No Sophmore Slump Here!

It's hard to state just how great this last convention was for us. Everyone we met seemed to be warm and welcoming, with game designers and reviewers showing off games with such care. The free play area was packed until midnight each day, gamers hoisting the 'looking for group' sign until the last few minutes, inviting new friends to their tables.

Sure, there were problems: some of the security lines backed up to cause issues. It was nearly impossible to get into many RPGs because the demand was so high. But, at the same time, whenever you have thousands of people, there are going to be lines, there will be some backing up. What matters to me instead is the atmosphere: is the convention welcoming everyone? Does the convention feel like a place to let yourself feel surrounded by friends and great times?

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This is what the free play area looked like at 7pm, after the show floor was closed. It stayed packed almost until midnight.

PAX Unplugged 2018 is the best convention I think I've been to. I've never gotten a chance to play so many amazing games, meet so many amazing people, and see so much content in so little time. Even with all of this, this convention felt so relaxed in comparison to others; it let our team explore to try games we never get a chance to. We've come away from this event with enough content to keep us busy for months, and yet its hard not to miss the weekend.

There's a reason why PAX events use the phrase "Welcome Home". 

An Attempt to Summarize PAX Unplugged’s Start

Unplugged is the newest Penny Arcade Expo to exist, and perhaps the one most unexpected. While PAX East has had a tabletop area for years (much to our enjoyment), the core focus had always been video games. When Unplugged was announced for November 2017, our writers actually were confused: another PAX, close to us? One about board gaming, on top of that?

It was seen as a weird marriage just because before this point, most board game conventions weren’t in the northeast: many are located on the west coast, or around Indianapolis, where the grandfather of all conventions – GenCon – still goes on. At the same time, PAX events had a reputation for being a noisier crowd, a younger crowd, packed to the gills with bells and whistles and flashing lights on the show floor. There was a bit of unsureness if that sort of crowd would enjoy a typical board game convention.

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Then again, there's always been interest in seeing Penny Arcade's Thornwatch turn into a full game!

There was an honest question among friends here: sure, we were all really happy to have another event so close, but could it last? Could it work? Would developers be able to sell product at all?

Fortunately for everyone, Unplugged did better than we expected, and we weren’t alone in thinking that. When we left last year, there were a few repeated takeaways that we heard from companies and developers on the show floor:

  1. The PAX Enforcers are amazing
  2. We had no idea what to expect
  3. This is better than we were expecting for a reception
  4. We should have brought more games

In summary, PAX Unplugged was more successful than most expected. Sure, it wasn’t as jam packed as PAX East or West, but that was part of the appeal. The lines were shorter, and the game demos – usually with the designer themselves – were longer. Eric left last year stating he enjoyed it more than PAX East, because it had a calmer atmosphere. While the expo hall floor is still quite large, the booths are not quite as intimidating because there's no three-hour line clogging up the traffic. You don’t leave in the evening still hearing gunfire or aggressive music ringing in your ears.

2018 marks the sophomore attempt at this convention, and it feels as though it’s managed to be better in every way. There were more vendors, more RPG space, and more events for the free play area. Game publishers like AEG came more prepared, bringing trucks of games to sell. They were ready this time, and it showed. There were more events, more giveaways, more board games in an overflowing library that could sometimes have hour long lines.

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Conventions are a great chance to try games you never would usually have at your table... like one all about falling in love, perhaps?

This last weekend shows that the board game demographic is broader and more welcoming than many might expect. You had people who had only played Catan once before, eagerly asking for advice about what games should they try next to get into the hobby. Publishers like Quality Beast had brought in prototypes from Berlin all about people’s rights. Just nearby in the free play section, you had a 50+ year old veteran of the hobby set up Terraforming Mars… and then play it for over ten hours with as many people they could find. They didn’t need all the pomp and circumstance, just a few other fans to sit down to try a round.

Needless to say, we thought this was a great convention. The question is, what did we see that stood out? What is it exactly that makes people travel for hours to come to one of these?

Eric's First Day: How Do You Stand Out In A Crowd?

PAX Unplugged day one is over, and it’s been an interesting one. More and more I’m finding that what gets my attention at these conventions is not the shiniest new games, nor the “best” and most popular ones. I have enough of those. I’m looking for things that are different, not quite like anything else out there, and a little bit (or not such a little bit) weird, and there’s plenty of that around. With literally thousands of new board games published both last year and this year, designers are realizing that they might have to do something a little crazy to stand out.

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Call To Adventure by Brotherwise Games was able to catch our eye because their game uses 'runes' instead of dice to randomize your chances.

Take Robotech: Attack on the SDF-1. Aside from being a board game about freaking Robotech, it draws attention to itself with a massive (and very pretty, if we’re being honest) rollout game mat and a cardboard model of the SDF-1 that stands over a foot tall. That game actually reminded me a bit of Spirit Island: it’s a complex cooperative game against invading forces where the first couple of turns leave you wondering how the heck you’re supposed to survive.

Humor in games seems to be becoming more and more common too. One of my appointments was with Obscure Reference Games for Overlords of Infamy and, well, I’ll let this speak for itself:

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One of the other evil overlords you could play was a corgi named Waffles.

If you want to know more about this game, I'm sorry: they sold out of the last of their first print run at the convention. I was sad too.

