The board games were stacked by the shelfies with care, in hopes that no shelves would ever be bare. The wallets were hung on the line out to dry, as credit card bills grew high as the sky. GenCon had passed with a roar of applause and Origins was a memory filled with great awe. The gamers were nestled all snug in their beds, dreams of just one more Con in their heads. When what to their wandering keyboards appear? PAX Unplugged! Oh so late in the year! One more chance for the gamers to play, if they had any more pennies post-Black Friday. Out to their cars, they flew on the roads, to Philadelphia with daydreams of board game payloads. Arriving with badges, they cheered and some hugged; “Happy Gaming to All, at PAX Unplugged!”
What is PAX Unplugged?
PAX (short for Penny Arcade Expo) conventions have had a rapidly growing presence in the gaming industry ever since the first PAX launched in 2004. Most PAX events cover a wide range of gaming culture, but have a heavy emphasis on video gaming. Two years ago PAX Unplugged was launched in downtown Philadelphia and it became the first PAX to focus on Tabletop Gaming. In just its second year, PAX Unplugged continued to draw thousands of board gamers to play the latest products from well over 200 exhibitors. With non-stop events in collectible card games, war games, role-playing games, and classic board games, just about every corner of the industry had some kind of presence at this year’s PAX U.
Two of Meeple Mountain’s contributing writers traveled to PAX Unplugged this year, both for their first time. Ashley Gariepy and Justin Gibbons share their thoughts on PAX Unplugged 2018. Make sure to check out our Guide To Board Game Conventions for lots of handy tips on planning your next con trip!
What Sets It Apart?
Justin: Two things really stood out to me that set PAX Unplugged apart from other large board gaming conventions. First, there was far less nickel-and-diming to play board games! In fact, in the main exhibit hall and game hall, there are NO ticketed events that require you to pay money! You simply pay for your badge at registration, show up, and play games! If you can find a spot at a table, you can play.
Second, I enjoyed the convenience of the venue. The exhibit hall and game hall are essentially one giant room. The exhibit hall is on the left half of the room and is easily identified by the large, brilliantly designed exhibitor booths. The right half of the room is the game hall where row after row of simple tables are loaded with gamers trying out the newest products. Walking back and forth between the two was a breeze.
Ashley: Besides what Justin already mentioned, what sets PAX Unplugged apart is the organizers’ experience. The PAX conventions have been running since 2004 and all that expertise really shines through. From the layout of the massive hall to the open gaming areas, everything flowed well and was well-organized. The staff and enforcers were everywhere and could always be easily spotted with their bright purple shirts. Some helped keep the aisles/paths between exhibitor booths clear of foot traffic, others taught games, and some stood around with a sign asking if attendees had any questions. Even some of the minor convention annoyances like long lines, were made better by the helpful staff and the fact that the organizers knew what they were doing.
Pros and Cons
Justin: PAX Unplugged offers a big-convention feel while having manageable crowds. Similar to Origins, it feels like it’s a convention where you come to play games rather than get sucked into expo hooplah. It was very easy to find a spot at the game tables. I was able to play just about every game I wanted to with only a few that required a short wait. I also enjoyed that I didn’t have to pre-register or pay for any of my plays. The only money I needed on-site was for food and game purchases.
On the downside, getting into the convention center was a bit troublesome on Saturday and a bit confusing as a first-timer. There were two main entrances; one had very long lines but was convenient, while the other had minimal lines but was a long walk from the main area of the convention center. Also, because PAX Unplugged is so late in the year, most of what was showcased had been seen at other conventions. If you’re a regular Origins or GenCon attendee, you’re not likely to see anything new here. You can likely cover the exhibit area in a day and may find yourself wanting. However, if you’re unable to attend those Cons, PAX Unplugged is a fantastic option because you don’t have to deal with event registration, website crashes, and nickel-and-diming associated with those conventions.
Ashley: PAX Unplugged was the first major board game convention I decided to attend. I chose it because its focus is on actually playing board games. If you wanted, you could completely avoid the exhibit hall altogether. This is PAX U’s best feature. With a focus on playing, this meant that the game library was incredibly well-stocked AND there was a huge “Hot Games” section with tables dedicated to the latest releases from Essen with volunteers there to teach them. (In this section, there were also many games that have yet to be released like Barrage and Stonehenge and the Sun.) Another pro I have to mention is the proximity of the convention center to amazing food joints. The food in the Center itself wasn’t great, but just across the street were many fantastic restaurants and, a couple of blocks over, there was Reading Terminal Market. As a vegetarian, I was surprised I was never short of delicious (and filling) options. I even had my very first vegetarian Philly steak sandwich thanks to HipCityVeg!
The one thing I didn’t particularly enjoy was just how busy the Con was on Saturday. There were so many bodies in the Convention Center that it was very overwhelming. The lines were long, the exhibitor booths were packed, and each open gaming table was full in the late afternoon (people resorted to playing board games outside the hall on the floor). My understanding is that the number of people still doesn’t compare to conventions like GenCon or Essen, but for someone who has a hard time in crowds, Saturday was a bit too much for me.
Highlights of What We Played
Plaid Hat Games: Comanauts
As a fan of Stuffed Fables, I’ve been eagerly waiting to try the newest game by Jerry Hawthorne. Comanauts is a much more “adult” themed game, but still uses the trademark Adventure Book design employed in Stuffed Fables. In Comanauts, you play as constructs of a comatose man’s subconscious.
