The moment of clarity hit me like a slap in the face. That’s not a bit of floridity to make this sound more important than it is. What I mean is that I this brain zap sensation like one of those old-timey flashbulbs exploded in the middle of my grey matter jolted my thoughts askew, and like a belated Thanksgiving miracle I realized that, standing there between the magnificent First Look area and a cluster of ATMs, I was honestly and truly happy.
I know about brain zaps because they’re a side effect of when I forget to take my SSRI for a couple of days. This time it was a combination of convention chaos, fatigue, and the fact that every time someone went for a drink run my only request was “caffeine”. By Sunday I was unreasonably energetic even as my thoughts became fuzzy and unfocused.
In this caffeinated haze-state I found that everyone at the booths I had talked to earlier appeared sad and annoyed, like I was making their day worse. Were my questions offensive? Did my enthusiasm appear disingenuine? Then I realized–they were simply exhausted. If my mind and body were being pushed towards collapse as an attendee, I can’t imagine the fatigue of running a booth. The guy I spoke with who seemed the opposite of excited about his company’s games wasn’t signaling to me that the games sucked, he had just given the same spiel a million times before to a million other media people.
Viewing these interactions through a new light, I saw that I wasn’t experiencing people upset at me, but people squeezing the last few drops of joy possible out of themselves for my sake. Those two designers I spoke to just before they rushed off to catch a flight back home were incredibly proud of their game, and I managed to see glimpses of that through declining energy states. That publisher? Their round up of games look varied, engaging, and even a bit daring, and while the game descriptions were on autopilot, when I asked him about how their new strategy announced a year ago had fared, his face lit up with positive news.
PAX was a blur of activity punctuated by moments like these, where behind the chaos of the crowds and commerce I caught that look deep within a person’s eye and remembered why we’re all here. It’s not just about the games, or just about the people. It’s not about sales figures or plastic vs. cardboard vs. wood or tournaments or product announcements. It’s the combination of all of it, packed into a slurry of activity so wide you can’t possibly take it all in. And it’s the humble but familiar set up: you, me, a table, a game. A system of rules and physical bits as unassuming as some words on paper and as immense as the human imagination.
The celebration of games. That’s what PAX Unplugged 2019 was about for me and many others, and that’s what I saw in those zombified faces. As I recap what I saw, heard, and played at the convention over the next few days, that’s what I’m going to focus on. No single game changed my life, and I’m sure many of them will turn out to be mediocre and forgettable, but the qualities of any individual game can’t take away the pure joy of the fact of games themselves. How lucky we are to be able to convene and celebrate such things! What wonder!
I always try to leave a good amount of time on my schedule to just pick out some games from the library or first play area and play. I’m there as a member of the media, but if I packed my schedule full of media things I’d soon become gruff and disillusioned. What’s the point if I’m not going to be playing games? The Thoughtful Gamer isn’t about news, it’s about games, and I’m going to play them.
On Friday morning I spent much of my time trying to wander the expo hall. I scheduled most of my meetings during the busy Saturday rush, and the relatively calmer Friday let me peruse without becoming overwhelmed. One of the random games I stumbled upon was Mandala, a 2-player abstract game with one of my very favorite game mechanisms: the game end is determined through player activity. Unfortunately my sleep deprived brain wasn’t able to grok any semblance of strategy until the moment when I accidentally triggered the end of the round.
You’ll be drawing and playing cards to two different areas, trying to manipulate which colors are where, because the order in which things happen determine which colors you score, but also how much those colors are worth.
It reminded me of a more complex Lost Cities, which is certainly a good sign, and looking back I wish I’d asked for a rematch so I could start to understand what competent play looked like. I don’t know if Mandala is going to be as engaging as that Knizia classic, but I’m keeping my eye on it.
If Mandala evokes a great game and tries to make it more dense, Foodies evokes a bad game and tries to make it more sad. This CMON family weight game attempts to take the Catan resource gathering mechanism and turn it into a more exciting engine builder. You may recall that Machi Koro attempted the same thing. That game went wrong by having the most uninteresting strategy be the best and by having the pacing of an uppercut to the face.
Foodies seems so scared of Machi Koro’s faults that it ran way too far in the opposite direction. The cards you’ll be paying for are all variations on the same singular idea (get 1 point, but maybe 2 or more if you combo them with the same/different cards). It’s like the development team, in an attempt to balance, polished all of the fun out of it. Three turns into the game I realized I had experienced everything that Foodies had to offer.
“Are these five card types the only cards in the game?” I asked, a bit incredulous.
“I think so” was the reply.
My opponents all seemed to like the game. Grumpy critic syndrome strikes again. At least Machi Koro had the audacity to fail.
