At last we arrive at the end of the journey. In many ways PAX Unplugged is the central event of my boardgaming year. It’s my favorite con, the one I do the most work at, and the con where I’ve had the most success “networking”, for what that’s worth. Honestly, I spend most of the year not stressing myself out about keeping up with what’s new and hot, but for three days at PAX I can look at all the new and shiny things and feel like I’m part of the collector zeitgeist. Then I share it all with you before going back to reviewing games from the 90’s.
In this final part I’ll talk about the three meetings I left with the most excitement. All three were highlights of PAX one way or another, and I’m glad I can now share that excitement with you.
The best part of Through the Desert was the interruption. You’ve got to remember that while we were having a sober-minded Knizia party, there were also bottles of whiskey everywhere. At some point a board game media person who I will not name, whiskey in hand, stopped by to say hi. I was contemplating my turn when someone must have asked him what his favorite game was so far, because all I remember is him exclaiming, “SNIPER ELITE IS #$^*ING AWESOME. GAME OF THE CON”. This is how I learned about Sniper Elite.
My Saturday was extremely busy and I almost forgot about Sniper Elite, but while going over my plans for the last day of the con I realized that I hadn’t yet stopped by the booth. Fortunately I had a small slot in my schedule in which to do so. Like some kind of sniper rifle wielding sneak ninja, I’d slip between meetings and get my grubby paws all over a demo.
Unfortunately my prior meeting went a bit long and I only had about 15 minutes to try it out. Again, I assured the guy from Rebellion Unplugged that I was quick at learning games, and this time I didn’t regret saying that. It’s a 1 vs. all hidden movement game where the sniper player is trying to infiltrate a base and gather intel while the other players control squadrons of military folk trying to find and eliminate the sniper. I’ve never played any of the video games, though I have seen a couple of streams. All I remember from them is that you can shoot people in the balls and get a slo-mo x-ray view of the carnage. It’s not exactly high art. The board game feels more like sneaky X-Com or early Metal Gear Solid, though it’s possible that my brain filtered out all of the tense sneaky stuff in Sniper Elite, leaving me with only memories of exploding testes.
Sniping in the board game is a more austere affair, involving a bag building mechanism where your odds go up and down not just based on environmental factors (the length and difficulty of the shot) but on how your nerves are handling the pressure of the mission. But this isn’t the kind of game where you’re going to go around shooting everyone. Rather, it’s all about managing noise. You can move quickly, but it will raise an alarm with nearby people. You’ve got some tools to help divert attention, like a rock or a landmine. There were some other tools I can’t remember, but they fell somewhere along the spectrum between rock and landmine.
The military side has basic search tools, allowing them to spread out and filter the sniper’s location by region or pinpoint a specific location. Once the sniper is found, however, that doesn’t end the game immediately, though it does make things a lot more difficult.
The rules were easy to grasp and made intuitive sense. Even in 10 minutes of play I got a few rounds in and knew 90% of the details. I managed to quickly get one of the pieces of intel I was after and started planning out my route to the second. Talking with the designers, Roger and David, a short playtime was a key priority of the design.
“I really really wanted it to be relatively short. Some hidden movement games run too long, and the play experience becomes uneven.” David told me. “And we both wanted it to be elegant.”
Most games last 30-60 minutes, and they said they weren’t shy about stripping away unnecessary rules. While keeping tension high throughout the entire game was the primary goal, I think the short playtime will have another effect–it will encourage riskier maneuvers. In a longer hidden movement game, like Fury of Dracula, Hunt For The Ring, or Star Wars Rebellion (though there’s less “movement” there), I’ve found myself wanting to try weird, interesting gambits, but I’ve been afraid of ruining what could be a 2+ hour game. If a failed maneuver only uses up 15 minutes of time, and we can quickly reset and go again, I’ll certainly be more likely to experiment.
I’m not saying that Sniper Elite is going to revolutionize gaming, but I do think there’s a lot of potential for it to quickly become my favorite hidden movement game. As I learned the rules, every one of them made sense. They had purpose, and they served the players–that is, they gave the players more interesting decisions. No chaff to be seen. Sniper Elite should hit Kickstarter in Q1.
