The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is a cooperative game for 1 to 4 players, with an expansion for 5 or 6 players. When I tell people this at conventions, I usually end up repeating it, because "1 to 4 players" rolls naturally off the tongue, and so many people miss the "1" at the start. When we first launched PACG, true one-player games were relatively rare, and my own experience suggested that most people were listening for that high number, not the low one.
Solo play in the PACG is an interesting thing all by itself, in that it was both intentional and accidental. By that, I mean that we had always expected that the game engine would work with one person, but we didn't always expect that it would be a lot of fun to play solo. In fact, at one point in early development, Mike and I had a conversation that included this question: "Have we invented 'grinding'?" If you don't know, "grinding" is a common MMORPG term that describes game play experiences that are considered helpful for advancement, but usually separate from the good, fun parts of the game. It also has an important meaning in the world of poker, but I defer all conversations about poker to the honorable Mr. Selinker.
I'm telling you all this as a lead-in to an abstract discussion about how PACG responds to a variable number of players and characters. After some testing, we determined that one-player games were actually quite fun (probably not for everyone, but few game experiences are really good for everyone). Seven-player and eight-player games worked okay, but the extra downtime and overhead really did seem to make things drag for almost everyone. Six-player games were still pretty good; probably a bit long for some people, but if you're the sort of group that regularly has six people at the table at once, you're probably already prepared for the ups and downs that brings. It also helps that six is a traditional big table size for an RPG campaign, because we thought that some of our players were likely to be Pathfinder RPG groups that played PACG as an alternative.
The fundamental way that the game scales for variable number of characters is through the number of locations that are involved in each scenario. If you've played any of the PACG Adventure Paths, you've probably figured out that the default arrangement is "two more locations than players." This gives everyone a chance to start spread out, grouped up, or in a mixture of the two while still leaving a few places open to the future. It means that you can't quite end the game right out of the gate, even with outstanding luck. There are just too many places to cover. If you're designing your own scenarios, keep in mind that you almost always want there to be more "places" than "people." This creates room for progress.
The other major concern for scaling based on the number of characters in play is the game's timer: the blessings deck. This deck is nearly always 30 cards (and if it isn't 30, it's pretty darn close). This is somewhat counter-intuitive, because it seems plausible to most people that increasing the number of people should increase the number of turns to succeed. In truth, the math is trickier than it seems. If you dig in and figure out the right value for the timer for each of the cases from one to six players, it's always very close to 30.
I'm starting out talking about number of locations and number of cards in the timer deck, both because they're two of the biggest scaling factors, but also because they form the basis for discussing two different types of challenges in PACG: difficulty versus time. The game is balanced around the idea that you can usually succeed against any individual card, if you're willing and able to take enough time. Conversely, you can usually get through enough of the cards in a given scenario to see what you need to see in order to win the scenario, but you might not have the resources to succeed at everything you want to do along the way. Of course, in order to win the scenario, you need both: You need to see certain important cards, and you need to succeed against them. (We could also describe this as a tension between short-term and long-term success.) The tension between the two factors is important, and maintaining it is a tricky balancing act. This is also one reason why we have scenarios that change the parameters: we're shifting the balance of success versus time. When we add another location, we're pushing the "time" side; when we make all Goblins harder to defeat, we're pushing the difficulty side.
This also impacts in the number of characters, because while the number of important locations goes up, the number of cards in the timer deck does not. Obviously, this means that more characters will each have less time to accomplish roughly the same tasks than fewer characters. The game naturally tilts towards increased encounter difficulty in a one-player game or increased time pressure in a six-player game. In fact, many people, upon first seeing the game, assume that the timer deck size must adjust based on the number of players. This comes from a perfectly natural assessment. With more cards to get through, we'll need more time to get through it all, won't we?
The answer, it turns out, is "somewhat, but not as much as you probably think". Clearly, one character can be fairly cautious when using 30 "turns" to get through 30 (10 per location) cards, while six characters will each need to press through quite a bit more cards in location decks to get through 80 cards in those same 30 "turns." For many people looking at PACG for the first time, those numbers seem so far apart that it seems like something must be off. In practice, though, most six-player groups get through those scenarios with about the same win rate—that is, success against the scenario. In fact, we found that larger groups tend to win scenarios a little more often than smaller groups. Usually, these games take longer than one-player sessions of the same scenario, so that total rate of progress is pretty close to the same. Those of you who wrangle six-person tables (of any game!) know that there's often a certain overhead to it that makes a slightly higher win rate (and thus, a lower repeat rate) a welcome turn of events.
