PAX Unplugged (2018)

A last minute addition to my schedule this year, I went to PAX Unplugged to help my friends Andy and Rand demo games in the “First Look” area.

We haven’t covered this convention before, and it’s only in its second year. I’ll talk about the show itself, a few things I played, and, of course, a few pictures of what I ate.

PAX Unplugged is in Philadelphia, and is the tabletop focused PAX event. It sprawls — with one large main hall and several smaller halls, rooms, and “theaters” in different wings and floors of the con. This first floor of the convention center is non-contiguous, and I find the PAX maps and programs to be unintuitive, so finding my way around was at times frustrating.

In general though, the rooms for various sub-genres of tabletop are near each other, so for my boardgame centric interests, I generally wasn’t going far.

The central feature of the con is this large hall.

If you squint, in the distance there is a dealer hall with booths from the various publishers and accessory makers you’d expect. In the foreground is the industrial scale open gaming. Row by row of uninterrupted free play. There is a library of titles which can be checked out, and as with something like BGGCON, the ‘hot’ titles are collected in a special section. Here, that’s the purple tableclothes in the foreground: First Look.

I played a few games in the dealer area, starting with Bumuntu, an upcoming abstract game from Wizkids.

Bumuntu features a grid of bakelite-type animal tiles, and during the game you move off of your current tile, collecting it and moving in a manner prescribed by the animal depicted. During setup, the animal tiles are ranked on a scoreboard, with some animals scoring for each of that type collected and others awarding points to whomever collect the most and second most.

Some tiles have a secondary effect when you move off of them, such as additional ways to score at the end of the game, or the ability to adjust the ranking of the animal types on the scoreboard.

Ultimately, it wasn’t for me as the rankings were fairly chaotic and the last few turns, with very low tile density on the board, were a little wonky.

One of the best titles I played this weekend was at the booth for the Maryland Institute College of Art. A professor and some students from their analog design program had a booth showcasing some of the students’ games. They covered a spectrum from abstracts to dexterity, social deduction to story-telling games about discussing grief.

Specifically I wanted to talk about G.U.F.M.E.F.- “Giant Ugly Flesh Monster Excavation Force” from Viditya Voleti.

In his game, the players are crawling through the gut of a decaying monster, trying to harvest rare minerals before he decomposes. There are different scenario based setups depending upon player count, but you use a hook to move your meeples (which have been fitted with a loop) up to a certain radius, determined by the tool Viditya is holding above.

The colored pegs on the board represent the minerals the players want to collect. These pegs have a divot on the bottom, and the players can use the same hook to carefully remove these pegs – though the minerals aren’t considered to be safely collected until you’ve also brought them to the top of the intestipolyominoes.

At the end of the round, any pegs which have become diseased will rot away and are removed. The infection then spreads to all orthogonally adjacent pegs.

Through either your mineral extraction or the creature’s decomposition, the gut pieces become unstable and the situation becomes more precarious.

Sadly, this is the only copy of the game. I had a lot of fun playing this.

Speaking of things not for sale, I’ll end my dealer hall recap with this giant version of Go Cuckoo.

As with Columbus, Philadelphia’s large public market is convenient for meals. The Reading Public Market is largely what you’d expect: crowded, full of small shops, several delis, a few bakeries, an ice cream stall, and almost everything is delicious. Here’s a pastrami sandwich I had one day.

I spent much of my time at the show teaching games in the First Look area (especially Blackout and Carpe Diem). The area has grown considerably this year, with nearly 100 titles, and Andy and Rand have a very specific vision for this area. I don’t want to misspeak, but roughly, their goal is not limited to showcasing the hottest Essen games, but also sharing lesser known Essen releases or upcoming titles that they think people should know about. That is to say, the area included not only Blackout and Azul 2.0, but Narabi and Eye My Favorite Things. Teotihuacan and Mahardika. Gugong and the recent 14 crowdfunded releases from Nigerian publisher Nibcard Games.

PAX also lends its support to the section with a large staff which allows Andy to schedule at least one person on staff at all times the area is open who knows each game. Most of the teaching crew is assigned 3-6 games in advance that they must learn the rules for, and Andy places these games in proximity so that your personal instructor is never far away.

Rand and Andy did an excellent job sourcing and selecting these titles, including the upcoming Res Arcana from Tom Lehmann.

It’s a Lehmann card game where the players race to reach a certain amount of points. Each player starts with a mage and a deck of around 8 random cards. Players take “microturns” of a sort, consisting of using card powers, acquiring other cards, discarding for resources and what not. Play continues until players can’t or don’t want to take further action, at which point they pass, take a special power for next turn, and check for victory.