Last year at PAX U I was told that AEG was changing its strategy in a major way. Instead of releasing a large number of games, they were going to focus on only a few and spend more efforts expanding and supporting their catalog. I welcomed the news, and I’m glad to see that AEG isn’t the only company adapting in this way. With so many games released each year, trying to find the experiences that will last becomes increasingly difficult. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t touch a fraction of the notable games released each year to try to provide a comprehensive account for you all. Instead, I focus on covering fewer games in (hopefully) deeper and more interesting ways.
This year I spoke with Todd Rowland, who gave me a rundown of the games they were showing off. Lost Atlantis was the first in our journey around the booth, and it’s marketed as a 3x game “under the sea”. The first thing you notice is that all movement is freeform, like a minis game (think Warhammer or X-Wing). Instead of moving discrete spaces, you’ll move a certain amount of space in any direction. There’s certainly exploration, with players moving their subs around to explore the depths of the ocean. Even though the game does come with a board, you don’t actually need it. Most interestingly, it has a Forbidden Desert-esque deduction system where the location of an object is revealed slowly as clues are revealed. Elevating the game is some very nice artwork from the increasingly lauded Vincent Dutrait.
Next I learned about the first Tiny Towns expansion, titled Fortune. In a way not at all reminiscent of Dominion it’s going to feature coins. From the sound of things it’s very much a “more stuff” expansion as you’ll not only see the aforementioned coins, but some new building variations, and a couple of new building types. Tiny Towns is still one of my favorite games of 2019, and I’m looking forward to getting more of it in February.
Ecos and Inner Compass were the next games we looked at, but I’m going to withhold my thoughts for now. Be on the lookout for reviews of both of these games over the next month or so.
Finally we arrived at Atelier: The Painter’s Studio, a dirt simple set collection-ish game about trying to gather paints to fulfil certain contracts. Of all the games I saw from AEG, this was the least memorable. Other than the cool looking Pallete-shaped player boards, nothing in particular stood out beyond the basic description of what it was. Still, I’d be willing to give it a try, as nuances often reveal themselves only when you get in the cadence of play, even if the game is very light.
At the end of the day, I was most encouraged by Todd’s report of how the last year had gone for AEG. I asked him about that shift in strategy from the year before and immediately saw his excitement level increase.
“It has allowed us to be able to focus more on the new stuff,” he commented, pointing out that they’ve been able to release more expansions for their current slate of games and work harder on developing projects. Inner Compass was originally a very different theme, but during the development process they pushed the design more than that would have before, resulting in a much more unique hook.
I asked if uniqueness is a priority for them now. “It is” he said, “because being just a good game isn’t good enough anymore to stand out in the market…What we used to do and what many companies do is just shotgun–put out as many things as possible and hope that some stick. We operated under that for a long time, and we found it was causing quality to suffer in all aspects.”
Now they’re in a much more comfortable position, and it’s allowing them to spend more time on marketing and promoting their products. I can tell the difference, even though I don’t claim to be someone always up on board game news. Their games are all different from each other, displaying a broad range of themes and ideas, and while I’m sure I won’t find all of them as great as Tiny Towns, I hope their more focused strategy works out in the long run.
I saved the best for last. That’s no joke. Of everything I saw at PAX, nothing was as fascinating as Weave, and it’s not a close contest.
Kyle Kinkade talks about his RPG/storytelling game system with a level of enthusiasm and joy so evident that I was at first skeptical. I mean, everyone likes the things they create, but this talk of the “Netflix of RPG systems” and “dynamic content” was leaning more towards e3 presentation or TED talk. By the end I was completely bought in. I don’t even really know yet how to play Weave.
Here’s what I do know: I saw a quick demo of Weave when it was introduced at PAX Unplugged 2017. The game itself is a set of tarot-inspired cards and some dice, which allow play over four pre-set adventures. It’s been marketed as a storytelling game (not an RPG) as a way to communicate that it’s not about number crunching, but getting to the story quickly. The cards help the storyteller (DM) resolve things. There are different types of challenges players will face. It’s what we think of when we think of RPGs with the intention of stripping as way as much non-story stuff as possible. Also, the art is amazing.
Over the last two years, they’ve built up the system quite a bit. Kyle said that while the it’s certainly not crunchy, it might be called al dente. Indeed, I just downloaded the rulebook and it’s a slim 20 pages. An example Kyle gave is that there are no experience points to track. Instead players simply level up after each episode of the story. Clean, elegant, and what I’ve already done in every single RPG campaign I’ve ever been in.
