This was my first time going to PAX Unplugged in Philadelphia, PA. Haller went last year and raved about it, so Dan and I decided to tag along this time and play lots of games.
My approach to a convention like this might be a little different than is typical. I think most people are going for the expo booths and to get a first look at the new shiny. I came armed with a well-researched list of games I’ve heard great things about for several years, but never felt convinced enough to buy them outright. I wanted to try several of the perennial favorites and see what all this fuss has been about.
First, some commentary about the convention itself.
PAX Unplugged is a tabletop boardgaming, card gaming, and roleplaying convention. There are lots of D&D sessions, Magic: The Gathering tournaments, Miniature battle tournaments, expo booths from many boardgame publishing companies demoing and selling their new games, boardgame accessory companies selling their wares, and dice merchants selling them like fine jewelry to hordes of hungry humans hell bent on getting glittery resin and metallic dice in their hands.
Seriously… the handmade dice market is insane these days. I went to one dice vendor and asked if they had any dice by _Yaniir_, a custom dice maker I started following on Instagram a few weeks ago. “Sorry, we sold out of all of her stuff within minutes on the first day of the convention.” They sold each set of her dice for ~$125. …. …. …. wow.
I need to start making dice.
Anyway, the crew that runs PAXU has it all figured out. They move everybody in and through security pretty fast, communication is clear, everything happens on time, and the convention center is nicely organized.
I didn’t care so much about the expo side of things, as I wasn’t intending to buy games there. You have to fight with the crowds in that area anyway. We did a few demos though, so that was neat. Having someone who knows the game teach it to you is a lot faster and easier than reading a rulebook and getting 2 to 3 other players up to speed on your own.
The real highlight for me was the First Look area where you just walk up to games released since August. They’re all set up on tables. Find a game where no one is sitting, and you and your group can just sit down and start playing. A helpful teacher might stop over and ask if you’d like a rules explanation, which is awesome.
After I ran out of interesting titles in that area, I headed for the Game Library, where you can use your badge to check out games and play them on your own at the multitude of tables nearby. It’s on you to read the rules yourself, but they have a metric ton of games. This is where I spent most of my/our time — trying to scan the piles of alphabetized games for titles that would play efficiently, fit with our group’s interests, and check off boxes on my to do list. I was really surprised by some of these, in good and bad ways. So let’s jump in.
- ⅓ game, 3p, demo at a booth
The players are the spirits of the island, being invaded by caucasians during the age of colonialism. We’re working together to scare away the white man by coordinating the use of our spiritual powers.
This is a rich, complex, interwoven, asymmetrical, collaborative, cooperative game. Nice theme, beautiful artwork. A bit fiddly with the board state management. The cards could benefit from better graphic design to make things more obvious. And it might benefit from a little streamlining.
Every round you have to consider what your options are, whether you can act quickly or slowly, whether you can aid your partners and help them act quickly or slowly, see how your cards might complement their cards, and collectively determine which order all of the cards should be played in, at which regions of the map to focus efforts on. It’s… a lot. A lot a lot. Analysis Paralysis prone players might really suffer with this one. There is so much to consider with every move. You can really get bogged down trying to min max everything. The demonstrator advised to just worry about what you can do right now with the board state we’re shown, encouraging more tactical thinking than longterm strategic. He wasn’t the best teacher. That didn’t help matters any.
I’m drawn to the intricacy and difficulty of the puzzle, but worry that it’s just too much to analyze and that it will become more effort than entertainment.
Gut Reaction: B+
- Full playthrough with teacher
Wow! We were all up to speed by turn two and it felt like we were immediately in each other’s heads, suspicious as hell, knives out, jockeying for position.
Each player has a secret identity that comes with a secret game ending condition. If you can manipulate the board and your opponents such that the board state meets your winning condition at the start of your turn, you win the game immediately. But your opponents each have the same cheat sheet as you that tells them what the possible win conditions are. Everybody is watching everybody’s moves trying to deduce what they’re going for and how to prevent it from happening.
