The Cardboard Hoard: PAX Unplugged Recap -- Saturday; Or All The Convention In a Day
I’m not normally a morning person, but conventions have a certain indescribable electricity to them that makes me buzz with excitement and wake early. After a quick shower I headed to the convention center with time to spare for a quick breakfast and coffee. I stopped at the Reading Market and got in a long -- but fast moving -- line for a apple fritter donut from Beiler’s, a Pennsylvania Dutch bakery that has been hailed by Fodor’s as one of the 20 best in the country. They’re not wrong.
Sugared and caffeinated, I headed into the convention center and circumvented the queue process with my exhibitor badge. I helped Zach set up his Deathbot Derby demos at the Royal N Games booth and chatted with him for a bit, then made a few stops in the exhibitor hall, picking up review copies of Whistle Stop from Bezier Games and Alien Artifacts from Portal Games, and introducing myself to, and setting up an interview with, Looney Labs CEO Kristin Looney.
I was hustling with a purpose, as I knew my wife and kids were heading down that night and my convention would be very different after they arrived. My kids -- eight and five -- had never been to a convention before, and had asked to come to GenCon and Origins with me previously. This convention being driving distance was a much better fit for their first convention, so I was thrilled to get them Kid’s Day badges and have them meet me there. However, it meant that anything I wanted to do -- especially any networking and longer, heavier games -- needed to happen before they arrived.
As I rushed about, I swung by the Button Shy booth, and was introduced to their newest microgame designer, Duane Kolar. He was demoing Herotec, a drafting and multi-use card game about outfitting superheroes with high-tech gear, and I sat down and beat him at his own game (He totally didn’t let me win). It was a fun one, and I hope it finds a wider audience after its Kickstarter campaign flew a bit too far under the radar, despite funding.
At 11:00 am, I had the only event I had signed up for at the convention, The Reckoners from Nauvoo Games. I won’t lie, the entire source of my excitement for this game involved being a huge fan of the book series the game is based on, which were written by Brandon Sanderson. The books are about a ragtag team of “Reckoners” leading a resistance movement against superpowered villains. We sat down for a full game in the free play area with a full complement of six players, and I was happy I would be able to see how all six heroes played, but concerned that this would mean there would be significant downtime. But my fears were unfounded, as the players all rolled dice and played simultaneously. Each player had a specialty, and communication between the players was key to efficiently managing threats from various villains and henchmen, all with the goal of defeating Steelheart, the arch villain of the first book. The game did an excellent job of adapting the first book, and will be a big hit with fans of the series for that reason alone, but it was also a smooth playing cooperative experience that actually worked well at six players. My only gripe was in between each of the heroes turns there was a lot of bookkeeping to do on the villains turn, and that probably would have taken even longer without the game’s co-designer there to manage it for us.
Since I was learning The Reckoners from its co-designer, I asked how exactly a small board game publisher like Nauvoo got permission to make a board game based on the intellectual property of a well known speculative fiction writer. The answer: Simple, they went to one of Brandon Sanderson’s book signing and asked him. Sanderson asked if they had already made games, they sent him a copy of Stockpile, and that was that. Proof right there it never hurts to ask.
Two guys from my local game group, Andy and Matt, had texted me that they’d arrived to the convention center, and I met up with them in the First Look area. Matt broke out his brand new Kickstarter backer copy of Pocket Ops and I played against him in what I can best describe as Tic Tac Toe meets Chess. This is one of those little $10 games that will probably see a lot more play than a lot of bigger, way more expensive games just because of the combination of its size, how easy it is to play, and how quick the games are.
