The lines at the Philadelphia Convention Center move briskly ushering gamers and spectators to PAX Unplugged (Penny Arcade Expo). The convention, a three-day tabletop gaming extravaganza held the first weekend of December in Pennsylvania’s storied capital. This year the convention was held from December 2nd to 4th. Over 30,000 people attended PAX Unplugged in 2021 and this year judging by the sea of humanity in the convention center this year might eclipse that number.
PAX Unplugged provides a myriad of events, panels and presentations, competitions, and all-day gaming. Players can spend the entirety of the convention playing board games from the old classics, like Risk and Diplomacy, to the newest and coolest games like Leder Games’ Ahoy, where players take the role of pirates in the high seas rolling dice and take actions, or discovering obscure and self-published games. This is what makes board gaming and conventions like PAX Unplugged worth experiencing.
At any given moment in the jubilant halls of the Philadelphia Convention Center, cheers and exclamations of amazement towards the joys of playing games and sharing with others can be heard. Unlike video games, the board gaming hobby is largely a social affair. Any number of players, depending on the game being played, interact and puzzle their way together or in competition. Conventions like PAX Unplugged serve as the heartbeat of the hobby. Judging from this particular systole the hobby is healthy and thriving.
The Expo’s Stars
Halfway through the second day at the convention, my feet were throbbing from all the walking and standing. I didn’t play as many games as I wanted to or should have. I was preoccupied with talking to attendees, artists, content creators, designers, and academics all in Philadelphia over the weekend to celebrate, discuss, and play board games.
In the Expo Hall, hundreds of games were on display, for sale, and able for demoing. The Pokémon Company, a Multi-billion-dollar media corporation, was present promoting its collectible card game. Those waiting in the constant lines to get into its booth were underneath a massive inflatable Pikachu overshadowing them all. Cuteness aside, even Pikachu’s and Pokémon’s stature in the gaming world was not enough to make them the stars of the convention.
Within the board gaming tabletop game community, the brightest stars are not intellectual property but the players and those that make the games. Game designers like Tim Fowers, founder of Fower games, whose game Paperback was one of the introductions to me and my wife to the hobby. Fowers was busy during the convention presenting his newest title Paperback Adventures a deck-building game inspired by the video game Slay the Spire. I sat and listened to him as he described how the game works and talked about his company and his plans. He is quite a character. He ceremonially closed this year’s convention by playing the bagpipes.
Not too far from where I chatted with Fowers. Leder Games was attracting attendees with its charming games and presentation courtesy of illustrator Kyle Ferrin. I was immediately magnetized by the charming characters, such as Margot the Marquese an adorable frowning cat who also happens to be the ruler of the Marquese the Cat faction from Leder Games’ hit game series Root. I was unable to resist getting a plushy of the royal feline. Leder Games has had a slew of successes from Vast, a dungeon crawler, the aforementioned Root, and Oath a sprawling strategy game “where players will guide the course of history in an ancient land.” All these games are complex, requiring dedication and time to learn and play. Yet, fans and devotees swear by them. Their appeal is in their presentation, unique gameplay, and the company’s business model which has helped cultivate a studio full of talent.
The biggest highlight of the expo hall was the booth for Resonym, an independent publisher. According to its founder and game designer, Mary Flanagan, Resonym makes games, tales, and ephemera. Flanagan is both a game designer and academic; she is currently the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College. For her and Resonym, games and their engagement are more than merely entertainment. Resonym as a game publisher is emblematic of where the board gaming hobby should strive to be – a place dedicated to diversity, inclusivity, and fun.
The Expo Hall is also a place for smaller independent publishers from across the world to gain more visibility. Moaides Game Design and the TESA Collective (The Toolbox for Education and Social Action) were two surprises from PAX Unplugged. Moadies Game Design is a Taiwanese game company that publishes games from Taiwan and Japan. Their game Joraku was my most anticipated game of the convention. Joraku is Spades meets Risk, quick, fun, and engrossing. I was lucky to shag the last copy available. Moedieas’s games are emblematic of the best the hobby has to offer, sleek packaging, great presentation, and quirky game design that borrows from exciting games while pushing mechanics forward into uncharted territory. Not to be outdone, The TESA Collective is a worker-owned co-op that creates games, curriculums, and programs for progressive causes. The games published by Tesa like Space Cats Fight Fascism are exercises in praxis – theory and skill are enacted and realized to create cultural objects that built a better world.
The Spirit of the Hobby
I perused, this being the first PAX Unplugged that I attend, with a slight trepidation. Sure, I play board games. My wife and I are known to engage in the occasional battle of wits found in the games of game designer Reiner Knizia; we are especially fond of his game Indigenous, a tile-laying game akin to dominos with a clever spin on scoring. It’s a simple game yet it requires devilishly aggressive play from players. We own over 50 board games (depending on who you ask this might be an excessive amount or simply not enough games). I’m also active in the hobby through my participation in the Homo Ludens’ le Club de Jeu. So, why the uneasiness at a place that is a natural fit for me? Well, board gaming is largely a white male hobby – for more on this read Paul Booth’s book Board Games as Media (2021), and Elizabeth Hargrave’s article “Inclusion, Diversity, and Representation in Board Games and Beyond” (2020).
I carried this trepidation with the assumption that throughout my time at PAX Unplugged I would be one of the few people of color and I was mostly right. Yet, I felt welcomed, and I was not alone. I met fellow people like myself with similar interests, as well as other people of color. At times the ratio of women and non-binary folks to men was at equilibrium. I had great conversations with black content creators like Jeremy Howard of Man vs. Meeple, and Candice Harris of Board Game Geek (the online mecca of the board game community). I felt at home. All my interactions were amicable and many of them pleasant and endearing. At PAX Unplugged strangers become friends and all are welcome at the table (both figuratively and literally) to play. The hobby still has a ways to go when it comes to inclusion, diversity, and representation. However, from my impression of what I saw at PAX Unplugged, it might just get there.
On my last day at the convention, I spectated two plays of the auction and negotiation game I’m the Boss!, designed by the great Syd Jackson. The player’s where a who’s who of the hobby: Matt Lees and Tom Brewster of Shut Up and Sit Down, Liz Davidson of Beyond Solitaire, Candice, and Kyle, and designer Cole Wehrle of Leder Games. The first game was a learning game, so even though Tom won by mirroring the exploits of Dick Dastardly, he shall not get credit for his victory. The second game though was fast and boisterous. The back and forward on the table as Candice or Liz tried to make deals and come out ahead was akin to watching a boardroom scene in Succession. Games are as much about watching as they are about playing and witnessing the banter, the pain and glory on Matt’s face as he barely kept up with what was happening in the game while others made his measly earnings in the game look like poverty was as entertaining as it was insightful.
I came away from my time of PAX Unplugged with a sense of relief. The future of this hobby is bright and will continue to be so as long as it requires us to sit at the table across from one another interacting, laughing, and occasionally bewildered. The golden age lies ahead. Oh, and before I forget, congratulations Liz for winning the second game. You’re the boss!