Tabletop Treasures: The Boardgames of PAX South

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Forty thousand gamers with backpacks filled with gummy snacks and 3DS games crammed into a convention center in San Antonio, Texas may sound like a recipe for disaster, but it was quite the opposite. It might have smelled bad, but PAX South was a blast for players and developers alike.

The Penny Arcade Expo began as small videogaming event in Washington and grew into a giant expo that sells out of tickets in literally minutes with different iterations in Seattle, Boston and Australia. I attended the first PAX in Texas with one thing in mind—boardgames.

Although PAX South featured panels that hit on relevant topics in the gaming industry, with “nerdcore” concerts, a handheld lounge—complete with giant zebra print pillows lounged on by Pokémon fans showing off their magnificent green scarfs lined with real life gym badges—and more, the majority of the anxious crowd was found in the exhibit hall.

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In the back of the exhibit hall was the area that PAX veterans would recognize far away from their home court—the freeplay tabletop area. The freeplay area is a dream come true for any boardgame geek, with everything from microgame favorite Love Letter to the ultimate heavy game Twilight Imperium available to rent out for play.

“There was a lot of room and a lot of people playing things,” said PAX rookie Michael Shay. “It’s really nice that they had all these games available to check out so you can just grab a group of friends and get to playing.”

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The more than 100 tables lined up to play the immense demo selection were constantly filled, even though some of the seats were taken up by people just taking a lunch break and munching on the overpriced cheeseburgers available to purchase.

The freeplay area was also used for the tabletop tournaments, which included the sound of dozens yelling “YOU’RE A SPY” in The Resistance to gamers sweating in silent panic over feeding their family in Agricola. A massive area and check-in table was dedicated exclusively to Magic: The Gathering.

The tournaments appeared to run smoothly and without any game-changing bumps, as second place Settlers of Catan winner David Coon made clear.

“They set the tournaments up to be laid back and let the players figure out any disagreements,” Coon said. “Everyone participating was having fun and the organizers did a good job of not getting in the way of that.”

Although most gamers at the expo were friendly and easily approachable, there wasn’t a great system in place to help player find a gaming group. PAX set up a sign in the back that mentioned using a hashtag (#TTLFG) to find a group to play games with, but it wasn’t the most effective method. If a tweet received a reply, it was often over an hour after posting, which wasn’t useful if someone was looking for a quick game.

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“My only complaint about the tabletop area was that it was intimidating to find other people to play with,” said first-time PAXer Benjamin Arce. “Everyone seemed focused on their game and it didn’t look like anyone was walking around looking for extra players.”

Arce also suggested that PAX should implement a table sign similar to a restaurant order number, which I’ve found is successful with my local boardgame cafe in Austin. PAX may have had a “friendly geek environment,” but it would have helped to give the shy attendants an extra push to meet some new people, especially when cell service was a problem in the convention center.

Beyond the freeplay area, PAX South added a section never before seen in PAX’s history.

“The key difference in this PAX was the Tabletop Indie Showcase in the main Exhibit Hall,” said founder of Pair of Jacks Games Jeff Johnson. “I think it really helped expose how cool tabletop games are today and shared that with many PAX attendees that wouldn’t normally have wandered into the tabletop floor space.”

Penny Arcade decided to put boardgames on display like the videogames that started the expo by selecting eight games from indie game companies who submitted to be featured. Penny Arcade claimed that well over 100 applied for the showcase and had a difficult decision to make.

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The boardgames shown at the Tabletop Indie Showcase were diverse, from a story driven card game named The Siblings Trouble, to a party game similar to Apples to Apples that allows for infinite “white cards” by choosing answers in a fiction novel of your choice titled Bring Your Own Book. The Tabletop Indie Showcase began to shed light on an issue of the expo—there was a much bigger demand for new boardgames than PAX allowed for.

The only time I saw an empty seat at the Tabletop Indie Showcase was during the first 30 minutes when the exhibit hall opened on Friday. This is great for the game designers, but there was clearly a desire from the gamers to play even more new games. The only other new boardgames outside of the Tabletop Indie Showcase were rough prototype demos made by designers sitting in the free play area with paper flags that had scratched on writing with the words “Come Demo My Game Please.”

A few bigger companies like Mayfair Games had booths set up to demo games they’ve had on their catalog for a long time, such as Uwe Rosenberg’s Patchwork and of course the cult classic Settlers of Catan. It was a bit disappointing not to see previews of newer titles, but plenty seemed satisfied as they purchased a copy of the game they demoed on site.

“Based on what I’ve seen at PAX Prime the past two years, the tabletop area felt so much bigger than Prime did,” said avid boardgamer Melissa Estuesta. “I saw lots of people out on the floor, and the lines for demoing games were enormous.”

Jay Egger works in digital media in Austin, Texas and writes whenever he gets the chance. You can catch him playing boardgames while drinking fancy beer. His Twitter handle is @jayeggr.

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