The Inaugural PAX Unplugged Was a Major Success: Our Review
The first ever tabletop only PAX event occurred earlier this month in Philadelphia, and it was really freaking awesome. PAX, which stands for Penny Arcade Expo, is a convention that features and honors the players, developers, and publishers of games around the world. Its original format includes both video games and analog/tabletop formats- and this type of event is available once a year in Boston, Seattle, and Texas. As interest has started to grow for the more traditional gaming varieties, including board games, card games, role-playing games, and classic cardboard, PAX decided to create an exclusive event for just that. Enter, PAX Unplugged.
PAX Unplugged included a packed exhibit hall with presence from hundreds of vendors, gaming tournaments, tons of diverse panels on a bunch of topics, a traditional Omegathon with all unplugged events, an RPG dungeon filled with round-the-clock roleplaying games, a workshop for painting miniatures, and tabletop freeplay.
PAX Unplugged was also wonderful in that it included the sense of comradery, inclusivity, and community that is present at all PAX events. The attendees included an equal number of men and women and a culturally diverse crowd, and guests were friendly and welcoming to pros and noobs alike. PAX also made an effort to be inclusive by having a Diversity Lounge celebrating underrepresented aspects of gamer culture. The convention also featured panels on Women in game design, queer visibility in RPGS, and mental health awareness in the gaming community. They even had a quiet and low-stimulation AFK room, which is a safe place to take a break from the excitement of a huge event and to even speak with a mental health provider if you need it.
In general, while PAX Unplugged was similar to its video-inclusive cousin in Boston, PAX East — there were significantly fewer lines. Mostly everyone in my party were able to playtest all the games that they wanted to, get into all the panels they desired, and join all the tournaments they desired without having to sacrifice precious convention time. There were sadly significantly fewer cosplayers- although the event did have rules in place should people choose to cosplay.
PAX Unplugged appeals to a wide variety of different types of nerd, and no one convention experience is the same. While I cannot nearly speak to every single event, I will briefly describe some of the cool things I did over the course of the PAX Unplugged weekend.
I attended two panels while at PAX. The first I attended was the keynote presentation with Chris Cocks (current CEO of Wizards of The Coast, the gaming company responsible for games like Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and Axis & Allies). The presentation was called The Power of the Ampersand and focused on ways that gaming can bring people together. Cocks discussed his own experiences with gaming and relationships throughout his life, as well as sharing upcoming products for Magic: The Gathering.
Cocks previewed some of the new set of joke MTG cards called Unstable which is available for purchase on December 8. Some of the fun cards he showed included half- and half- creatures that could be combined with other cards to form new power levels and abilities. Cocks shared that this is an idea that Wizards are considering adding to the real sets in the future. He also shared some new cards from the next set, Rivals of Ixalan, which comes out in the spring, as well as previewing the following set, Dominaria, which will pay homage to the first Magic cards, and bring back a few old favorite characters too. Cocks later opened the discussion to run new ideas by the crowd, as well as take ideas from the crowd for how Wizards can continue to improve their games. One of those ideas is to infuse other Hasbro characters into Wizards games- which can be seen in the new Unstable set of MTG cards which includes autobots, and a card called “The Sword of Dungeons and Dragons.” Cocks shared a Dungeons and Dragons campaign with the crowd that takes place in Ixalan, the fictional world in which the most recent MTG set exists within.
I also attended a panel called Trusting the Party’s Healer: Games, Gamers, and Therapy. This panel included six mental health professionals who discussed different ways they are working to both spread mental health awareness to individuals in the gaming community, and different ways they use games in therapy to help adults and teens to meet their therapeutic goals. It also highlighed two organizations, Take This, who runs the AFK rooms at all the PAX events, and Game to Grow, who holds Dungeons & Dragons groups for teens with autism. This was a really interesting panel for gamers and clinicians alike.
