A Tale of Two PAXes

It was the best of times, it was the PAX of times.

No no no. Sorry, that was bad. Delete! I suppose such an atrocious joke might be some sort of consolation that I didn’t use an AI to write this. I suspect that language models might have some difficulty with humor, particularly intentionally bad or absurdist humor. To test this I asked google’s shiny new AI to tell me a joke. In response I got a lame joke. Not a bad joke, though it won’t cause any laughter, but a flat tire of a joke you’d expect to see perhaps in some dusty joke book in that weird aisle some grocery stores have that contains books and DVDs they couldn’t sell elsewhere. I asked the AI to tell me an absurdist joke and I got another lame, decidedly non-absurdist joke. To see if a cultural reference could help it out, I asked it to write a short sketch in the style of Monty Python. I indeed received a short sketch, but it doesn’t contain any semblance of humor at all. Not one attempt. It’s the most banal conversation anyone, AI or human, could come up with. The pointed absence of humor almost makes me think it succeeded in telling an absurd joke.

I won’t dwell on that too long because the dwelling I’ve done so far has seen me oscillate between morbid curiosity and abject terror over what advanced language models might mean for the future of the written word. Regardless, this is about PAXes, of the unplugged and eastern varieties, and the experiences contained within.

I: Food

As an organic being made of meat, I require sustenance. This is annoying in a context where I’d prefer to sit at a table for 12 straight hours as a selection of fine board games to play materialize before me. A necessary part of the experience at PAX, and any convention really, is figuring out what you’re going to eat. Smart people who do things like “plan ahead” might take some snacks with them to avoid the ludicrous convention center prices. People like me inevitably get fleeced. At PAX East I paid $17 for a grains-and-greens bowl topped by a couple of thin slices of sashimi that I’d perhaps call half a meal. I saw empanadas, of a normal empanada size, going for something like 2-for-$15. If you manage to wait in line for a very long time or find a lull the best deal is the titular dish from the Chicken and Rice Guys situated in the food truck plaza.

As much as I grumble, all of this is a marked improvement over the food options at PAX East a few years ago, when there was no food truck plaza at all and the in-house fare wasn’t much more than some nachos or floppy pizza. The problem is that the Boston convention center is in the Seaport neighborhood, historical home of the Boston Tea Party, and current trendy place where people in suits hang out and pay too much for cocktails. Its identity as an industrial/warehousing sector of the city has been scrubbed clean in the last decade in favor of a hip high-tech feel, removed from the revolutionary-era historical grounding of the rest of the city. This isn’t a criticism, only an explanation of why you’re never going to find reasonably priced food at PAX East. Take the ~1.5mi walk over to Chinatown and you’ll have better luck. Or just bring your own food, you know, like a smart person.

PAX Unplugged, in contrast, is overflowing with great food. Sure, there’s overpriced middling fare in the convention center itself, but walk literally across the street and you’re at the Reading Terminal Market, where you’ll find actual Philadelphians shopping and eating. The Reading Terminal Market, built in 1893, is an indoor city block filled to the brim with food and not much else. It’s crowded, sure, but the proprietors of the various counters know how to keep things moving swiftly. You’ll be able to find essentially whatever lunch food you crave there, from hamburgers to gyros to vegetarian bowls to empanadas. Get your grocery shopping done while you’re at it. The Convention Center is as downtown as anything can be, so if the Market is too crowded for you just walk in any direction and you’ll find normal city restaurants at normal city prices.

The strangest thing about food in Philadelphia is that the famous cheesesteak is the worst thing you can eat. At risk of invoking the wrath of locals, I just have to say it: Philly cheesesteaks are disgusting. And I think it’s because, for some reason lost to time, they’re not seasoned. If there’s one rule to cooking it’s that salt makes everything taste good. Somehow an entire city thinks this doesn’t apply to a steak and cheese sandwich. Exhibit A: this video. Observe how chef Brad Leone offers to season both the steak and the onions while doing prep work before being enthusiastically shot down by the owner. Salt must be requested by the customer before it touches a cheesesteak. This is insanity. It can’t be for health reasons because it’s already full of cholesterol. I can attest, having eaten at both of the famous tourist-trap locations and a couple of others, that this isn’t an isolated practice. I thought, after my fourth or fifth bland sandwich over the years, that I was perhaps getting unlucky or picking the wrong locations. Now I believe there’s some kind of mass delusion keeping salt from what could be a delicious sandwich.

