PAX Unplugged 2019 — The Coolest Original Tabletop Games at the Show
At this year's PAX Unplugged in Philadelphia, DualShockers saw a number of new board and tabletop games—here are eight that stuck out.
At the beginning of December, the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia held the third annual PAX Unplugged convention. Tabletop and board gameplay had always been a part of traditional video game PAX conventions, but the crowds in Philadelphia proved once again that analog games can still reach large audiences, especially now with a show to call their own.
PAX Unplugged was a chance for board game makers to show off their upcoming projects, giving gaming enthusiasts opportunities to have some hands-on time with prototypes and other works-in-progress. Vendors showed off their gaming tables, their dice, and other tabletop-tangent items. Miniatures were on display, and those on the floor could even participate in crafting workshops. But if you just wanted to find an open table and play from a selection of old games, there was plenty of space for that as well at PAX Unplugged.
DualShockers‘ Ryan Meitzler and I were on the floor to try out the offerings at PAX Unplugged, and while we didn’t get to touch on every game there, a number of titles left impressions on us. For myself, I focused on games from independent studios, and especially games that took advantage of the tactile nature of tabletop games and played with either the medium, with different genres, or with both. Scroll down to see some of my favorite original tabletop games from PAX Unplugged 2019.
Sentō: Ultimate Arcade Fighter
Publisher: Penguin & Panda Productions
Release Date: TBD
The puzzle fighter is a subgenre that I was vaguely familiar with inside the video gaming space, but Sentō: Ultimate Arcade Fighter instantly caught my attention by bringing the concept into tabletop form. Each player in Sentō chooses a unique character, with all of the characters being of different occupations and hailing from a specific Asian country; naturally, I was gleeful to see some Filipino representation. Each player character has abilities split into three categories, organized as red, blue, and yellow, and with that comes three life bars. Players will draw from a shared set of marbles and utilize their characters’ abilities to damage the other player and inflict “wounds.”
It was a lot for my mind to wrap around, but it didn’t take long for me to get into a strategic state of mind. There are a lot of considerations—different abilities require different numbers of marbles of their color, and you can only take multiple marbles of the same color if they are perpendicular to each other. Additionally, character-specific abilities may change in effectiveness with each turn, and abilities can be locked when their respective health bar reaches zero; there are a number of moving parts to keep track of, to say the least. Despite just being an early prototype, the full round of the game went by pretty smoothly, so I’ll be looking out for Sentō when info about its release eventually comes out.
Publisher: Memesys Culture Lab
Release Date: June 2020
Perhaps you tire of politics in games, but how does a game about politics sound? SHASN, which is Sanskrit for “governance, rule, or power,” pits competing politicians against each other in controlling districts by influencing voters. Each turn will present a player with Ideology Cards based on real-world issues, giving them a scenario with two different options; for example, the question of “Should we allow self-driving cars on public roads?” will have the choices of “Yes. Autonomous vehicles are the future of transportation.” and “No. I prefer road rage to robot drivers.” Players could go with their gut and their own personal ideology, but each choice provides different resources that they can utilize.
The four ideologies that players can inhabit are The Capitalist, The Supremo, The Showman, and The Idealist, and the resources that they return the most are Funds, Clout, Media, and Trust, respectively. With that automatic car question, the first answer is more in line with The Capitalist, which would return more Funds; the other answer is more Showman-like, which would earn the player more Media. Votes are earned with different combinations of resources, so sometimes players may have to betray their own personal values in order to get the resources they need, in a way emulating the compromises that our real-life politicians must make to get elected. There are also Conspiracy Cards and the ability to gerrymander in play, making SHASN overall a fascinating way of gamifying the very real game of politics.
Publisher: Pandasaurus Games
Release Date: Available Now
Puzzle game Mental Blocks has a premise so simple, you’ll wonder why you haven’t thought of this fun and creative idea before. It’s a co-operative game for two to nine players, but there’s a bit of asymmetry involved with how much information everyone is provided. Each player is given two cards, one with a color and shape pattern and another telling the player what restrictions they have. Players will have to work together to build a structure with blocks, with their own perspective of the structure matching the pattern on the card, but without showing the other players that pattern. Additionally, players may have restrictions, such as the inability to move longer blocks or the inability to speak for the entire round.
It sounds easy on paper, but it is challenging and mind-wracking in practice. To add a bit of urgency, there is a time limit, and subsequent puzzles are even more challenging. It reminds me a bit of something like Space Team, where players are given different instructions and pieces of information, and having to listen and trust each other in order to achieve a shared goal. While this could have been a game played on a screen or in virtual reality, the actual feel of the blocks and the ability to play around with them while brainstorming makes the analog nature of this game much appreciated.
