I recently attended PAX East, the mega-gaming-convention-and-awesome-things-fest put together by the dudes at Penny Arcade, all for the first time. I wasn’t “officially” there to cover the event; it was a vacation for me along with my wife and son. I did, however, take advantage of the opportunity to demo several games in PAX’s expansive Tabletop area and figured I’d give you a brief first-impression review of a few games I had seen in person for the first time.
When we arrived at the convention, literally the first thing we were exposed to was a demonstration of a game called “Attraction” by its inventor. The game basically consists of 25 fairly powerful magnets; you set these magnets up at random on a playing surface and players, in turn, flick a magnet from the edge of the table to try and get a large block of other magnets to attach to it; presumably the player who collects the most magnets wins. There is a bit of potential for this to be a fun and even educational game, and my son definitely enjoyed flicking the magnets around during the demo. There were a few major aspects that left a less-than-sweet taste in my mouth, though. Firstly, it really seems like this game is effectively a magnet-based variant of old-school marble shooting – the inventor didn’t exactly take a huge creative leap to come up with the concept. Second, the game was available at the convention for $15, which I would assume is its MSRP. While I’d normally be thrilled to find a game at that price point, all that was included were 25 magnets (which looked remarkably similar to some magnets my son already owned via a children’s museum), a small storage bag, and the instructions. Considering I can easily find the necessary materials online for about $5, and that I feel my 6-year-old could have “invented” this game, the price tag is asking too much and not giving enough. Lastly, the inventor and distributor were INCREDIBLY pushy about convincing us to make a purchase. After hearing that my wife is a grade school teacher, the distributor’s eyes seemed to light up at the thought of selling multiple copies. We politely excused our way out of the uncomfortable situation and left the demo area empty-handed with a rather bad taste in our mouths.
The next game we demoed was a card-based game called “Gubs”. In this game, your goal is to acquire the most gubs, or tiny creatures that resemble insect-alien-tribesmen hybrids. The game is built almost entirely around interactivity with your opponents, as the gubs you play can be killed, stolen, or trapped (trapped gubs don’t count at the end of the game) by various cards. The good news is you can protect your gubs from some of the effects by playing “barricades” on top of them. The game ends when the 3 special alphabet cards (“G”, “U”, and “B”) are drawn from the deck, which means you always know when you’re close to finishing, but never the exact end point, which adds a unique feeling to the endgame. My son absolutely loved this game; the rules were very easy to pick up, and he really enjoyed the back-and-forth of the gubs being played, then stolen, then stolen back. The cards felt pretty good on first handling, even for a demo set, so it seems they’ll hold up pretty well in the long run, and the game comes in a tin rather than a box, which makes it ideal for travel. The card art is sort of the calling card of this game; the cartoonish gubs and other illustrations were very cute and definitely added a sort of whimsy to the play. The booth demoing the game told us the MSRP was $12; we happily bought a copy and have played several games since.
After checking out several of the non-tabletop aspects of the convention, we headed back to play another board game or two before calling it a day. PAX East had an enormous board game free play area, with several hundred tables and copies of various games available to “check out”. Most of our personal favorites were already checked out, but I did find a recently-returned copy of a card game called “Innovation” that I had just heard about for the first time several days earlier. Innovation is another card-based strategy game with an interesting premise – you represent a civilization progressing through time and acquiring various scientific, technological, and cultural innovations such as the wheel, agriculture, mapmaking, and fission. The first thing I thought of was how reminiscent this game was of the science aspects of the classic Sid Meier computer game series “Civilization”, an all-time favorite of mine, so I was intrigued from the get-go. Each turn, you’ll get 2 actions, from which you can draw a card, play a card from your hand to your area, trigger a played card’s ability, or claim an achievement, which helps you win the game. There are a lot of unique little game mechanics in this game, such as sharing card effects and how the rules of the game naturally push your civilization forward through time. That all being said, there was definitely a short, steep learning curve to overcome; the game made almost no sense at first, but about halfway through each of us playing began to really “get” how the game worked. The blend of luck, strategy, and interaction was fantastic, and we couldn’t pass up buying an on-sale copy for $20 later in the weekend (MSRP $25).
“1st & Goal”
On our second day at PAX, we stumbled across a game publisher demoing “1st & Goal”, which as its name implies is a tabletop distillation of football. My son and I sat down to square off in a quick match, on opposite sidelines of the sturdy, magnetic, but somewhat warped gridiron. The game starts with a coin toss to determine offense and defense, which are built around 2 separate decks of cards named for common football plays such as “screen pass” and “safety blitz”. Listed on each offensive card is every defensive play, and vice versa, along with a number of color icons; these represent the results of the two plays against each other. For example, playing a run defense against particular pass plays means the offensive player rolls more and better dice to determine yardage. There are also dice effects for turnovers, penalties, and breakaways; the game really found ways to include most of the fundamental aspects of football. Where it faltered in my mind was the dice system; there were around 8 different colored dice that you rolled based on the play result, and being somewhat colorblind, I regularly had to confirm with someone else that I was selecting the proper dice. In addition, the strategic elements of selecting plays is somewhat nerfed by the luck of the draw; you’re limited in play calling by the cards in your hand. In fact, because of the luck of the cards and dice rolls, my first possession ended with me punting on 4th and more than 20, while my 6-year-old son scored on 4 consecutive first down plays. If you are a hardcore football fan, obsessed with the Xs and Os of the game, then 1st & Goal might not be for you, nor is it for anyone completely uninterested in football. At MSRP $30 though, this game could easily appeal to a pair of typical football fans looking for a way to pass the time during the off-season, or for a “league” with your fantasy football friends.
