Every Board Game We Saw at PAX Unplugged 2021

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Every Board Game We Saw at PAX Unplugged 2021

PAX Unplugged returned to Philadelphia this year after skipping 2020 due the pandemic, with attendees required to show proof of vaccination and many staffers assigned to enforce rules on mask wearing throughout the con. It seemed like attendance was somewhat limited, given the room in the exhibit hall and greater availability of playing tables, but the industry presence was still strong and publishers submitted at least as many games to the First Look section (for new and upcoming titles) as usual. Here’s a rundown of just about everything I tried at this year’s con.

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1923 Cotton Club is the latest in a line of small-box titles from Looping Games, all of which start with a year (like 1987 Channel Tunnel, a two-player game currently on my Shelf of Shame, which is where your unplayed games live). This one plays up to four players, and has a Splendor-ish tableau of cards that you can purchase or acquire depending on what you already have. There are five rows, and each is a different card type; the gist here is that you want to attract more and better people to your club, from gangsters to musicians to, eventually, celebrities of the day. There’s a catch, however—many cards move you up the Criminality track, which is, as it turns out, a bad thing. It’s fun at two players as well, although it does make some of the events that come up at the end of each round more significant.

I saw Khôra at Gen Con but didn’t get to play it until this past weekend. It’s a reimplementation and retheme of a self-published game by a Tokyo gaming group, clumsily titled Improvement of the Polis, from 2017, and while the rules are still a little obtuse, this is a solid civ-building game that two players can play in under an hour. I played with another rookie, and we managed to decipher the rules ourselves with some deduction and a lot of referring to the rulebook, but after a while we got the game’s rhythm. You roll two dice on each turn, attach two actions to those dice, and then all players take the actions they selected simultaneously, most of which involves either playing cards or moving markers up four private trackers or four public ones. The one big key is to ensure you move all three spots up your Development track, which gives you better powers and a big game-end bonus. It plays up to four, with the box suggesting 75 minutes; that seems plausible based on our experience.

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Restoration Games had a big presence to show off Return to Dark Tower, which should be shipping any minute now to backers from the massive Kickstarter campaign. It’s a huge update to the beloved but flawed 1980s game with the 8-bit electronic tower; now there’s the equivalent of a supercomputer inside the 3-D tower, including infrared sensors so it reacts when you drop a game piece into the top. It’s a huge co-operative, dark fantasy experience, and a landmark in the tabletop space. Restoration also had a prototype of its next big project, Thunder Road: Vendetta, a reboot of the 1986 Milton Bradley game Thunder Road, both of which have a sort of Mad Max post-apocalyptic cars-with-guns thing going on. This version will have a rolling board, where the last piece of the board becomes the next piece as the road ‘moves’ forward, and if you get left behind, well, tough luck. It’ll head (back) to Kickstarter just after the new year.

Czech Games’s latest item, the Expedition Leaders expansion to the runaway hit game Lost Ruins of Arnak, gives that game another level of strategy by making it asymmetrical—with the expansion, every player has a unique player board, with different strengths and bonuses, so players can tailor their strategies to whatever Leader they get for that particular session. No word on whether it makes setup any easier, though.

Inside Up Games had a number of new and upcoming titles on display. 7 Souls is an Arkham Horror-like competitive game, except this time, the players are the evil gods, trying to turn the investigators insane in a fast-moving game with simultaneous action selection and a lot of card/hand management. The Quick and the Undead has a Citadels-like action selection mechanism, with players working to clear the town of zombies while gaining the most Notoriety for themselves. City Builder: Ancient World is a tile-laying game, where players build cities to attract settlers and monuments for points, fighting to claim those settlers with other players trying to do the same with a scarce supply. Coming soon are Block & Key, an intriguing 3-D Tetris-like game where the box itself becomes the two-tiered game board; and Earth, coming to Kickstarter Feb. 1t, an engine-building game where players acquire cards to build out new ecosystems, activating cards on every turn, giving resources to themselves but competitors as well.

Funko’s Jurassic World legacy game, The Legacy of Isla Nublar, is coming to Kickstarter in spring 2022, with delivery expected that fall. It’s a huge affair with a dozen play sessions and multiple games within each of those sessions. The game takes place in the Jurassic World universe before Ian Malcolm ever set foot on the island, so players work to tame the island while also keeping the cloned dinos in check. This is a heavy legacy game with high-quality components and intricate game play, in the vein of the Pandemic Legacy series.

Annapurna is a new, self-published press-your-luck game that offers many different ways to play—competitive, cooperative, solo, and team play. They all revolve around the attempt to scale the mountain of Annapurna, represented by a triangle of 15 cards in front of each player. Those cards start face-down and are revealed as you choose to explore, moving sideways or up, but each card has an action associated with it that might make it easier or harder to climb, or let you mess with your opponents’ climbing attempts. Cards also have yin and yang values, and in competitive play, your goal is to have the most balanced cards (the absolute difference between your total yin and yang symbols) among players who reached the summit.

