PAX U 2021 Recap (Part 1)

The first thing I discovered at PAX U is that I’d forgotten how to speak to people. Not that I was ever good at it to begin with, but I feel sorry for the first few people I met on Friday as I must have seemed both a mess and a bore. No matter, we got a convention! It flew by quickly, a blur of games and noise and caffeine. By my count, throughout 28 hours of convention time I played through 13 complete games, only two of which I knew before, and learned about/demoed 18 more. 

My strategy was to set up meetings with publishers exclusively on Friday so I could have the other two days to simply play. Even though The Thoughtful Gamer is in no way a “hotness”-seeking organization, I still want to keep tabs on what’s new. Like, a couple of tabs. Anyways, I feel like I’ve desperately fallen behind on new stuff so I sought it out. In the end nearly all of the best games I played were at least a couple of years old. Go figure.

Going to a convention as a game reviewer is fraught with awkwardness. You want to get review copies. They want to publicize their games. Will that entail a review copy for you? Who knows. But I can tell you that when the description of your site is “we primarily do in-depth, critical written reviews” that doesn’t exactly warm the cockles of a marketer’s heart. Plus there’s the shipping delays that seem to have affected everyone, so I don’t think publishers were overflowing with stock. This is the first PAX U where I didn’t walk away with any new review copies, though I did purchase one (an RPG which I may or may not get around to reviewing). And that’s fine. I’ve got enough games to play, and while I wish I was in a position to get all the games that catch my eye, I know I’m still small beans. 

As I said, Friday was publisher meeting day, but it was also expo hall day, as I’d spend nearly all of my time Saturday and Sunday in the “first look” or freeplay areas. Here’s what I found wandering the floor.

Blitzkrieg

I’d heard good things about this abstracted WWII game and I suspect the rumors are true. I got to watch the last couple minutes of a demo game and then get an explanation. The problem with these kinds of tug-of-war board games is that they tend to become tug-of-war without any of the physicality and drama (that is, not much at all). Every time during the explanation I thought Blitzkrieg was going to be too simple a new wrinkle was brought to light. I think this might work where others have failed. I wish I had gone back for a full play later but time slips away.

Endangered

I’d seen this box cover at a couple of PAXes before but never got an explanation. It seems like a fairly standard co-op sort of thing on a grid, but with a heavy dose of environmental awareness throughout its theming. I didn’t get much of an impression one way or another about how interesting the game is to play from my brief encounter, but it’ll sit in the back of my mind as a game I’d like to try.

Kleos

When I walked up to the booth I could overhear Kleos designer Jim Kavanaugh explaining to someone, with obvious pride, how long and how hard he’s been working on this game. It recently went out to Kickstarter backers and I suspect that PAX U was the first time he was showing it off in its final form. The game seemed Kemet-adjacent, insofar as it was a cramped-quarters combat game rooted in mythology and focused on upgrades and powers and such. Only instead of Egyptian mythology we get the Greeks. 

It was clear that Kavanaugh had spent many hours over the last few years working on this design. This is what PAX is all about. I know they dedicate a good amount of space in any of their conventions to local and indie designers precisely for this kind of situation. Honestly, I don’t remember much about the game itself but I do know I’m going to try to get my hands on a copy. I hope it’s great.

Maglev Metro

Speaking of games I want to get my hands on, this pick-up-and-deliver train game from Suburbia designer Ted Alspach left quite an impression in a short period of time. Alspach got his start in game designing working in Age of Steam maps so this isn’t exactly out of left field for him. The game is certainly reminiscent of that design but with a greater emphasis on a personal board that can be upgraded in any number of different ways. Turns are very short which gives it that Scythe feeling where you’re planning out 5 or 6 turns in sequence to accomplish intermediary goals, with each turn only taking a few seconds to play out.

I can easily see this beating out Age of Steam (which I appreciate more than I enjoy) and sitting alongside Empyreal as more new-school variations on that classic. It seems a bit softened in terms of how much you can screw yourself over, though I very clearly made some terrible decisions in my brief demo that set me back a tempo or two. 

