November 17 – 19, 2017 marked the first ever PAX Unplugged convention at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Although PAX has experience with video and computer gaming, Unplugged was the Penny Arcade Expo’s first foray into the world of strictly tabletop gaming.

As someone who regularly attends Gen Con, the self proclaimed Best Four Days in Gaming™, I was very interested to see how PAX would differentiate itself not only from its competitors in tabletop conventions, but also from its PAX predecessors.

The Good:

If you want to discover new tabletop games, PAX Unplugged is a great place to do it.

The beauty of PAX Unplugged is the large free play area with a library of games to check out and try out for free! Attendees need to provide identification for this service and can only check out one title at a time. The free play area is also open until midnight, making it the easiest access point throughout the con if you’d like to get down to gaming or need a place to rest. This area is completely self-monitored and -taught, so if you need to actually learn a new game, you’ll have to hunker down and read the rules yourself or find a willing friend.

In the First Look section of the expo hall, gamers can test out a fixed set of new games provided as samples, and trained volunteers can help you learn the rules, but this area was almost always full and had a longer wait time because of the new and buzzworthy games featured. Here are a few (but certainly not all) of those titles:

  • Altiplano by Renegade games
  • Alien Artifacts by Portal games
  • Azul by Plan B Games
  • Clans of Caledonia by Karma games
  • Dragonsgate College by NSKN Games
  • Ex Libris by Renegade Games
  • Gaia Project by Zman games
  • Heaven & Ale by Eggertspiele
  • Keyper by R&D games
  • Kitchen Rush by Artipia Games
  • Majesty by Zman games
  • Meeple Circus by Matagot
  • Queen Domino by Blue Orange Games

The expo hall is another great way to demo the latest games. It’s also the most affordable place to pick up copies of games that you want to add to your collection. Most vendors have show specials for games that could include a bundle discount, and almost all transactions are tax free, which makes buying board games at the convention cheaper than most hobby stores, and even cheaper than Amazon. The expo hall here was far less crowded than any other PAX I have attended, which may have meant numbers were lower, but also meant demos were easy to come by at booths!

PAX Unplugged expo hall

Sunday was designated as kids day, with lower prices for kids under the age of 12. Tournaments and learn-to-play scheduled activities were provided for kids specifically, which would be a great and affordable way to let little ones test out convention waters before committing to a full three days.

Noteable panels that I attended were:

Women of Tabletop Game Design: This panel held discussion points such as how to be motivated in game design as a woman designer, and how to stay connected to other women within the industry.

Featured panelists:

  • Amanda Lange: Technical Evangelist, Microsoft
  • Nicole Kline: Designer, Cardboard Fortress
  • Brigette Indelicato: Graphic Designer, Avant-card Games
  • Carol Mertz: Director, PixelPop Festival
  • Heather Wilson: Designer, 9th Level Games
  • Heather O’Neill: Designer, 9th Level Games

Family Gaming: The Reason to Gather at the Dinner Table: This panel was a primer on how to introduce gaming to your families routine and some of the benefits of tabletop gaming together.

Featured panelists:

  • Andrew Smith: Executive Editor/Podcast Host, The Family Gamers
  • Anitra Smith: Managing Editor/Podcast Host, The Family Gamers
  • Claire Smith: Podcast Host, The Family Gamers
  • Asher Smith: Unwitting Accomplice, The Family Gamers
The Bad:

The first year of a convention will always carry the heavy burden of organizational flaws. For PAX Unplugged, line management seemed to be a problem for some of the more popular events and panels that perhaps weren’t forecasted to be as in demand as they were. Tournament slots seemed to fill in instantly, as the line began for tournament registration when doors opened at 10 A.M. each day. The easiest solution for most of the programming issues would be to provide more programming, which would allow for flexibility in scheduling for con goers.