A hilariously diverse cast of characters is available to play; from a comic-book superhero, to an anachronistic robot, to a Scooby-Doo-esque ghost huntress. As you navigate the map pages of the book/board, you will confront the man’s inner demons while interacting with his mysterious inner child. As one of my most anticipated games, I can’t wait to play the full version and unravel the mysteries that lie within.
Roxley: Dice Throne
Dice Throne recently completed a wildly successful campaign for “Season 2” on Kickstarter and I can see why this game is so popular. In Dice Throne, players square off against one another as fantastic warriors of different eras and backgrounds. Dice Throne employs a mix of Yahtzee-like dice rolling mechanics mixed with collectible card game-based gameplay, with a dash of RPG. As players roll dice to perform attacks, they will also spend combat points to play cards that can enhance their attacks, react to opponents, or even level-up their characters abilities. Each character is designed to be completely asymmetric and thematic. For example, my Moon Elf lacked the strength of my opponents’ Barbarian, but employed evasion, entanglement, and other status effects to bolster her power. With a diverse cast, high replayability, and Roxley Games’ gorgeous art and graphic design, I regret missing this one on Kickstarter and surely will back future releases.
Capstone Games is known for their crunchy wooden-cube Euro games. In Pipeline, you play as an entrepreneurial fuel mogul who intends to expand their business as opponents do the same. You will not only have to manage your tight finances to purchase oil and upgrades, but you will need to lay your own pipelines in an efficient grid. The pipe tiles bring a spatial-puzzle-like element to the table and it makes Pipeline feel different than otherwise-similar games. Add in the fact that the art and graphic design is done by the superb Ian O’Toole and Pipeline is a must-own for any heavy Euro gamer.
Druid City Games: Tidal Blades
Tidal Blades is the latest offering by the tag-team of Tim Eisner and Druid City Games. Artwork by Mr Cuddington (who also worked with Eisner and Druid City on The Grimm Forest) is immediately engaging and head-turning. Few games at PAX Unplugged had table presence like Tidal Blades. In this game, you’ll be utilizing a pool of dice to accomplish “challenges” at various locations. Each challenge is represented on a card with requirements that you must meet by rolling dice. As you progress through the game you will not only improve your character abilities, but you will improve your dice pool as well. While I felt the demo was almost too short to wrap my head around all that was going on in the game, I can see how Tidal Blades can be a tightly-resourced dice-chucking adventure with many point-scoring options and opportunities.
Days of Wonder: The River
I’m a sucker for any Days of Wonder production so I usually purchase their games without much research. However, I heard mixed reviews about The River so I waited to play it first. The River, designed by Sébastien Pauchon (Jaipur) and Ismaël Perrin, is a standard worker placement game where you gather resources to construct buildings. It’s pretty light and certainly less meaty compared to DoW’s previous releases like Five Tribes and Quadropolis, but it is still a solid game. Unfortunately there isn’t much about the game that is unique or helps it stand out amongst other Essen releases (especially with its generic title). Our group enjoyed the gameplay so much though that we stayed to play a second game.
Blue Magpie Games: Majolica
Rumour had it that Majolica was an Azul killer and since Azul is one of my favourite games, I wanted to check it out. In Majolica, players are collecting tiles to place in one of their 4 factories, trying to complete the factory’s goal card. Once a factory is full and the appropriate tiles are moved to its goal card, the remaining tiles shift right into your next factory. This could then trigger your next factory to be full which would move tiles to that factory’s goal card and then the remaining tiles would shift right again to your next factory. This sequence of events could happen many times until you run out of tiles. Mechanically I enjoyed how the game worked, but otherwise the gameplay was really fiddly. The game is also much more complex than Azul so I don’t think the comparison between the two is quite fair. Even with all that, this the most memorable game I played at PAX Unplugged simply because of the incredibly fun people with whom I played.
Cosmodrome Games: Smartphone Inc.
I was given strict instructions from Meeple Mountain’s Andrew Plassard to play Smartphone Inc. at PAX U and report back to him. I was also interested in the game myself because of its theme more than anything. In Smartphone Inc., each player heads a cell phone company whose goal is to make the most money by selling the best phones with the fanciest technology in various regions. The game basically boils down to an economic, area-control game with a really neat action selection mechanism. At the beginning of each round, players take their two boards and overlay them to show symbols. The visible symbols represent the actions a player will take that round and the number of each symbol represents the action’s strength. This game was a surprising hit for me and I’m eagerly waiting the news announcing that Smartphone Inc. has a North American distributor.
AEG: Tiny Towns
Tiny Towns is an upcoming release (April 2019) from AEG in which each player is creating their own tiny town on a 5×5 grid. Each turn, one player (in clockwise order) will name a resource. Everyone must then take that resource and add it to their grid. Once a player has the right resources in the correct orientation on their grid, they may construct a building. Similar to any city-building game, points are scored in many different ways based on the buildings you constructed. Tiny Towns feels like other Bingo-esque games like Karuba where everyone has the same tools or resources, but the way in which they’re placed or used is what differentiates the players. I cannot wait to play the final production copy of this game in the spring! Look out for our upcoming interview with Tiny Town’s designer, Peter McPherson.