PAX Unplugged 2019 Recap Part 3: Games I Played, Games I Looked At, and Sea of Legends

PAX Unplugged is overflowing with games. Everywhere you look there’s a game you haven’t seen before, calling you. How does one overcome the paradox of choice and actually play things? As someone covering the event, how do I not overwhelm myself with too many games to see and meetings to take?

I think some see conventions like PAX as purely a networking opportunity, establishing contact with publishers, getting their name out, and trying to snag a bunch of review copies. I can’t do that. I find the idea of networking for its own sake unpleasant, to say the least, and I don’t want to acquire games just for the sake of acquiring them. I’d rather my interactions be wholly genuine and my interest be sincere. Publishers out there: if I’m talking to you it’s because I really do think your games might be great.

Before the convention I was contacted by a number of publishers, and I made sure to be very selective in who I responded to. I’ve burned out on publisher meetings before and it’s no fun. I also made sure to set aside most of my time for simply enjoying the convention–wandering the expo hall without an agenda, playing a MtG draft or two, and hanging out with friends. I highly recommend it. Anyways, here are some games I saw.

Some Games I Saw

Frosthaven

It’s the first thing you saw entering the convention center: modest but unmistakable posters for the Gloomhaven sequel that’s sure to sell like hotcakes. What more is there to say? It’s more Gloomhaven in a Gloomhaven-sized box. I’m sure the folks at Broken Token are very excited. It looks the same as Gloomhaven but with a bit more snow in the art. 

Is this something to complain about? Gloomhaven is one of the best games I’ve ever played, but what’s to compel me to buy this new content when I can just play the Gloomhaven campaign over again with different choices? Or peruse all of the free stories and scenarios that have been released? I’m sure Isaac felt a lot of pressure to cash in even more on his hit game before momentum died down. I would have probably done the same thing. But I want to see what he can do when he truly tries to innovate on his game system. Take the money and go wild with it!

Deep Blue

The new Days of Wonder game sat innocuously at the front of the expo hall. Days of Wonder always piques my interest because they so consistently deliver a quality product, even if the games themselves can be a bit hit and miss. Still, there are so many hits that each new release ought to be given notice.

Deep Blue is another attractive game from them about diving for treasure in the ocean. I think there’s a bit of exploration, a bit of push-your-luck, and I might have seen some bag building. I expect it’ll be a pleasant experience, but hopefully more than that.

Flotilla

This one has an intriguing pitch: a heavy-ish game centered around a single central decision each person can make. As I understand it there are two different…phases(?) to the geography, and at any point a player can shift to the other area, never returning. This is the kind of high-stakes, high-concept idea that can make a game truly memorable. It could also fail spectacularly.

I watched about 5 minutes of gameplay, and it seemed like pretty standard resource conversion stuff, which is certainly alright with me. The game board area is smaller than I would have thought. I don’t know if it’s me getting older, but tiny icons and text seem to be getting more common, and I am not a fan. I don’t want to be leaning over the table all the time to see some important information. Figure out another way to do it. Hire someone to consult on the graphic design.

War Room

Give the designer of Axis and Allies a massive budget and this is what you get. Literally. The deluxe version comes in at $240 and has you pushing plastic counters around with one of those sticks like you’re a general in a movie. Fighting is allowed in this war room, evidenced by the entirely separate table full of counters, pieces, and combat resolution boards. 

War Room is an event game, and that makes me inherently suspicious of it, even though that reaction isn’t entirely rational. Why should a high price tag and great components make me think the game might not be up to snuff? I suppose I have this feeling that time on a game is zero-sum and time spent on bling is time not spent on making a good game. Again, this is silly, but I’ve been burned too many times. Still, Axis and Allies is a fine game, and the introduction of Diplomacy-style simultaneous actions is promising. I’ll keep my eye on War Room, but only, like, a corner of one eye.

Games I Played With Friends

Flamme Rouge

Did I miss something with Flamme Rouge? I expected more. It’s a deckbuilder, but not quite, as I never found myself making particularly difficult decisions with my deck. The decisions are more subtle, as you try to jockey into position for the final leg of the race where it turns into a massive sprint. This could work in theory, but I found that initial jockeying part to be sluggish. I’d prefer if there were multiple stages of this rhythm instead of making it all into one 45 minute play. The mountains kind of do that, smashing the racers together before they spread out down the incline, but it didn’t feel like enough. I’ll give it another shot, but maybe not more than that.

Tokyo Highway

I had similar thoughts about Tokyo Highway, a game that made me mad at friction. The concept is super interesting, as you’re trying to weave the popsicle stick highways over and under other people’s highways without knocking things over. Our frustration came with our inability to reconstruct the parts that had fallen down, something we must have spent 10 minutes attempting. The problem is that the paint on all of the pieces made them frustratingly slippery, such that things you thought ought to hold did not.

Halfway through I was looking over at the mega version wishing we were playing that. I suspect the extra weight would make the dexterity elements easier to execute, but does it make it too easy? Fine-tuning the difficulty in a dexterity game has got to be difficult, and I don’t think Tokyo Highway quite pulls it off. It looks awesome, though.

Goat n Goat

Goats are hilarious animals. You may know them for their reputation for eating anything, which is sort of true, or for being stubborn and cranky, which is definitely true. But have you ever heard a goat? Like face to face listening to the sound a goat makes? It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. Goats sound like a person doing a sheep impression. At least the goats I used to feed with grass trimmings when I would help my grandfather on his property when I was younger. Right now I’m trying to find a youtube video with this sound but I can’t. I’m now realizing that I’ve been exposed to some unusual goats. The closest thing I can find is this video, but this is a sheep, not a goat. Just imagine me dumping grass on 30 or so hungry goats all making this sound once a week for 6 years.

