How To Make The Most Of A Board Game Convention

A few years ago, Jon and I wrote a guide to our favorite convention, PAX East. We had both been going for years by that point: it was our sojourn, our chance to get out of New York for a long weekend. It let us forget about reality, forget the stress of new jobs, and let us revel with a few thousand likeminded people. Still, PAX East had become a titan, a behemoth with 60,000 people, and was becoming overwhelming for those gamers new to conventions.

In 2017, PAX Unplugged was launched in Philadelphia. We were fortunate enough to go, and we had an absolute blast. Eric even said he might enjoy it more than PAX East! There’s a good reason for that though: there’s a certain magic to seeing a game convention in its early years. The crowds aren’t quite as large, developers and organizers are still trying to figure out the right tempo, and there’s less of a rush to it all.

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Stacks and stacks of games will line many booths - when they first open on Friday, at least

PAX Unplugged is a convention that’s all about the board games, the tabletop, the analog; it moves slower, but that doesn’t mean less fun. While you see less flashing lights and glitzy displays, it also means you don’t end each day exhausted. Still, if you have never been to a convention quite as large as a PAX, it’s still a lot to take in. It might even be too much: where do you start? Where do you end? How do you know if you’ve gotten your money’s worth?

With these questions in mind, here is our brand new guide to surviving – and enjoying – PAX Unplugged.

#1: Before Everything Else, Take Care Of Yourself!

This point gets put at the top, just because it can be so easily forgotten about. The first convention I ever went to involved me driving to Boston on Friday for 4 hours, AFTER a day of work. We stayed until 1:30am to see everything we absolutely could. We woke up by 8 AM the next day to go wait in line on Saturday, just to stay there until 2 AM.

This might work for some people. For others, this would kill them. I was able to manage just fine, but I was also 8 years younger and hopped up on Red Bull. I had a great time, but I’ll be honest and say that I spent the next week with flu-like symptoms, grumbling my way through work. My friend that came with me who had just undergone some surgery ended up needing off the entire week to recover. I had another friend who had anxiety attacks from the constant crowds without any breaks.

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There might not be as many people here as PAX East or Gencon, but there will still be crowds!

Now with that in mind, Unplugged is going to be a slightly tamer experience. The lines aren’t as long, the crush of people isn’t as huge, and the main events don’t go as long into the night. Still, it’s so very important to know your limits!

Time for the basics: while at a convention, remember to eat! I’m not just talking chips or a convention hot dog either, but full meals with plenty of water. You want to enjoy yourself? Power your body. On the other side, don't overdo it on caffeine or alcohol! I’ve seen both at other conventions, where people rely on substances to sustain or enhance the convention experience to the point of pain. Trust me, I’ll be enjoying a nice cocktail to toast with my friends, but binging on drinks of either kind can severely dehydrate you.

The summary of this whole section is take breaks. Take time off the show floor for a while to get away from the noise or crowds. I know you don’t want to miss anything, but just a little recovery time can really help you enjoy what you do get to see. Take a look at your guidebook map when you get a chance: The amazing Take This organization organizes an AFK room to PAX events for years. It’s dim, quiet, has free water, has lots of comfy seats, and even some on-hand counselors to talk to in case you need to chat away some stress.

Know your limits, take some time to make sure you’ve handled your basic needs, and the rest of the convention will be that much better.

#2: A Little Preparation Goes A Long Way

Conventions give out guidebooks as you walk through the door, but there’s a much easier way to get ahead at a PAX event. If you don’t have the Guidebook App, get it now! Once you find PAX Unplugged and download it into the app, you can see it has a floor map, a vendor list, and a full schedule that will self-update. You can even make your own schedule, where you check off the events you are curious about to set notifications. As a reviewer, I write in my own appointments, making sure they don’t interfere with any panels I want to see.

For anyone new to conventions, the expo hall floor is the absolute hub of activity and buzz at these sort of events. Vendors (there are 248 of them at Unplugged 2018) are poised to lure you in with amazing displays, offering show floor specials, or maybe free promotions if you play a demo game. Take some time to prioritize the show floor! Everyone has a favorite developer, or a game they’ve been frothing at the mouth to try. Take ten or fifteen minutes to highlight on the map where your must-see publishers or games will be.

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The 2018 PAX Unplugged Expo Hall Floor!

There’s other stuff besides the show floor too; while pre-registration for many events is already sold out, you can check the schedule to see board game tournaments or events can be scheduled before arrival. There’s a giant room of tabletop RPGs, and at the start of each day (9 am, so get there early!) you can sign up for session slots with your friends.

This is related a bit to #1 (and #3), but I usually make my three day schedule with a few key concepts in mind. On Friday, I try to see all of my ‘must haves’. Supplies and games do run out, and the first day of the convention is when vendors are at their freshest and cheeriest. I make a habit to run myself the most ragged on day one, and then let myself relax and wander a bit more on later days. Saturday is always the busiest day, and so I let myself escape the show floor by around noon. I go to free play to meet up with friends or get an extended lunch. Sunday is when I let myself buy things, after I’ve had two days to mull over what still excites me. This approach might work for you, but absolutely set your own tempo based on your own needs or schedule.

