PAX Unplugged 2017 Convention Report
Convention Report – PAX Unplugged
Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural PAX Unplugged. For those not in the know, PAX refers to the convention series run by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik of the Penny Arcade web comic fame. In the past all the PAX events have focused on video games with a little bit of tabletop stuff thrown in, but PAX Unplugged was all tabletop and I was psyched!
I’d never been to a PAX event and wasn’t sure what to expect, but with this being the first pure tabletop PAX con I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. I attended the event all three days with the intention to play games pretty much non-stop. Instead of giving a play-by-play report of all three days, I’m going to break this report down by the specific things I did, with Dean and Chris chiming in from time to time with their thoughts as well.
Brad: The first thing that struck me when I walked in, was how big it was and how much of the floor space was set aside for gaming. In the main hall roughly a third of the room was publishers and stores selling products and doing short demos, and the rest was open play and tournament space. As part of that there was a gaming library where you could borrow games to play for free and a “first look” area with hot new games already set up with staffers waiting around to teach people.
Outside of the main hall there were rooms for roleplaying games downstairs, several areas including a large main stage for live shows, and a few other random rooms like the diversity lounge and the classic game room.
I knew that there would be a lot to do but this was WAY more than I expected!
Dean: I almost attended PAX East twice, so I was glad to finally make it to a PAX event and the tabletop scene is more appealing to me, especially when it comes to playing with others because as a busy adult competitive video gaming has little to no appeal. There was so much to do, and despite being packed with people I found myself waiting very little for much of anything from bathrooms, food lines, registers, or table space to game.
Chris: I had no idea what to expect, as this also was my first PAX experience. I had heard horror stories of waiting lines to just sign up to play games at other conventions, I was expecting a claustrophobic event with bodies being shuttled down convention hallways shoulder to shoulder. Luckily, this was not the case. Aisles were full of people but were very wide, I rarely had any issues navigating my way through the crowds. In the exhibitor hall, there were big names like Fantasy Flight and Asmodee, but also plenty of smaller-independent vendors as well. The “free play” area was stocked full of various types of games that anyone could enjoy, and there was plenty of seating to sprawl about while you played something new.
What I demoed
Brad: I spent a good chunk of day one walking around the expo hall demoing new games rather than sitting down in the open play room and playing full games. The two big standouts for me were The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 and Grim Forest.
The Thing played like a cross between The Resistance and Dead of Winter. Players took turns sending survivors on missions to clear rooms in the outpost with each survivor having to secretly contribute cards to the mission. If you have enough of the right cards you clear the room and get closer to winning. Of course, if you’re secretly the thing you can put the wrong cards in to sink the team. I won’t go over a play-by-play of our game but let’s just say that THE THINGS ESCAPED AND THE WORLD IS DOOMED!!!!
On a lighter note I got to demo The Grim Forest which is a game a backed on Kickstarter last year solely because I like the designer’s previous game, March of the Ants. This game is a worker placement game where you play the three (or four) little pigs trying to be the first to build they’re house. Along the way you’ll recruit various fairytale characters to help you and you’ll send fairytale monsters to mess with your opponents. The game was super easy to pick up but it still had some depth to it. On top of that it looked fantastic! I can’t wait for this one to come out!
Dean: I wanted to get a look at a few games I was excited about like Fallout, Raiders of the North Sea, Spirit Island, and Civilization. I actually didn’t have time to play any of them myself but I was able to see the components and watched some people enjoying themselves and that was enough for me. Brad told me about The Thing and I felt like I had played it after his run-through so I crossed that off my list as well. I found I spectated a lot, so I could hop around and check out more things, which many would think was a mistake but I kinda liked the buffet style of sampling a lot of things instead of focusing on a few since I had a single day pass.
Chris: I demoed a few existing games like Billionaire Banshee and Moonquake Escape. The first is a unique ice breaker game where the player will encounter a suitor with a perk (like being a billionaire) but then also has a quirk (also is permanently slimy). It’s a neat way to get to know a group of people quickly. Moonquake Escape is a children’s game where the entire board moves and a traditional die is replaced with a spinning ball (think of a moon in orbit.) Neat mechanic, will be interesting how it plays out in a future review by Bobby.
What I played
Brad: After I finished demoing demoing games I spent most of my time playing pick-up games in the first look and open gaming area. I’ve a little social anxiety so I was worried about meeting strangers to play with but I was pleasantly surprised to find literally everyone I played a game with was super friendly! As for the games, I played a lot but my standouts Raja of the Ganges, Indian Summer, and Mech vs Minions.
Raja of the Ganges is probably my pick of the con. It’s a fast-paced worker placement game with two different scoring tracks (money and victory points) with the winner being the first to cross the two. Lots of interesting mechanics here and not overly complex in spite of some dense iconography.
Indian Summer is a game with one of those themes that people joke about when they make fun of designer board games. You are taking a hike and you have to cover dirt with leaves finding “treasures” like nuts and berries along the way. Pretty goofy theme but the game was a lot of fun, with players needing be the first to cover their board of dirt squares with Tetris like leaf pieces.
Finally, I managed to check Riot game’s juggernaut boutique board game experience, Mech vs Minions out of the lending library twice and coly cow was it fun! Each game has different objectives like killing all the minions on the board or pushing a bomb off of it. Players draft command cards every turn which they use to program they’re mechs to move and attack. This one defently lives up to the hype. In addition to being a lot of fun the number of minis it comes with is mind-blowing.