In the delightful card game Goat n Goat the person who most loves goats is the first player. I was selected as the first player.

Goat n Goat has cards 1-5 in three different suits. Your goal is to accumulate sets of cards in the same suit. Two catches: 1. You have to lay down cards of the same or greater value of the greatest value card in any given suit, or all of the cards of that color become negative-point penalty goats. 2. Whichever number you lay down (you can play any or all suits of the same number), that’s how many cards you draw at the end of the turn.

It’s a simple tension between giving yourself more flexibility to create larger sets (for more points) and giving yourself cards to keep up with your opponents. It was a wonderful respite after the game I’m going to talk about next. Sadly it doesn’t look like Goat n Goat is available outside of Japan. Someone get this an English printing!

Crystal Palace

Oh how I wish Crystal Palace was more enjoyable to play. It’s another example of what I’d call a “tactical” euro, in that there are a lot of moving gears, and it’s your job to find the best path through the mechanical maze on a nearly turn by turn basis. It’s a fuzzy categorization I’m still thinking about, but I’d say it’s a cousin of the “point salad” game. They often overlap, but I think there can be some distinction between them.

The big draw here is a worker placement system using dice. The higher the value of your die, the more power it will wield in the worker placement phase. But in a minor gaming sin, you never roll your dice. You choose their values and pay for each pip. It’s an interesting idea but didn’t play out in a particularly interesting way. We all pursued slightly different strategies in how much we paid for dice, but we all ran out of money in the same round.

Our big problem is that it all seemed so bloated. There were a number of different little worker placement boards that distributed various resources, but it was fairly easy to get what you needed or just shift your plan a bit if you fell short. There was a lot to do but none of it felt particularly consequential. Granted, we stopped after 3 of 5 rounds, so take all of this criticism with a healthy amount of skepticism, but I’ve played and enjoyed a number of similar games that all felt less murky. 

Magic: The Gathering Draft

I’m telling you all, no matter what you think about the qualities of the game itself (and I agree that the variance with mana is troublesome), drafting is without a doubt my favorite way to play. I love the quick evaluations, the tradeoffs between better cards in a vacuum vs cards that work better with your nominal strategy, and the mindgame in trying to figure out what other people in the draft are going for. I love learning each new set, picking out key cards and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the various archetypes. After all of that the games themselves are the dessert course.

I played in both a Throne of Eldraine draft and the convention-only Mystery Booster draft. The latter is like a curated chaos draft, and included unreleased “playtest” cards which were a hoot. I absolutely loved this format, though one could argue that I am biased by my amazing control deck which didn’t lose a single game. I don’t even like control decks, but this one was fantastic. The format worked amazingly well, with the cards being quite powerful but fair, at least in the game I played. I didn’t ask my opponents if they had the same opinion.

The Eldraine draft was super fun, with Matt going mono-blue mill and Orion winning with white/red knights. This resulted in me being passed some incredible green and black cards, which sadly didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped. You can hear more about this (and many other topics) on our podcast recap. Not to self-promote too obnoxiously, but if you haven’t checked out the podcast, I think it’s better than ever. 

Sea of Legends

When Zach started our conversation by mentioning that Above and Below was a primary inspiration for Guildhall Studio’s first game, Sea of Legends, my hesitation regarding the hordes of miniatures on the table before me started to wane. I’m a big fan of Ryan Laukat’s first foray into a storytelling mechanism, even if the stories are all independent of each other, like little narrative snacks. 

Sea of Legends aims to make its stories significantly more cohesive, utilizing and app to replace what would otherwise be a massive storybook or piles of cards. Fundamental to the storytelling in this pirate game is that you start with both a nemesis and a lover, both of which start you down two separate branching story paths depending on who they are.

Ultimately you’re trying to be the first player to gain 10 notoriety in this sandbox game. You gain notoriety by doing pirate-y things, like burying treasure or razing towns. Along the way you’ll get loot and relics and crew members–all of that good adventuring stuff you’d expect. Despite your role as a villain in this world, the art is colorful and bright, signalling what I suspect is a not overly dark take on looting and pillaging.

Nearly every part of my discussion with Zach returned to the storytelling. My main concern was that story beats would repeat themselves quickly. Zach and co-designer Ryan quickly assuaged my fears with some numbers. Here’s how it works: there are 18 different NPC’s, each of which can either be a lover or a nemesis. They’re divided into four archetype categories, each of which has four different story branches. Each story branch will travel in different directions, such that if you start on the same branch you can easily see new parts of that story by making different early decisions. Most importantly the app remembers which stories you’ve seen before so you won’t get any early repeats. On top of these main narratives there are also side quests, bits involving opponent’s lovers and nemeses crossing into your narratives, and AI enemy stories. 

The primary enemy AI is the second most intriguing element I saw in Sea of Legends. There’s a bit of game theory here, as battling the merfolk or undead pirates don’t bring as consistent individual rewards, but if all of the players collectively ignore them, they can win the game, causing everyone else to lose. Tasty.

I was impressed by what I saw with Sea of Legends. While I didn’t have enough time to get a hands-on gameplay demo, the story elements themselves have the potential to make a number of different gameplay elements shine. The plan is to get Sea of Legends up on Kickstarter in March with a fairly quick turnaround after funding. The price estimate they gave me was $100-110 for the base game with another $50 for an expansion. All of the plastic lovers out there will be pleased to know that, combined, you’re getting about 80 figures with the game and expansion. As for me? I want to see a plethora of well written stories to ignite my imagination. Fingers crossed.

We’re over halfway through the PAX recap! Stick around for the next installment where I’ll be talking about Divinity: Original Sin, a new style of tabletop exploration from Splendor designer Marc Andre, and what’s on the horizon for Calliope Games.

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