The Cardboard Hoard: PAX Unplugged Recap -- Friday; Or Brave New World
I’m a planner by nature -- compulsively researching, at great lengths, any new situation I’m getting myself into. But with PAX Unplugged being the inaugural non-digital PAX, information was scant. I was unsure of how big the convention would be and what I should expect in terms of, well, most everything. All I had was the list of exhibitors and convention center map to guide me. However, luckily for me, a friend had an extra exhibitor badge, allowing me to get into the exhibitor hall early, get my bearings, and not have to wait on the queue for the 10am entry time.
I started with a walk around the exhibition hall, which was a large space with wide lanes for foot traffic. It wasn’t as big or elaborate as GenCon, but was similar to Origins -- though possibly a bit smaller.
In conversation with Grey Fox Games “Chief Noisemaker” Alex Goldsmith earlier in the month, he‘d mentioned they’d be demoing Bushido, which he said would be a hit with Magic: The Gathering style gamers. So I made my first stop at their booth to check it out for myself. As a former MtG player, I can tell you he isn’t just making noise. Bushido played quick and fun, with exactly the kind of push and pull players want in a two-player dueling game. Add to that a nicely illustrated martial arts theme and lots of custom dice, and I see this one being a winner for them.
My next stop was the Button Shy booth, where Chip Beauvais showed me a partial demo of Universal Rule, proving to me that a 4X game, through designer magic I still don’t fully understand, is possible with a deck of eighteen cards. He also briefly showed off an early copy of the upcoming Universal Rule: Second Wave expansion, which will be able to be played standalone or integrated with the base game.
I took a break from the exhibitor hall at this early juncture, as I had planned to play my first game of Sid Sackson’s Acquire with Devon, an online friend I met through Twitter. The main hall -- a cavernous space -- housed the exhibitor space on one side and the free play area on the other. Once you cleared the last of the exhibitors, there were simply open gaming tables for days. I easily found Devon, as it was still early in the day and not yet crowded.
Acquire, originally published in 1964 -- ancient in modern gaming terms -- still holds up quite well. In fact, beyond the vast amount of arithmetic involved in figuring out the end scores (Manny, who won, scored $60,800), it was quite an elegant design. The version we played also had chunky plastic pieces that gave the game a nice tactile quality and an interesting, if retro, table presence. I also discovered, while chatting during our game, that Devon was a friend of my wife’s from college together years ago. It really is a small world sometimes.
Next up was the Calliope booth, as I wanted to check out Capital City and Ancestree, two upcoming games from their Titan series. For those unfamiliar, the Titan line, according to Calliope, is “designed by some of the greatest designers working in the industry” and “presents family-friendly tabletop games that are easy to teach, play in under an hour.”
Capital City, from designer James Ernest, is a game about drafting a Old West town full of anthropomorphic animals over the course of four seasons. The animals and the buildings they are placed in give players bonuses when activated, and are activated when other players play the same type of animal. So in addition to drafting, the game is mostly about engine building, but very fast, as the game is lightning quick at only four rounds. This is definitely a winner for the lighter crowd, and as a parent of young children, I fit that mold.
Ancestree, from designer Eric Lang, is also a drafting game. But this one is about drafting a family tree, with scoring for the vertical length of the tree, the riches of its members, and the marriages within. There is a set collection element, but again, like with Capital City, it is over quite quickly, with only three rounds of drafting before final scoring. This one was originally designed as a two player game, so it may be a rare unicorn that features drafting but works well with only two -- I can’t be sure, as I played it with three, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t scale down to two well.
These were so quick that I got to play full demos of both of them, and I walked away impressed with what I saw, not only with both games, but with the company, as it’s nice to see a clear vision and focus, especially on accessible games I can play with my non-gamer wife and kids.
It was early afternoon at this point, and my friend Craig Marks from the Botch Games Podcast had just arrived at the convention center. He picked me up a reuben from Reading Terminal on his way in, because he is the best. Reading Terminal is a market right across the street from the convention center -- similar to the North Market in Columbus Ohio, for those familiar with Origins -- with lots of different food options, from sandwiches to ribs to, of course, Philly cheesesteaks. Oh, and they also have an amazing donut shop, but I’ll circle back to that in Saturday’s recap, I’m sure.
The Philly convention center has a food court upstairs, which is where we ate. And I supplemented my sandwich with a 20 oz. Pepsi from the food court, which cost $5.50. Pro-tip: Do not get anything at the food court, it is beyond overpriced. After washing my delicious sandwich down with overpriced sugar water, we wandered the exhibit hall, as Craig hadn’t seen it earlier that morning.
At this point I spied a familiar Indiana Jones hat and jacket at the Level 99 booth, and knew I had to go say hi to D. Brad Talton, the man behind Millennium Blades, Pixel Tactics, BattleCON, etc. Brad was talking with someone, however, so I demoed two-player deduction game Automata NOIR while I waited. As someone that enjoys actual deduction games -- read as: not social deduction games -- I very much liked Automata NOIR. I played as the killer, and had to kill off characters from a grid while the demoer, playing the inspector, tried to deduce which character I was. I won, although I am developing a sneaking suspicion -- due to how often I win game demos -- that demoers are told to let those demoing win. Probably better for sales that way.
Anyway, when that wrapped, I chatted with Brad, mostly asking about how Empyreal: Spells and Steam was coming along, because it blends wizardry and trains. Because of course a train game from Level 99 would also have to have something ridiculously thematic and cool like technomancers in it. Anyway, look for that one early next year on Kickstarter.
Craig swung back around with Matt Halstad from the League of Nonsensical Gamers, and they were ready to play a game. We had previously discussed getting in a game of Forbidden Stars, so I figured there was no time like the present, and I suggested we go to the free play area and commence a galactic war for supremacy. We started setting up, and were joined by Chris Kirkman to round out our full table. It was just before 5:00 pm when we started. I’m proud to say that at one point, I held the four objectives I needed to win, although I didn’t hold them until the end of that turn, letting victory slip away from my Ultramarines and into the hand of Matt’s Chaos Space Marines -- almost five hours after we’d begun.
After we wrapped up the game and repacked the mammoth box, Chris and I headed for food. While I don’t normally love chain restaurants, the quiet and relaxed atmosphere of the Maggiano’s one block away was just what I needed after the intensely stimulating first day that was PAX Unplugged. The two cocktails I had there didn’t hurt either. However, unwinding over the meal, I realized that due to my early 4:00 am start from New York, I had nothing left in me, and called it a night before midnight. I’ve learned this after attending a few of these -- conventions are a marathon, not a sprint. Better to call Friday early and get a fresh start on Saturday morning.