2020 is almost certainly going to be a watershed year for Weave. Sometime in Q1 the companion app is getting a massive update, introducing Weave+, which will be a subscription service ($4.99/month or $49.99/year) that unlocks a massive support system for the game. However, the basic game is also going to go Free to Play within the app. Right now you have to buy the physical product to play the game, and the app is an assistance tool. After Weave+ you can download the app and get digital cards and dice of the basic game.
The paid product will give you access to all sorts of goodies, including storyteller customization. Want to create your own story using very specific cards? You can do that. Want to create digital assets to help you tell that story? There will be tools for that. When you get together with a group to start a play sessions, just tap phones with the “mingle” feature to create a party. You can even save characters and move them between different campaigns.
Community is one of the pillars of Weave+. Right now Kyle talked about their discord channel has been a wonderful way to talk to fans, get feedback, and have people collaborate to produce awesome content. They’re going to build features supporting that and more into the app itself.
“Yeah, alright” you might say, “more features, digital blah blah blah. Why do I care?” Here’s what convinced me. As I listened to Kyle explain all of this, and as I asked probing questions, I found that literally every decision, every feature, was designed to make playing Weave easier and more interesting. Every bit of Weave+ is designed truly and honestly with the player in mind. Can I guarantee that it’ll deliver on that? No, I’ve not yet explored it (though I will and you can expect a full report), but I’m here to tell you that Kyle and the other Monocle Society employees I spoke with are either some of the most enthusiastic game and user experience designers I’ve ever had the pleasure to speak to or some incredible liars.
Again, maybe they won’t be able to fulfill on their promises, but the level of deliberate thought behind everything was impressive to behold. Sure it was flashy and hip, but nothing seemed masturbatory. They want me and a group of friends to be able to sit down either at a single table or in disparate places across the globe and start having fun as quickly and as seamlessly as possible. There was also something about “hundreds of new playsets” and collaborations with IP’s “you’ve definitely heard of.”
But that’s only part of what we’ll see from Weave this year. At this point in the conversation Kyle’s tone became like one who is trying to hold in an exciting secret. This was fitting because he was trying to hold in an exciting secret. See, there’s this storyteller screen. It’s kind of a big deal. All of the stuff I talked about in the paragraphs above? Kyle says it’s only “half the story for 2020”. The other half is this tri-fold cardboard screen.
I promise this is a direct quote: “[The storyteller screen is] one of the most technologically advanced pieces of cardboard in all of tabletop gaming[…]This screen is a lot bigger on the inside.”
Let’s pause for a moment. I don’t typically do news/preview-y stuff on The Thoughtful Gamer. I consider myself a game critic first and a deliverer of news second. I pretty much only put any time into it for PAX Unplugged. I don’t aspire to be known as a games reporter. It’s a fun thing I do occasionally. That said, I have to admit that the exchange that happened next is one of the most badass moments of my life.
“How willing are you to divulge any information about the tech in the screen?” I asked.
“How willing are you to keep recording?” Kyle replied, smirking.
I got the rundown on the screen. I mean, it doesn’t print money or fart rainbows, but there’s a lot of tech in there and it does do some cool stuff. As before, it’s designed to not only be a neat piece of tech, but to enhance and simplify the experience of playing the game. I cannot wait to see everything working together as a complete package.
Finally, I got to see a bit of their mixed reality tech. MR differs from AR in that the display is clear, letting you see the “real” world through your own eyes as images are superimposed into your vision. It’s an impressive bit of tech and another demonstration of how committed they are to finding the right player experience. AR, from what I know, is a much more popular hardware type, but disconnecting people so much from each other, visually, eats at the heart of what makes collaborative storytelling great–real human interaction. MR doesn’t take away any sensory information, but still allows them to create cool visual effects.
Will 2020 be the year of Weave for The Thoughtful Gamer? I’m certainly willing to give it a shot. I don’t play RPGs very often, but Weave has the potential to cut out so many of the costs associated with RPGs that keep me from them. Bring it on.
There’s everything from PAX U! This was my biggest, most involved report from a convention yet, and I’m curious what you think. Did you find this information helpful? Would you prefer I stay away from reporting and stick to reviewing? Let me know in the comments below.