Ignoring the cheesesteak, Philadelphia, particularly south of the convention center, has some incredible food. This year we were able to find a place to stay less than a block away from South Philly Barbacoa, which serves up tacos so perfect it makes me wonder why I eat anything else. When you enter the small, somewhat cramped restaurant, facing the corner of an intersection much better suited to pedestrians than automobiles, with its open-air produce stands and outdoor café seating stretching down all four directions, you immediately place your order at what in other restaurants would be the host stand, behind which is a small, exposed kitchen where one person chops and weighs the protein (always lamb barbacoa and maybe a secondary option—chicken or pork, perhaps), another person expertly presses fresh tortillas, a third oversees toasting said tortillas and maintaining huge pots of lamb consommé, and a small army attend to the miscellaneous tasks required to make a kitchen run smoothly. You can order individual tacos, but you’re better off buying by the kg, loading up on accoutrements, and assembling your own. The consommé, seasoned with hominy, rice, cilantro, and red chile, alone justifies the visit. Once I saw tamales on the menu. As much as I love tamales, why bother when I can have perfect tacos?

South Philadelphia is a brilliant food place because, as far as I can tell, it’s wholly unpretentious, populated by people who love to serve good food. On my way to buy shockingly cheap breakfast sandwiches one morning I passed by a couple of other Mexican places, a Thai restaurant with great online reviews, and a pastry shop that made me second-guess my quest to acquire breakfast sandwiches. A block in the other direction I was able to get a solid Neapolitan pie one night. Once I joked that half the reason I go to PAX Unplugged is for the food in South Philly. Upon reflection it’s not a joke.

II: Friends Are Good To Have, Both In A General Sense And Specifically When Attending A PAX

At either PAX, but most of all at East, the primary emotion a first-time attendee will experience is a sense of overwhelming urgency. Convention centers, architecturally speaking, aren’t made for relaxation. They have to be able to hold, and facilitate the transit of, tens of thousands of people. This means, on top of having a truly massive central hall for exhibitors and such, they have to have awkwardly large hallways which always tend to be either awkwardly crowded or uncomfortably empty. Where does one walk in an empty, 30-foot wide hallway? Down the middle feels overly assertive, too close to the wall seems like you’re trying to hide something. (It’s times like these when I wonder if I’m the first person to ever contemplate a thing.) The combination of architectural enormity and masses of people creates a ceaseless background roar that undoubtedly affects the nervous system even when you’re not consciously aware of it.

Being in such a place slowly drains your stamina, particularly in the expo hall proper, where low-key anxiety from being around so many moving people battles a plethora of signs and lights and booths designed to attract your attention and draw you in. I’m sure there are people who thrive in this environment, and I wish them all the best. I can last about an hour wandering around the booths at PAX East before visual stimuli starts to lose all meaning. Unplugged, as a similar experience scaled down in both size and intensity, is more bearable.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, to find that having friends around helps matters greatly. PAX isn’t designed for the solo traveler into board games. I suppose if you’re focusing on digital games you might have a better time as nearly all of those embrace the solo gamer. If you’re panel hopping, you’d better be an RPG enthusiast as board game focused panels are few and far between. I remember my first PAX East, all those years ago, when I pre-planned my schedule nearly completely before the event. I agonized over overlapping events, carefully weighing which might be the most entertaining or instructive. I researched which companies would be in attendance, and what games they might be showing off, mentally plotting a route through the expo hall. All I got from this planning was a sense that, at every moment, I was missing something essential. You can’t do all of PAX; the limitations of our finite bodies and the steady march of time lock that in place. When you overly plan you set up expectations, that you’ve set up a good plan that wouldn’t be improved upon by improvisation, and which you’ll feel bad about if you fail to meet. What I’m saying is to make loose plans. Nothing is going to happen at PAX you’ll regret missing. It’s not a thing to be seized, but a buffet to be sampled. 

Also, bring friends. It’s not that I was isolated the entire time at PAX East, but the people I did meet up with had their own lives and schedules, and our connections were brief. I was able to meet up with my friend Steve to play The Two Heirs in the “First Look”* section one afternoon. It’s a 1-2 player game reminiscent of Carcassonne, insofar as you’re placing square tiles on a shared construction to score points. Instead of a random draw there’s a rudimentary drafting system. Instead of a couple simple ways to score, nearly every tile scores in its own way. Call it Carcassonne+. The most intriguing aspect was how the draft affected the resources you get access to which let you pay for the tile you’re about to place. A simple heuristic is to simply take whichever tile you’ll be able to afford, but since you can keep a hand of up to three tiles in hand to play later there’s an interesting tradeoff between actively guiding the geography of the map and trying to snag the best tiles for your strategy, even if that means you’ll have to figure out some way to pay for their placement later.

