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Shambling commentary... the PAX report...

By Gregory IS - Posted on 09 September 2010

I understand the exhaustion in your voices during the framing segments of your convention episodes now. I’ve finally attended my first game convention. A 3-day pass for PAX fell into my lap against all odds after the event sold out. I took a chance. The first table I walked past in the game hall asked if I could teach them Dune. There was a respectably large library and they had checked out both the Parker film tie-in, which they described as “awful”, and the Avalon Hill classic, which they immediately insisted on playing again. The game doesn’t feel dated in the least and hope that the prolonged delay in FFG’s announced reprint is due to a decision to wait out the rights fiasco so that they can do it properly. The following night the same people wanted to play yet again, going so far as camping out in the freeplay room waiting for the players with the library copy to give it up while playing GMT’s Leaping Lemmings, which despite its good intentions and truly great art, we all finally had to admit was somehow not compelling enough. Failing that, we agreed to meet the following morning but- well, I was already starting to frazzle by then and dozens of people had been handing me small pieces of paper all weekend. So if you friendly folks who handed me your number on a tiny scrap of paper in the middle of the lavish overkill of the WOTC event read this (heck, does anybody?), I’m genuinely sorry to have shown up the next day with the wrong pocketful of paper and hope you got to play. I’ll find some way to balance that scale someday. Perhaps if I explain how tall the pile of stuff it got buried in became, beginning with the slim but playable Magic decks being given away alongside a Marvel card game that was surprisingly playable for a simple marketing ploy.

PAX has a reputation for being primarily centered on computer games. I didn’t find this to be entirely the case. Although the flash and dazzle certainly came from the bleeping midway of the exposition hall, where among other things a life-sized T-Rex promoted yet another Fallout sequel (not sure how those two things go together before you ask), a full-size lightcycle heralded the return of Tron and a tiny little keyboard gave Rock Star 3 its raison d’etre, tabletop games were out in force. Even on the show floor, Flying Frog Productions was more than holding their own for spectacle as their cast members demoed games in full regalia. Those holding off on Invasion From Outer Space may melt in the face of charmingly ridiculous new heroes, including a human cannonball whose primary weapon is- well, himself- and an irresistible dancing bear. Conquest of Planet Earth was also in play, a marked departure from their usual style both as a tableau-based card game and as an illustrated game. Cards are placed on the board to create locations which, when attacked, are defended by cards drawn from another deck according to their listed strength. If too little resistance shows up, the attacking player conquers that space. Surprisingly, I was told the illustration work is actually more expensive than the full photo shoots, where they shoot more than needed to cover costs of potential expansions. Mary Beth Magellanes says that while she has provided a soundtrack to both of these upcoming titles, it won’t be what you might expect, partially because she “hates circus music.” They had signed photos. Oh and the web expansions.

Then I met David Weinstock, creator of the “new ancient game” of ZoxSo, a cohesive if chaotic abstract that he described as the product of five years’ tinkering after he became bored with the rigid openings presented by his first love, Chess. He supports the idea, by the way, that Xiang Qi and not Chaturanga is the older game so there goes that can of worms again. ZoxSo explodes the opening possibilities, adds a touch of Go in the way individual pieces form large groups and overlays a second movement grid in a way that a fan of all things 3M and Gipf could not resist. (Remarkably, he was surprised to hear that 3M had ever been a game company. This man needs a copy of Ploy, stat!) I love learning games, good games, from their creators. So into the bag it went. Then there was that lavish splash out from WOTC, who took over the hallwith a scavenger hunt leading to a catered disco party where- wonder of wonders- they even had really good vegetarian fare (those stuffed mushrooms… yow!) which earns them piles of points from me. Another of those small decks- wish I’d been shameless and grabbed one of each color now- and- what is that, a USB bracelet? You’re kidding! Into the bag. Along with the phone number on a slip of paper because my battery had died.

And some local game stores came in as well, with bargains to be had. The most popular had to be Castle Ravenloft but despite the fine pieces, the bargain price and the solitaire play it failed its roll against my usual disinterest in all things D&D. One good play might change that as all the tables I asked seemed to be loving it. Instead I finally picked up The Swarm, as I’m currently enjoying the book. Its connection to the novel is legitimate if tenuous, but its mainly an interesting connection game that feels a bit like the puzzle section from Android removed and made into its own game. I probably set it on top of that phone number when I left. Who knows; I was starting to droop a bit by then. I did try to find them the next day, you know, ducking into every room. Nope, in this one the people behind Jet Set were demonstrating Last Call, a nifty game in which players move bottles among six bartenders trying to concoct unlikely drink recipes. The winner is whoever manages to mix all of his drinks using the fewest “wild” ice cubes. Looks nice but- oh what a relief. Prototype, not out until December.

Bag getting heavy. Not in this one either, where cheerful but tired Sandstorm reps are pitching Poo, their ultralight card game about- er, monkeys. Not sure how long it would hold up, but I’d be lying if I denied laughing like a drain during play. The artwork is brilliant. More intriguing was their soon-to-be-released Globalization, a subtly sardonic game of the world economy which I disappointingly ran out of time to play but did examine closely.

