PAX Unplugged 2018 Review

PAX Unplugged 2018 from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is in the books. I’m glad it’s over but sad to see it go. Three days of non-stop gaming and walking is exhausting and as we went a little too hard on the BGG Flea Market and Math Trade, my back is absolutely killing me from hauling so many games.

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But less about me and more about PAX! Let’s ramble about any and all things that deal with the convention. I apologize for the jumbled rambling you’re about to read.

The biggest complaint I’ve seen about the convention was the long waiting line to get inside. I stood in a long line on Saturday but wasn’t waiting for longer than ten minutes but I have seen reports that some people waited for over thirty minutes. Luckily, the weather wasn’t terrible so being stuck outside wasn’t the end of the world (for me at least). While the venue offered more, the convention itself only used three entrances to shuttle people in and out of the convention. This did create bottlenecks and I was a little peeved that you could only exit through certain corridors (as our hotel was closer to one exit but we were forced to walk the long way around).

I felt like the extra security was welcome but poorly organized. When we entered Friday, PAX staffers checked us in through security but later in the day they had been replaced by convention center employees. Sometimes when we went through lines, they checked every nook and cranny of our bags and boxes, opening games and pouches (or letting us do it for them). I have no issue with that but it wasn’t uniform across the board. On Saturday when the line were long, staff performed a cursory look in our bags and let us walk in. If someone truly had malicious intent, they could have easily hid something in the board game boxes as bags did not pass through any scanners.

I also went through a metal detector where it went off and they never even asked me about it. I’m grateful for the security but still curious about why there was such discrepancies. On the few times I was bringing valuable items into the center and they were touched, I felt they were handled with care and I did see the staff gingerly go through more precious items at the owners request (such as Magic cards in tuck boxes).

Staff at the convention center would also perform pat downs in lieu of walking through the metal detectors which was nice as well. I only saw a few individuals partake in this benefit but I was glad they could accommodate anyone with health or religious reasons.

Something that was weird was that just entering the convention center forced you to go through the security line. In theory, individuals could have just walked in as the area to pick up badges (and where they are checked) was not until you had already passed through security. On a few instances, a hoodie covered my badge but no one asked about it.

I think an area that could use improving was the board game tournaments as it was a first come, first serve affair and if you were stuck in line or in another demo, any chance of participating was out the window due to the small amount of spots available. I really had my sights set on a tournament but just couldn’t physically get there in time due to leaving to drop items off and getting stuck queuing again.

The convention itself ran from 10 AM until 7 PM (when the expo hall would close) and then officially close down at midnight. This seems like a long time but I honestly wish it either opened earlier and/or closed later. I understand that volunteers and staff need their own time to do things, but there is just so much to see and do that it’s nearly impossible to get it all done in the parameters of the day.

I noticed that the convention center offered general neutral bathrooms that were located in the expo hall (and I presume elsewhere). It’s nice to see a space embrace the changes of modern society and I know it was a well received from the few members of LGBTQ community that I interacted with.

The bathrooms were also clean every time I entered one, which was surprising due to the sheer amount of people at the convention. I’m sure someone else has a different experience but I have no complaints there. There were also enough bathrooms that I was only ever waiting in line once and that lasted maybe three minutes. The bathrooms weren’t perfect though (but more on that in a moment).

The convention center wasn’t the best at everything however, as at least once the escalator broke and the stands for food and drink ran out of perishables (including water). Last year, this wouldn’t have been an issue as the convention center is located in an absolute hub of amazing food but with the additional security and long lines, leaving for food could cost you an opportunity to see something or attend something that had a strict time table. I have yet to see any official numbers but it did not appear like the convention center was prepared for such an influx of attendees.

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The bathrooms also were continuously running out of paper towels (at least on the men’s side). For a convention where hundreds and thousands of people are touching items over and over and over again, not having paper towels readily available was incredibly disheartening. There was plenty of soap, just never a way to dry my hands.

I wish more vendors would have offered hand sanitizer personally as well. While some individuals had it, I would have felt rude asking playmates (who I didn’t know) to use my hand sanitizer before playing a game. I’m not a huge germophobe but I don’t know everyone’s backstory and where their hands have been.

Speaking of vendors, I thought they were a lot better than last year. I don’t mean as in who or what they brought, but in trying to describe and sell me on their wares. Last year we encountered people running booths that had little to no knowledge of the games they were demoing/selling or were condescending and short if asked questions about their games. This year was a total 180. Sometimes, we almost couldn’t get people to stop talking about their games. Almost every booth had their elevator pitches down and I really enjoyed getting a thirty second to two minute spiel on each game.