The artwork is incredibly gorgeous. I’m a sucker for Victorian-era London as a thematic setting. I’m a sucker for anything with Sherlock Holmes or characters from old literature. Everything about this game is beautiful. I might even seek out the metal coins someday as icing on the cake.
The hand management is fantastic, the event deck is random and terrifying, it plays super smooth, the rules overhead is minimal, it’s quick to learn, and comes with a lot of variability to keep you on your toes. We all had a blast.
Best game of the convention IMO. I ordered a copy as soon as I got home.
Gut Reaction: A+
- ½ game, 4p, demo at a booth
This is a game about rival prison gangs, vying for dominance in close quarters. It shares a lot of DNA with Roll Player’s market cards giving victory points. The depth comes from trying to bluff your way to area majority in a given region of the prison and gaining first dibs on resource gathering or card purchases. Suspicion cubes work like cubes in Clank! where once the pool is depleted, the prison guards raid and the inmates with the most suspicion lose half their points, second most, etc. as a catch up mechanism for those falling behind in points.
I pulled off a few clever moves accumulating suspicion on purpose, confusing my opponents, gaining a bonus card that gave me victory points for being the first to have 4 suspicion cubes, and programming my actions so that I’d gain the ability to move my suspicion onto my opponents at the last second when they wouldn’t have a chance to respond, forcing a raid, knocking their scores in half, and slingshotting myself from last place to second place.
The game just goes on to hit the same notes from there for 3 more rounds. We all agreed that playing ½ the game was enough to get a feel for it. Not very deep waters for me. I left feeling a bit meh.
Gut Reaction: C
- Full playthrough, 4p, reading from the rulebook, with prior experience with Glen More
I used to own Glen More, so I was able to get everybody up and running rather quickly. I also almost backed the Glen More II: Chronicles Kickstarter, but backed out at the last second thinking I wasn’t going to enjoy it for the same reasons I got rid of the original, which started to feel a bit samey and lacked variability.
Glen More is a game I traded away years ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about ever since. Very few games offered that level of strategy and mental crunch in a short 45 minute play time with a theme I enjoy. I’ve often considered buying it again, but it’s forever out of print. Then this Kickstarter came along and I thought it solved all my problems. A few mixed reviews came in and I started having my doubts. I’m not in love with the module approach. I’d rather they just design one fantastic game. But the base game of Glen More II: Chronicles is 90% the same as the original — only lacking the road restriction, a few special tiles have been tweaked, and famous people have been added for an additional set collection element.
In Glen More you are competing clans, trying to construct the best village and surrounding industries (fields of barley, distilleries, castles, quarries, cows and sheep, etc). You draft tiles and add them to your village, hire new clansmen, and produce goods that you use to buy more tiles. It’s like Carcassonne and Clans of Caledonia blended together and run through a sieve.
I had a blast playing this again. It’s smooth, thinky, satisfying to get chain reactions, a tight point race, and offers multiple paths and strategies. I came home and ordered the game.
Gut Reaction: A
- Full Playthrough, 4p, reading from the rulebook
Two guys were setting up the game and noticed me looking over their shoulder. They asked if I wanted to join them. Mike and I sat down, both with some reluctance, as we didn’t want to get tied up in what might be a crap game. I had read a few mixed reviews of this one and had my doubts. Listening as two strangers read from two rulebooks, my eyes started glazing over and I started to think of a polite way to excuse myself. But we decided to stick with it for a few rounds until we could get a sense of the game’s flow.
Each player is a diving crew competing to gather the most treasure from the bottom of the sea. It’s a race and gambling and push your luck and interesting card drafting all mushed together.
It didn’t take very long for us to get the feel for it, and then all four of us were racing for the finish. The push your luck aspect and shared loot combined with careful planning and preparation and deck building choices is an interesting and satisfying cocktail. Mike and I thought we’d hate this one, but we ended up totally surprised by it.