That was the only game I played at PAX East with someone I knew. A couple of other plans to meet up with people fell through, and finding games to join or people to play with was frustratingly difficult. Part of this is my fault, being somewhat socially awkward and prone to mild, persistent anxiety when in the presence of crowds. Conventions have started supplying “looking for players” signs to remedy these sorts of situations. PAX East, with tens of thousands of attendees, had eight of these signs. I counted. Fortunately, the weekend was saved by:

III: Unpub

No one’s more desperate to play with random loners than people with prototypes. I seized upon this symbiotic relationship with great relish, playing more games at East in the Unpub booth than outside of it. Estate Sale was a somewhat rough play, though I think there are some interesting threads in there the designer should pull. The setting is perfect for a game: you’re at an estate sale trying to grab bargains and come away with the best collection of other people’s stuff. The scoring system really pushes you to complete diverse sets, which makes some thematic sense and could introduce blocking as a key mechanism if information weren’t semi-hidden. You’d think this would be an auction game, but it’s actually centered around role-selection, and a pop-up auction is only one of four roles. The rest is about acquiring money in non-thematic ways and positioning yourself to find good deals based on your location in the home. Just like in real life you can only move in one direction through the linear path of a house and only when you or someone else in the vicinity chooses the move action. Once you’ve played a number of prototypes you get pretty good at spotting band aids, where designers have patched over a problem from a previous playtest with a new rule or mechanism. Estate Sale felt like it was entirely band aids, burying the core of an interesting idea from long ago. I think the designer should pick a core system, perhaps auctions or spatial positioning, and center a simpler game around that. We all know auctions are great and can sustain thousands of games. I also think the idea of a game about a mad rush to find the best deals within the space of a home has potential. Just pick something and stop applying bandages.

Let Sleeping Giants Lie is much further along in its design and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a publisher pick it up this year. It’s a tight open information cooperative game currently themed around a “Jack and the Beanstalk” sort of thing involving serving giants the food they want to eat without arousing suspicions as you simultaneously smuggle out treasure. The initial teach is long for its intended audience (families), though it’s supported by a twisted thematic coherence that reminds me of CGE/Vlaada collaborations like Dungeon Lords or Space Alert. Every part of the game makes perfect sense within the reality of its setting, as silly as that setting is. At the same time, remarkably, it seems like it could be easily transferred to another setting. As you get food cards you’ve got to figure out where to place them and in what order. Satiate a giant by delivering them their preferred meal and they collapse face-first into their plate, entering a literal food coma. But, each giant truly abhors other types of food, and if you deliver such rank smells to one of their neighbors they’ll wake up from their slumber, ready for another round. 

While all of this is happening you’re also triggering effects that line up other giants outside of the feasting hall, through which you must pass on your way down the beanstalk at the end of the game. Manipulating which giants end up where in that stack affects the cost of your escape as you bribe (or fight? I forget the setting-specific justification) your way to freedom. You need to feed giants to prohibit them from stopping your escape but the longer you play that game the more resources to pay for your escape get lost. This push and pull kept the game tense throughout; every decision felt like it really mattered. 

On top of that the difficulty system is brilliant. At the start of the game you pick from three different core difficulty levels, which, in line with the setting, affect the intensity by which you’ll later be able to describe your exploits to your kin. In our game we were going for “A Colossal Tale”. As you play you’ll be able to accomplish little mini-goals, marginally ramping up the difficulty, to add “very”s to that description. It’s a cute and clever way of scoring in in-universe language, but more than that it’s truly devious, leveraging individual hubris to push people closer to losing in pursuit of greater glory mid-game. I can’t recall another game with this mechanism and I love it. With a little spit and polish I could see Let Sleeping Giants Lie slotting next to something like Forbidden Desert as a fantastic mid/light optimization puzzle.