Games I Tried
Yeah! Diamonds: Yeah! Diamonds is a simple and fun, family friendly deck building game that uses tactile tiles instead of cards to accommodate little hands and fingers. We got to speak to the developer directly, and he said he’s playtested the game with kids as young as six, and they’re able to understand and enjoy the game. The setting is mining for gemstones, and the object of the game is to collect the most gems, with special bonuses for the players who collect the most of each type of gem. I enjoy deck building games in general, and overall it was a really fun game and I would recommend it to anyone with youngsters at home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t available for sale just yet, but it is available for preorder here.
New York Slice: New York Slice is another family friendly game we tried. It is at first extremely visually appealing, well, because it’s PIZZA. The game itself is pretty simple: one player divides the pizza into enough sections for everyone, and then each player decides what piece they are going to take. Once you take your section of the pie, you have to decide whether to leave individual slices on your “plate” (face up) or to “eat” the slices (face down). There are two ways to win the game: either by having the greatest amount of one type of slice, or by eating the most pepperoni, and you lose points for anchovies. There are also “daily specials” that add special rules to the game. Overall this game was silly and fun, but the price tag of $30 was pretty steep for such a simple game without many pieces. It’s a little cheaper on Amazon, but still a bit much in my opinion.
Mistborn: House War: I didn’t actually get a chance to play this game, I only watched it explained and demoed, but I had to include it anyway because I am SO EXCITED about it. Mistborn: House War is official merchandise based on the Mistborn novels by Brandon Sanderson- which if you haven’t read yet- it’s time to get started! The entire Mistborn planet includes three types of magic that are based on metals, and the first novel, sometimes called The Final Empire takes place in a large city with a strict social hierarchy and an oppressive totalitarian ruler who is believed to be immortal. In the game, you are playing as a noble house trying to curry favor with the Lord Ruler and gain prestige in the midst of a ska (proletariat class) revolution. It comes in a huge box with amazing art work and high quality cards. It was a kickstarter game and was on sale at PAX Unplugged, but is pretty difficult to find for sale at a reasonable price elsewhere. It’s for 3-5 players, and probably takes a few hours to play through. I’m really hoping this game takes off, because we definitely need more games set within the Cosmere universe.
Fog of Love: Fog of Love is advertised as a romantic comedy of a game, and it really is. It’s a two player game, and you play as a couple that begins dating. Each player can choose their gender from the start, so its inclusive to both same sex and opposite sex couples. Each individual player is given 5 destiny cards that are your individual win conditions, which either includes breaking up or staying together. Each player then secretly chooses their personality traits, which affects how they make decisions in the game. You also choose a profession, which influences your personality traits. When gameplay begins, you go through four chapters which each represent different stages in a relationship. In each chapter, a player plays a card with a scenario, and each player chooses a decision from multiple choice options, and puts their answer face down. Relationship satisfaction and personality traits can change based on how each player chooses. What makes this game fun, is you can play with the interests of the relationship in mind, OR you can act on your own self-interest based on your personal win conditions. Fog of Love is a pretty weird game, but I actually enjoyed it, and it would probably make a really fun wedding or anniversary gift for your favorite nerdy couple.
This War of Mine: This War of Mine is probably the best game I tried at PAX Unplugged, although the most heart-wrenching. It takes place in a war-torn town somewhere in Eastern Europe, and the object of the game is just to survive. You play as a group controlling three characters to start, and as a committee decide what each character will do in each round of the game. Your original characters may be civilians or fighters, and each have different levels of personality traits that determine how scenarios will go. You can meet other characters along the way, and can choose to kill them, steal from them, ask them to join you, and other options. You roll dice and pick up cards to determine outcomes, and outcomes can affect character’s hunger, thirst, health, and misery levels. The game also comes with a book of scripts that is basically a choose your own adventure game within the game. It can be played with or without a GM, but it was way more fun with the GM. The game is incredibly complex and thorough, and can take hours to complete. It can also be absolutely heartbreaking at times. It’s similar to the video game of the same name, but is slightly less heartbreaking as you are playing as a team and not controlling the fate of all of your characters by yourself. I highly recommend this game, although it’s not for the faint of heart.
