PAX Unplugged 2021: Bringing Games & Community Together

At this point, everyone has a long list of things that they missed out on in 2020. As a board game enthusiast, one item on my list was PAX Unplugged. PAX, formerly Penny Arcade Expo (named for the webcomic created by the founders of the event), is a series of conventions focusing on gaming of all types. PAX Unplugged is the version of the event that focuses on analog gaming: board games, tabletop role playing games, and miniature games to name just a few. As an attendee in both 2018 and 2019, I was understandably disappointed when the 2020 version of the con was canceled. Thankfully, PAX was able to bring back Unplugged for 2021 and I made the trip to Philadelphia for it.

Brendan, Andrew, Theresa P, & Theresa W posing for a photo in RECON gear at PAX Unplugged 2021.

What Was There

As might be expected, I spent my three days at PAX with a keen eye towards anything that looked like a tabletop escape game.

Tabletop Escape Games

  1. Rita Orlov of PostCurious was at the Knight Moves Cafe booth displaying her two successfully Kickstarted games The Emerald Flame and The Light in the Mist.
  2. Thames & Kosmos, maker of the Exit the Game series of card-based tabletop escape games, had a booth displaying Exit games as well as many of their other products.
  3. There was a lone and seemingly random stack of printed company information sheets for Hunt A Killer. They had no physical presence that I saw, and the stack of papers wasn’t even in the expo hall.

While there was not a major presence from the typical escape-style games that we have been playing and reviewing, there were plenty of other tabletop games to be excited about. With a growing tendency for enthusiasts to look towards playing rooms that tell a good story, I also kept an eye out for board games that did the same thing. Two mechanics stand out as exemplifying a growing desire for story in games: legacy and storytelling. 

Legacy Games

Legacy games are long format and designed to be played over multiple sessions. Decisions that are made in one round change what will happen in future rounds. Currently 3 of the top 10 spots on the overall rankings on are tagged as having the legacy mechanic.

The legacy game that hyped me up the most at PAX this year was Isla Nublar. Fans of amazing dinosaur movies will recognize that name as the island on which some of the Jurassic Park films take place. Isla Nublar will let players collaboratively build a park from the ground up, breed dinosaurs, and probably have to find a way to stop the rampaging dinosaurs that you have bred. Plus, you’ll be taking on the roles of actual characters like John Hammond, Dr. Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcolm.

Famous shirtless Ian Malcolm scene from Jurassic Park with his face blurred out, and replaced with the words, "Your face here."
This joke… uhh… found a way.

The Storytelling Mechanic

The storytelling mechanic also places story at the center of the game by making it an essential element that players interact with. The game currently holding the #1 overall spot on is a massive game that has storytelling as a tagged mechanic. There can be significant overlap between the legacy and storytelling mechanics, but storytelling games always have a heavy focus on the narrative. Some legacy games – like Risk Legacy – are more concerned with shaping the rules of the game as you play.

At PAX, I found myself drawn to Plaid Hat GamesFamiliar Tales. In this game, players take on the role of magical creatures guiding a young princess through her life, helping her develop her skills and personality. Decisions made by the players influence the type of person the princess turns out to be, and change the way the story develops over time.

Unrelated to those mechanics, my big takeaways were Night Cage and Omega Virus. Night Cage is an atmospheric, monochromatic, cooperative game about escaping a labyrinth full of darkness and some monsters. Omega Virus originally released in 1992 and is slated to see a rebirth thanks to the efforts at Restoration Games. I had the original version way back when, and I’m excited to see what the eventual update and re-release has to offer.

What Wasn’t There

I was hopeful that I would see some escape-adjacent games that were new to me. But many of the games we’ve reviewed come from 3 major areas:

1) Escape companies making either relatively small print runs or print-and-play games (e.g. Lost Temple from CU Adventures);

2) Small publishers (Stolen at Sea);

3) Major publishers for whom escape content is a small fraction of their business (ThinkFun and Mattel and the above-mentioned Thames & Kosmos).

With the costs of travel, lodging, and a booth, is it reasonable to expect that small producers will be able to exhibit their wares at an event like PAX Unplugged? I’ve heard enough escape room owners discuss a distinct lack of free time due to running their businesses to understand that it is likely out of the question for them to attend a convention like this. But both the creators of boxed escape games and the more standard board game community at large would benefit from increased crossover. I know as a board gamer I am always interested in playing new styles of games and learning new mechanics. I see no reason why there wouldn’t be a subset of tabletop gamers that would appreciate being exposed to an escape-room style boxed game.

Perhaps there is a space for small publishers to group up and share a booth for the common good? The core concept worked in the indie video game world; the Indie Mega Booth was almost exactly this for small digital producers. They had a booth at 25+ conventions over the last decade, helping to get small developers space on the all-important expo floor. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, Indie Mega Booth is currently in a ‘hibernation’ phase pending an end to the pandemic. Even so, could some effort like this be possible for tabletop escape games?

Purple PAX Unplugged logo

Just Being There

Games and such aside, I can’t overstate just how nice it was to be somewhere that I hadn’t been since before, you know, all this stuff happened. It didn’t feel “normal” with the masks and the reduced footprint and the vaccine-verifying wristband, but it sure felt close to normal. The convention felt populated but not packed, with enough breathing room and elbow space to make me feel comfortable in this new era of being much more conscious of nearby people and all their inhaling and exhaling. I was able to talk with strangers about shared interests. I heard dozens  of pitches for games and accessories. I went to seminars and panel discussions. I interacted with strangers!

Maybe most importantly, I met up with friends! PAX Unplugged 2021 was a miniature Room Escape Artist meetup almost entirely accidentally. Of course, we were easily identified in the crowd thanks to us all wearing RECON swag throughout the weekend. I hadn’t seen my friends in the real world in years. Maybe it’s a bit cliché, but seeing these people was a major highlight of the weekend.

I’d like to give a big thanks to PAX for the media credentials, and allowing me to feel like I was a part of the community again. I look forward to the next convention, and then the next convention after that. I hope you do, too. See you in Boston this August?

Disclosure: PAX Unplugged provided a media pass.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: