(Photo by Devin Marshall)
Dragons and castles, sinking battleships and miniature Space Marines. What do they all have in common? A table, some pieces and people who love interactive storytelling.
Tabletop games took the main stage at the inaugural PAX Unplugged convention, including board games, card games and roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. The event took place at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia last month.
Like other PAX events in Seattle, Boston, San Antonio and Melbourne, Australia, Unplugged includes more things than you can roll a die at. Such attractions include an exhibit hall, a tabletop freeplay room with a game-borrowing library and space for hundreds of players, a “First Look” area to see brand-new games and an “Alpha Build” room to playtest indie games.
The convention has also given marginalized groups a voice with the inclusion of the “Diversity Lounge,” which this year included representatives from I Need Diverse Games, local advocate and cosplayer Jay Justice, Toronto Gaymers and mental health advocates TakeThis.org.
One panel discussion, “Organizing Play: The Perils and Pitfalls of Gathering Gamers,” centered around how to create spaces that make people feel welcome to play in.
“Any good nerd who stumbles into your world, you want to trick them into staying and playing games with you,” said panel presenter Melissa Lewis-Gentry, business manager of Modern Myths in Northampton, Mass. “I will pair new people with a friendly veteran, and say ‘Here is a new person, can you take care of them?’ Be okay with losing the board game and telling them all the right strategies.”
Another presenter, Donna Prior, prefers to host games in a venue other than a game store, because new people can find the clientele intimidating. “Nobody wants to feel stupid,” they said. “And when trying to market to casual gamers, don’t call them ‘gamers.’ There’s a certain perspective on what gamers are.”
"PAX has a very good culture of a gaming group coming up and just diving in."
Prior is the organized play coordinator of Catan Studio, as well as founder and executive director of OrcaCon, an inclusive tabletop convention in Bellevue, Wash., that takes place each January. OrcaCon is going on its third year, and the new theme puts indigenous American game designers at the forefront. They first got involved with gaming through Dungeons & Dragons in the ’80s, and then Magic: The Gathering in the ’90s. Now they travel throughout North America and the UK to teach the game Settlers of Catan and host business meetings in Germany with the game’s creator and the rest of the team.
“Unplugged has got some of the same cool things about a regular PAX, it’s really more like comparing this to Gen Con (in Indianapolis), which is another tabletop convention,” Prior said. “The only thing that’s really different about this one is that the games are not video games. But it reminds me of the best parts of big tabletop shows, they’re some of the best things I like about PAX.” According to Prior, Unplugged is also inclusive for attendees with physical disabilities, with helpful features like wide aisles, flat ground and legible signs with large fonts.
Nearby in the exhibit hall, IDW Games set up a display featuring the recently-produced Centipede, the first in a line of IDW board games created in a partnership with classic video game company Atari and made by local Philly designers Anthony Amato and Nicole Kline of Cardboard Fortress Games.
Ross Thompson is the Games, Marketing and Events Manager with IDW Games and the founder of Kingdom-Con in San Diego, and he runs a circuit of 20 conventions a year. “I would say that PAX in general does a very good job of creating a culture of people that want to learn games,” he said. “So when you go to a show like Gen Con, or Origins (in Columbus), which are other game industry hardcore cons, those gamers have a very set way of games they play. They’re not as open to trying out now games, where PAX has a very good culture of a gaming group coming up and just diving in.”
Attendee Carolyn Scullington sat at a table playing two-player matches of the card game Yomi with her husband Dan and friends TJ Ngo and Chris Copel-Kosciesza. Originally from Connecticut, Scullington now lives in New York City. She enjoyed the freeplay area of the convention the most, but the people are what bring her back to the PAX scene.
“I think that PAX in general has a really good community, and I definitely still feel that here,” she said. “That’s part of the reason why I’m the person who’s refreshing Twitter to find out when the badges go on sale for PAX East (in Boston), because it feels like a very welcoming environment. Which I feel like especially for gaming conventions, it does sometimes feel like there’s very ‘us versus them’ dynamics within the gaming community, and we don’t have that at all here. It was really awesome to walk right down the big stretch on day one and see the gender-neutral bathrooms, for instance.”
PAX expos are staffed by a crew of “Enforcers” who are recruited to answer questions, direct guests to different locations and resolve conflicts. They started out as volunteers, but are now paid employees. One Enforcer, HunchPunch, started in Seattle in 2009 and has worked at every single PAX at least once.
“I’m just continuing the tradition of helping out, being a part, doing what I can,” he said. “I attended back sometime ago for the first time, went a couple times, and then decided to apply. It’s real simple, it’s a matter of making the event happen in the same way or have the same feel from whenever I attended for those attending for the first time.”
Like all other PAX’s, this event is sure to get exponentially larger as more people hear about it. If you’re a local game designer or nerdy creator and would like to set up a table next year, or you’d just like more information on the convention and want to purchase tickets, visit this site.-30-
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