“Run For Your Life, Candyman!”
We ventured into the back corner of the tabletop area, where a publisher named Smirk and Dagger was demoing their line of “stab-your-friend-in-the-back” board games; naturally, I was intrigued. After a quick explanation of the several games they had available to try, my son, despite my not-so-gentle nudging to the contrary, decided we should play “Run For Your Life, Candyman!” I’m just going to get this out of the way first – this was, for all intents and purposes, Candy Land with some mean-spirited house rules and a few new cards added in. The premise is that each player is a gingerbread man trying to escape an apparently-just-different-enough-to-avoid-a-lawsuit land of candy, where the first player to successfully escape is the winner. Along the escape path, you’ll attack and be attacked by your fellow gingers, trying to keep you from succeeding through damaging various parts of your body until they break off. You move and attack by drawing the same type of cards as you would in the original game, which means, like the original game, luck absolutely trumps strategy. My wife and son each teleported over halfway across the board on their first draw; I never came within 50 spaces of them all game. There was also a point in the game where 2 players got involved in an extended “candy cage match”, attacking each other back and forth for about 5 minutes, while the rest of us watched impotently. I did not have much fun playing this game, but my son seemed to enjoy it, especially when he got to claim other players’ destroyed body parts as trophies. Despite his enthusiasm and my fondness of playing games with him, the MSRP on this game is $30, which I find ridiculous for what it is. If you feel you need to try this game out, I absolutely recommend you dust off an old copy of Candy Land, get creative with some house rules, and have a better overall time for free.
“King of Tokyo”
After that experience, it was time to step away from the tabletop zone and enjoy the rest of what PAX East had to offer. We lined up for a concert featuring some fantastic musicians – Jonathan Coulton, Paul & Storm, MC Frontalot, and Sam Hart. During the 2 hours we waited in line to get into the theater (the wait was by choice, since we wanted to get front row seats), we began talking to 2 gentlemen in line next to us, and sat down together to play “King Of Tokyo”. This is a dice-based game where each player acts as a Godzilla-like creature on the rampage, trying to destroy Tokyo while avoiding being killed. It scales up to 6 players, where at any given point 2 of them could be active in the city earning destruction points, along with the ability to damage every other player with their attacks. However, every other players’ attacks would target the monsters in the city, so there was definitely a delicate balance at play between being the aggressor and yielding the city to another creature. The dice you roll each turn can restore hit points, deal damage, score destruction points, or earn energy, which could then be used to acquire special attacks or abilities. The game itself contains a small game board representing Tokyo, large and excellent-looking cardboard monster figures on plastic stands, large dice, ability cards, various tokens, and plastic cubes which represent energy (why they went with cubes I don’t know, but they were pretty high-quality anyway). There’s enough of a Yahtzee-like element to the dice play which helps casual players pick up the mechanics pretty quickly, and the “king of the hill” aspect made for a lot of fun turns. I absolutely enjoyed this game and can find little negative to say about it, other than at MSRP $40, it feels like there could be “more” to what comes in the box.
“Last Night On Earth”
It turns out that Andrew and Jeff, the two guys who introduced us to King of Tokyo, were at the convention on business; they were operating a booth for 2 tabletop game stores in the Boston area called Battleground Games & Hobbies. (Shameless plug – these guys were generally really awesome, so if you’re in the Boston area, I highly suggest you stop into one of their stores and check them out!) They convinced us to come by their booth on the last day of the event and hang out, playing whatever game they had available to try. “Last Night On Earth” was already on the table, so we opted to give that one a run. Last Night On Earth is one of seemingly hundreds of zombie-themed tabletop games that have hit the market in recent years; fortunately, as a family we love zombies, and even have one decorating our front lawn year-round. We were eager to see if this game could stand out among the flooded zombie game market, and I really think it did. This game’s unique element was that we were playing as 2 teams, zombies vs. humans. My son opted to control the zombie horde along with our guide Jeff, while my wife and I took on the role of the humans. The game has different scenarios available, which I’d think drastically increases the replay factor. Our scenario required us to escape the city by truck, after finding the keys and some gasoline. Each side draws from a deck of cards which contains items and/or events, and the cards in these decks were some of the most high-quality cards I’ve ever come across. These cards would hold up practically forever, avoiding bending and weakening at the edges. The game board changes randomly from game to game, also increasing the replay value. The game’s central mechanic shows up in combat, whenever humans and zombies occupy the same space. The humans must continue to fight a zombie until they die, the zombie is killed, or the zombie is fended off, remaining in the game. Having actual human players control the zombie horde was a nice touch, since even with the limited play options available for the zombie masters, both sides have to execute strategy to come out on top. The game we played lasted about 90 minutes, but I assume experienced players will play a little more briskly, as we had a lot of questions as we went along. At MSRP $60, this game won’t appeal to everyone’s budget, but there is a ton of quality in the box, along with an audio CD which serves to enhance the gameplay experience; I think it’s going to be one of my next purchases.
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All in all, PAX East was an amazing experience, and the way they catered to tabletop gamers like me is something I don’t expect I’ll find anywhere else. After 3 days, I left exhausted and invigorated at the same time, as I was able to see the enormous world of modern board gaming all at once, all at my fingertips. I experienced a wide range of emotions as I played games with the most important people in my life, and to me, no matter whether the game was “good” or “bad,” this is the reason why I’m proud to continue to be a board game geek well into adulthood.