After a few games of Pocket Ops, I suggested Card City XL, a recently fulfilled Kickstarter that I’d brought with me in hopes of getting to the table. We started a game, got halfway through it, and realized we were playing at least half the rules wrong. To their credit, Andy and Matt volunteered to restart the game instead of pitching it in the nearest recycling bin, and our second play we managed to play a basic game with the rules correct. Unfortunately, the combination of 1. the “I cut, you choose” drafting method making everyone feel like they’re always choosing the “least bad” option, 2. the rules being very restrictive about placement and growth, and 3. the rules for growth and scoring being expressed as mathematical functions (the rule book has phrases like “N+1” in it), made the game feel more frustrating than fun. I think this may be a case of errant expectations, as I was hoping this would be a city builder along the lines of SimCity, but there is no indication from the actual game that it would deliver on that, despite the similar theme.
At this point it was back to the Reading Terminal market for lunch. If you are wondering “could you only eat there for the whole convention?” the answer is yes, and you wouldn’t even have to go to the same shops twice. This time I had a boneless rib sandwich with a side of mac and cheese, which was exactly the kind of substantial lunch I needed after a breakfast consisting of a donut.
While chatting over lunch, Andy, Matt and I realized we were all interested in checking out Root at the Leder Games booth. So that is exactly where we went next, only to find a group had just sat down and we’d need to return in 45 minutes. So we walked around the exhibition hall until I found a demo for the Unlock! games. I’ve played a few escape room board games, but never one from the Unlock series, so I gave it a go. Frustration ensued when I realized I was simply searching for tiny hidden letters on some of the cards in poor convention lighting with glare coming off the sleeved cards. I prefer the EXIT series, as I like the puzzly nature of those games better, but I am sure at home in better lighting the Unlock series is more fun than my demo would otherwise lead me to believe. I did succeed and win a special Pinny Arcade pin, though.
Our second stop at the Leder Games booth was timed better, and we only had to wait a few minutes to hop into the next Root demo. The demos, understandably, due to the length and complexity of the game, were not full games, but a few turns. It was enough for me to get a decent handle on my faction, and a vague idea of the other three factions worked -- note that the game, like Leder’s earlier game Vast, is totally asymmetrical. I liked the art style, and what little I saw of the game, but a very hesitant to make any broad proclamations based on playing two turns of such a complex game -- just that I am looking forward to playing a full game when it becomes available.
It was getting close to the exhibit hall closing, and to my family arriving, but I had one more stop I wanted to make before I called it a day at the convention center. One of my all-time favorite games is Burgle Bros, which is a bit odd as I don’t normally gravitate to cooperative experiences. But seeing that Tim Fowers was at the convention, I knew I needed to stop by and tell him how much I appreciated his work. He was engaged when I got to his booth, so I demoed Fugitive while I waited. During the demo, Tim came over and I introduced myself and told him what a fan I was of Burgle Bros. We had a nice chat, and I’ll just say it’s just everything when the people that make things you like turn out to be such lovely people in person. I left the booth -- with a demo copy of Fugitive, so more on that game in a future review -- as the exhibition hall was closing.
At this point I had to check into my hotel room, as I had shared a room with five other people on Friday night, and that obviously wasn’t going to work with the wife and kids joining me. I chatted with Craig Marks a bit while carting my luggage -- made up mostly of board games -- through the hotel. When my family arrived, the kids chose our dinner location. Of course, they picked the brightest and flashiest option they could find, the Hard Rock Cafe, which may have been the loudest meal I’ve ever sat through. Afterward, I walked the family over to the convention center -- which was connected to the Marriott -- to give them a lay of the land, and to say hi to a few people in the Unpub room, which was still open after hours.
There we ran into board game artist Nolan Nasser, who, in addition to be a super friendly guy, may be one of the hardest working people in the industry, having recently cofounded a company called Deep Water Games that is partnering with international publishers to bring games to the U.S., partnering with U.S. publishers to bring their games overseas, and developing their own games based on IPs they’ve created. Whew, I’m exhausted just thinking about all of that. We also saw designer Emerson Matsuuchi playtesting a solo slot machine game designed by Chip Beauvais, and my wife ran into her college friend Devon, who we would have the pleasure of spending a lot of the next day with. After this very brief taste of the convention, we herded the kids back to the hotel room and off to sleep.