I think this is a better family game than Ticket to Ride: Europe (which I just got rid of in a Math Trade because I was so sick of playing it). This one has more to think about, more to plan. You want to build a deck that covers your bases, replenish your hand at the right times, get your boats into good positions for an easy tag-along dive, and then digging treasures out of the bag when you’re the dive leader offers its own little strategies. Do you keep diving in an attempt to shake a few of your opponents off and leave them with no points, risking you losing everything? Do you chicken out, but then give everybody more points? I really enjoyed this one.
Gut Reaction: B+
- Full playthrough, 3p, reading from the rulebook
This is one of the first games that I researched when I got hooked on the hobby. Drakkenstrike did a video review of it and it looked like my kind of game. I liked the theme (The Black Plague. Yes, I know I’m weird) and the artwork, but for some reason I never bought a copy. After playing this, and later a game of El Grande (which shares some interesting similarities), I think I’m glad I didn’t buy it, but I did enjoy playing it. I think this is a good game for playing with kids (though there are better options out there). It played smoothly, had minimal rules overhead, didn’t take up too much space and didn’t overstay its welcome. It didn’t hook any of us, but it offered some interesting choices. Would happily play it again, but don’t need to own it.
Gut Reaction: B-
- Full playthrough, 3p, older version with the crumby art.
Battle Yahtzee. We played immediately after Dan and Haller played through a demo of the new version at the Roxley booth, where Dan fell in love with the game.
Each character has its own little puzzle to solve, its own little engine to create damage or defense and to manipulate dice and mitigate bad rolls. It has player elimination, which isn’t something I look for in games, but it’s the entire point of this game and feels like dueling Planeswalkers in Magic: The Gathering a little, but with dice, and unique skills, and the same random card draws. Leveling up the character and pulling off some clever attacks and counterattacks and counterspells feels really fun. I enjoyed my time with this one.
Dan bought Dice Throne: Season Two, his first board game purchase, because he liked it so much. We played his copy the next night. I like that it’s thinky enough to keep me interested, but light enough to still allow for table banter.
Gut Reaction: A-
- 80% playthrough, 3p, reading from the rulebook. We ran out of time as midnight approached and they were closing the convention center.
I expected so much more from this game, what with all the hype and craze surrounding it, and the effort that went into the beautiful production, the artwork, the resources, and the 3D tree. We start in Spring and you get only TWO worker placement spots. There aren’t enough resources at any spot. You can’t do a damn thing. We checked the rulebook 3 times to make sure we weren’t missing some rule. Finding nothing, we each moved into Summer and got 1 additional worker placement. Still struggling to figure out how to get anything built or get any semblance of an engine up and running. We moved into Autumn and the game started to wake up. Finally! Autumn dragged on for a bit, we all built some stuff, and then we moved into Winter and the choices and options exploded a bit, and we could see that Winter would take longer than the rest of the game combined.
I love the theme. Little forest critters scurrying around gathering resources for the winter months. Awesome. I’m all in. But you’re building a tableau of cards. You look down and it doesn’t look at all like a village. And your village has nothing to do with anyone else’s village. The only player interaction in this forest community is when you block someone from taking a worker placement spot. 2 worker placements is NOT scurrying. It’s taking 2 steps into a brick wall and standing still until the season changes.
I went into this thinking I would really hate that each player could operate on their own timeline, that one player could rush through and finish up Winter while others are still playing in Summer. This seems like a really terrible design decision. A player can finish the game, score their points, and then watch as the other players (now seeing where the bar is set), strive to beat his score. This could take upwards of 30-40 minutes. Who the hell wants to sit and watch other people play a game (better than them) for 30-40 minutes?!
In any case, I feel like my concerns were validated a bit, but there was so much else wrong with this game (and probably my expectations for it), that it was a real disappointment. I thought each season would be 25% of the game, but the vendor at the booth confirmed that we played it correctly and that the game is very skewed to the Autumn and Winter side of things.
I’m out of words to describe just how frustrating and disappointing I found this game to be.
