The PAX Unplugged show describes itself on its webpage as a tabletop gaming-focused event specifically tailored to lovers of board games, RPGs, miniatures, cards and more. Featuring thought-provoking panels, a massive expo hall filled with the best publishers and studios, new game demos, tournaments and a huge community experience, we here at GiN were happy to be able to cover this show for the first time ever.
GiN reporter Colin Flanigan, who has covered PAX-related events in the past including the Acquisitions Incorporated podcast, spent two days at the December show in Philadelphia. He had a great time, and the show is more than worth visiting for anyone with a love of board games and gaming culture. The following is his report.
Hello everyone. The first day of PAX Unplugged pushed a really ambitious agenda this year, and it succeeded. The Philadelphia home for the PAX Unplugged franchise ran from Friday, December 1st to Sunday, December 3rd this year. It began at 10:00 am with the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society, Train Gamers Association (Ticket to Ride, Great Western Trail) and of course the opening of the tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) rooms, which filled up incredibly fast. Even the World of Darkness publisher was there, pushing their Vampire, Hunter and Werewolf RPGs. There were literally thousands of people playing in the main, cavernous game room. And there were also people playing both RPGs and board games inside all of the smaller, more private rooms that lined the entire convention center.
Everywhere you looked, there was something cool to do. The atmosphere was very much hands-on compared with a lot of other shows, with everyone seeming to find something fun to participate in down on the show floor. For example, if you like painting miniatures, WizKids sponsored open seats to help you learn how to do some of that delicate and creative work. And a new Star Wars deckbuilding game, Star Wars Unlimited, was on hand to give playthroughs for their upcoming March release. And that was literally just two of the hundreds of great options for attendees.
To get to many of the main activities, the staff of PAX Unplugged directed everything using a sort of starting line that filled up fast. During the wait, lots of PAX attendees would file into large areas to pass the time, with a roped off area where PAX staff would come by and play little games with those waiting to be released onto the large floorspace. This sort of carefully planned organization at the event, and the fact that the staff gave people something really fun to do even while they were waiting in line, was a great idea that other shows should copy. It was really well organized and lots of fun. When you are enjoying yourself while waiting in line, you know you are at a really good show.
Once released onto the main floor, visitors could see a huge map displayed that directed people to almost every possible game merchant you could imagine. For gamers, this was a slice of heaven.
At noon, Matthew Mercer of Critical Role delivered the Keynote Speaker Address entitled “Storytime with Matthew Mercer.” Mercer of Critical Role recounted his journey as a storyteller starting with playing Dungeons and Dragons. From there, he said learning voices for his games led him to becoming a high school theater kid. He highlighted local community theater as another avenue that helped him to gain skills and experiences. He also pointed to his cosplaying at conventions as a good way for a self-described shy kid to learn to express himself through the media of costumes. And he made good friends at gaming conventions too.
Mercer’s recounting of these events connected with the audience that was full of Dungeons and Dragons players, theater aficionados and cosplayers. He ended his presentation by showing how all these elements helped him to become a voice actor and pursue his dreams. Then Ana Prosser, the well-known presenter and actual play talent asked for questions from audience members, of which there were quite a few, with everyone seeming to enjoy the keynote.
Both during and after the main keynote, there were many activities and panels, which were a theme for the entirety of PAX Unplugged. For example, there were Magic the Gathering tournaments, one with an entry fee of $130 for true professionals. Around 3:00 pm on the first day of the show, there was a panel I attended about how to be a freelancer in the TTRPG industry with Nala J. Wu @naladraws who is the Art Director for All the Witches, Evil Hat Productions; Ave “Calamity” Kaye who is a Mercenary TTRPG Writer, Performer and Producer; and Viditya Voleti who is an Interactive Artist, Game Designer, Educator and Paladin also joined. Hearing from freelancers working in the gaming space was a lot of fun, and just one more example of the kind of content that PAX Unplugged offered this year in addition to all the great gaming.
Back in the main gaming room, it was nice to see definite favorites among the participants, especially for games that have grown over time as more people discovered them. For example, the Pirate Borg TTRPG has quickly grown so big that they reserved many tables on the main floor to accommodate everyone. They made a real effort to take in as many players as possible so that nobody who wanted to play was turned away. In this way, in both huge blocks and much smaller gatherings, everyone seemed to find something entertaining and exciting to play and discover.
Rounding out the amazing atmosphere, cosplayers were literally everywhere this year. In terms of conventions, PAX Unplugged was one of the most inclusive that we have seen, where everyone was encouraged and able to actively enjoy themselves in a variety of different ways.
And all that was just the first day of the show. The second day was even more exciting and fun, which I will cover in a second article. But suffice to say, you definitely need to put PAX Unplugged on your radar if you have an interest in gaming and gaming culture. It’s a really great and well-organized event, and also a ton of fun.
Check out the PAX Unplugged website if you want to see what they are already planning for 2024.