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Brian Boru: High King of Ireland is the latest game from Peer Sylvester, designer of The King is Dead and The Lost Expedition. It’s a three to five player game with a trick-taking element and a lot of area control, as players will play cards to claim control of towns on a map of Ireland—but if you lose the trick, you get different benefits shown on the bottom of the card you play. Players must also repel invading Vikings, and may choose to try to gain more influence at the monastery, which makes your towns less vulnerable to takeovers from the invaders. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s a solid 90 minute game for five players, but turns do move very quickly and you never end up with nothing to do.

MicroMacro: Crime City won the Spiel des Jahres prize this year, the most important award in the tabletop space, and was in Unplugged’s First Look section, although it has intermittently been available through U.S. retailers this fall. MicroMacro is a cooperative deduction game where players try to track the movement of cartoonish characters on a giant map that represents both space and time—you will find the same character in multiple places, representing their locations at different times, and you might have to track them backwards to solve the case. The original game had 16 cases, often with some adult themes, so there’s a new version, MicroMacro: Crime City—Full House, with 16 new cases and symbols that might help parents decide if certain cases are not appropriate for their kids. (It’s a murder mystery game, though. It’s not like those tend to be clean.)

Prosperitea is a small-box game for three to six players that involves some set collection/hand management, but revolves around a trading mechanism that always leaves both parties better off. Players gather ingredients in five categories, and try to collect them to match customer orders shown on cards on the table—two rows of regular orders and one of more valuable special orders. You can use orders you fill to gain more cash, or save them for points. The real twist is that it’s hard to get all the ingredients you need, so you can ask other players to trade you any ingredient for one Favor token from the bank—and those are worth one victory point each. In a game where we didn’t have anyone reach 10 victory points (out of four players), that’s a big deal. Prosperitea will be shipping to Kickstarter backers in March, and can be pre-ordered on Backerkit now.

TimeLand is a Forbidden Island-like cooperative game, where players take turns moving around a temple of face-down tiles, and must uncover four treasure tiles and four tablet tiles and get to the encampment site before the game’s timer runs out. That timer moves down whenever you flip over a danger tile, often moving a few notches, so using equipment tiles to peek and/or move tiles is key. My daughter and I played it once and managed to win with a few clicks to spare. It’s not available in the U.S. yet but its presence at PAX makes it likely it’ll be here soon.

Welcome to the Moon is the latest game in the Welcome To… flip-and-write series from Blue Cocker games, using the same general mechanic as the original but changing the sheets on which you mark off boxes and adding a campaign mode with eight different scenarios. The first scenario has you filling out a rocketship, where the symbol card in the flipped pair determines what level you get to write in, and there’s a ‘sabotage’ element that makes it harder for your opponents to finish and launch their ships.

Arch Ravels is a set collection within set collection game: players are knitters, and must gather yarn tokens in six colors to craft different items, most of which can then be traded in to match the requirements of project cards for larger point bonuses. Each player also has a special project they can complete for extra points—but only if they get the card, as another player might draw it and choose to keep it.

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Hachette had some of the games they also showcased at Gen Con, including Iki, a 2015 game from Japan that was just introduced in North America this quarter. It’s a gorgeously-illustrated game set in the Edo period, where players will build various buildings around the board’s central track, and then move their workers up as players use those buildings, eventually getting to “retire” them from the board, retrieving the workers and sometimes getting ongoing benefits. Three times during the game, however, fire hits one of the four quadrants, potentially destroying your buildings if you don’t have protection. There are 12 rounds, plus one final action, so it’s a long game, but one where you can make significant plans and have time to execute them.

Pandasaurus’s next big release is Skull Canyon: Ski Fest, which you can pre-order now and which should hit retail in April. It’s a ski-themed game, which in and of itself is unusual, with elements of Ticket to Ride in the way you collect cards to ski down the slopes—but between runs, you progress through stops at the bottom of the mountain on your way to the lodge (where the magic happens, or so I’m told), as in Tokaido. There may also be Yeti on the mountain, although sightings remain unconfirmed.

Capstone Games had multiple titles available to demo that first appeared at Essen in October and were making their U.S. debut, including Corrosion, where you build machines and have to use them before they rust and become nonfunctional; Boonlake, the latest complex game from Alexander Pfister (Great Western Trail, Maracaibo), an economic/exploration game where players seek to settle a fictional territory and ‘automate’ processes to speed up development; and Imperial Steam, a heavy pickup-and-delivery game set among the railways of Austria at the start of the Industrial Age.


Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.