Gut Reaction: D+
- Full playthrough, 2p, with the vendor teaching me the game
You’re a standard D&D character trying to explore a dungeon or cave and steal ancient artifacts, but your armor makes clank noises that wakes up the dragon. Make too much noise and you’re toast. Get in, get the loot, and get out with more loot than everybody else to win the game.
Instant hit! Only took 2-3 rounds to learn the entire game. Another person sat down next to me and asked if he could play and I felt comfortable enough to teach him everything in 2 minutes and he was up and running. The market cards with occasional monsters is a really clever approach to showing the monsters you might encounter when you delve into a dungeon. Everything is just so smooth and streamlined. The clank cubes serving double duty as hit points is beautiful in its simplicity.
I asked about the rush strategy and whether it’s a problem for the game. He said all it really does is shorten the game, but the person rushing doesn’t often win if the other players know what they’re doing. Clank! In! Space! attempts to rectify this with time gates, slowing a player’s progression out of the dungeon, signaling to other players that they’re trying to begin making their way out.
But my son said he prefers the dragon theme, so I’m starting with the original. I got a copy of Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure in a Math Trade at the convention, so I was really glad that it hit all the right notes. This one looks to be a fun time.
Gut Reaction: A-
- Full playthrough, 5p, reading from the rulebook
Players are basically lords of different regions of Spain, calling their caballeros to their court and vying for dominance over all of Spain.
I’ve often heard it said that El Grande is the best area control game out there. I now know why they think that, and I agree 100%. This game is pure, clean, streamlined, offers variable setup, multiple strategic paths, bluffing. It’s like Risk if Risk had a brain.
Everybody was falling asleep as I tried to read through the rulebook and explain things. It’s certainly not going to win any hearts by how it looks, and I sensed some growing doubts around the table. But they were polite and hung in there.
We were a few rounds in and then it was a knife fight, everybody fully engaged, all eyes on the board, all eyes reading the next round of cards. This game is fantastic. Everybody had a good time and everybody agreed that it has held up amazingly well for being published in 1995. I’ll be happy to own this game someday. Drab aesthetics aside, this is a boardgaming work of art.
Gut Reaction: A
- Full playthrough, 4p, reading from the rulebook
I’d been looking at Clans for ages, but it’s out of print and Leo Colovini is no longer with us. I’ve heard criticisms that the Fae theme doesn’t match the game as well as the clans did, but I wanted to give it a shot anyway.
In this game, you have a secret identity. Your goal is to attend the most rituals by slyly moving your color druids into position, or having your opponents move them for you. When druids are in a group and are isolated from neighboring druids, a ritual happens and points are scored.
People were tired and wanted to walk around, but when I showed them it was a 20 minutes playing time, they all agreed to see what it was about. A few turns in and we started to see the layers of strategy. It’s interesting, but not very deep. I’m sure that with several plays the tactics and bluffing would be more pronounced. It was a pleasant time, but no one really felt like it was amazing.
Gut Reaction: B
- Full playthrough, 3p, reading from the rulebook
Everdell gets off to a very slow start by not giving you any resources at the beginning of the game. In Imperial Settlers, you start every round with some basic goods to jumpstart your engine. This is nicer.
Razing your own or your neighbor’s buildings is probably pretty frustrating for your neighbors. Only one of my buildings was razed, but I razed with abandon in each of the 5 rounds of the game.
I was Egypt, Dan was Rome, Haller was Barbarian. Each civilization has their own style and approach to getting victory points. I found the Egyptian approach pretty early on and kept spamming it for points throughout the game, creating a bit of a runaway leader effect.
My main complaints about the game are two-fold. First, it doesn’t look like a civilization. It’s a tableau of cards. The graphic design of the cards is bad. The text is too small. And it doesn’t encourage me to look at the beautiful artwork. Second, it doesn’t look or feel like we’re neighbors, that we’re sharing the same overworld. In the end, it felt very solitary, we each went through the motions and ended the game with a meh feeling.
Side Note: Portal Games did a better job on this rulebook than their other ones. Credit where credit is due, IMO.
Gut Reaction: C
- ⅔ playthrough, 3p, reading from the rulebook.