Dean: I had intended to play in the Star Wars Destiny Galactic Qualifiers but it became apparent early that it was going to eat up too much of my day and I missed a deadline to get access to some of the exclusive items like a playmat and the point system for rewards was going to put a focus on winning more than my more casual strength deck was likely to achieve or playing all day to add up smaller point totals. So I settled for roping our occasional contributor George into my addiction since a vendor was selling the 2 player starter kit for $20.00 and a few boosters later I helped him build a deck and I dumbed my competition deck down a little so he could get a fair introduction. I infected him and his friend Andy much like the Thing game we mentioned and I took that as a win. George had me play a game where bears fight babies, which was fun but kinda a hot mess as play goes on. And I played Mechs vs Minions with Brad, who recounted that well enough above.
Chris: I sadly did not have a lot of time to play a lot of games. As I spent the majority of my time in the exhibitor hall, my free play time was severely limited. Brad was nice enough to teach us the Mechs vs. Minions game which I loved. I love cooperative games like this where the game forces everyone playing to interact or else the whole team suffers. The game has some very intricate and beautiful game pieces, which really stuck out to me. I also look forward to someone in our group picking this one up so we can play some of the variations included with the base game.
Brad: Of course, what con experience would be complete without bring back some loot! I picked up some cool promos from the Dice Tower booth, a couple light games to play at my family game nights, some awesome custom organizers from Broken Token, and a couple of board game grab bags.
I am a sucker for anything that says grab bag or booster pack on it. I blame years of competitive Magic: The Gathering play. So, when I saw two separate booths selling these, I couldn’t resist. In the first I got a smattering of what looked to be Kickstarter rejects. I’m holding my judgement but still a little disappointing. In spite of this I couldn’t resist buying another grab bag from a different booth but in this one I was rewarded with the hot new Pandemic Legacy: Season 2! I guess now I’ll have to actually finish season 1…
Dean: First thing I bought was a Game Haul Backpack which was perfect for the event. I am newer to competitive games so I got some fun card sleeves some related to Star Wars, and others just being silly like a series of Princess Bride sleeves. I loaded up on a few party games for thanksgiving the following week like Billionaire Banshee and Knuckle Sammich. And introducing my friends to Star Wars Destiny meant I bought a bunch more of the booster packs which got me a bunch of decent cards and dice but I have yet to pull an Ancient Lightsaber which is the most coveted item in the most recent set which is frustrating. I pulled my fourth Legendary rarity Ghost (Hera’s Ship from Star Wars Rebels) though which I gave to George while I wept inside. Unless I buy one on Ebay for $40 bucks I will be forever without one of them at this point. I loaded up on Penny Arcade gear since it was the inaugural year I wanted the bragging rights items and the event color was deep purple which is a personal favorite so I got a dice tray, deckbox, card sleeves, and playmat for my collection.
Chris: I grabbed a Super Mario Bros. 1-1 Pinny Arcade pin set, a PAX Unplugged 2017 T-shirt, a few Start Wars Destiny Booster packs, and a few Final Fantasy Opus III trading card booster packs. I pulled a sweet Sephiroth card that I have been after. Dean and I also bought a convention exclusive Bebop and Rocksteady Heroclix.
What I missed
Brad: I packed the weekend with stuff but didn’t quite get to do everything. I had planned on sitting through several live shows but after 15 minutes of the Dice Tower live show and started thinking “I could be using this time to play more board games” and bailed. Next year I’ll make it a point to watch at least one live show.
I also didn’t play any RPG’s but the group I went with did and they loved it. I’ve never played an RPG with strangers but from the amount of fun they had, maybe next year I’ll give it a try.
Finally, the classic game room had a table with a TV, VCR, and a bunch of old VHS board games. I kept meaning to get a late-night game of Nightmare or the Star Trek Interactive Board Game going, but it slipped my mind every time I had a group of friends together.
Dean: Order the 3 day pass, going for a single day was a mistake. I didn’t get to play in a tournament, I didn’t get to sample enough games, I didn’t get to eat at the Reading Terminal Market, many missed opportunities.
Chris: I missed a lot. I didn’t get to see any panels, or try any of the first look games. I really could have used a second day at the show, one just wasn’t enough.
Brad: I absolutely loved this convention! All I wanted out of it was to play games and get some cool stuff and both were accomplished. In my opinion PAX Unplugged was a huge success but next year there are a few improvements that could be made. The biggest of which would be expanding the RPG and first look areas. Really though, these are small gripes. My PAX experience was a ton of fun and I’ll be counting down the days till next years event!
Dean: I am going back, and for more time next year. I can then dedicate more time to the things I had to skim over this year. The event was fantastic and the crowd was perfect, you were surrounded by a bunch of people fully engaging in things that they love just living their bliss which made for a great time. The event also had a ton of options for kids like a scavenger hunt which Bobby did with his son to get a special fidget spinner.
Chris: PAX Unplugged was an awesome experience, but I really wish I had more time at the show in addition to the one awesome day I was there. Everyone at the show was super friendly, and the “Enforcer” team was eager to direct people to where they needed to go. Whether it be food, a show exhibit, or the bathroom, there is always someone to help out when needed. The show was clean, family-friendly, and most of all fun. I hope the leadership team at PAX recognizes the benefits of a local tristate crowd like the one that Philadelphia region and continues to hold PAX Unplugged in Philly for years to come.