How does this work out? If two characters use twice as many cards from the timer deck, how do they keep up with the increased number of cards in location decks? There are many factors, but the biggest (I think) is the marvelous power of synergy. In PACG, characters are wonderful, powerful things. Simply put, having more characters gives the players more potential power. There are more cards in players' hands, more character and role card powers, and more major and minor areas of the game covered. This is potent by itself, but when you add in the ability to combine those cards, powers, and areas of expertise, that's where large groups catch up.
Let's look at either end of the scale. With one character, a typical scenario will have 3 locations of 10 cards each, including a villain and 2 henchmen. With a timer deck of 30 cards, the solo character can afford to proceed with caution, at least much of the time. A solo character probably wants a relatively narrow range of boons, but this opens up the use of random boons as "hit points," fuel for other powers, and one-shot effects. In a three-player game, Amiri probably has to consider whether to give that Cure spell to Lini or banish it for its sweet 1d4+1 cards right now; in a one-character game, there are no such concerns. With 30 turns, Harsk can afford to wait and reset his hand whenever things get a little tense. Kyra can afford to spend her first exploration on a turn to heal herself, even if she does nothing else. Merisiel, in many ways the iconic solo character, can just call "whoops, evade!" over and over in a way that would cause some serious time pressure in a six-player game.
If we add a second character—something that we recommend, just because the wide variety of challenges can make it really hard for a single character to handle everything we might throw at you—the math mostly remains the same. There are now 40 cards in 4 locations, and 30 "turns" in the timer deck. There's some pressure to explore more than once a turn, but it's usually not overwhelming. Slow and Steady, as they say, wins the scenario. (At least, I think that's how the saying goes.)
On the other end, the six-player group typically has to cover 8 locations of 10 cards each, including a villain and a gaggle of henchmen, and they've got to do it with the same 30 cards in the blessings deck. This means that the large group needs to build and maintain momentum. If each character encounters only 1 card each time she discards the top of the timer deck, the group really isn't going to see most of the cards in the scenario. That said, things aren't exactly bleak for the large group; in fact, they generally succeed slightly more often.
You might wonder why this happens, and there are many reasons. As a group, they usually can cover all of the bases. The group can include both characters that like to stay with others and characters that like to be left alone. Valeros can afford to spend most of his blessings to explore his location again and again, because there are 5 other hands that can donate a blessing if he really needs it. In fact, there are just a lot more cards in general, so there are usually resources available for helping—adding to a check, healing damage, scouting locations, moving characters around, and so on. When the group is looking at defending open locations, chances are really good that someone is good at whatever needs to be done, whether that's succeeding at a skill check, bashing monsters, or just having the right kind of card to spend. The number of weak spots goes down and the ability to cover weak spots goes up. Sure, there's a bit more competition for some resources, but when encounters count, the large group can almost always find a way.
There's another big factor, too: that gaggle of henchmen. While 80 cards in 30 "turns" sounds like a lot, the math is actually much friendlier; the group needs to get through 8 locations, rather than 80 cards. Breaking out some basic statistics, the chances are good (very good) that several of those locations can be closed after encountering roughly half of the location deck. In Statistically Average World, the large group will get to close each location after the fifth or sixth card. If they're successful each time they get this chance, they're now seeing about 50 cards instead of 80. Remember that large groups have a much greater ability to succeed at "important" checks. They have more collective resources to bring to bear, so their chances here are good. They can also afford (some might say "need") to be a bit more aggressive in exploring, because the group safety net is stronger.
Different Challenges for Different Groups
I've talked about the different types of challenge faced by small and large groups, and hopefully that makes sense to you now. Next I want to talk about how we design for these different types of challenge, including how we impact each type of group, and how we break it.
If we make the cost of failure against a particular card especially high, this tends to hit the small group harder than the large group. The large group can usually rally for "important" moments in a way that the smaller group can't. This is especially true for nasty henchmen, villains, locations, and scenarios.
This is something that we keep in mind when we design scenarios especially. While we try to make sure that most groups see most of the cards in a given set, we also try to arrange to keep the "meaner" locations towards the end of the locations list, so that they show up more often for larger groups that are better equipped the deal with them.