Before the event even starts, just a few minutes planning can make all the difference. Keep in mind that while a board game convention usually has less lines, still wear comfortable shoes and clothes. There’s a good chance you’ll be doing a few loops of the show floor while running to events and back. Bring your charger if you love taking photos with your camera, or want to keep in touch with everyone.

Finally, bring cash. Vendors usually prefer this method, and it's one way to try and set yourself a budget. I find that if I limit my convention purchases to just what cash I have in my wallet that weekend, it makes it a lot easier not to overspend.

#3: Variety Is The Spice Of Life

By this point, you might realize that these tips might seem very familiar to our PAX East article. It’s certainly true, but it’s also largely by design. While conventions based around video games and board games might play out very differently, the core tenets are the same: know your own limits, treat yourself to that one event/game/demo/talk you can’t imagine missing, and of course, make sure you wander.

There are a lot of reasons why gaming conventions are important, but one of the main ones is that it gives publishers and designers a chance to be seen. Sure, your local board game group might have an amazing collection of rare euro games, but that focus might mean you have a blind spot to some amazing dice chuckers like Dice Throne. Your friends might have every version of Pandemic, but have never been exposed other co-ops that are smaller like The Shipwreck Arcana.

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There are some amazing small game publishers that you've never heard of around every corner.

Conventions are a place to explore, and you should take advantage of that. Trust me, you should absolutely indulge yourself at your favorite publisher/game designer’s giant booth, but do you see those rows of smaller booths nearby? Clear some time from your schedule to do nothing but see what new things you can find. Plan ahead, but don’t overbook.

Lastly, there is a very good chance that something might go wrong. You might find that there’s a waitlist for the Megagame you wanted, or that all the copies of Root are long gone by the time you get to the Leder Games booth. Don’t despair! While you might have missed out on one opportunity, conventions are overflowing with options.

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Participating in a Megagame last year was one of the best gaming experiences of my life. Just you and 60 others, founding America!

If there’s one take away from this section, its that you should try something new. Conventions are one of the best chances to see what the whole of the hobby has to offer.

#4: Remember The City, Not Just The Convention!

It’s easy to get sucked up into the activity of a convention. Even though board games operate at a more relaxed pace, you can still find yourself checking your schedule or map, determined to eke out every single drop of content you can from this event. Trust me, this mentality is what can lead to burn out: my first few conventions were 16-hour binges, racing from event to event, where friends had to concernedly point out I hadn’t eaten lunch or dinner.

While I did end up getting better about food, it took me a bit longer to realize that there was a world outside the glaring lights of a show floor. At PAX East, this typically means taking some time to get outside to the amazing food trucks that line the nearby courtyard, or discovering a game publisher afterparty at one of the local clubs.

Here at PAX Unplugged, it’s a whole different ball game; that’s because it’s located right in Philadelphia’s historical district. Independence Hall is just a 10 minute walk away from the front doors! The liberty bell can be viewed right across the street. Over a dozen museums, large and small, are within a block.

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For those of you who are not from Philadelphia originally, you’ll find your experience at the convention that much more memorable by just appreciating the city it’s being hosted in. Take an hour or two to step away, enjoy the sights, and come back. It can give you a palette cleanser of sorts before hunkering down over the next board game.

One last thing: I was surprised at just how good the food scene was just outside of the convention center. On your walk to Independence Hall, you actually walk through Chinatown, where a half-dozen ramen, dim sum, and noodle shops are all waiting with open arms. Because the convention is so centrally located in the city, there are amazing eateries sometimes less than a block away, and for a much better price than the ones in Boston.

 #5: Share The Fun

Remember that a convention is a convention because of the amount of people there. Remember that what makes a convention so special is that you are suddenly in a space where thousands of others share your interests. I’m serious when I say I don’t need caffeine or alcohol during the event, because the buzz you can get just from all the excitement can be more than enough.

Find yourself demoing a game of Discover: Lands Unknown with others? Why not ask what other games they enjoy? Are you joining a Lords of Waterdeep tournament? Why not take the time to get to know the other contestants? You’d be surprised the friendships that can spring up just after a few hours hanging out together.

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Enjoy opportunities you might not have at home - like seeing what games haven't even hit the market yet!

Talk with the game developers! We live in a digital world, and it’s a delight that we can interact so easily with designers on twitter. It’s still not the same as having a chance to go up, shake their hand, and thank them for killing you repeatedly in Pandemic Legacy. It’s not the same as getting a chance to set at a table with an RPG designer and have them GM their favorite campaign session.

Above All Else, Remember Why You Play

There is something at a convention like this for everyone. No matter how much I try to prep and plan, there’s always more than I can see in just three days. There’s always something that exceeds my expectations, something that lets me down, and something that surprises me to become a new favorite game.

Above all else, go. Have fun. Remember the spirit in which conventions like this were made: for people to gather together, revel in our interests, and know that there are thousands out there that share the same ones. If this is your first board game convention, I am genuinely excited for you. I hope PAX Unplugged blows you away.