Tabletop at PAX is unique because it’s equal ground. The biggest publishers share space with the smallest because, simply put, the average PAX-goer doesn’t know a thing about tabletop games. All they know is that they enjoy playing tabletop games of all kinds and they’ve got money burning a hole in their pocket. In that light, it’s interesting to see who thrives – the old guard, with games that have brand recognition but little glitz and flash, or the new and indie showings, with kickstarter dollars to burn on marketing for the first time ever. One thing’s for sure: PAX has brought more people into tabletop games than any American convention before it, and that’s a good thing.

If you’re looking for one thing, or want to skip ahead, here’s the sections:

The Lay of the Land

As always at these kinds of events, there was a fantastic array of very expensive game toys on display, but two stood out. The first were the omnipresent Geek Chic gaming tables with a large amount of 3D terrain, including custom sculpted Dwarven Forge stuff from its last kickstarter. The second and decidedly more drool-inducing was a multitouch digital gaming surface from Mesa Mundi combined with the software in development at D20 Pro for playing games like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder online. The huge, multitouch table combined with the GM’s side of the software on a nearby laptop delivered the kind of experience promised by old Microsoft surface demos from years back. A quick demo that the guys at the booth ran showed how rapidly the touch software allows players to take an action, attack an enemy, or use a spell, and how the GM can reactively reveal portions of a map, and tweak game statistics behind the scenes. While things like this are definitely still the purview of wealthy specialists, there was definitely a certain magic to the glow of the touch display and the speed with which it reacted – is it the future of complex, mathematical tabletop roleplaying games? No way to forecast the future, but what I can tell you is that it’s a really fun toy to play with.

Popular publisher iello made its first appearance at a PAX East this year, laying out a healthy size booth filled with copies of King of Tokyo and Tokaido. It also brought a giant copy of King of Tokyo, including characters the size of a person and dice so large you could barely hold all of them at once. The most notable thing going on for iello was a copy of La Nuit Du Grand Poulpe on display at its booth. La Nuit, due for English translation and publication this year, is a bluffing game with light mechanics that looks quite fun. While I couldn’t get the entire sense of how the game played from a short demo, the mechanics seemed like they had enough bounce to carry fun player interaction and the dark, carivalesque art was quite nice.

Mayfair Games had a strong showing at PAX too, delivering the widest variety of new games from their lineup for the coming year. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof was an easy standout, a game where you’re a cat trying to collect as much delicious fish as you can by building paths between neighborhood rooftops – it looks like a surprisingly tactical game for such a light theme! Also on display was Villainy!, which, while I didn’t get to play it, was described to me as Doctor Horrible meets Mayfair Games. Color me intrigued. There were certainly more varieties of Catan than you could shake a stick at on display at the Mayfair booth, with near-constant games going on rotation for all three days of the convention. The booth staff even had a bit of a knowing nod to the proliferation of the Catan franchise, with each wearing a different Catan-spinoff shirt every day.

We Got Huge Through Kickstarter

Out in force on both the main show floor and the secondary tabletop area were Kickstarter funded miniatures games, from “humble” $300,000 dollar grossing companies to folks with multiple $1 million or higher efforts to their name. Jokes aside, some of these companies may fade away within the decade, but it’s almost for sure that one or more of them will parlay Kickstarter success into huge, ongoing business. Pay attention to them.

Greenbrier Games

Zpocalypse publisher Greenbrier Games had a great booth where elevated tables provided access to quick, easy demos of their games. I was able to preview their new game Heavy Steam in-depth, and can say that it’s one of the most unique resource management games I’ve ever played. There was also had a fully painted version of Greenbrier’s Jim Sterling model for its Zpocalypse game on display. Thank god for that.

Soda Pop Miniatures

Soda Pop Miniatures was out in force, showing off its new companion expansion for Super Dungeon Explore. This company grossed a million dollars on a kickstarter, and it’s obvious by the amount of demos running and people passing through their booth, that the chibi art style and dungeon theme of the games are a not-so-secret sauce for success.

Japanime Games

Speaking of Chibi art, the folks from Japanime Games were showing off their game Krosmaster Arena in giant-size form. The game, based on popular French MMOs and Anime Dofus and Wakfu, is a super-light arena skirmish game that’s been receiving lots of positive reviews. I didn’t see them showing off even a prototype of their recently-funded expansion Frigost, though.

MERCs Miniatures & Megacon Games

MERCS Miniatures has been around for a while now, but got a major popularity boost from their successful Kickstarter for cooperative fantasy miniatures game MYTH. The attractive sculpts of MERCS models were drawing a lot of praise from attendees, and their staff definitely won the award for friendliest, most outgoing booth at the con.

Cool Mini Or Not

Cool Mini or Not was showing off a veritable wall of Zombicide copies at PAX, and demoing their new game Rivet Wars to all comers. After pulling in $2.25 million on their Zombicide: Season 2 Kickstarter last year, Cool Mini or Not has definitely established themselves as one of the premier capitalizers of the miniatures game revolution that Kickstarter has allowed.

