The Cardboard Hoard

Thoughts on the ability of bits of cardboard (and dice, meeples, etc.) to transform a tabletop into a near infinite number of unique gaming experiences -- from high seas pirate battles, to high noon showdowns, to superhero struggles -- and how, at their best, the mechanics of those games enhance their themes, creating a blend of Euro mechanics and Ameritrash theme to herald a bold new generation of hybrid modern games.
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PAX Unplugged 2018 Recap

Eric Buscemi
United States
New York
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Friday; or Year Two, Metal Detector Boogaloo

On Friday morning, an hour before the exhibition hall opens at 10am, PAX Unplugged lets media members in for an early sneak peak of the spectacle of the myriad vendors. This recap will not be about my early access to PAX Unplugged, as I was putting my son on his school bus in New York at that time. Family first, you know?

That said, I wouldn’t have traded that early access for my ride down with three local gaming buddies, who picked me up on their way down to Philadelphia. It’s funny, though I’d met each of them a number of times at various game stores and local events, I really feel I got to know them a lot better during our car ride down than I ever did in years gaming with them.

When I did arrive at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the first new thing I noticed was a line for metal detectors that was not there last year. Since I was walking in at around 1pm, this was not a huge issue at that time, but at other points during the convention, it would become one -- making me late for a scheduled game demo, and paranoid to leave for better food in Reading Terminal or Chinatown due to the monstrous line to re-enter the convention space.

Once in the main hall, I wandered the different vendor stalls, catching up with some people as I went, until I made it over to the Brain Games booth for a review copy of Ice Cool 2. I cannot wait to mix this in with the first game for an epic game of penguin-flicking family fun. I kicked myself more than once for not bringing Ice Cool with me, so I could have made this happen at PAX Unplugged. Live and learn.

I then stumbled into D. Brad Talton around the corner at the Level 99 booth. I knew they had just announced a new stand-alone Exceed that would feature the characters of the classic arcade franchise Street Fighter, but I did not know they would be demoing it -- until he offered me a chance to play. If you know me, you know I love two-player tactical dueling games, with Summoner Wars being an all-time favorite. Add in the fact that I’m the exact right age for peak Street Fighter nostalgia, and boom, I was amped for this game. I’ve enjoyed Level 99’s other similar line of games, like BattleCON, but this blew that system out of the water. Exceed: Street Fighter was so quick, so intuitive, and such streamlined fun, that I walked away thinking I may have just played my game of the convention, all of fifteen minutes after I’d showed up. This is, of course, a good problem to have at the beginning of a convention.

Wandering around the hall further, I found Jake Bock of the Draft Mechanic podcast demoing City of Gears at the Grey Fox booth, and he was able to get me right into a game. The game looked good, and played smoothly, but for whatever reason didn’t hook me. I’m glad I tried it, and I see the appeal of it, but it wasn’t something I felt the need to explore further. This is a feeling I’m experiencing more and more, and I think it may have to do with the overwhelming amount of games coming out each year -- new games have such a high bar to grab and maintain my interest these days.

On a related note, I happened past a booth that was showing off Jasco Games’ new Cowboy Bebop: Boardgame Boogie, and while it initially got my attention because I absolutely adore the theme, it didn’t hold my interest whatsoever once I saw what a generic-looking cooperative game it looked like beyond the beloved theme. Sigh.

After a good deal more wandering around, I found Conor McGoey -- in full gladiator costume, no less -- all the way in the far corner of the hall. Here, at the Inside Up booth, I picked up a deluxe copy of Gorus Maximus. Let me tell you, calling it a deluxe card game is no hyperbole, as it has plastic linen-finished cards with gold foil edges, a metal sword to mark trump, poker chips to mark tricks won, and its own plastic deck box for more portable play. It became my most played game of the con, as I busted it out in front of multiple different groups over the course of the weekend -- with everyone enjoying its stylized artwork and chaotic gameplay.

With 6pm approaching and the exhibition hall closing for the day, I met up with my friend Manny, a Philly local, and Jake, who had just finished his demo shift with Grey Fox, and we headed to Chinatown for a delicious meal. Most surprisingly, though, considering it was Friday night in downtown Philly, we didn’t have to wait to be sat. Which was good, because the three of us had a game demo to get back to in the open gaming space at 7:30pm. Which we would have been in time for, if not for the unbearably long security line at the metal detector to get back into the convention center.