As an individual gamer, I would have liked to see more opportunity to join into groups of play and meet new people. Groups of friends who traveled together had the most ideal setup to sit down and play a game right off the bat in the free play area. At Gen Con, it is often common to see “Player wanted” signs or cones on the end of tables to signal that gamers are looking for people to join their party. There are also ways to reserve slots at demo tables for yourself, which allows you to play a full new game with a predetermined and scheduled group of strangers. Something similar to this or more organized group play provided as a scheduled event would alleviate some issues for those of us who go to to conventions to meet new people and learn new things (alone).

Overall, the biggest takeaway factor for PAX Unplugged to know is that tabletop games are a very different beast from video games. Typically when a group sits down to play a game, they are looking to sit for at least an hour. More intensive games can take much longer. PAX Unplugged seemed to be a little confused about this, and the cut off times for free play at midnight made that pretty obvious. If you give the people a space to play, they will come and they will.

There also wasn’t a single place that sold coffee in or near the convention center past 8 pm. There also weren’t accessible energy drinks. Do these people know how con energy is created?!

Who should go to PAX Unplugged?

Tabletop gamers, TCG players, RPG players, kids who enjoy board games, hopeful game designers.

Here is a list of the games I tried for the first time at PAX!

Spirit Island, Greater Than Games

Spirit Island by Greater Than Games

In this cooperative strategy game, players play as native spirits of an island fending off imperial colonists. The theme of this game was what made it really unique. Every spirit has a different ability that makes every playthrough different and engaging. This is a slightly more complex game, so I would recommend it for someone who is looking for something a step more complicated than Settlers of Catan.

Argent the Consortium, Level 99 Games

Argent the Consortium by Level 99 Games

Argent the Consortium is a worker placement game where players try to win the influence of faculty at a magical school to successfully become the next Chancellor. What made this game fun was that part of the information is kept a secret, but information can be gained by taking certain actions. Unlike a traditional worker placement game, the race at the end to see who is declared winner may actually be a surprise because of the hidden elements. I was a big fan of the magic theme of this game; I think it really spiced up the worker placement aspect.

Dairyman, Tasty Minstrel Games

Dairyman by Tasty Minstrel Games

In this quick press-your-luck game, players try to have the most successful milk business by rolling dice and turning milk into cheese and ice cream. The theme of this game was so ridiculous I had to try it out, and I loved it.

Okey Dokey, Tasty Minstrel Games

Okey Dokey by Tasty Minstrel Games

This adorable cooperative game challenges players to build an animal orchestra with their cards without fully communicating what is in their hands. I love a good cooperative game, and this delivers. The animal orchestra theme is really cute, but the game is surprisingly challenging!

Dice Throne, Roxley Game Laboratory

Dice Throne by Roxley Game Laboratory

Using dice and power ups, players battle as fantasy characters to win the dice throne. What I loved about this game was how it reminded me of an RPG. The use of the dice battling mechanism makes it easy and enjoyable to battle, and the fantasy theme is great.

Lightseekers Awakening Trading Card Game, Tomy

Lightseekers Awakening Trading Card Game by Tomy

Lightseekers Awakening is a new trading card with interesting mechanics and great art, that is easy to pick up and quickly play. Unlike in Pokemon TCG and Magic the Gathering, this games mechanic is centered around rotating buff cards that activate various powers before players even attack. Also, Lightseekers is multiplayer, up to 4 players can face off. I really liked the themes of the decks, and the artwork for the characters is really fun, too. I’d like to see some sort of TV show featuring these characters.

Blank, Creativity Hub

Blank by Creativity Hub

A fast and fun customizable card game that gains new rules with every win. Although we played a demo deck, this would be really fun to play and customize with a particular set of friends or your family. The rules could get out of hand very fast, making for an over-the-top (and hilarious) game.

Overall:

PAX Unplugged has a good start and foundation to become a great tabletop convention. I also think that due to its smaller scale, PAX Unplugged would be a great recommendation for someone’s first tabletop board game convention, or a great recommendation for someone who is just starting to get into board games. For veteran tabletop gamers, it may be best to arrange a group of friends to attend with, or scour the Board Game Geek “Looking for Players” forum to try to pre-determine when and who you will play with (and stock yourself a cooler’s worth of energy drinks).