Another year, another early December fix of games of all kinds for those brave enough to venture forth into the City of Brotherly Love. Still the same place for all those great Essen releases, the unpublished prototypes still being hashed out, and everything in between, PAXU descended into Philadelphia, with your favorite BGQ writers Alex, Jon, and Tahsin there to experience it all.
Notable Games We Played
Nunatak: Temple of Ice (Alex): Nunatak is an upcoming title from KOSMOS that is set to hit markets in early 2024, which had a few copies to play in the First Look area. In Nunatak, you select cards of various suits from a tableau, which give you direction on where you can build your ice pillars. 2×2 sets of pillars get a new floor placed on top, scoring points for the underlying pillars, with an entire pyramid eventually building up on the game board. At the end of the game, the collected cards score in a variety of ways (sets of symbols, numbers of cards) in a manner reminiscent of Nidavellir. Straightforward, quick to explain, enjoyable play, and a commanding table presence made Nunatak the game of PAXU for me.
Forest Shuffle (Tahsin): I immediately purchased this game while playing with Alex and Jon. In a way, it may feel like another tableau builder with a grab for points, but the interaction with the card market driven by the players is what sets this apart. When I got home and managed to play with the family, my son promptly destroyed me in points while gobbling up all the juicy decisions all the cards have to offer. If you’re looking for something with the feeling of Earth or nature-based Race for the Galaxy, this is the one to check out.
Nucleum (Alex): This seemed like the must-play game at the convention, with every copy occupied practically every time we looked. We just happened to luck into a play late in the evening on Friday night, which suited us just fine. A unique hybrid between Brass and Barrage, Nucleum had us building train lines to transport coal and uranium to power our various buildings. Intuitive to play, but with an extreme amount of depth, Nucleum is definitely a title for those of us that enjoy the brain-burners—really enjoyed this one, and much thanks to Titan the Enforcer for his great teach of the game!
Cabanga (Alex): We are always on the lookout for a game we can toss into a bag and bring to a brewery or eatery for quick playing; Cabanga is just the sort of game that would be on our radar. You play numbered cards on two different piles, trying to keep the gap between the numbers small. If an opponent has cards that are valued in the gap, then they can shout “Cabanga!” and you have to draw cards as a penalty. When a player runs out of cards in hand, the round ends. Fast, small, and fun, Jon enjoyed Cabanga so much that after one round of play, he immediately ordered it (in German, of course.)
Mind Space (Alex): A cute roll-and-flip-and-write, where you’re filling up your brain (a dry-erase grid) with emotions (colored-in polyominoes.) I am on record multiple-times over for being a sucker for polyomino games, so this hits that sweet spot of a quick polyomino game with a cute theme and simple rules. There are multiple colors to draw into your brain, all with varying scoring criteria, and some public goals to meet as well. Mind Space was great for a brain break in the middle of the convention.
Art Society (Tahsin): I had heard good things about this on BoardGameGeek before PAXU so I was eager to try it. Although it sits in a somewhat crowded field with other auction/art games, this one manages to do something just a bit in between them all. Art Society has just enough player interaction, besides the main auction, in its playspace to keep players coming back. It’s a short, pleasing food-fight of art dealing which is perfect for family gatherings after holiday meals.
Expo Hall Observations
Paverson Games (Tahsin): We also managed to stop by the Paverson Games booth. While Distilled is selling well, the company was also showing off the current state of Luthier, a worker placement/auction game about making instruments while trying to please customers like Ludwig van Beethoven. The design and art seem to be coming along nicely and I’m excited to see it develop. It also helps immensely when you have a talented artist like Vincent Dutrait helping the theme come alive.
Thunderworks Games (Tahsin): After a quick duck across an aisle of the hall, we also found Thunderworks showing off their recent Dawn of Ulos as well as bringing attention to their upcoming crowdfunding for Metrorunner, a cyberpunk themed route building and card playing affair of competitive operatives in Mirror City. It’s too early to gauge much about the game but you can subscribe to their email list to learn more. Another title which succeeded in crowdfunding this past summer is Stonespine Architects. I got to play a copy of this before immediately backing it. They’ve applied card drafting to dungeon building with a variety of set collection goals that make for an enjoyable cocktail before taking on a night of meatier roleplaying.
The PAXU Experience
PAXU has established itself as a large semi-casual gaming convention located in an area that tends to be lacking in that regard. There’s a different kind of energy here than at some of the larger and more established conventions. PAXU does not have the same frenetic energy of Gen Con and the “new hotness” madness, nor does it have that “serious gamer” vibe that Origins can. There’s a refreshing youthfulness to the culture and to the energy of PAXU, perhaps due to the age demographic that PAX tends to attract. No matter the reason for it, the vibes are truly a reason that PAXU stands apart.
We know that PAX does not usually post their attendance numbers, but the feeling we got from the crowd was that this was the most-attended edition of the convention to date. Over the course of Friday, the crowds definitely swelled, but Saturday was packed to a point where we were experiencing Gen Con-like vibes. While some of the convention infrastructure could absorb that level of attendance, there were others that clearly needed improvement.
If you read anything about Saturday on social media and forums, you’ll read tales of standing in line for an hour trying to get into the convention, due to the absolutely inexplicable choice of funneling attendees through a single set of doors on Market rather than the main entrance on Broad. This is not the first time PAXU is running, and at this point, there’s no reason to keep on changing entry locations and convention procedures—it needs to be locked down so that everyone can get access for a great convention experience.
When it comes to the layout of the Expo Hall, PAXU does a better job than most of having wide thoroughfares to prevent bottlenecks, but it fell short this go-around when it came to the setup in the back ends of the hall, where purveyors of smaller publishers had to deal with extremely cramped aisles combined with huge Saturday crowds. Add in the omnipresent game backpacks (which ought to be prohibited from the Expo Hall,) and you’ve got a recipe for not the best booth-browsing experience.
There is a worry on our part that 7 years after their inaugural convention, PAXU still seems to be suffering from growing pains and an overall lack of planning. While we’re able to overlook some things in the name of being able to play some of the newer releases and meet up with friends traveling in for the convention, it’s troubling that it does not appear that many of the issues surrounding the convention organization are being addressed. As one con-goer had said to us “…that’s just how PAX is,” which may be the truth, and what their attendees (mostly) want.
Despite the miscues regarding convention infrastructure, the gaming experience at PAXU is definitely one not to be missed, especially if getting to Philadelphia is easy to do. It has become routine for us at this point to attend, and we do not see any reason why that is going to change in the near future. Maybe next year we’ll try our hand at a tournament, or a panel discussion? There’s plenty to do at PAXU, a little bit for everyone.
If you are coming to PAXU next year, you should…
…make time to stop by and talk to the smaller publishers. While it’s fun to see what the big design houses are churning out, some of the most interesting games are found off in the corners of the hall, or being run in the UnPub space or in the free play area. It’s worth it to seek those experiences out, as you could find a hidden gem of a game.
…get to the Games Library and First Look space early, if you have a game you absolutely have to play. The lines wrapped out and around the Library area, so getting there early to get your game and check out is key.
…dress in layers. There was a clear difference between the cool concourses and the very warm convention hall, so being able to peel off layers will make you a much happier convention-goer.
…leave your giant board game backpack at home. Those of you that carry them without any situational awareness are a scourge on the convention-going experience. Put your games in a reusable shopping bag and carry them in your hands. It’s better for you and for everyone around you.