It sounds simple -and is-, but the secret is of course in the design and development of the specific card powers. I imagine this will be quite popular when it comes out.

Also in the First Look area, Stonehenge and the Sun, an upcoming game from itten. (To illustrate PAX’s commitment to non-mainstream publishers in the dealer hall, they strongly lobbied and were able to have itten attend as an exhibitor as well, brining their entire catalog for sale. From what I understand, these efforts towards bringing publishers that don’t typically exhibit in the US is looking promising for next year.)

Anyway, I was worried that the ratio of gimmick to strategy would be at the end I fear, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it at the end I want.

On your turn, you will typically place a stone around the outside, and then swing the pendulum once, collecting as a penalty any stones which have fallen out of the ring. Specifically, when you place a stone, you must move a disc of your color around the outside such that it is in a gap adjacent to the newly placed stone- and where you swing the pendulum must be over your stone’s new location.

There are a few more rules about laying stones sideways and what not, but that’s the rough idea.

I really enjoyed the last 2/3 of the game I played, as I found many interesting strategic and tactical decisions–and the tension when you release the pendulum is palpable. I do wish there was an accelerated setup, but I suppose it also gives you a few turns to get warmed up.

Since I’m not writing this chronologically, and didn’t write these daily, I’m approaching this by adding the photos I had prepped earlier and then rambling for a bit. Which is to say, I felt like it was time for an @OpinionatedEaters break, but this is the last photo I preloaded, so you may not get another.

Rand, Kimberly, some folks, and I went on a gelato run this afternoon to Capogiro Gelato Artisans. I had Chocolate Banana, Pistachio, Lime Cilantro, and Cioccolato Scuro (I had to take notes on that last one for you. I put it down as a game I had played today.)

Delicious! Especially that pistachio.

It’s a crowded convention. For me, uncomfortably so. It’s loud in the main hall, and prohibitively so for me. Here’s a look at the library Saturday night -these stacks are normally 4-6 titles tall. I also found it essentially impossible to find anyone to get into a pick up game with.

There wasn’t any other sanctioned free play areas that I know of, but there was squatting in many places.

I found some solace at night in the food court area where there was the unusually-heighted perfect pairings of loveseats and tables that allowed comfortable gaming in the syzygy of seating, lighting, and noise level.

Here one night a few of us helped Rand on his continued quest through the Friedemann catalog with the new edition of Funny Friends.

It’s another life-simulation game with a gravy boat of dark humor and gratuitous vice.

One of the satellite tabletop rooms is “Classic Cardboard” – where as best I can tell, a local used game dealer brings in some older titles and has a small free play area and library.

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I played some whimsical titles from here, but I also found it to be a nice quiet place to play. I had a chance to play the Korean trick taking game BON here one night.

BON has stunning art and a delightfully entertaining rulebook. The game centers on that stack of three wooden discs in the middle. It represents the rank of the suits, with the top disc being trump. Once any color takes a trick, that disc moves to the bottom, and another color becomes trump. You earn 1 point for taking 2 tricks, 2 for taking 0 tricks, and otherwise do not score.

I enjoyed this one quite a bit. It is one of several trick taking games that I’m borrowing from Rand for a few months, and I only hope the others are this enjoyable.

Did I mention the Classic Cardboard games were for sale? Starting Sunday afternoon that library was liquidated -almost everything below $10. I picked up one title for my friend PK and found a FedEx to send it off to him.

The only title I bought for myself was this copy of Morisi, an older Cwali title, that I found for $10 –probably not uncoincidentally from the same dealer as stocks the Classic Cardboard room, but at their used booth in the dealer hall.

We’ll, that’s all the pictures I have for you (and one I took just now in the airport as my flight enters hour 4 of it’s delay.). As usual, I try to share some things on Twitter during the show, and I try not to talk about the same things here, so content about Gritty or the folks setting up to play Root in Shake Shack is over there.

Ok, I just found one more thing for you.

I went to PAX in Seattle once a few years ago and was surprised at the large screen streaming of players competing at mobile games on their phones -with live announcers and color commentary. I missed whatever is happening here with Tokyo Highway, but I’m glad itten didn’t. For all my praise of Andy and Rand, much credit also goes to Matt who oversees so much of putting this convention together, where something like jumbotron Tokyo Highway can be a thing that exists in the world.

So long, Philadelphia.