Privateer Press Goes Family

One of the big surprises at the show was Privateer Press’ new game Zombies Keep Out, a family-friendly horde defense game that plays out in a frenzy of chaos and hilarity. The players must collect various parts to build insane weapons to fend off the zombie hordes, and they are truly ridiculously maniacal creations like water blasters and zombiphage cannons. The best part is that the more you get bit, the more zombified you become, forcing you to lose your ability to speak with other players. You can’t talk in complex phrases at first, then you can only gesture, and eventually you’re reduced to making groaning noises and not moving only. It’s due to release this month. Just when I thought I was completely done with zombie games, people, they give it a cartoonish twist and they drag me back in.

There was, of course, the requisite amount of Warmachine, Hordes, and Level 7: Omega Protocol prettiness on display. See gallery above.

Indie Tabletop Space

The biggest, newest, fanciest thing in tabletop games going on at PAX East was definitely the inclusion of a whole row of indie tabletop games in the titan of the show floor that is the Indie Megabooth. The highlights for me were definitely the party games, like These French Fries Are Terrible Hot Dogs and Funemployed. However, I was surprised to also find a couple more serious and interesting looking games in the row of indies.

French Fries is a game where you try to convince another player that your card you have in your hand, say, hot dogs, is the most like the card they’re judging, say, French fries. You’d say something like “It’s long and edible, and you shouldn’t eat too many of them even if you want to.” It’s a deceptively simple pitch, but it may well be a great addition to the party game collection that a lot of gamers have built since the explosive popularity of Cards Against Humanity took off. You can learn more about it at their website.

Funemployed! is a quick party game about why you’d be best at any given job, and involves playing qualifications from your hand and from a common pool to prove that you’d be best for a job. To a degree, it solves the boring problem that many card-playing judged party games have, where you don’t have a good card for the situation at hand and so put down the card you have which you like the least. It also has a definite edge over some other games, in that with a bit of deck editing it’s perfectly acceptable to play with mom and dad. It’s available for preorder at Urban Island Games’ website.

A quick, fun real time game that involves making gun fingers at your friend and questionable appropriation of a wild west theme, Slap .45 was definitely worth the minutes it took to learn and play. As new cards are revealed in turn from a deck, you move your hand between various pieces of cover in front of each player – if you can’t get into cover in time, you get shot. If the chance to shoot comes up and an enemy isn’t in cover, you can try to take your hand off cover in and get the shot on them before they do the same to you. It’s a fun twist on real time and took only a handful of minutes to play.

The oddest pitch, but most interesting execution, in indie tabletop was definitely Wizard Dodgeball, where players are participants in the interdimensional wizarding dodgeball league. It was a much more traditional game, with a gridded board and dice “balls” for your wizard pawns to pick up and run with before chucking at each other. Each team had statistic cards for their wizards and a hand of spells to cast, making it play out like a tactical minis game. The game had a satisfying amount of randomness, but still relied on heavy tactical play from the participants. Light, whimsical tactical games are an underserved category, and Wizard Dodgeball will be a strong entry when it releases. It’d be great, for example, for those who’ve played and enjoyed Munchkin but wouldn’t touch Memoir ’44. If the full game lives up to the short demo I got, it could be popular among both hardcore and casual gamers.

I didn’t get to play AEGIS, a “combining robot strategy game,” because both their space in indie tabletop and in the larger tabletop hall were slammed doing demos every time I came by for three days – it must have been doing something right!

The Goofiest Thing I Saw

slash pile

Was definitely Slash, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: A party game about slash fiction, where you quite literally pair up fictional characters into relationships you’d like to see. You know, like, Wolverine and Captain Janeway, or something. To be a little more serious, there was significant diminishment in that pyramid of games over the course of the weekend, and it was really cool to see what felt like a visual representation of the broadening of the scope of who plays nerdy hobby tabletop games. For example, I saw a trio of girls about 13 – definitely the “core audience” for a game about ‘shipping – pick up a copy with intense joy on their faces.

So, kudos and cheers to Games By Play Date for doing their part to bring the joy of table games to everyone.

Things I Didn’t Get To See Enough Of

The tragedy of the convention is always that you don’t get to see everything you want. Here are my greatest regrets. The popular deckbuilding game Ascension was in full swing at PAX, with a booth in both the convention floor proper and in the tabletop area cementing their prominence as one of the premier, if not the premier, deckbuilding games. From the short conversation I had with a guy at their booth, they’d sold off their beginner packs by noon on day two. Also looking fun was Dreadball X-Treme, a game about futuristic space football where you can presumably kill the other guys. They successfully kickstarted earlier this year.

Also in the category of successful Kickstarters was a large booth and play area from Sentinels of the Multiverse publisher Greater Than Games. Its brand new game Galactic Strike Force was getting a lot of sales and play, looking very strong from fan reactions. I was able to watch most of a game of Sentinel Tactics: The Flame of Freedom get played, and backers of that particular kickstarter will not be disappointed by their investment. Sentinel Tactics looks to be another enjoyable co-op experience from Greater Than Games, delivering the kind of quick play they’re known for in a miniatures format, with a little less of the math-heavy problems that weigh down Sentinels of the Multiverse.

We’ll have even more from tabletop at PAX East in the coming days, including fresh new details about Dungeons & Dragons‘ new edition and a preview of Thornwatch, the new tactics game from Penny-Arcade co-creator Mike Krahulik.

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