In addition to the elevator pitches, many games offered demos as opposed to full playthroughs and I thought that was great. Last year it felt like you would get trapped playing a game with no way out if it ended up not being your cup of tea. This year I played many games for two or three rounds and then was offered the opportunity to end there. Loved that.

I did not participate in them but the D&D and RPG rooms were always bustling with activity. I think I even saw people being turned away which is unfortunate but the turnout looked great. I hope next year they can have even more people helping in that area as I know

The popular booths would always have a line or a gathering so demoing a game could be difficult but I never felt like I was waiting long and it felt infinitely better than last year as the whole convention floor was used for either free play or vendor booths, as opposed to also including the stage and tournaments. Even on its busiest day (Saturday), I never felt cramped and walking through the aisles was fairly easy.

The First Look area was better than last year as there were more ‘experts’ available to teach games and every one we interacted with (which was a lot) knew the games they were assigned to and when they didn’t know a game, they helped find someone who did. There also seemed to be a larger collection and having those games available on BGG beforehand really helped with letting us know what’s available and what to look out for. I honestly could have spent 90% of my time here and always second guess myself thinking if I should have spent more time there.

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The free play area was a huge improvement over last year. This can not be understated. It was far better organized and larger. It wasn’t all hunky-dory though as finding a seat to play games once the convention had started could be a chore. There were a lot of people in the free area’s just…sitting. I get that conventions are a long day and not everyone can be on their feet the entire time, but maybe for year three they can provide seats in the back of the hall for people that need to rest their legs. I saw quite a few people just sitting and chatting or reading a book and while there’s nothing wrong with that, that is not what the free play area is for. Two-player gaming wasn’t bad finding a seat but any more than that and finding seats together was like being in group C on a Southwest flight and trying to grab an empty row with a friend…nearly impossible.

I felt like the crowd started to outgrow the convention. There was a lot to do, that is without question, but when the crux of the crowd descended on the PAX library, there was little to nothing left for gamers to rent out. The before mentioned RPG rooms being full and the hottest demos being crowded makes me wonder about what they’ll do for the third iteration of this event as space might be at a premium.

That being said, the PAX library is a wonderful benefit and while there were lines to check-in and check-out games, I never stood in line too long. I think the key with the library was that unless you got to it early, you should have treated it as a chance to discover something than to play a game you had your heart set on. If you were there first, you could easily grab a hot commodity and get it to the table but if you waited, it was better to just grab something that caught your eye to try out than to wait for a particular game.

The library would benefit though from splitting up rentals and returns. Having both in the same line definitely slowed things down. Pro tip: if you think you’re going to rent anything, do it the first day so they have your information in the system (even if you just return it right away). That’ll shave a little time off of renting.

If you came to play or see something in particular, you might have wasted a lot of time waiting around unless you got lucky. We were fortunate to make a list of roughly twenty games we hoped to see and we either played or demoed eleven of them. If we really put our foot down, we probably could have gotten closer to all twenty but the ones that we missed tended to be the heavier games that could take up too much of our time.

I went to one scheduled event and enjoyed it greatly. I don’t go to PAX for the scheduled events and wish there was a way to tune-in via podcast/YouTube video later (and maybe there is) but I had fun and it was only an hour of my time.

The Unpublished board game room was great and introduced us to several great games. My only complaint about this room was that I wish it stayed open a little later or even opened earlier. I really like trying unpublished games and talking to the developers behind them but I feel like I’m missing out on the rest of PAX if I spend too much time there. When the vendor hall would close at 6 pm, we’d spend an hour in the Unpublished room until most people packed it up.

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I worry about the future though. I think this is a great convention but if it grows at the same rate from last year to this year for next year, I don’t know if the current location can handle the growth. I have yet to see any concrete numbers on attendance. I know that the three-day passes and the Saturday passes were sold out according to PAX staff but I have no idea what that translates to numbers-wise.

I wonder if the vendors have any idea what the turnout will be as many bring a set number of games and if it wasn’t for attending Friday, I know there were a few items I would not have been able to pick-up (and some I missed out on, clearly thinking they’d be there all weekend).

All in all, we had an absolute blast at PAX Unplugged 2018 and I hope to make the 2019 iteration (baby permitting).

Author: Two off the Top

Just a guy that wants to talk about board games more than his future wife tolerates.

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