PAX Unplugged, the new ‘analog-focused extension’ of the Penny Arcade Expo convention circuit, kicked off today in Philadelphia. Whereas the other four cons primarily feature video games and have a section dedicated to tabletop gaming, Unplugged is all about dice, cards, boards, and miniatures. Kitty Sanders and I spent the day at the new event, and I’d like to share some impressions of PAX Unplugged and thoughts about how it compares to its digital-centric counterparts.
Like many East Coast nerds, I’ve been making the pilgrimage to PAX East for years. Although the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center is a fantastic venue, the location is anything but convenient for me. I’ve driven myself and taken buses; both methods take about eight hours from my home. I’ve flown once, which wasn’t nearly cheap enough to be worth the time saved. Add in hotel costs, food, and the ever-increasing price of tickets (attending all four days in 2018 will run over $200), and the whole thing seems pretty damned inaccessible. Depending on when the con is scheduled, con-goers may end up having to brave the arctic conditions of a Boston winter, which can be so bad that the city might have to dump snow into the bay.
Understandably, there’s been demand from people like me for moving PAX East for years, but that’s not an option since the event is locked in with the BCEC until 2023. So when PAX Unplugged was announced back in January, its location in Philadelphia was pretty exciting news to a lot of people, but its focus on tabletop gaming certainly raised some questions. Would it be 100% devoid of video games? How different would this make it from traditional PAX events?
In short, the event is nearly video game-free, with the only video game I saw today being an NES running Othello hooked up in the Classic Cardboard Room (which arguably counts as a board game, right?). There were rooms I didn’t get to explore today, so a cache of video games could still be hiding somewhere, but I really doubt it. Otherwise, the atmosphere is exactly what it should be: it’s the tabletop section of traditional PAX shows extended to the size of an entire convention.
The event is full of the same kind of people, both attendees and exhibitors, with the same undeniable enthusiasm and passion for these games as I’ve seen in Boston every year. Today’s crowd was definitely a little light, but that’s to be expected given that the event is new and unproven, and also considering that Saturday is traditionally the busiest day of any PAX (it’s the only day that’s currently sold out). Kitty participated in a tournament that started out with fourteen players, the Expo Hall floor was fairly easy to navigate even with aisles no larger than East’s, and the panel we attended later in the evening was only about a third full. I spotted maybe four cosplayers, so I’m interested to see how much that picks up tomorrow.
The Philadelphia Convention Center is definitely a cozier venue. PAX Unplugged occupies portions of the second and third floors (the first floor hosted the Philadelphia Marathon today). The layout makes it feel compact, but there’s no shortage of what makes these conventions great. Many of the booths on the Expo Hall floor are set up to demo games, some even with their designers on-hand to talk about their creations. There were tons of booths selling games, cards, miniatures, accessories, and a surprising number devoted to geek furniture. The First Look section offers gamers a chance to check out newly-released games, and it’s situated right by an expansive Free Play area. Also of note are the many tournaments attendees can sign up for (some of which require entry fees), for games like Fantasy Flight’s X-Wing Miniatures, and even the Pokémon TCG. Otherwise, all the PAX staples were present; The Dragon and Dire Rat theaters, the AFK Lounge, and even PAX XP QR codes to hunt down.
It’s an authentic PAX experience, geared entirely toward tabletop gaming, as advertised. If you ever enjoyed any time in the tabletop area of a previous PAX, then you’ll be right at home here. We’ll be posting more from the convention as we dive deeper into it over the weekend.