Convention Report: PAX Unplugged
I woke up last weekend after a night of restless, excited sleep. Gathering my bags, I trudged out into the crisp morning air to pick up fellow Gaming with Swag contributor, Dean McCarthy. The sky was bright but the weather report told me that I had a cold rainy weekend ahead of me. This was fine, however, because we were about to spend three days inside the Philly Convention Center attending PAX Unplugged!
For those not in the know, PAX Unplugged is the annual tabletop con run by the makers of the popular web comic Penny Arcade. It’s a place where board game geeks of all stripes can go to get an early look at new stuff, buy some goodies, and, most importantly, play A LOT of games! That last part was of highest interest to me. The year before when I attended, I sat in on some panels and meandered around the vendor area for a good chuck of the time. This led to some minor depression at me not being able to play as many games as I would have liked. I was ready to change that this year though! The plan was to play games non-stop all weekend and, come hell or high water, that plan would be executed!
The first thing I got the pleasure of playing was a very weird Taiwanese game called Strange Vending Machines. This was a quick little set collection game that had players stocking tiny cardboard vending machines with food cards, inserting cardboard coins into said vending machines, and even shaking down the machines to steal the cardboard cash inside. After playing one time, I immediately hopped on my phone to see if I could buy it somewhere, but alas, at this point it doesn't look to be available outside of Taiwan.
Next up we moved to another game from the east that looks almost as ridiculous as the last one but far darker in theme, Here Comes the Dog. Each player has a tribe of three early humans trying to tame or fight off wild dogs before their fire goes out and they're eaten. Sadly, its simple press your luck dice rolling mechanics didn’t live up to the heady theme. The game looked great but all in all it was just ok.
At this point two of our friends left for lunch and fellow staff writer, Bobby Jones, and I looked for a game where people quietly moved abstract cubes around to score points. We found one of those with Smartphone Inc. This euro style economic game has players running smartphone conglomerates in a contest to become the richest over five rounds. Between the elegant design and beautiful minimalist comments, this one blew me away and I immediately wanted to play again (I would get to, but later in the con).
After a brief interlude to check into my hotel. I took some time to explore the rest of the con. While I wasn’t particularly looking to play RPGs, I was very happy to see a nice sized lending library. I'd be lying though if I said I wasn’t tempted to run a pick-up game of something absolutely bonkers like Toon.
During this time, I also got a chance to hit up the vendor area. I had to actively restrain myself from buying an insane amount of games, but I did pick up a few gems, including Trapwords and Root (more on those later).
Around this time Dean and I met back up and sat down to play some Keyforge. I know Keyforge is the hot new game, but I like it a little less every time I play. Don't get me wrong, it’s a fine game, but that’s all it is, fine.
I got the pleasure of ending my Friday night by playing the absolutely ridiculous Star Trek VHS Board Game. In case you aren't aware, there was a time in the 80's and 90's when mass market board game companies produced a bunch games that used a VHS as part of the game. This one was based on Star Trek the Next Generation and had players working together (mostly) to save the Enterprise after it gets stolen by a rogue Klingon named Kavok. A large part of the game was just roll and move, but every couple minutes Kavok would pop on the screen and demand something along the lines of “the one is moving now…ANSWER ME” followed by some sort of test or punishment. By time we were done there was a crowd watching and we couldn’t stop laughing. Not a bad day to end day one of the con!
Saturday morning started with a misfire as all my friends were either at panels or playing in scheduled RPG events. I tried to find a pick-up game of something but it was no use. I ended up wandering the convention floor for a while feeling anxious that I wasn’t playing enough games. Thankfully it wasn’t too long before I met back up with Bobby after the Keyforge design panel.
We started the day with Stonehenge, a game all about building a mini Stonehenge and then swinging a metal ball through it as if you were a power mad crane operating druid. The goal is to not knock down any blocks but still build things up precariously enough that your opponent will. Fun little game, but since the rulebook stats for you to put a hook in your ceiling to hang the wrecking ball from it’s probably a skip.
