The Best Board Games at PAX Unplugged 2019Main image: Azul Summer Pavilion. All photos courtesy of the game's publisher. Games Lists board games
PAX Unplugged was bigger than ever in its third year of existence, still at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia but taking up even more floor space than in previous years. I attended for the first two days before various microbes sent us to the injured list for Sunday, but here’s a look at the best of what I did see while at the con.
Azul Summer Pavilion was a big hit in the First Look section, which was larger than ever. This is Michael Kiesling’s third game in the Azul line, after the Spiel des Jahres winner Azul and last year’s Azul Stained Glass of Sintra, and shares the same basic selection mechanic as the preceding two games, where tiles are spread out, four to a ‘factory,’ and you take all tiles of one color from a factory before pushing leftovers into the middle of the table. Azul Summer Pavilion has wild colors, though, one per round, and you can save up to four tiles from one round to the next—there are six, so each color becomes wild once—and thus might grab a tile now because it’s wild in the subsequent round. Players then try to fill out the seven six-pointed stars on their boards, but all spaces are numbered 1 to 6 in each star. To place a tile, you must have that number of tiles in the matching color. You place one and discard the rest. My daughter absolutely waxed me at this game.
North Star had copies of The Taverns of Tiefenthal, the much-anticipated sequel to last year’s Kennerspiel winner The Quacks of Quedlinburg, both from prolific designer Wolfgang Warsch, who also designed The Mind, That’s So Clever, Twice as Clever and Fuji—all released in the last three years. The Taverns is his crunchiest game yet but still promises to play in under an hour. Players operate taverns in a small medieval town—I couldn’t help but think of the Friendly Arms Inn, and if you don’t get that reference, that’s probably good—and try to place dice to gather gold and brew beer, then trading those in on the same turn for upgrades to their bars to attract customers and nobles. It looks like a lot, in part because the art is ornate and fun if a little goofy, but also because there are a lot of components to your bar that you can flip over to upgrade. North Star also is preparing for the spring release of Oceans, a new, standalone game in the Evolution series, which they’ve streamlined to play with just two to four players.
Ecosystem was a sort of quiet new release from Genius Games, as they acquired its rights after Gen Con and were already selling it here at PAX. Genius’ games all have strong STEM elements to their themes and game play, but Ecosystem is probably the lightest of any Genius or Artana (acquired by Genius this year) title I’ve played. Players will build their own 4×5 tableaux of animal cards from a shared deck of animal, meadow, and river cards, each of which scores in its own way, some of which score based on what’s adjacent—including cards that can’t be adjacent to each other because one species would eat the other one. Artana will also publish a U.S. edition of the Spanish game On the Origin of Species, an economic game with a theme based around Charles Darwin’s voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, which led to his writing of the book of that name. The game should be available in Q2 and can be pre-ordered now. Evolution is real, folks.
Cities Skylines is the co-operative tabletop version of the solo videogame from Paradox Interactive. Just released by Kosmos, this co-op version has the familiar scoring setup of citybuilders where the points you get for placing one tile depend on the other tile types next to it or in the same district. Players will work together to place tiles, expand the city on to additional boards, and maximize their points.
Restoration Games had a prototype of their 2020 release of Return to Dark Tower, an update of the 1981 cult classic with all-new components and a tower that will have rotating floors inside its dark windows. You’ll be able to drop pieces into the tower’s top and those rotating levels will alter where the component lands on the board below. It’s hitting Kickstarter on Jan. 14 and I am going to guess it’ll meet its goal rather quickly given the nostalgia people feel for this game.
Renegade Game Studios had a slew of new and recent releases, including the family game ClipCut Parks, good for anyone old enough to use a small pair of (not very sharp) scissors. You make a series of cuts to your paper with gridlines and different colored spaces to try to match the patterns on objective cards, but the cuts are all straight lines of defined lengths, and you can’t just stack the cuts, so you have to have a little strategy when you deploy the shears. They also have a sequel to their great two-player trick-taking game Fox in the Forest called Fox in the Forest Duet, where the players work together to move a token back and forth along a track to collect jewels while trying not to move too far in one direction, which makes the foxes get lost in the forest. They had Paladins of the West Kingdom, the sequel to last year’s Architects for the West Kingdom, over in the New Look section, and it’s the heaviest yet of designer Shem Phillips’ worker-placement games, running a solid two hours; as well as the Clank! Legacy Acquisitions Incorporated, which I’ll dive into this winter. It’s a legacy version of their popular dungeon-crawl game that doesn’t take itself too seriously Clank!, and it incorporates characters from Penny Arcade’s Acquisitions Incorporated series. Aquicorn Cove, the second game based on a book by Katie O’Neill (after The Tea Dragon Society), is a smart family game, listed for kids 10+, with a strong environmentalist theme as well as some fantasy elements. And the Bargain Quest expansion sold out by the end of the first day.
7 Summits is an upcoming game from Daryl Andrews (Sagrada, Bosk) that lets two to six players compete to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. Each player has a climber for each of the mountains, at the start of each round, you roll six dice—yes, six, bear with me—that match the colors of six of the peaks, and players go around in turn order and draft dice. You can use a die for its associated mountain, or you can use it to move your climber up Mount Everest instead. You can score points for being the first to a summit, but there are other ways to score even if opponents beat you to the top, including mission cards and an objective track that rewards you each time you move up a spot in all three columns. We played a full demo and thought it was great. It’s from Deep Water Games, who also just released Welcome To… New Las Vegas, a new version of their popular flip-and-write Welcome To…, this time featuring new buildings and public goals to make the game a bit more complex.
Divinity: Original Sin is a forthcoming adaptation of the popular longrunning videogame series to a tabletop RPG experience in the vein of Gloomhaven. It’s a heavily designed game that allows players, who work cooperatively, to split up and explore different spaces on the round board while undergoing the usual travails of fighting monsters and working to upgrade their characters. I’m not an RPG player, but I found the way the designers used various components to try to represent the RPG experience to be clever.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.