Dominion: Dominion is a favorite of mine, and I tried my luck with a tournament. Dominion is pretty popular game, so they had about three tournaments going per day. It’s another deck building game, so each turn you get five cards one buy, and one action. You can either buy more money cards, an “Kingdom” card for your deck (which could be an action that allows you to draw extra cards, gain money, curse or attack other players, ect.), or a Victory card (which are property- estates, provinces, ect.). The object of the game is to finish the game with the most property. You play only 10 kingdom cards in supply every game, and it’s basically a completely different game each time depending on which Kingdom cards are out. For that reason, its worth it to try all of the expansions too. I tried the Alchemy expansion for the first time, which added potions as currency and included new ways to curse opponents and to gain victory points, which totally changed the gameplay strategy. If you like deck building games, strategy games, or fantasy, play this!
Quick and Dirty: Quick and Dirty is your new party game. I like to describe this game as the lovechild of Scategories and Cards Against Humanity It’s a tiny little box that includes hilarious promts a la Cards Against Humanity , only the white card is a letter of the alphabet. Each player shouts out an answer to the prompt that begins with the appropriate letter, and then the judge chooses the most hilarious answer, and they get the black prompt card. Object of the game is to get the most black prompt cards. They also have a hilarious bright pink “Date Night” expansion. Pairs well with wine.
Magic: The Gathering: This isn’t necessarily a game I play-tested at PAX Unplugged, although I am relatively new to the game as I’ve only been dabbling in instants and creature spells for about a year. It’s worth mentioning though, because I was really impressed with the noob-friendly MTG presence at the event. There were constant on-demand starter league games, as well as a booth in the exhibit hall where new players could see a MTG demo and get a free starter deck. I actually tried my luck in a Constructed Modern tournament, playing with a red/black/green aggro dragon deck (which I call my Daenerys Targaryen deck) and I was amazed at how unthreatening, patient, and fun the competition was. After seeing limited MTG presence at PAX East, this was a nice change.
Dixit: Another old favorite that I got to try tournament style. Dixit is adorably underrated. The game pieces are little bunnies, and the art on the cards is actually really cool. It’s sort of like a visual Balderdash. Everyone is dealt six cards, and whoever goes first puts down one card face down and gives a clue to describe their card. Each other player then puts down a decoy card that could also be described by the clue. The cards are flipped face-up and each player except the cluegiver (called Storyteller) guesses which card the Storyteller put down. Players win points by guessing the correct card and by fooling other players with their own card. The storyteller scores points only if some but not all players are able to guess the correct card. The game board is a cute little bunny race, and the first bunny across the finish line wins.
Hot Guys Making Out: I had never played an RPG before and was entirely skeptical, so I decided to try one that was simple, small, and super weird. Hot Guys Making Out definitely fit the bill. It’s essentially a period romance set during the Spanish Civil War at some point within the 1930’s (although something about the set up felt significantly older) for 2-4 players that takes 1-2 hours to complete. The main characters are two men who inevitably may or may not fall in love depending on how their characters choose to play them, and the supporting characters are a maid and a butler who can be as basic or as badass as you choose to play. This game was surprisingly dense and action packed (war action, not even making-out action), and the characters were really fun to play. This would be a great game for someone who wants to try an RPG but isn’t fully ready to commit to a whole D& D campaign (like me), and all you need to play is the book and a deck of standard playing cards. The cards in your hand determine what actions you are able to take, and the rules are different for each character. The book even includes instructions for building new characters if you want to play with a larger party. The game is only $10 to buy, or $6 on PDF here.
Since no one PAX-perience is the same, share with us what games you tried and what panels you attended in the comments section. Stay tuned to Nerd Much? for more gaming and gamer related content!