From here we moved on to the far more depressing, Profiteers. If you ever wanted to pretend you were British arms manufactures playing both sides during the Civil War, then this game is for you! My friends and I were not in this category. While this one wasn’t terrible, it was ugly, bleak, and not very interesting. Flop of the show.
I’m happy to say that the worst game of the weekend was followed up by one of the best games of the weekend, Root! This crunchy asymmetrical war game disguised as a cutesy animal game has had a lot of hype recently, and it’s all well deserved. I’ve played this one four times since PAX and still want to play more. It’s heavy but not so heavy that it turns off more casual gamers and I have a hard time imagining that even the most hardened war gamer wouldn’t get a smile from the adorable art. Leder Games sold out of every copy they had of this one and most of their Root themed merch too. I would have gone back and bought the expansion after one game if they had any copies of it!
At this point, some more friends showed up with some of their friends so it seemed like a good idea to try out Trapwords, the other game I had purchased the day before. Trapwords is a team-based word game where one player on each team has to give clues to get their teammates to guess their word before the timer runs out. The catch is that before the round starts the other team gets to write down a list of secret words that causes the clue giver to lose if they say. Trying to play around the other team’s trap leads you to give hints like “cranial adornment” for the word mask. I don’t know if this replaces Codenames, but I’ll definitely be pulling it out at a lot of parties in the future!
As day two started to wind down, I sat in on a downer of a game, Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr. The premise is that players are working together to prolong the life of a dying man while getting him to tell you about his life. I had heard some buzz about this one but wasn’t rushing to try it since it sounded fairly depressing. Turns out I was right. An interesting game, just not a fun one.
Saturday night ended with a heavy weight Japanese game called Airship City. In its players moved airships around a modular board in order to gather resources to improve the city and score points. Aesthetically, this game was very appealing, and while I did have fun playing it, I didn’t find it too exciting. Not a bad game, but not an incredibly interesting one either.
Day three of the con had arrived too quickly! My goal today was to just dig in to some heavier games that I knew would be good. I succeeded here, bookending my experience with repeat plays of Root and Smartphone Inc. Both of these got better with a repeat play, despite me doing worse on each of my game twos! It also just so worked out that every game I played Sunday was one of the best at the con, especially the one sandwiched between the two I had played earlier.
The final new game I got to try was called Pipeline, and it very well may be the best game of the show. In Pipeline, the government has privatized the oil industry and players are fledgling oil companies, rushing in to capitalize on this economic opportunity. This is a very tight worker placement game where players only have one worker each with no chance of getting more. You’re trying to build up an engine to refine and sell enough oil to eventually get above the curve, but with the limited actions everything you do matters. I planned poorly and Dean crushed me because of it.
If this sounds good already then prepare yourself because I haven’t even mentioned the best part, the pipes. A big part of this game is building your refinery which you do by buying and assembling tiles that look ripped from the 90’s PC game, Pipe Mania. The longer pipes of one color are the more you can refine that color oil. This adds a delightful puzzle element to an already thinky game.
My only complaint at all is that we were two turns from finishing and someone from Capstone Games came and told us we had to wrap it up so the guys from Shut Up and Sit Down could play it. A little taken aback, we asked if we could have a little more time since we just spent a couple hours learning/playing it. We were told to “hurry up” and while we did so the rep from Capstone started picking up the game around us! Luckily, not so much me though, Dean was obviously smashing me to bits and we didn’t need to fully calculate final scores to see the writing on the wall. In spite of this somewhat souring customer service experience I still went home and backed Pipeline on Kickstarter that night.
PAX Unplugged was an unforgettable experience. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend attending! The crowd is very welcoming and there’s no lack of things to do. I always leave wanting more, no matter how much I’ve packed in. It was only a week ago and I already can’t wait for the next one!