A Glimpse Into the Vault: PAX Unplugged Edition

Today, we have a special PAX Unplugged Edition of A Glimpse Into the Vault, with a special roundup of board games of interest I came across at the con! Now, this is a little unfair, as this is a grossly cursory look at only some of the many games and vendors that were on display, but with the extensive number of products available I only had so much time and attention to really dig in. Luckily, I managed to get on the media list for PAX Unplugged, so I was fortunate enough to be solicited by a number of people interested in getting attention for their game, and from that I managed to schedule a slew of interviews about different games. We previously chatted with Brendan Conway about Unbound, the latest supplement for Masks: A New Generation, but today we’ll be tackling the board games I got to see in greater detail, and the creators who I had the chance to interview.

First, I had my interest piqued by a game by the title of A.E.G.I.S: Combining Robots Strategy Game. The game is a hex grid based combat system, where players choose one robot from each class (Assault, Evasion, Guard, Intel and Support) and use them to move around the grid to combat the other team, with the option to combine each robot into its own category for new effects. The actions your team takes is determined by your Energy resource, which fuels attack, movement and combinations, and requires budgeting and management in order to keep your squad functioning. Each type of robot can combine with another member of the team, creating new combinations on the fly. The base set holds an enormous number of base robots and combinations to choose from, so choosing your initial team and combination is as much of the strategy as how you use them on the battlefield.

As a fanboy for giant mecha, I wanted to know more about how this came about. I reached out to creator Breeze Grigas and he was kind enough to spend a few minutes with me:

Aki: So Breeze, I’ve looked at A.E.G.I.S., what was some of the inspiration behind creating it?

Breeze Grigas: “So I grew up playing you know a lot of digital tactics games, like Advance Wars and Fire Emblem, and watching a lot of robot shows. I grew up with Power Rangers, Voltron, [and] Transformers. Basically I could have been an architect but I did this instead, so a lot of inspiration went into that. I wanted to make a simple, cheap accessible tactics game. I was looking at, like War Machine and Warhammer stuff which can be hard to get into, so I wanted to make an alternative to that that used a lot of design sensibilities from games that I enjoyed playing on my Gameboy. Then of course I wanted a game that felt like cool combining robot combat. It kind of all came together very early in terms of the mechanics and the themes and we worked on it for quite a while. We started it six years ago and worked on it, and published it in 2014 with handmade boxes and stuff. Then we went to publisher for a while, and then we did Kickstarter, and now it’s finally, actually out. We fulfilled [the Kickstarter] a few weeks ago and now we are selling it.”

A: “I noticed that you have the five different classes [of robots], how did you start creating those, and how did you balance them?”

BG: “I knew I needed five different types of robot to do five different things. It was just easy right because was like I play in magic, so it’s like the “magic” number right-”

A:  “So to speak!”

BG:  “I was like, immediately thinking about combinations of two three and four and five colors. It was right around the time that Return to Ravnica [Magic the Gathering] came out so I had color combinations on the mind. I was like “Let’s make a color pie of robots and have each class do different things”. I thought it would be good if we played that up in the game name. What’s a five letter word with all different letters: Aegis. What does it stand for? Ehhhhhhhhhh…..Assault, Evasion, Guard, Intel and Support, that’s what we came up with.”

A: “Cool!”

BG: “The five types a robots are spelled out in the logo of the game. We try to keep it physically up and down the game, [where]  everything is color coded: red, blue, green, purple, yellow. The lore, the character, the rulebook, for different types of robots. Everything.

In terms of balancing the game, that was across a six year development period. It just came about really quickly, we tried we just like put different things in a bucket early to figure out you know: “A-types do this, S-types do this” and when you put an A and S together, what do they do?”

A: “So maybe a Survey and heavy attack might be a high attack, long strength…”

BG: “Yes. Yeah exactly.”

“So it’s kinda like the whole thing where, like, when you mash robots together you get mechanical aspects of both as you go up, when you have like three letters, or four [robots] or five [robots] together then you’re getting really powerful or more versatile robots that can do many different things.”

A: “But then you’re limiting the number of [robots] you have in play.”