Similarly whimsical but decidedly less modern, Thieves and Guards felt like something pulled out of a time machine from the 80’s. It’s a cat and mouse game of what the title suggests, set in a nondescript medieval (fantasy?) town. Sitting down I suspected it might be a hidden movement game, but everything’s out in the open. One player plays as the guards while the others take on the role of thief gangs who have a worryingly large presence in this small town. On your turn you roll some dice and move some spaces in the giant grid map. The primary decision is how you’re going to allocate movement points between your different figures on the board. Guards, being more plentiful, can eventually cover more space, but do you rush one person out quickly to try to nab a thief early, or do you take your time building a web throughout the space? As a thief, do you try to get low-value loot quickly or plot to get the good stuff from the castle vault? Bad rolls are compensated for with random draws from the deck which provide one-off abilities and potentially keys to access hidden passageways. I can’t say I had a bad time playing Thieves and Guards, but much of it was spent counting large numbers of movement points and wondering what this game could be if it had a slightly more modern sensibility. Like, what does it look like if you get it out of the late 90’s time machine?

The last game I played at PAX East, exhausted from a long weekend, was perfectly timed to jive with my fatigued state. Despite the milquetoast name, Defend the Village is a hoot. Inspired by old tower defense flash games, it has one player (or a small team) sending enemies down one of five lanes while the person/people on the other side frantically roll dice to shoot them down before they reach the end of the track. All the while a metronome clicks every two seconds, allowing the attacking player to move an enemy the next step down the path or place a new one. Yeah that’s right, this game is literally played to a beat. It’s hilarious. Slow enemies require patterns of three dice to shoot down but have a longer path to the end while faster enemies may cover the entire space in a couple of clicks but only require one die to defeat. It’s a game of attention, as true skill on the attack comes with being able to push a threat until you see your opponent commit to finding the dice to beat it, only to pivot over to a different threat. On the defense you simultaneously need to keep up with these feints, try to find certain numbers, and understand when a roll happens to give you the ammunition needed to knock out an enemy you weren’t focusing on. Team play adds in a layer of communication. Right now, as you can see, Defend the Village is made out of the side a cardboard box and some tape, but it was more fun than half the games I played that weekend. I think publishers might be somewhat hesitant to pick up real time games but I love them and hope to see this one on shelves at some point.

Reclamation, as a medium/heavy cooperative survival game, fits right in with the zeitgeist. Clearly inspired by games like Spirit Island, it has players scavenging the desolate countryside for resources, supplies, and defensive positions while demons and nasties stream out of portals and attack. You win by outlasting them or closing all the portals, and there’s enough variety with cards and such that I suspect games might feel quite different from each other depending on what shows up. In my game we found an incredibly powerful (and expensive) defensive structure early on, focused on building it at the expense of everything else, and then spent the rest of the game funneling demons into its maw. I enjoyed the exploration elements, but some other mechanisms, like item cards, felt like gilding the lily. I think by narrowing its focus and chopping off some vestigial limbs, it could find a tighter, more consistent narrative arc without becoming less epic or exciting.

Speaking of exciting, Wormwood (not to be confused with the recently-in-hot-water furniture company Wyrmwood) might be great. The designers said they were inspired by Netrunner and other CCG/LCG games, but it’s close enough to the former that you could almost think of it as a mechanical spin-off. Instead of asymmetrical roles both sides are trying to advance and steal agendas (called “echos” here). Instead of constructing a deck you’re choosing from pre-built options. Instead of cyberpunk, the setting of Wormwood is a sort of post-apocalyptic, grimy, tribal sci-fi. Someone with more knowledge than I would be able to pin down the sub-genre that no doubt exists to describe it.

Outside of the virtues of Netrunner it shares, like a thick layer of bluffing and deception underpinning everything, Wormwood distinguishes itself by its economy, which is largely time-based. When you want to build something like a military unit or building, you place it face down in the “forge” where it waits until it’s been there a number of turns equal to its cost. Then you flip it face up and place it wherever it needs to go, active and working to your benefit. This is how you score echos too, so defending your forge can be critical. Of course, you could just keep the echos in your hand for now and defend that instead. A hearty defense signals that there’s something worth stealing, though. You start to get the picture. I wasn’t able to complete a full game or see more than the two decks from that game, but it seems like there’s a lot to dive into. I was fully engaged trying to figure out how to prioritize things and spot synergistic effects that I forgot to take a picture. The designers weren’t yet committed to if they’re going to try to self-publish or seek out an established publisher, but it seems like they’re ready to get this thing into the marketplace soon either way. I can’t wait.

Part 2 soon…

*A magnificent curated batch of recently or soon to be released board games from all around the world, found at both PAXes. I stared longingly at Horseless Carriage, the new Splotter Spellen release, but didn’t find an opportunity to play.

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