Pathfinder: Level 20 is the first design collaboration between Lynnvander Studios and Gale Force Nine. This small-box game is many things, but it definitely ain’t honest. Its first fib is the tall tale concept – anyone who has played the tabletop RPGs Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons knows that level 20 is a myth. It’s something you dream and read about, and that’s it.
Well, good news. You still don’t get to play that level 20 fighter that’s been scraping across your brain for a decade. Instead, you get to play its afternoon snack.
The concept here is great. Perhaps the best part of the game. Each player is a lowly kobold. You scurry about the dungeon room board and dig through junk, hoping to find some moss or a stalactite. Maybe some rotten food.
Then you take those meager vittles and use them as makeshift weaponry to ward off the unicorn that is a level 19 warrior looking for their last bit of XP. You care little for your furry brethren, perfectly content to feed them to the invaders like minnows to the maw. As long as you manage to be the final survivor, you win.
Alternatively, you can embarrass the thirsty warrior so severely that they flee in shame. In that case, you win if you’re the one to deal the final shameful blow to their ego.
The second lie Pathfinder: Level 20 tells is one of a light and fluffy game. It wants you to believe it’s the type of thing we designate as filler.
In truth, this can be that. You can sit down for a 20-minute escapade where your cute critters dance around and slowly get eaten while you all laugh. It works well enough in this format, as the process of play is simple and frivolous. You get to feed rotten cheese to a level 19 fighter and shout “shame!” as they slip on moss and collide with a stone wall. Why shouldn’t it be facetious and mirthful?
Because this bastard lies. I warned you.
If you put some careful thought into this design, it will mirror your effort. Beneath the slime and fecal matter of the dungeon floor, there is a serious abstract waiting to be unearthed.
Yes, this game can be quite thoughtful and stimulating mentally. With a certain set of players, it will stretch just a hair too long as it broaches 40 minutes. This level of thought is capable due to the board state being almost entiretly transparent. Couple that with the AI running the fighter so deliberately, it’s easy to spend a couple of minutes thinking through your options.
I’m not saying Level 20 belongs in the famed GIPF series, but it’s closer than you’d think.
The tactical weight revolves around the fighter picking a single target each turn and then moving full speed towards it. If they step on the space of a kobold, the bugger is squashed and fully eliminated. Player elimination, suckas.
The problem is that the level 19 antagonist moves four spaces, while you guttertrash kobolds only move two. That’s why you have your tricks, Gollum my boy.
Cards, scavenged from those junk piles, allow you to permanently alter the board with moss, smash stalactites into your enemy’s face, poison their gut with moldy nutrition, or escape at the last moment through a hidey hole. The best and most interesting moments of the experience hinge on the use of these abilities. Manipulating the fighter to step onto moss, resulting in a chain reaction of multiple slides and thumping into an opponent’s kobold – this is sheer hilarity.
The intellectual sphere at work completely revolves around manipulating space by diving behind the fighter’s line of sight, predicting who their target will be for the round, and planning for the future. You absolutely can foresee a turn ahead, and skilled players will act accordingly.
Turn order is huge. You need to exploit this. If you’re moving first in a game with five players, you have no idea where those other punks will end up, so you need to play it safe. However, if you’re moving last, you can end your turn in a more dangerous space, as long as you know they will target someone else.
There’s a slight tension here, particularly when you’re cornered or can foresee a sticky situation arising. It gets even more interesting when you jump to a player count of four or more, as it throws a second 19th level fighter at you. Juggling two hunter-killers is a little trickier and thus, rewarding. It remains interesting though below that count as well.
I have to admit that I’m fond of the presentation. The small-sized box is a throwback to a previous time. This type of game simply isn’t made anymore. Now it’s all either enormously bloated games or diminutive card games, and nothing in between. Rarely do we see cardboard standees and small austere boards. It feels a little old-timey in that regard, but in an inviting way. This also helps to lower expectations and set players up for a jolt when the gameplay unfolds.
This is the sort of simple and straightforward design that sets an appropriate goal and accomplishes its vision. It functions well as a distraction for a D&D group that’s waiting for that last party member to show up, or for a table of friends who simply want a game that offers insight beyond its dimensions.
I do wish it was a tad shorter when engaged under those serious pretenses, but it holds up well enough that it’s difficult to complain. And while I’m here shouting its surprising sharpness, it won’t quite hold up in direct comparison to some of the strongest abstracts available, designs like Santorini and DVONN offer a much more fertile ground to explore under indefinite term. But the charm of this title’s concept positions it uniquely, which helps to differentiate it from competitors.
While a warm contest, Pathfinder: Level 20 likely won’t blow you away. With such a modest and simple appearance, it’s easy to approach it meekly. But just like the underground lizards creeping around their lair, this small-statured riffraff may surprise you.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.