Pandemic can have this same ‘inevitable failure’ starting setup, but the cost for that is lower because there is no real consequence for loss.  I’m taking Base Pandemic here – I don’t have Pandemic: Legacy, although I will eventually get to it.  Pathfinder has that inevitable failure system along with potentially crushing penalties for loss.  Death is supposed to be a bit like handing in the character sheet to your DM because you died permanently.

However, it is a co-operative game and it’s certainly possible for multiple players working together in the same location to lend strength to each other.  Effective team-play can skew the odds in your favour even in challenging encounters.  But all of that has to be weighed up against the blessings deck which counts down the turns until you lose.   More players do not translate into more turns – there are thirty turns start to end, regardless of how many people are playing.   The usual RPG extortion to never split the party isn’t true here.  You’ll often have to out of sheer time pressure.

All of this said, we’re prepared to offer a tentative recommendation here – the co-op nature can dull the intensity of the challenge, and let’s be honest – nobody is going to judge you for saying ‘I’m not doing any of that’ to the death penalties.   Provided you’re not planning to adhere too strictly to the costs associated with failure, the pain of losing a scenario is just in terms of time and frustration.

Physical Accessibility

Physical accessibility is about par for the course for the more sedate family of deck builders.  You have a lot of cards, but you don’t need to do a lot with them at any time.  You’ll have a set hand-limit you’re dealing with, and since it’s a co-operative game you don’t even have to keep them secret.  There’s no problem with playing them face up in front of you.

There’s not a lot of game state manipulation either – you need to flip over cards in locations and then deal with whatever is there through the discarding, banishing, burying or refreshing of cards.  You need to move your character card from location to location.  You’ll need to shuffle monsters back into the decks when they’re undefeated, and when other special circumstances are encountered.  And you need to roll dice.  Quite a lot of dice.

Most of the difficulty from a physical perspective comes from the setup phase, which is going to involve working with a number of decks and quite a lot of shuffling.

There may be a need to check what’s happening with other characters from time to time, but since the game state can be arranged in any way that’s comfortable there’s no reason why you can’t make things as easy  as possible in that respect.

If there are serious physical constraints, then we look again to the issue of verbalisation.  In this case, Pathfinder does rather well.  Characters and locations all have easily identified names, and words have very particular meaning.  Indeed, one of the ‘things to keep in mind’ in the book is that ‘If it isn’t called something, it isn’t that thing’.  They take the precision of their jargon seriously, and that’s to your advantage.   It’s very easy to say what you want to do without ambiguity.

We recommend Pathfinder in this category.

Communication

There’s a significant reading level required to understand the cards and the flavour text of the adventure.  When playing with multiple players there’s also going to be a need to coordinate strategy although that’s unlikely to involve a great deal of complexity.  The strategic decisions in the game, after all, are not deep.  It’s mostly a case of working out how best to trade, conserve and optimise card use.

The nature of the reading level required means that we can’t give be too enthusiastic here, but we’re certainly willing to offer it a tentative recommendation.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

So, remember when we talked about Lords of Waterdeep and I pointed out how unnecessarily sexualised and titillating the artwork was?  Yeah.  I did say at the time this is a problem with the whole genre of fantasy, and it rears its head here.  Pathfinder has a problem with the way in which it portrays women.  At best we can say that their approach to the artwork is… uneven.

There are some characters I have no problem with – dressed in exactly the kind of garb you’d expect given the risks and dangers of adventuring.   Consider here Ameiko Kaijitsu and the generic Acolyte:

Okay cards

Okay, I wouldn’t cringe showing anyone these.

That’s fine, pretty much.  The Acolyte has a pretty plunging neckline but it’s not outside the realms of what I’ve seen actual women wearing.  Yeah, you heard me.  I’ve seen women before.  They do take the plunge too far with some characters though, as you can see with the Enchanter above.

And then we have Erylium and Nualia:

Sexualised artwork

Okay, getting a bit of a cringe.

Erylium is a demon creature (a Quasit, I believe), so you can see why her having a pair of heaving tits barely contained by her outfit would be critical for character conception.  And Nualia – yeah.  A bare midriff is exactly the thing you want in a sword-fight.

But it gets worse.

Ridiculous artwork

I swear I only play this game for the articles

God, really?  REALLY?

Even some of the characters that are fully armoured have ridiculous boob-plate:

Boobplate

‘As I kill you, it’s important to me that you are aware I have breasts’

Even those that otherwise look like complete bad-ass killing machines are exposing their stomachs to lascivious gazes and also sharp blades.

