The following is my Amazon review of ROTRL. I will talk about playing the pathfinder card game in more detail later. For now, enjoy this review.
Rise of the Rune Lords (hereafter referred to as ROTRL) is a deck building adventure card game for 2-6 players based on the RPG of the same name. Participants select characters, complete narrative encounters, and develop their decks. The narrative campaign is comprised of two introductory modules, a base set (adventure pack 1) and five sequentially numbered scenario kits—each of which contains 94 treasure, monster, trap, and location cards required to play six distinct adventures. The full experience encompasses 38 encounters each usually lasting between 1 and 2 hours.
While this is technically a review of the ROTRL base set, it is difficult to discuss the starter box without addressing the campaign and supplementary materials. I have tried to clearly distinguish between the base set components and other products.
The base set comes in a high quality game box typical of euro card products like dominion and ascension. It is big enough that your player decks, selection of locations, misc loot, hazards, and monsters will all still fit in the box including expansions and bonus cards.
The base packaging includes an instruction book, more than 400 cards, a set of RPG dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12), and a plastic card organizer. The cards are your usual euro card stock—plenty durable in the short term but easily destroyed if care is not taken. We found it easiest to sleeve our character decks and use dry erase markers on top loader sleeves for our characters. This protected our decks while keeping a physical record of our advancement that did not require separate character sheets. The cards are well written and illustrated—though the lack of flavor text was a missed opportunity in my opinion. The instructions cover game play cleanly with a couple of quality oversights. I would have liked a mechanical guide that clarified which rule takes precedence when two actions conflict and a robust index but for the cost and form factor the materials are more than adequate.
The campaign begins with players picking a character from the provided options including monk, bard, fighter, barbarian, cleric, ranger, wizard...etc. Each character has a pre-set distribution of cards chosen from items, weapons, armor, allies, spells, and blessings. Their character card provides a range of attributes and special powers which will improve each time an adventure module is successfully completed.
At the start of a mission players build the scenario board by building 4- 8 location decks. In most cases this will consist of several piles of loot cards, monsters, and barriers specified by the location (a wizard’s tower has more spells while the guard tower has more weapons.) The number of location scales with the number of characters so smaller groups are not disadvantaged. The adventure boss and their henchmen are randomly scattered among the available locations. Each location requires a particular skill check, combat, or card sacrifice to close. As the group completes the 6-adventure expansion packs more challenging foes and more valuable treasure are added to the random pool raising the risk-reward potential of future sessions.
A game consists of 30 turns regardless of the number of players. While larger groups have more resources, they have less individual player turns to achieve their objectives. The players successfully complete the scenario when they defeat the boss while preventing him from fleeing to open locations. So players have to balance the desire to collect all the loot with the need to close locations and find the boss before the 30 turn clock runs out. Most characters have cards which can be played to benefit themselves or others. Since they often face challenges they cannot overcome individually, the collective management of cross-party resources combines with strategic exploration to make collaboration essential. Sometimes you will need to give up your resources so the wizard can acquire a valuable ally. Sometimes you will be blessed by the cleric so you can close an open location with a particularly difficult challenge rating. Group priorities change depending on game state and available resources. Good players will work together. Poor players will try and turn the adventure into a group contest—and probably fail.
A note on additional products:
New players should be aware of the economics of the game. Currently, Paizo offers 3 adventure path sets with a fourth on the way. Each path begins with a base set ($45) good for 2 introductory adventures and the 6 adventures in the first expansion pack. To get the full campaign experience, players will need to purchase 5 additional adventure path expansions (aprox $20 each.) The base set has a great deal of replayability due to the random scenario mechanic but if you want to go all the way, it will cost around $150 for the full 38 mission treatment. If players want to spice up their options, they can buy a character expansion pack which features alternative character configurations ($20.) Tack on a set of character play mats ($40) and the total runs over $200 per path. Outside the four adventure paths, players can also purchase dedicated class expansion packs featuring extra loot for those seeking a better treasure distribution. There are currently three special release goblin characters and two associated class expansion packs ($30 total.) You can buy a dedicated scenario mat to help organize locations and scenario decks too. My group enjoyed running through ROTRL so much that we bought the 2 complete following paths and have pre-ordered the fourth. That being said, even if you only want to play the base campaign without all the bells and whistles I feel it is only fair to put the cost in perspective--$45 is about a third of what you will end up spending for one of the adventure paths minimum.
Why should you buy ROTRL?
If you like truly cooperative games, if you want to level a character and enjoy some table talk without the need for a game master, if you used to role-play and can only spare a couple hours a week now, if you like big modular gaming frameworks, ROTRL is for you. It took five of us over a year to complete the full 38 module adventure path. We loved every minute of it. The mechanics do an excellent job of recreating the intuitive feel of playing an old school RPG character while blending in modern deck builder elements. Even if you stick with the base set and never get a single expansion kit this is a fun game with a lot of replayability.
Why should you avoid ROTRL?
If you dislike organizing hundreds of cards, if you do not like working with detailed rule sets, if you do not want to have to buy each of the supplementary card packs, if you are not interested in playing an on-going game over multiple sessions, then this might not be the game for you.