We made it -- fifteen minutes late -- to our appointment with Evan Halbert and Ryan Mauk, the designers of After the Empire, who were showing their game off in the First Look area of the hall. After the Empire is a combination of worker placement and tower defense, where each player is competitively building and defending their own little fiefdom. It was the longest and heaviest game I played over the weekend, but it did not drag at all, playing quite smoothly with three new players after a front-loaded teach from the designers. Plus, we literally got to build three-dimensional castles with walls and turrets, and filled them with little cube soldiers, which was just a satisfying feeling. This is coming out from Grey Fox next year, and I suspect it is going to be a big hit, both due to its engaging gameplay, and its remarkable table presence.

At different points while we were playing, Nate Bivins, designer of Sundae Split, and Tim Eisner, designer of Tidal Blades, popped over to watch and chat with us, so it seemed like the First Look section of the hall -- in addition to having a lot of hot recently released games, such as Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra, and upcoming games, like Pipeline, available to play -- was a good place to see and chat with a plethora of different game designers.

After wrapping up our After the Empire game, Manny and I headed over to what I have a feeling will be called the Infamous Whiskey Night of PAX Unplugged, which was in the lobby of the Home2 Suites across from the convention center. When I opened the door, I was hit hard with the distinct odor of a distillery, and saw over a hundred industry people and gamers from the convention, along with dozens of open bottles of all kinds of whiskey -- Irish, Canadian, Kentucky bourbon, and many more.

I mingled and had the chance to chat with Chris from Game All Nite, Ian Zang from Breaking Into Board Games and Deepwater Games, Floodgate Games’ Gates Dowd, and designer and Maple Games founder Daryl Andrews, among many others. I also set up a demo of Imagineers, which was entering the final stretches of its Kickstarter campaign, with Daryl for the following day.

Then I met up with the guys I’d driven down with and taught them Gorus Maximus, which was perfect for the loud raucous party we were in the middle of. By the time we wrapped up our game, it was getting late, and the party was starting to empty out. We decided we had one last game in us, late hour be damned, so I broke out Architects of the West Kingdom and taught that to them. The game, despite the late start and the long day, went over really well. I still prefer Raiders of the North Sea, but I like the unique approach Garphill Games took with worker placement in this first entry in the new series. At the end of this one, it was near 3am, and I walked back, bemused and bleary eyed, to the Marriott and turned in for a few hours shuteye before Saturday’s shenanigans.

Saturday; or Where Does the Time Go?

Despite my late night, I awoke early and was showered, dressed, caffeinated, in the convention center, and through security by 9:30am. I met up with Jake Bock of the Draft Mechanic podcast and sat in on his meeting with AEG, where they showed off Scorpius Freighter and Tiny Towns. I had the opportunity to play both of these later in the day, so I’ll withhold commentary on them for the moment. Before the hall opened, I also got to check out an early copy of abstract tree-placement game Bosk, shown to me by Floodgate’s Gates Dowd.

I did not stick around the vendor hall for the 10am rush, however, as we’d planned an informal meetup of the various Punchboard Media members that were attending PAX Unplugged. Kimberly Revia of The Cubist reserved a table for us in the open play area, and Jake and I joined her and played Impact: Battle of the Elements, the game formerly known as Strike, while we waited for others to arrive. It’s good for mindless entertainment while waiting, I’ll give it that. But not much else. Others started filtering in, and I chatted with Ken Grazier of Geek-Craft and Josh Acosta of WDYPTW for a minute. Then I taught Gorus Maximus to Theo the Geeky Gaymer Guy, and Marti and Sarah from Open Seat Gaming. Of course, as I do every time any of us get together, I forgot to get a group photo. Argh.

Marti and Sarah then left for a meeting, and Theo was kind enough to teach me how to play my copy of Akrotiri. I’d bought it recently on a clearance sale based on a lot of positive word-of-mouth, but still hadn’t learned to play it, but I threw it in my bag thinking someone who knew how to play could teach me at PAX Unplugged, and Theo -- who said he was a big fan of the game -- was happy to oblige. After learning it, I understand the hype. It’s a great two-player game that mixes tile laying, route building, pick-up and deliver, and pattern building, and plays in well under an hour.

It was just after noon at this point, and I had a meeting set up with KOSMOS. Theo headed over to their booth with me, and their marketing coordinator Tom showed us the new Imhotep expansion, Imhotep: A New Dynasty, which adds a lot of modular variability to the game without adding any bloat or much complexity -- which is exactly how I like seeing expansions handled, especially for gateway and family games.