My throat was sore from a sinus infection, so I wasn’t able to speak without pain. Dan volunteered to read us the rules for this one. It was his first rulebook. CGE are known for witty rulebooks, but this one was a little extra verbose with a lot of page turning and reading about what each card does. That didn’t help. I was sick, and tired after a long convention and a lot of gaming and a lot of rulebooks, so my heart probably wasn’t in this one.
I’m also averse to real-time games, but wanted the guys to get a feel for what they’re all about. We stood over a demo of Pandemic Rapid Response on the last day of the convention and that was a better example of what I’m talking about when I say real-time means “Stress”.
In any case, Galaxy Trucker was one of the first real-time games, and that’s where a lot of its notoriety lies. We’re galactic trucking companies, trying to pickup and deliver valuable cargo while dodging alien attacks, asteroid impacts, laser blasts, and meteor storms. We have to build our ships as fast and as well as possible and then watch as the event deck tears them apart. If you manage to limp across the finish line with your ship still mostly intact, consider yourself lucky.
There are a lot of components, they all do different things, everything has a rules explanation. Batteries need little green pills. Double lasers and double engines need to be powered by the little green pills. You better have enough. Red cubes need to be stored in special cargo bays, not normal cargo bays. People bays for people to stand in. Special rules for different types of asteroid or laser blasts. Every variant and expansion seems to just add more rules and more nuance and more variation.
We found the game to be very, very fiddly. And I think we just weren’t in the mood to look for hilarity in watching the ships get torn to pieces in the scoring rounds. We had just come off of 16 or so strategy games, and this was an oddball choice and didn’t fit with the trend of what we’d been playing, or where our minds were at.
Gut Reaction: B-
- ⅓ playthrough, 3p, reading from the rulebook
Concordia is a game everybody says they love. But it isn’t doing itself any favors. Drab artwork, very beige colors, and the most meh theme of all: Trading in the Mediterranean.
Even so, I was on a mission. I chased this game every single day of the convention, but it was always checked out by someone from the game library moments before I arrived. On the final day I recruited a friend who was consistently ahead of us in line to try to snag it for me first thing. He did. We sat down to play.
By this point I was sicker than I’d been all weekend and my brain was on all kinds of antihistamines and decongestants, and I was probably burned out a bit on rules explanations. I had a real hard time focusing and finding my way in the first few rounds. Haller managed to click early and his eyes lit up. Dan shortly thereafter. As we were playing, people kept stopping at our table and pointing at the board in joy at seeing us play one of their favorite games. I know people love this game. I just needed to know why.
Eventually I started to see the board open up and the options reveal themselves. Haller says there was a noticeable change in my demeanor when I started to see what all the fuss was about. I think I saw the briefest glimpse of a great game, but we were all in a rush to see more of the convention and get on the road to go home, so after 1 hour we packed it up.
I think this is a very pure, clean, streamlined game where player interaction is a positive thing through mutual rewards and synergies. The hand management, card drafting, and tagalong card play is fantastic. The regional production giving you a benefit but also benefiting any player with a house in that region is top notch. I can see the depth. I want to dive in. But we were out of time and I needed to get home to get better antibiotics.
Gut Reaction: A-
- Brief demonstration at the vendor booth, played a few rounds to get a feel for it and to explore the decision space.
A crazy amount of detail shoved into a single deck of cards. There’s a lot of complication and depth in here, and they did some really clever things with multi-use cards and simulating the dungeon crawler experience. It feels like it’s designed to be a solo game, plays cooperatively with 2, offers a variety of boss fights of increasing complexity and difficulty, different ways to loot a monster (skill upgrades, stat upgrades, potions, etc). There’s a lot in here. They put a lot of thought and cleverness into it. It was an impressive design. I just have no interest in it.
Gut Reaction: B-
Yes, I will be returning to PAX Unplugged next year.
Yes, I will have an updated, fully-researched list of games to play.
Yes, I will ask the doctor for the stronger antibiotics next time.