Publisher: Genius Games
Release Date: Available Now
I was having flashbacks to 8th-grade life science class while playing Cytosis, which takes cell biology and turns it into a worker placement game. Players navigate the board and earn Health Points, gathering resources including mRNA and ATP (energy molecules) and placing pieces on the board to build enzymes, hormones, and receptors. Two to five players can participate in the game, which took me and my friends quite a bit of time to understand. But once we got into the groove of things, Cytosis became a lot more intriguing—plus, it helped me recall some of that biology knowledge that I had stored away.
Nuclei, Free Ribosome, Smooth ER, Rough ER, Plasma Membrane, Mitochondria, Golgi Apparatus, and so on—ring a bell? Here’s your opportunity to gamify your geekiness.
Release Date: April 2020
Put The Game of Life together with the movie Inside Out, and you’ve got Inner Compass. Four players will navigate a Life Board, with spaces of five different colors representing different emotions: Love, Happiness, Anger, Sadness, and Fear. Player movements are decided by card draws from the “Emotion Deck,” and depending on which cards that players draw, they can imprint a memory on that space. These will help players gain Enlightenment Points, claim “Qualities” to increase the number of points depending on shapes they make on the Life Board, and clear out their own player board to bring the game closer to the end.
It’s a lovely concept, with my one criticism being that the actual emotions seem less important than implied; the imagery on the cards may help players to recall such emotions, but it seems that players will be more focused on the game aspect rather than building an actual narrative and story with these cards. Perhaps this was the case of trying to understand the mechanics while playing a demo distracting from the themes of the game, as I still look forward to trying this game out when it fully releases.
Fog of Love
Publisher: Hush Hush Projects
Release Date: Available Now
Described as a “romantic comedy” game, Fog of Love is a board game meant to be experienced between two people. It involves a bit of roleplaying, with both players being thrown into scenes and acting out funny, cute, and awkward scenarios. But players may find that the goals provided to them by the game are at conflict with their partner’s—without knowing exactly what their partner’s priorities may be, players will have to work together to make their relationship work, or in some cases, end the relationship as a Heartbreaker. Whatever the case may be, there is no guarantee that the relationship will work out.
Fog of Love perfectly translates the joys and complications of romance into game mechanics, while also allowing players to be contemplative about their own relationships. The game has been out for some time and has since been built upon by expansions, including a challenging “It Will Never Last” doomed romance story, a “Paranormal Romance” story, and an amusing “Trouble With the In-Laws” story. And the game has also become more inclusive to LGBTQ relationships, with some additional artwork reflecting that, and a queer-themed expansion on the way. No options for polyamorous relationships though, but of course, that would prove to be complicated in gameplay. One can dream, though.
Release Date: February 2020
Blinks might be described better as a platform, and although PAX Unplugged focuses away from electronic games, what these hexagonal tiles provide is a unique, colorful, and very tactile tabletop experience. It is a system that consists of several light-up tiles that connect magnetically and provides a number of different games to play with them. “Fracture,” for instance, is a turn-based game where players have to connect tiles (“Blinks”) with tiles of their own color. And then there are faster-paced games like “Astro” that involve players trying to collect as much space ore (represented by Blinks) within a pile as quickly as possible.
The technology feels like something from the future, a plausible future where electronic and tabletop games are intertwined perfectly. Each tile can store information about a certain game, and pass on that game’s ruleset to other tiles. They are responsive to touch, adding a number of possibilities for how these Blinks can be used. Best of all, the technology is open-source—anyone can help to expand the platform by building and programming their own games.
Release Date: January 22, 2020
There’s a bit of building that has to be done in Mechanica, an engine-building game that has competing players creating their own factories with puzzle pieces. The players will attempt to install improvements to their factories, which will help them send TIDYBOTs for sale or completing Blueprints. Improvements can be bought from a shop wheel and will allow players to change the routes on their factory assembly lines and upgrade their bots. The player with the most money by the end, when there are no improvements left, will be victorious.
I didn’t have much time to play the game itself on the floor, but observing and fiddling around with the game board components was already a satisfying experience. The rotating shop wheel is a wonderful mechanic and the factory board is physically fun to play around with as you add on to it with the improvement puzzle pieces. Mechanica is a smart game with a neat retro-futuristic art style, even as you play the roles of human factory workers leading society into an autonomous future. A bright future for sure!
The next PAX Unplugged will be held once again in Philadelphia from November 20-22, 2020. Check out the PAX Unplugged website for more information.