First of all, Rob’s not here. Let’s just be clear. If you came here for Rob, he’s… fallen. But hopefully among us soon again. In spite of that, we’ll try to capture what Rob might have felt.
Rob (but actually Mary, but Rob agreed with her) always said that PAX is like summer camp: you hang out with folks you only see once a year, you party hard and bond intensely, and at the end you go back to your life a little sad that the rest of the world doesn’t share that same community feeling. This year that special PAX-y vibe was the topic of multiple conversations we had with longtime fellow campers: PAX veterans are less enthusiastic about 4-hour lines to try big name games they’ve already pre-ordered and much more interested in sharing quality time with friends trying a new board game or cruising the Indie Megabooth. PAX gives us all an excellent excuse to hang out. Don’t get us wrong: the triple-A booths maintain a baseline level of ambient impressiveness–the current winner is probably the frost dragon lording over the Monster Hunter booth–but it’s the friendship that’s magic.*
Rob would have noticed that tabletop is alive and well and swarming in a new hive called the Regency, kitty corner to Olive 8. Floor after floor and room after adjacent room of games hums away—Scythe, Pantone: The Game, Welcome To, Thornwatch, Weave, Wingspan, Terraforming Mars, Azul, Battlestar Galactica, et al. This is, like, the easiest place you’ll ever find to hop in on a fun game, likely with super helpful Canadians. (Although, you know, avoid tables where you hear someone saying something like, “You focused, you moved, you evaded. What don’t you understand?”)
Had Rob been here he would have agreed with Mary that many of these games had truly inventive and remarkable artwork. (Mary was particularly enchanted by the mid-century modern aesthetic of Welcome To.)
Special mention goes to two especially popular games: 1) We’re Doomed, which (based on a hand-wavey description) involves various governments attempting a zero-sum negotiation amongst themselves to escape a dying earth, involving a 15-minute hourglass timer for the entire game (GENIUS) and such feats as making up national anthems and hopefully rousing political speeches on the spot (we are so getting this) and 2) the excellently illustrated Root, a game that everyone was playing but no one seemed to wholeheartedly love, because it took so long to figure out every different character and how to play optimally given the mix of other characters (perhaps a classic Cosmic Encounter misstep?). One Root gamer attributed the popularity to a big board game talk earlier at PAX that tried to avoid mentioning any trending boardgames, but accidentally mentioned Root.
Of course, some games you can only experience at a place like PAX, like a 60-odd person game of Two Rooms and a Boom. It’s loosely freeform like Mafia or Werewolf, but there’s a President, a Bomber, and a Red Team (President killers) and Blue Team (President savers). Every several minutes everyone votes on who should switch rooms, until eventually we find out if the President and Bomber end up in the same room.
As we’ve alluded to, triple A is no longer even worth kicking for its noninventiveness and lack of timeliness (we all get the economics), but even more than ever the only slivers of fun are in the indies.
Some of our favorites:
Final Assault, a PAX 10 winner that captures the fun of “army men” with an immersive VR tower-defense/MOBA style WWII battle, where you’re plopping down tanks to rumble into battle and hearing Nazi fighter planes buzzing in your ear like gnats. The game gives you such a good visceral feel for the battlefield (with a map that you lift and shift like a skirt), that it begs the obvious question for a sequel: What if instead of an avatar silently navigating and influencing the battlefield you could be a big ol’ Field Marshall kaiju kicking Nazis around your own damn self?
TinkerTurf (also in the Regence) makes all-pro minis terrain surprisingly affordable. This is cool skirmish gaming terrain (currently SF, but they’re working on more genres) but printed flat for you to assemble and (if you want) customize. Minis gaming is so f-ing expensive, how is this not a breakthrough product?
Plunge (another PAX 10 winner) is such a joyful little arcade puzzler. It’s a feel-good PAX story too, with a dev (moonlighting from Nike IT) who tested the game out wandering the crowd with a screen on his back through a couple of PAXes. With the idea validated, the trio of creators forged ahead to make this crunchily cute game, in which you navigate through fast paced (but turn based) dungeons with simple up-down-left-right controls, plus some neat RPG-style leveling along the way. Brilliant winning illustration/aesthetic vibe, solid nugget of gameplay. Sold.
We’re barely here (mourning over Rob, obviously), but we’ll try to keep making the most of this PAX.
*But also we’re liars because we spent a fair amount of time reminiscing about Bethesda booths of PAX past, and we missed their presence. Last year’s Bethesda Game Days at the Hard Rock were also a delight. And there’s ways they could’ve shown up in a lo-fi way… Borderlands went all in on cosplay this year and Bethesda could have drummed up some good will towards Fallout 76 with some of the same. (Rob would certainly have gotten his photo taken with a cosplayer in full Brotherhood power armor. Or at least we assume.) We also mourned the lack of a full Magic: The Gathering extravaganza… remember the Eldrazi sculpture, the giant Beholder, and the Kaladesh bazaar?! We hope there’s more of that soon! And also more Rob!