Now here’s an interesting case. Tokaido is well known as an almost impossibly pleasant game about taking a lovely stroll in Japan. Namiji is a sequel of sorts that takes that idea and makes it even softer. The secret to Tokaido is that in certain moments it could enable particularly nasty maneuvers by the players, despite the serene trappings. Namiji all but eliminates those possibilities (no more money), and I think it may be a simpler game to teach.
Typically you’d expect a sequel to add more complexity to the original game, catering to those who enjoy the original and will be able to easily understand something a bit deeper. But in this case I think I like that Namiji is instead leaning into the theme of serenity even more.
Like I said, money is out, as are starting player abilities. In is a set collection thing where you’re trying to line up fish that look somewhat similar into rows and columns. It’s pretty cool. Less successful is a mystery bag chit pulling thing that takes push-your-luck and eliminates nearly all tension from it. Tension, as you may recall, is the single driving force behind push-your-luck.
I’m not entirely sure why you’d play this over Tokaido, but I suspect the creators are banking on your appreciation of the aesthetic, because you’re sure getting a lot of it. The game board is much larger, with more negative white space and larger icons. Like the way Tokaido looks? Well here’s doubleplus more of it. I’m not convinced.
Here’s one that’s always been hovering in my periphery, generating buzz despite my skepticism (how’s that for hubris?). A tiny air hockey like thing with magnets? Too many points of potential failure. But it turns out that the designers of KLASK weren’t content with making a fun toy, but they actually considered the physical challenges of the medium. First, the magnet you use to control your pawn from under the tiny table is unnervingly strong. Instead of some kind of flimsy pseudo-connection between pieces like I had feared, clicking your KLASK piece to its magnetic KLASK handle provides the kind of confident machined sound you’d expect out of something far less twee in appearance. I ceased to wonder how this product got its name.
Even so, you can fling your pawn off of its magnetic tether with sufficient force and vigor, and this causes you to lose the point. But, and I cannot stress how important this is, doing so never feels unfair. You’ve pushed the magic invisible force holding the game together too far, you brute! There are also tiny magnetic beads that cause you to lose the point if you pick up two of them, though one of them can act like a club, batting the ball with more force and precision. Neat.
Finally, you don’t want to fall into the hole. Instead of an air hockey slot, you’re trying to get the ball into a circular indentation on the other side of the table. The hole on your side is inconveniently located precisely where it feels most comfortable to rest your pawn in a defensive position. This is the single most embarrassing way to lose a point. I know this because I did it three times during my demo.
KLASK takes the inherent limitations of its form and gamifies them, so instead of merely being a hand-eye coordination exercise, it’s multiple hand-eye coordination exercises happening simultaneously, pulling your concentration apart in different directions all at once. I had a blast.
I can imagine the meeting that caused Detective Club to be: “alright, everyone, listen up. You know what’s fun? Mysterium. Everyone loves it! You know what else everyone loves? Spyfall. Let’s smash them together and it’ll be twice as fun!”
No, no it isn’t.
I haven’t played a game in quite some time that inspired so many impromptu house rules. We weren’t getting ahead of ourselves and failing to understand the rules as written. This was basic stuff, like, why is turn order this way? If we shift it just a bit this one person gets a choice where they didn’t have one before and the incentives line up better for everyone else.
I won’t go through all of the problems we had with Detective Club, but I will say that we never failed to find the “spy” without any effort and despite our best efforts it seemed like a portion of us never had any real decisions in any given round. Play Mysterium instead.
After Detective Club we had some time to kill, and I spotted this classic in the game library, a game that’s been on my “I really should play this game” list due to the universal acclaim it receives. Those people aren’t wrong. For Sale is an absolute delight, combining two types of auctions into a simple, strategic, surprising package. It does what it wants to do perfectly.
The first half of the game you’ll be bidding for property cards, which are labeled 1-30. A number of cards equal to the number of players in the game are displayed, and you bid for the right to pick the highest numbered card. In the second half of the game, you’ll be simultaneously revealing these property cards for the right to pick the highest money card out of a similar display. Most money wins. That’s it.
I think this one play with four people sold at least 2 copies of the game. It probably would have been more if we weren’t all in the same game group. Like some of the other best auction games I’ve played, For Sale is as simple and clean as possible so that the gameplay can be focused on the particular psychology of the players in the group. It’s a romp full of simultaneous double and triple guessing until the different possibilities spiral out of control and you return to your first instinct. What a beautiful game.
That’s it for today! I haven’t even gotten through my Friday at PAX U. Check back tomorrow to hear about a couple of Knizia games and a handful from the Canadian publisher Scorpion Masque.