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7 Responses to PAX Unplugged (2018)

  1. Max Molinaro says:

    Excellent, well-written report and photos. The final, night time photo of of the street leading to the Philadelphia city hall with multicolored reflections is an amazing view I’ve never seen before, and I live here! And the second picture down–the large hall–is the best As Far As The Eye Can See panorama of gamers at their tables–might I use it in a Gamasutra blog (which probably no one will read, >sigh<) with credit to xitoliv and, along with a link to this article?

    One other question–to anyone who was there, really (you can skip the next two paragraphs to get to the question):

    I was there on Saturday, and you mentioned finding "the PAX maps and programs to be unintuitive.." That's putting it mildly: After going through a short security line (and being late for the presentation I was heading to), I looked around for any indication of where the badge pickup was located (the first place many of us had to go) and found nothing. I asked a door "monitor" at one entrance, but she didn't know.

    I finally ended up at an information booth at the other end of the convention area, having seen no signage anywhere about the pickup area, and got directions, and finally, my badge. I then headed for the Crab God Theatre (great name, but again, no signs to guide me) and realized it was in the next block, so I went outside, crossed the street, and went back in…and was unable to re-enter the convention area, even with my badge, without going through a now-much-longer security line. It makes sense from a security point of view, but there was nothing anywhere to indicate that if you didn't cross the street on the pedestrian bridge inside the building that goes over the street, you were back in a security line, with or without a badge. Aaargh.

    The question:
    You seem to have visited a number of conventions–were the absent or confusing signage and maps about the same as most other conventions you've been to? This was my first gaming convention, so I have nothing to compare it to. I do appreciate that putting a convention together is an incredible amount of work.

    Anyway, thanks for the report. It let me experience a number of places, people, and games I missed.

    • xitoliv says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Max. Feel free to use the pictures with credit given and a link.

      I don’t know if it is specific to PAX, but the only other similar navigation issues I’ve had are at the PAX in Seattle a few years ago. I want to make a distinction also between facilities that present navigation difficulties and the style in which PAX makes its maps and brands rooms.

      In both Seattle and Philadelphia there are streets that run through the convention centers, and non-contiguous first floors contribute to some of the issues (though I can’t hold that against PAX). In Seattle, in addition to the issues surrounding the streets that run through the convention center, there are events in surrounding buildings and hotels as well.

      PAX sprawls in both its content (RPGs, mini’s, board games, etc.) and it’s geography, and I think this combined with its size leads to some of the navigation difficulty, as it will necessarily be large, and things will be in many locations, whereas other cons can have a higher percentage of their content in a large main hall (or two or three).

      My issue is more that I think the graphic design of the available maps isn’t conducive to finding what you want, or at least it isn’t for me. Another factor that I left out is that to me PAX is a very jargon-y con, and renaming convention center rooms something like “2CGAMING” or “CRAB GOD THEATRE” is unhelpful – as no permanent signage in the convention center will refer to the room as that name; you can’t intuitively know what floor it is on (compared to something like ‘Room 305’ which you would predictably know will be on the 3rd floor); and any inquiries with non-PAX staff (security for instance) will be non-fruitful. Is that confusion worth it? PAX and I feel differently on that.

      • quantumtango says:

        Thanks for the informative reply. As I stood facing the map (I think most or all the map signage was set up facing the street included in the map–Arch St.), and after trying to figure out the the unscaled representations of rooms, I realized that one had to reverse and vertically flip the the map & the “you are here” arrow/asterisk to make sense of it. Some people (like me) simply can’t do that in their head. I ended up finding a map I had downloaded so I could move it around.

        One other question, if you know:
        I was struck by the almost complete absence of real world military battle board games–for example, WWI, WWII, or more recent conflicts. Back in the 80’s and 90’s there used to be dozens or hundreds of such (commercially published) board games, covering all kinds of famous and obscure battles/wars, many with large boards and hundreds/thousands of cardboard counters for units, battle effects, terrain modifiers, etc., etc.. I think I saw a few WWII miniatures games at PAX Unplugged, and that was it. Has the computer wiped out that kind of tabletop gaming?

        • xitoliv says:

          It hasn’t. We’re getting outside of the niches I know best, but you’ll find more of that at WBC (World Boardgaming Championships) in Pennsylvania, GMT’s events, such as “Weekend at the Warehouse” in California or GMT East in New York, and ConSimWorld Expo in Arizona.

  2. Will Plante says:

    Thanks for the write up, it was an enjoyable read. I have a quick question, does the trick taker BON have another name? I can’t find it on BGG or anywhere for that matter.


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