Finally, there is a definite push toward nostalgia. A lot of very old IPs (as in from my early childhood or before I was even born) are showing up again at PAX Unplugged. It’s another way to catch people’s attention, and it works. From Renegade Games’ Power Rangers: Heroes of the Grid to CMON’s Wacky Races to Everything Epic’s Big Trouble In Little China, the old is new again in the board gaming world. Seeing a familiar title among the sea of cardboard is certainly enough to get a lot of people to take a closer look.

This was my first day of PAX, by the way; I was drawn in by the new, the different, and sometimes by the very old. There was enough in one day to talk about for months... and I'm not even the one covering Gen7.

Wyatt's Three Days Of Amazing People

I could write a whole article about Gen7 the game, so that's exactly what I'll be doing soon. Still, our awesome play-through highlights what I think is most important about a gaming convention, and that's who you get to meet. I've said it before and I'll say it again: you go to conventions because of the people. If I wanted to play games, I could stay at home and buy online. If I wanted just some friends over, I'd invite them.

At a convention? I can have Steve Nix, the actual game designer, teach me how to play. Not just teach, but run the entire experience for myself and four other lucky people. I can ask things like what inspired them to make Gen7, or how much went into trying to improve upon previous survival games.

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This game was a wonderful 3 hours that makes me wish I was back at the convention. In no small part that's thanks to the great Geeky Gaymer Guy and Nella, working as spaceship officers beside us!

I can walk down the expo hall, and shake the hands of people who are trying to market their first game designs to people passing by. Tiny Towns, an AEG coming out in 2019, was a huge highlight for that very reason. It's designer Peter McPherson had come to the first PAX Unplugged with only a prototype. Now, he was demoing with Alderac Entertainment Group.

Sure, you do come for the games, but its honestly just an excuse, a reason to congregate. Unplugged gave me a reason to put out a call to friends, and suddenly I had ten friends in a German brewpub the night before the event, laughing, joking, and sharing drinks. One of them had flown all the way in from the west coast; we had never actually had a chance to meet in person before. By the end of the weekend, we bonded over finally trying Great Western Trail and so many other games that I'd never try on my own.

I'm still on a bit of a high, really. Any convention that manages to bring people from across the country to meet for the first time is great in my book.

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Of course, when you hang out with Take Your Chits, one must dab. It's a rule somewhere.

Adam's Thoughts: Innovations Everywhere

Day 1 of PAX Unplugged was a day of improvements for me. More specifically, I was able to see firsthand how far some designs had come since their first iterations. Vast: The Mysterious Manner (following Vast: The Crystal Caverns) and Gen7 (the Crossroads game following Dead of Winter) both showed the dedication of those behind them, the hard work put into refining their designs, and the polish they are being finished with.

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In the case of Vast: TMM, we managed to play half a full game in the span of 35 minutes, while learning the rules, and were never at a loss for tracking the victory conditions of others. Quite a feat for wildly asymmetrical designs we're coming to expect from Leder games. Gen7 grabbed our staff group with its excellent story and writing, solid gameplay, and amazing coop challenge (or semi-coop depending on how you look at it). But underneath all that excitement we were still able to see several “quality of life” improvements in the design including ways to keep those all-important Crossroads cards more in the forefront. For all three of us, this might have been the game of the convention.

Day two's major highlight for me came from one of the smallest of corners of the expo: the First Look area. The zone itself was sizable, but tucked amongst dozens of other games, a single prototype board devoid of art captured my interest. The game was Quantified, by Quality Beast. It's a hard game to describe, but basically it's about getting basic human rights to people, the players, representing a range from refugees to citizens, while a dystopian government works to regulate those rights away from them. It was inspired by actual events surrounding refugees in Amsterdam, and it is both a powerful thinking piece as well as a solid game. My eyes will be on this one for sure during its journey to publication.

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Dystopian future with social commentary? Yes please!

Game designers keep setting higher and higher standards, and this PAX proves it! There's so many more highlights and games to cover than what I've already mentioned, watch this space. We've got a lot of content coming through the pipeline, thanks to the awesome games that publishers and designers keep throwing at us faster than we can keep up!

Can A Great Convention Handle What Comes Next?

Needless to say, we here had a fantastic weekend, and it’s not an exaggeration to say this was our favorite PAX yet. There was too much content for us to cover in just three days, and yet there was a laid back atmosphere that let us sit back, relax, and play 3 hour games with friends and strangers. Publishers brought a fantastic selection of games, there were plenty of alternate activities, and Philadelphia itself puts the icing on the cake.

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A relaxed atmosphere lets brand new companies like Mirror Box try to get some recognition.

Maybe it’s a bit morbid, to find myself wondering if next year can possibly be as good. Right now, Unplugged feels like a hidden gem, that secret hole-in-the-wall restaurant that you know cooks amazing food. There were crowds, but it always felt manageable. The PAX planning team did a great job of opening up more space, of preparing for a larger turnout from the year before; it felt busy, but not crowded. Like there was always something to do, but not to the point of being frantic. It's a balance that must be difficult while having thousands of visitors, but it was managed this year with only a few hiccups in places like crowded security lines. To top it all off, Unplugged is hosted in downtown Philadelphia, so amazing food is less than a block away for reasonable prices. It's honestly impressive.

Will Unplugged continue to keep this wonderful balance in the years to come, as it grows in name and popularity? All I can do is hope that it does, and that next year's event is just as amazing as this one. After all, They do say third time's the charm.