When small groups get into trouble, it's often because they really need to do something that is hard for the group (say, a Divine check for Merisiel and Ezren) and they're low on resources at that time. Effects that take cards out of your hand before the encounter are rough here, because they're more likely to "hit where it hurts" in a small group.
On the other hand, the "horde" barriers are a good example of cards that are aimed at keeping the challenge high for large groups. When we force an encounter for everyone, we expect that some of the characters will be able to best the encounter with minimal resources (which is great, because it lets a player feel mastery), but often there will also be a few characters who need help. This provides an opportunity for the group to come together and figure out how to handle the challenge as a group. Sometimes, this involves someone sacrificing himself to the challenge, thus spending his resources on someone else. In these situations, we almost always let the group decide the order for the encounters. We do this not just because it feels right for a cooperative game, but also because it enables these sorts of tactical and strategic decisions. When a "horde" bane must be defeated by everyone in order to itself be defeated, this creates a different strategic cascade than if the horde is defeated based solely on your check, so you'll probably want to proceed in a different order and play different cards for each.
With this in mind, if you look through the various APs, I'll bet you can see its influence everywhere. You'll see it when a giant deals damage to everyone at its location; when a scenario encourages (or forces) everyone to group up; when a villain makes "you" or "a character at your location" summon and encounter another bane; when you're looking to see whether an item helps characters "at your location" or anywhere; or when a power counts the number of open locations, or characters, or locations. You'll also see it when you put characters who like groups (like RotR Lem or Valeros) alongside characters who want to be by themselves (like RotR Merisiel)... or at least, characters who want to be somewhere other than where the fight currently is (like RotR Harsk).
Adventure Paths: Different but Same
Finally, I'd like to talk a little bit about how we use this aspect of the game when we're designing Adventure Paths. Anyone who read my previous blog about the Differences in Difficulty between the APs should know that we aim for different experiences in difficulty over time between the Adventure Paths. We also use differences in scaling of groups to try to give each AP its own feel, but we want to keep the underlying game the same. This flows both from our attempts to make the game "different but the same", and it also flows naturally from the story of the Adventure Paths themselves. There are two specific examples that I think are worth talking about here: ships and armies.
In Skull & Shackles, we knew right away that we wanted to have ships in the game. We played with several different systems for ships and ship combat before settling on the system used in the AP, and several of the changes came directly out of group size scaling. Comparing Skull & Shackles to Rise of the Runelords, it should be immediately obvious that there are some specific skills that are very important to S&S, including the skills that represent sailing, navigating, commanding, and repairing a ship. The characters in S&S vary in their talent with these skills, but we tried to make sure that every character that we felt should be naturally good at dealing with a ship alone should have some way to be good at these skills, because we wanted to make sure that small groups could play the AP. Rather than having a specific location separate from the characters, the ship is (when not docked) assumed to be at the location of the active player. It comes and goes, and when it's your turn, the ship is with you. We also changed the way structural damage worked so that anyone could deal with it rather than only the characters at the relevant location. This change made the ship and its upkeep feel like it was a group responsibility, rather than an individual character's. These two factors balanced each other. Some characters are naturally better with ships than others, including dealing with trouble, should it occur. At the same time, everyone can use the ship, and a large group has a greater ability to deal with ship troubles when they happen.
In Wrath of the Righteous, we were looking instead to create a "crowded" feel. You start off overwhelmed. Once you regain your bearings, you get to reassert your (protagonist-level) control of the situation, but the enemy still has you outnumbered. To this end, we created armies, both yours and theirs. As nascent Big Damn Heroes, your army is more of a tool for you to personally wield than it is a method to get someone else to deal with the problem, but that shouldn't be a surprise. On the other side, army barriers require an increasingly difficult coordination and mastery challenge, represented by the set of six checks, each of which must be made without repeating. In practice, this means that small groups can usually find something that they're good at with a small expenditure of resources. With a larger group, chances increase that someone is forced to try something hard for them, but conversely, other characters should be able to find something relatively easy. The group as a whole must come together in order to have any hope of defeating enemy armies.
This is a big subject, and while I've written quite a lot about it, I'm sure I've missed some parts of it. Please, throw me your questions below, and I'll either answer them here or pull them together for a follow-up blog post, or maybe both.
Until then, thanks for playing!
Adventure Card Game Lead Developer