The inaugural PAX Unplugged convention wrapped up this past weekend and I think most of us were really unsure as to what to expect. PAX has been able to rock the video game scene for a long time, but tabletop games are a different beast. I think growing pains for a first year convention are inevitable, but overall I’d say that PAX was a success.
So let’s talk the Expo Hall (or dealer hall, or exhibit hall, whatever your preference). By my unofficial count, there were close to 200 booths (you can see the full expo hall map here) in about a dozen aisles. Overall I had little issues navigating my way up and down the rows as the crowds weren’t too demanding. In fact, on Friday, one BGQ Reviewer was able to stand in the middle of the aisle and spin around with his arms out, something that’s just not going to happen at Gen Con or Origins.
However the people there still seemed interested in visiting the booths and demoing games. What I’ve heard from more than a few publishers was that there was a lot of interest in trying out games, but not as many buyers. I also heard there were a lot more newcomers to the hobby than veteran board gamers. That could also have something to do with BGG Con happening in Dallas the same weekend. And that’s OK in my book. BGG Con has always had constraints, both in size and location, so if PAX is opening up board gaming to brand new people, that’s a win for everyone.
To be honest though, I think a big part of the low buying frenzy is due to the lack of convention releases. Gen Con, Essen and Origins (to a lesser extent) all have buying atmosphere because publishers bring new and unreleased titles to sell at the show. That didn’t really happen at PAX. Stronghold Games did bring about 300 copies of their Venus Next expansion for Terraforming Mars, which sold out in about an hour, but that was probably the biggest name.
However, many vendors I talked to did say that the show was worth their time. And they far and above appreciated the traffic to their booth vs at BGG Con. In fact, more than one publisher said that their presence at PAX is going to be much bigger next year. As they didn’t know what to expect, their booth size and product they brought were both on the conservative end of the spectrum. This is something that will be rectified in the coming years as PAX finds its identity.
And I think that’s PAX’s biggest issue right now, it’s not really sure what kind of show it want’s be. Unless it moves to a different month, it will never be a “new release” show. Publishers aren’t going to wait this late in the year to release new products, not if they want to get the titles into retail distribution before the holiday shopping season starts. And it’s those new releases that are going to drive the “alpha gamers” to your show.
One area that was a great idea was the “First Look” area. While the name originally made me think it was some kind of game prototype area, it was actually a set of tables setup with hot games from Essen that people could demo (with people to teach). This and the “open gaming tables” seemed to be the biggest draw. We played a few games there and I must say, the volunteers were amazing, as they were throughout the show in general. I even saw some holding signs that read “Ask me anything”. I think a lot of other conventions could learn from PAX in this regard.
The downside of the First Look area was trying to get in a game you wanted. There was no scheduling or reserving as it was first come, first serve. That meant hovering around the game you wanted until it wrapped up. It was kind of a mess at times, but overall it was a great idea.
I think if PAX really wants to attract those alpha gamers, they should try and become the “Essen Release Show.” Find a way to get the hot games from Essen into dealer booths to sell. While there, I heard more than one person say that the games they really wanted to buy were over in the First Look area and that makes sense. Short of a few indie publishers here and there, most games on sale you could buy in stores, so there wasn’t much incentive to schlep them home from the convention.
Much like Origins, PAX Unplugged has a great food scene. There is little reason to eat in the convention center as directly across the street is the Reading Terminal Market. This place was a cornucopia of food choices and has just about every cuisine you could think of. And on the other side of the convention center is China Town. The BGQ crew had dinner Saturday night at a local place called Sakura and it was amazing.
I look forward to seeing where PAX Unplugged is headed, and just what kind of show it ends up becoming. I think if it keeps its mid-late November time frame, it’s going to have to become a “playing games” convention vs a “buying games” convention. Perhaps PAX Unplugged would be best served by being the new gamers convention. Keep it super accessible and use it as a stepping stone to bringing as many people into the hobby as possible.
I didn’t spend much time in the RPG area, but I heard comments that those events were a lot of fun. Some people commented that it was weird to not be able to buy event tickets ahead of time, but the queuing system seemed to work out OK.
PAX Unplugged in general was well run, organized, and a lot of fun. The city of Philadelphia, while it doesn’t quite roll out the red carpet for gamers like Gen Con does, was able to support the convention just fine. I think it has plenty of room to grow in Philly and has an excellent location.
Be sure to check back tomorrow as we talk about new and unreleased games we tried out at the convention, with thoughts on those.