Rolling Heights

Perhaps the most visually pleasing game I played all weekend, Rolling Heights is an upcoming game from AEG that’s set to hit crowdfunding in a month or two. It’s a city builder where you’re placing the payment for the buildings you construct on the board in the form of little LEGO-like pieces that fit into a tower. The result is what you see here–a miniature urban landscape that develops as the game progresses. 

The twist is that you’re using the “Pass the Pigs” mechanism to get resources. No joke. You take some meeples and roll them. The ones standing straight up score double, if they’re on their side they get a standard amount, and if they’re on their backs they don’t get you any resources. If you roll and none of them are standing or on their sides you go (gently) bust and have to return a bit of what you’ve scored already. It’s a gimmicky way to slightly randomize resource generation, but on the other hand it’s fun. In my roughly half a game demo I got what felt like a fair result from my rolls which is pretty wild for what appeared to be a standard meeple figure with no “balance” adjustments. (heh)

Flower Game?

Every year I tell myself to take better notes and every year I forget that I told myself that. I don’t remember the name of this game I found in the Unpub room, but the designer said he might change the theme anyways so maybe it doesn’t matter. This was an abstract bidding game for 2 players where you’re trying to place flowers in a grid in an advantageous way while simultaneously not revealing which flower types you’re actually scoring (you get two dealt to you in secret at the beginning of the game). It was solid and I hope the designer goes further with it. I didn’t think the flower theme was bad at all.

Harper’s Ferry

Speaking of themes, here’s a great one I also found in the Unpub room. It’s a cooperative historical game about John Brown, the famous abolitionist whose attempt at violent revolt against the evils of slavery in the US helped galvanize abolitionist sentiments going into the Civil War. The design is pretty well polished at this point and I was quite impressed. It’s a historical gamer’s take on a Matt Leacock-style cooperative game insofar as its bones are about action efficiency across a point to point map while it’s blood and flesh are steeped in historical details. That’s a bad analogy. Anyways, it’s not elegant, on purpose, in order to pack in more history. But that doesn’t mean it’s complex either. You just need to spend a bit more time understanding the historical (and therefore mechanical) differences of each point on the map to play most effectively. Where in a euro game there would be a random set of cards, here there is a specific mini-deck tailored to each location. Good stuff.

Weird Stories

I’m an RPG dabbler at best, so when one catches my eye it’s done something very right. For Weird Stories it’s the designer that has me intrigued. Gil Hova, who made The Networks and Wordsy (among others), has jumped into the RPG realm to create what seems to be a fantastic storytelling catalyst. 

I’ve never played a DM-less RPG before and the challenge with that kind of design has to be finding ways to keep the story from venturing off into chaos and nonsense (unless everyone wants that, in which case go ahead I suppose). To that end Gil has developed a set of tools that both inspire and restrain. Each player is given four cards with meta-abilities that signal to others what they think about what’s happening. The “X Card” is here, signaling to everyone that whatever is happening in the story needs to immediately end, as well as softer versions of that and even a “more of this” indicator.

Character creation is brisk, with a single card outlining the bare bones of who you’ll be playing and other cards defining the relationship between you and the other players. There are three decks of story-related cards, each outlining their own loose genre of “weird”. Each of the game’s three acts has players passing control over “the weird” (whatever it is) as they play out scenes designed to answer questions about what’s happening. If people get stuck they can draw from a deck that gives them prompts and suggestions of how to move forward.

At one point during the demo I remarked to Gil that a lot of this looks like the kind of things you’d see in a screenwriting manual. By narrowing the focus to a few questions each act that need to be answered the players are given freedom to answer those questions in interesting and entertaining ways rather than wandering around aimlessly. 

Amber was super excited about this one so we bought a copy. I’m a bit skeptical about how well I’d do with this style of RPG, but I’m very curious to find out. 

I’ll be back Monday to talk about many of the games we played in full at PAX U. It runs the gauntlet from real stinkers to truly excellent, laugh-out-loud nuggets of fun.

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