  Ah well, can't find 'em anywhere. Found the number at home on a break, texted an apology on my recharged phone, ran back free of the bag and slightly less troubled of mind. At least I absolutely am not accumulating anything else this weekend. Like fun I’m not. Not until I run into some of the fine folks who frequent a friendly firm whose founders (Good grief, too little sleep has given me Friese syndrome. Turns your hair green in the advanced stages, y’ know…) got a shout out on your last episode (“Great Scott!”). Some of them wear mystified expressions of vague disgust. Some of them seem mildly unnerved by the evil laugh I can’t quite suppress as I rise and rush to the Z-Man booth where the man behind the table confesses, as if specifically sent to push my indecision over the edge, that he is actually an undercover MIB from Steve Jackson Games- oh yes, they were there too, strongly pitching their new dice games which are slightly lighter than helium- and that he finds the box I grab scratches his itch for Car Wars. He says do it. We discuss the twisted brilliance of Paul Bartel and he says I won’t be disappointed. He was right. For me the despicable hit of the show may well be Road Kill Rally. Players understandably put off by the idea of a game that rewards hit-and-run driving may need the joke explained by the pitch-black and still disturbingly relevant 1975 satire of a bloodthirsty media Death Race 2000, which seriously advocated running over children as much as Swift suggested eating them or Monty Python advised selling them for scientific experimentation. That film is directly referenced throughout the components (“It’s euthanasia day at the geriatric ward…”; “Do you know how fast those boy scouts can move?”) and if you find the original funny (“Frankenstein has scored his own pit crew!”), you really owe it yourself to royally freak out the neighboring table by rolling up a few splatter dice. This game could have crashed and burned in so many ways, some of them genuinely offensive, but the tone is well-handled enough to provoke the same guilty snickering as the film (or for some of you out there, the equally absurd Carmageddon)

Speaking of video games, I did slip up to the vast computer game freeplay room on two occasions, once on Friday and again on Saturday, and the shift from the mood of the tabletop rooms was striking. No conversation. No laughter. Rows and rows of silently concentrating faces under headphones staring at screens reminding me a bit of the scene in the Robin Williams film Toys where he discovers “F.A.O. Schwarzkopf”. I was intercepted on my second visit by tense and angry convention personnel as I was unaware that these were computers brought and left by trusting attendees and that the area was hence not as open to badge holders as the rest of the event. My only suggestion to the organizers was that a little simple signage to that effect, or failing that a staffer at the door who is going to more than stare into space as I walk into a restricted area, will save you a lot of this sort of grief, guys.

Still just sick about losing that number, though. How will I make it up to them? I worry about these things...

sconway's picture

Wow, it's like we had our own roving reporter at PAX. Excellent con report!

It is exhausting, isn't it? But in a good way... :)

I'm glad you were able to demo so many new things as well as teach some whippersnappers some classics. That's probably the one thing we miss covering cons these days: we get to hear about all the new stuff, but we just don't have the time to sit down and do as many demos as we would like.

The Flying Frog people are great. Given their talents in film and other areas, I am not surprised to hear them say they can do their photo shoots for less $$ than hiring  people to do illustrations for hundreds of cards. Plus it really gives their games a disctinctive aesthetic.

A game designer who didn't know about 3M games? Kids these days...

I'll have to give Road Kill Rally a go. We did see it at Origins and the brief run through didn't leave me very interested, even though I enjoyed CarWars back in the day. Glad to hear you say you think it is a worthy successor.

Is the novel upon which The Swarm is based available in English? May have to add another to the Book Club pile. The game seemed intriguing but I couldn't make sense of how all the different parts hung together as a game. Just need to play!

Being a D&D person, Ravenloft does interest me, but this category of adventure style rpg/board game is getting full now, so I'm not sure what they can do to make it really stand out other than have the advantage of the blessings of the Chaotic Neutral gods of Hasbro.

Several press people we met at GenCon were shocked we weren't going to cover PAX. You're giving me more reasons to go. Dang it.




It's an honor and privilege to don my Kermit the Frog trenchcoat and hat and be a roving reporter for The Spiel anytime. As for whippersnappers and designers not knowing 3M, well maybe eventually someone will figure out a way to have the game equivalent of a classic movie network. Although I still have a certain skepticism about the thing, perhaps the electronic surface demonstrated at PAX using Settlers of Catan could recreate those games that have their place in history and yet are not in material production. In the case of Dune however, I cannot fathom how the party currently possessing the licensing rights fails to recognize that a product of quality could only enhance the value of its- to choke out the marketing term- "brand", especially faced with the current resale values and the boom in homecrafted sets. Why would you not want a piece of that?

As to RKR, it is a bit misleading to imply that it is an out and out successor to CW. It's quite a bit simpler than Car Wars, but then again most things are. Much as you might be tempted to pull a "bootlegger" as you whip through the 'burbs, the rules don't extend to that kind of manuever. If you're hoping for a lighter, more compact version of CW and were disappointed in that relaunch, you might check out FFG's Wreckage: A Tabletop Game. Granted, RKR will never win any major game awards and one of the reasons I pounced on it is that it may sink without a ripple. But if the idea of Car Wars crossed with Twilight Creations and played for sick comedy, appeals, I don't think you'll be disappointed. It's a B-movie, but it's a great one.

The Swarm is indeed available in an English translation although it's a little difficult to find. The language in the copies I have seen imply a British translation so it might not have had a release from a US publisher. While the game does make a bit more thematic sense after reading the book (you won't look at the crab quite the same way), it still seems that the core of the game that could easily be applied to any number of subjects. Again, it reinforces my idea that Android was actually too many games welded into one unwieldy beast; here in essence one sixth of that board is presented and the result is a pleasant and attractive game. The book is slow and awkwardly paced in its early stages but by halfway through you're into properly entertaining end of the world stuff. It feels comfortably like one of those ridiculously oversized 70's summer paperback epics and is worth your time if only for the terrific sequence that closes the first half. It's a B-movie too.




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