Another PAX Unplugged (PAXU) has come and gone, and this one left me feeling that the tabletop puzzle community has grown and gained a sense of legitimacy in the larger world of tabletop gaming. As a refresher, PAX Unplugged is a convention dedicated to analog gaming – board games, tabletop RPGs, card games of various types, etc. When I went to PAXU in 2021, I had a great time – but I left without seeing much in the way of puzzle content. Heading into the event this year, I was hopeful of seeing content more relevant to REA readers. While viewing the schedule prior to the convention, I noticed some intriguing events and previewed them before the convention. Here is part one of my thoughts and observations from this year, as well as some reactions from the REA crew that attended. Part two will focus more on the gamified nature of the convention this year.
The Expo Hall
The beating heart of any convention is the show floor. At PAXU, hundreds of booths were set up with vendors displaying games, accessories, furniture, and just about anything else you could want for your next game night. I was pleased to see that the show floor had been expanded compared to the 2021 convention, allowing for more vendors to set up shop. For the escape genre fan, there wasn’t much more this year compared to last year… but there was more.
- Like last year, Rita Orlov of PostCurious (reviews) was showing off and selling her various games and previewing her newest, Adrift. The booth was a constant buzz of activity, and I noticed a good number of copies of Emerald Flame in the arms of happy customers.
- Pop Fiction Games was back showing off their successfully Kickstarted game The Shivers. I first talked to them way back at PAXU 2019 and was immediately impressed with their prototyped pop-up mystery game. When it launched on Kickstarter the following year I backed the deluxe edition and recently received it. From what I’ve played so far it is beautiful, innovative, and fun; stay tuned for a more in-depth review.
- Thames & Kosmos were back, displaying their EXIT: The Game (reviews) series of card-based tabletop escape games as well as many of their other products.
- New to PAXU this year was Lockbox Adventures. They were selling two of their boxed games, which arrive to you as a locked box with a set of puzzles that give you the box’s combination. They also offered a special set of puzzles to be solved at PAX – more on that at a later time.
Of course, there were many, many more booths offering a vast array of games and gaming accessories. Last year I highlighted a few of the games that caught my eye. This year, there was enough puzzle content that I can focus on that directly. However… it would be remiss of me not to mention two of the most interesting pieces of convention swag I picked up while in the expo hall. The most novel item has to be the shampoo and conditioner set from Addax Games. And the most collectible promotional item goes to a wooden duck meeple (duckle?) I was handed while walking down one of the aisles.
PAX Unplugged is such a treat every year. This is my third time going, and most certainly not my last. Every year, I immediately sprint to the Null Signal Games booth as soon as the convention starts. (This year, I was there even before the convention started since I was working at the PostCurious Booth!). Null Signal Games is a non-profit centered around reviving and making the Netrunner LCG (living card game) thrive years after support was dropped from the original publisher. Every year, the Null Signal team runs infinite learn-to-play sessions, multiple tournaments, and are always so excited to talk about their passion for the game. One of the best parts of Null Signal Games is how accessible they strive to make the game for every player by releasing every single card and all of the rules in a free print-and-play. Check out their website here.
As an OG attendee dating back to its inception in 2017, I’ve bear witness to the great evolution of this event. Admittedly, the past two years both felt a little bit smaller than their pre-pandemic 2019 event, at least in the Exhibit Hall. However, what they’ve lost a little in size, they’ve made up for in quality! This is actually the most exciting thing about the event to me. Before 2020, many of the booths and games honestly felt like they were coming straight out of someone’s garage and weren’t nearly ready for primetime. The indie creators have really stepped it up a notch over the past two years and are almost indistinguishable from their more seasoned counterparts. The future is bright for offline gaming and PAX Unplugged is showing the way.
If you’re on the fence about attending PAX Unplugged, do it. The attendees are great, the vendors are great, the speakers are great, and of course, the games are great. I’ve been to PAX Unplugged for the last 4 years, participated in different things each year, and every time I’m left thinking, “PAX is my favorite weekend all year.” If you’re into tabletop gaming, card games, or “Unplugged” analog gaming in any way, you owe it to yourself to make it to PAX Unplugged in Philly next year. This year, my friends and I went to a few talks, played a little Magic: The Gathering, walked the show floor, and played board games we had never tried before thanks to the expansive (free!) lending library.
One of the most exciting events at PAXU was the panel moderated by David Spira and populated with some of the most notable take-home puzzle designers in the field today. The panel, Games You Only Play Once: What Puzzles Bring to the Table, touched on many areas of designing and playing at-home puzzle games. David’s expert and well-practiced moderation led to thoughtful answers and lively discussion from the panel.
Some of the answers from the panelists touched on the issues faced by any puzzle game designer: the importance of a robust and layered hinting system, the necessity of playtesting at all stages of the game, etc. But game designers such as these run into other obstacles. For example, the challenge of convincing more traditional board gamers, who expect near-infinite replayability, to invest in a game meant to be played only one time… or multiple times, but with long gaps in between plays so you can mostly forget the puzzles. The comparison was made to seeing an amazing movie; seeing it doesn’t mean you’ll never watch it again, but the next experience will be different from the first.
There was some discussion about puzzles with destructive aspects, both among the panelists and from an audience question. Who among us hasn’t carefully preserved a game, using transparencies or digital manipulation so as not to destroy something beautiful? The argument for writing on and tearing up was best summed up by Jack Fallows of Cryptogram Puzzle Post, who said that creators are selling an experience and “The experience itself is the art. Sometimes the act of destruction is the art.”
I asked David what it was like working with these creators and running a panel at PAXU: “As the panel’s moderator, it was exciting to see a room filled with people interested in this subject. We create niche content and this is a niche within the niche. It was a joy to guide the panelists through questions about their process, philosophy, and individual talents. I also loved the opportunity to engage with the audience. You never know what’s going to get asked and the spontaneity of it is exhilarating.”
PAX Unplugged is a great event that pulls together both the wonderful and the weird that exist in the world of tabletop gaming. It’s hard to describe in full. One of the panelists – in describing creating a game intended for a single play – said, “The point is to create an ethereal experience.” And while they were talking about game design specifically, the point applies to the whole convention as well.
If you’re into analog gaming in any capacity and can make it to Philadelphia next year, it will definitely become a highlight of your year. Take a look around for me…I’m sure I’ll be around there somewhere.
Disclosure: PAX Unplugged provided a media pass.