KOSMOS was not highlighting their line of EXIT: The Game escape room boxes at PAX Unplugged, as they said they were focusing on family titles. But being the fan I am of escape room style games, I asked all about them anyway, and learned a few interesting tidbits. First off, Inka and Marcus Brand have added co-designers to the more recent entries in the series -- starting with The Mysterious Museum and The Sinister Mansion -- in order to keep the ideas flowing for many more future titles. The more exciting news, however, is that the next title coming, which is out in Europe as EXIT: Das Spiel – Die Katakomben des Grauens, will feature two parts, with each part being its own separate challenge. I can’t wait for a double size EXIT to dig into. Further down the line, they are also working on an EXIT aimed at children. Since my daughter likes to help me when I play these games, I am very much looking forward to seeing how they pull that off.

That wrapped up my meeting with KOSMOS, but I wound up back at their booth again on Sunday, as one of their games wound up being a huge hit with my family of the various games they demoed on family day.

On my way out of the vendor hall, I saw the Roxley booth, where they were demoing season two of Dice Throne. As a backer of the campaign who was about to get the game, I was interested. Once I got over the size of the box it game in, I observed a bit of a demo, and asked some questions. I always find it useful to learn the game from someone who knows it, rather than a rulebook, if possible, so this was a perfect opportunity -- even if the game is just a very slick and shiny Battle Yahtzee with card-text effects.

I then met up with Daryl Andrews and demoed Imagineers in the Unpub room. The game caught my interest when Daryl released the roadmap for Maple Games earlier in the year. I’ve been looking for a great theme park game for a long time, and Unfair, Arcadia, and Steam Park have all fallen a bit flat for various reasons. Imagineers, however, seems to be exactly what I am looking for -- family weight, quick turns, ride and park building, with an interesting mancala element to how the guests move around the park. My only regret is that, in all the craziness of the weekend, I didn’t back the game while it was still on Kickstarter -- it had hit the 48-hour window while the convention was going on -- so I’ll have to pick it up in retail later.

Not wanting to leave the convention center and have to deal with security again -- especially as it was Saturday and considerably more crowded -- I grabbed some chicken fingers from the food court for a quick lunch. The biggest compliment I can give them is to say they were edible, and even that is stretching things a bit. Also, they were out of fries, so they gave me extra chicken fingers. Needless to say, I did not finish all of them. But enough about the subpar food court, let’s get back to talking about games.

Hands down, the best game I played on Saturday was when I returned to the AEG booth and demoed Tiny Towns. I say “demoed,” but I played a full game, which took about twenty minutes with three players. It is a perfect little spatial puzzle of a town-building game, with variable buildings that are shaped differently, require different resources, and score differently. This game just ticks off a lot of boxes for me, and I cannot wait for it to come out in April.

I then met up with my local friends Matt and Rob, and we sat down and learned Scorpius Freighter out of the box. Learning brand new games, from reading the rules, at a loud, busy convention, is not my favorite thing to do. But this one was simple enough to learn and play, although I think a lot of the game’s nuance was lost, as we were just grasping at the basic mechanisms and ignoring a lot of the text-heavy tiles and special abilities. The neat part of the game are the three rondels, which allows you a lot of control over your actions, and allows you to set them up in suboptimal ways for your opponents. One let down for me, though, was that the space smuggling theme did not really come through -- but I do want to give this another shot now that I know how to play before I knock it too much.

At this point, my wife and kids were getting close to Philadelphia, and I wanted to meet them at the hotel. I met Zach and Rose on the way, and they sat at the hotel bar with me and taught me TAGS. I had mixed up the game’s title in my head, and thought I was about to learn the polyomino roll-and-write Tag City, so I was very confused at first. However, once that misunderstanding was cleared up, I enjoyed this real-time word association game that reminded me a bit of a gamer’s Scattergories.

After my wife and kids got settled in the hotel room, we went to dinner. We let the kids pick, and they chose the Hard Rock Cafe, so I ate a second consecutive underwhelming meal in a city known for its culinary delights -- the things you do for your kids, right?

Afterward, we wandered back to the convention center and wandered around a bit. The open gaming area was packed wall-to-wall and the volume level was intense, so we didn’t linger there. Instead, we ducked down the hallway into the Classic Cardboard room, where we met up with Kimberly and her kids, and our daughters played Electronic Mall Madness together. We then finished the night up with a family game of Topple, a game I remember owning and playing a lot as a kid. At this point, we were all fading, and headed back to the hotel for the night.

Sunday; or Kids in a Candy Store

What separates PAX Unplugged from other conventions I attend is that it’s close enough that my wife and kids drive to meet me at the convention for family day on Sunday. When they came last year, I wasn’t sure how much they would enjoy it, but it was a huge hit -- from the hotel stay, to the game demos, to the free swag, to me letting them each choose a game to buy and bring home. So this year they were excited to come, and had no problem getting up early for a quick breakfast at the Reading Terminal Market and getting in the line for the doors opening at 10am. They also found the PAX Cookie Brigade milling around the queue, completing a breakfast that would give pediatric dentists and dietitians nightmares.

While walking into the vendor hall, my kids saw ads for Fireball Island and asked to go see it. We got to the Restoration Games booth just after 10am, and Rob and Lindsay Daviau gave us a quick run through of how it plays. Of course, I’d played it when JR Honeycutt took it on tour during the Kickstarter campaign -- and subsequently backed the game -- but my kids didn’t know that, and I knew this would help make them more excited to see it under the Christmas tree. This backfired when my son said this was the game he wanted to buy at the convention. I stalled him, telling him we didn’t want to carry around such a big game, and we’d come back later to pick it up.

While we were at the booth, we also took a look at Downforce, and did a demo of Dinosaur Tea Party at my daughter’s request. We enjoyed the latter as a family deduction game, as it removes all the ambiguity of Guess Who and allows you to play up to five players. It also features really cute artwork of decked out dinosaurs, which doesn’t hurt.

Our next stop was the CMON booth to check out Wacky Races, as that caught my son’s eye. We were able to immediately sit down for a demo of the racing game, which featured all the characters from the old Hanna Barbera cartoon, including Red Max, the Slag Brothers, and of course, antagonists Dick Dastardly and Muttley. It was quick, chaotic racing fun for up to six players -- with an extra-strength dose of nostalgia. And of course, because it was CMON, it had gorgeous painted minis. I have a sneaking suspicion this one will race itself into my collection next year when it comes out.

We then wandered around the vendor hall, letting the whims of the kids lead us to various booths. We played Spiky Dastards at the Bananagrams booth, which was very similar to Jungle Speed and Nut So Fast, except the items you are grabbing are spiky. Oh, and it came in a spiky conical container. I don't think there was much new or exciting about this one, but it was fine.

We tried spatial puzzle game Katamino from Gigamic, a chunky wooden production with a similar concept as Ubongo. While I could see this being a lot of fun as a solo puzzle activity, like a Sudoku, it was not so much fun as a group activity, which is how we tried it at the demo booth.

After that, at the RnR Games booth we played a round of Cave Paintings, a dry erase drawing game where players simultaneously draw six images each -- holding the pens like cavemen -- and then guess what images the others drew. The simultaneous nature of the game gives it an edge over Pictionary, in my view, and holding the pens funny evens out players artistic advantages, to some degree. We had a good time with this one and picked it up before leaving the booth.

We then demoed Super Kitty Bug Slap, a card game from Steve Jackson Games that was basically a simpler, cuter version of Spot It. While I didn't really like it, my daughter did. It was sold out at the convention, but I found it on Amazon for $5 and gave it to my daughter as a stocking stuffer.

In desperate need of a break from derivative kids games, I stopped for a demo game of Tak at the Cheapass Games booth. I really liked this abstract route-building game -- and the gorgeous wooden components -- and have found myself thinking about the game's nuances a fair bit since my demo play. There is a lot of strategy in this game, considering its simple ruleset. Another interesting thing is the story of its development, as James Ernest designed the game after the imaginary game of Tak the characters played in Patrick Rothfuss’ novel A Wise Man’s Fear. Now if only someone would create a real version of Azad from Iain M. Banks' A Player of Games…

We stopped by the Looney Labs booth and had Kristin Looney teach us Color Wheel, one of the 22 games found in their Pyramid Arcade game box. It was colorful and tactile, and easy to learn. It was also cooperative, but I'd have preferred to play this particular one it solo. I am quite impressed with them getting so many different games in the box, which “range from easy to complex, from mostly-luck to pure skill, and from time-killer to brain-burner,” according to their marketing. I'd definitely like to try more of them out.

The last demo of our day was Drop It at the KOSMOS booth. This game has colorful tangram shapes that get dropped into a vertical board, similar to Plinko or Tetris. There are bonus spots, as well as areas you cannot touch with certain colors and shapes. Since the pieces fall out of your hand, physics plays a role in the game, and what you want to happen is not always what does happen. This gives the game a nice bit of randomness and always seems to keep things close. I really liked this, and my wife loved it so much she asked me to buy it on the spot.

After we left the vendor hall, we played a few more games in the Classic Cardboard room and hit the road. Our modest haul from family day was Downforce for me, Drop It for my wife, and Cave Paintings and Teen Titans Go! Deck-Building Game for the kids.

Overall, it was a whirlwind of a weekend. I didn’t see everyone I wanted to see, or spend as much time with everyone I did see as I wanted, but I am grateful to get to see all the people I did see, and spend the time with them that I did. It was a great experience that has quickly become a tradition for me -- and considering the increase in attendance from the first year to this second year, many others as well.
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