Exposed midriff

Khal Midriff

It’s cringe-worthy, it really is.   To be fair, it’s not entirely a gendered problem:

Rippling abs

Whoops, sorry. I uploaded a selfie by mistake.

It’s certainly skewed that way though.

Cost-wise, we have another problem – it’s not cheap.  To be fair, you get quite a lot of cards in the box, but not enough that you won’t ask where your £50 RRP has gone.   There’s plenty of variety in the set, but it is explicitly tailored towards the early stages of your adventuring.  You don’t even get to use the role card until later on in the series, and that’s a number of expansion packs down the line.   There’s six of those packs, by the way.  Each of those is going to cost you anything from £10 to £15, just to get to the end of the path.  If you like the story, such as it is, you better be prepared to budget for double what the core set costs.   It’s certainly on the pricey end of even collectible card games, but nobody says you have to play it through to the end.

You do get a lot of adventure for those packs – each adventure path has a number of adventures, and each of those adventures has a number of scenarios.  The game comfortably supports four players at a time, and if you get fed up with one character you can always try the adventures again with another – they feel very different.  The fact it works well for group and solo play means that you don’t necessarily need to worry about getting together as a group to progress through the campaign – people can catch up in their own time.   You can even buy a character add on deck to support a fifth and sixth player.  You do get a lot of game for the money, and it’s one you can play through several times if you enjoy the core experience.

As such, we offer a tentative recommendation in this category.  Must do better with the artwork though.

Intersectional Accessibility

As usual, if you’re relying on verbalisation to communicate your plays, the game isn’t going to be accessible if physical impairments are paired up to a communication impairment.   The deck management element is often a problem when dealing with an intersection of physical, visual and cognitive impairments but it’s not an issue here due to the fact cards are played open and your hand rarely is so large that it becomes difficult to deal with.

Downtime can be a problem in deckbuilding games, but in Pathfinder there are opportunities to assist other players outside your turn.  Multiple skill-checks can be attempted by different players in the same location, and it’s often possible to play cards to help others at various stages.   However if you’re not working together in a particular area, it can be a while before you get to do anything.  This might be an issue for the intersection of certain categories of emotional and cognitive impairment.

Pathfinder’s most significant aspect from an intersectional accessibility element is that it seamlessly handles dropping in and out, without cost and without the need to house-rule anything.  The turns indicated by the blessing deck are a shared resource, used up every time a player takes a turn.  In real terms, this means that if someone no longer wishes to play their turn on a temporary basis, someone else can simply take their place with their own character.  The fact most cards will be played face up too means that someone else can operate your character on your behalf.  The game scales well at all player counts, and as a solo game it is still a meaningfully satisfying experience.   What begins with four players can end with a single player without an awful lot of difficulty.

This flexibility is good because games of Pathfinder can be quite time consuming, depending on how many locations are to be explored.   Four players may result in as many as six locations, and six players will require eight locations be dealt with.  The game is only ever thirty turns, but that still involves a lot of cards and a lot of dice-rolling and calculation and interplay between players.  The box quotes ninety minutes, but depending on the group composition it might be closer to two hours.  That’s a time investment that can easily dovetail with modulating physical, emotional or cognitive distress.

The game doesn’t have any specific time constraints, but it does have a turn limit.  As that ticks down, this might create stress or upset – especially when this is combined with the sometimes arbitrarily high difficulty of randomised decks.  Each turn you take brings you closer to failure, and it can be frustrating to ‘waste’ a turn when you haven’t made satisfactory progress.  It can be especially frustrating to know that you simply couldn’t have succeeded on a check because the required number was well beyond your ability to roll.

Conclusion

We gave Pathfinder three stars in our review.  Some people love it.  While we agree it certainly has merits, it’s not something we’d go out of our way to play very often.  And unfortunately, even if it does appeal there are a number of potential players that simply won’t be able to give it a go:

Colour Blindness A
Visual Impairment C
Emotiveness C
Fluid Intelligence E
Memory D
Physical B
Socioeconomic C-
Communication C

It’s not all bad news though – physical accessibility is reasonably high, and it does very well in supporting players with colour blindness.  It’s playable with care for those with other minor to moderate visual impairment.   If you can look your way past the overly sexualised artwork and high long-term price tag, we can even tentatively recommend it there.

Radar chart

Radar Chart

However, the highly complicated rule-set adds much cognitive overload without creating any real richness or depth.   That’s a thing we mentioned in the review itself – it would be a better game wall to wall, and more accessible with it, if someone took a big hacksaw to the rules and cut away anything that wasn’t strictly necessary.   Every rule is just one more thing getting in the way of people having fun, after all.  This is an accessibility lesson, in all meanings of the word, that the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game could do well with taking on board.

 

 


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