BG: “Exactly. So, unlike a lot of games, our game starts at its most complex, because you’re looking at five cards, and as the game goes on the turns get shorter and your decisions start mattering more as there are less choices to make. It works kind of the opposite of a lot of games where you start with nothing and build up. ”

A: “Out of curiosity, what are some of the mecha genres that you looked into [for inspiration]? I noticed definitely Evangelion on one of the cards earlier.”

BG: “Oh yeah. I love all the Gainax stuff. Evangelion, Gunbuster, Gurren Lagann, Daibuster, umm…Getter Robo, Volton…everything. The game has a very Saturday Morning Cartoon aesthetic for a reason. The art style reflects how complex the gameplay is: It’s not too cartoony so it’s not too simple, it’s not too gritty realistic and it’s not that complicated.. And there’s also a very few games that really do the brightly colored robots thing. So it’s…resonant.

A: “Ok. What were some of the biggest challenges in developing this [A.E.G.I.S.]?”

BG: “So…a lot. So, when we started making this game, we were game design students. I didn’t play any board games except for Magic. I had a very digital game background. So, over the course of a few years we really got into the board gaming hobby, and really tried to learn a lot about different board game genres and what’s useful in a board game versus a digital game.

And then also when we started self publishing we had to learn all about manufacturing…and then also treat a game like a product. There’s no built in tutorial in a board game. So we had to figure out “Oh yeah. So how does our first “user experience” go, how do we make that easy for people when they first open the box?” How do we make stuff? How is the storage going to be? So we have a really good storage solutions in our game. We thought about all of that.

We learned about Kickstarter, we learned about conventions. We learned a lot about marketing, because we had to do that ourselves. We tried working with an external publisher but you know what you end up doing most of the work anyway. So we just did it ourselves. We get all of the problems, we also keep all of the money.”

A: “Are there expansions coming out in the future, or are you spacing that, or do you think you’ll move to a different game in the future?”

BG: “After designing the game for six years we have a bunch of prototypes for other games that we’re currently doing.But we are currently building up more content for A.E.G.I.S. It’s a very expandable game because [it’s] basically Pokémon meets Voltron. So where we’re going to get LCG [Living Card Game] boxes that have sets of like 20, 30, or 40 more robots and they’re just keeps adding on new characters new mechanics, new stuff as the story moves forward.”

A: “Alright. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.”

BG: “Absolutely”

Other highlights were checking out Mistborn: House War a board game based on the setting of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series of novels. Seamus has written about the tabletop RPG, as well as it’s Alloy of Law expansion, so it seemed worthwhile to see what the differences were when translating the setting to a different format.

Probably the biggest difference is in the framing. Rather than individual characters from the novels, or even the scrappy underdogs that the tabletop sets up, in House War you play the antagonists: the Noble Houses who support the tyrannical Lord Ruler and his Steel Ministry, all jockeying for power and influence, and yet forced to cooperate to prevent the overrun of your rule.

Ed Healy from Crafty Games was kind enough to go over the thought behind the transition, and what the game is about:

“The noble houses, they’re trying to jockey for position and in favor with [the Lord Ruler]. And so it gives you an opportunity to kind of experience the events of the novels because those are the problems noble houses are solving in the game. They’re trying to keep [the events of the novel] down and keep the rebellion and unrest down, but it allows you to experience the events of the novels that you love without just going “Oh this is exactly what I read about.” So it’s from a kind of perpendicular angle on the same world in the same events.”

Each noble house has different benefits and focuses in the resources that their House provides. As players continue, different “problems” (slave revolts, unrest, attacks on other houses) are placed before them, and they are forced to solve them, often needing to obtain resources (soldier, gold, etc.) from other players in order to do so, and there is a timer in place before the problem “erupts” to negative consequences.

“So if a house was really rich in the books, they have a lot of gold in the game. If they have a lot of slaves in the books, there are more serfs, more skaa [the name of the slave population] in the game. And so what happens is…. say there’s a problem. And you need three soldiers, three skaa and three gold. You may have to work with two other houses to get enough staff in order to solve that problem. And if you can’t solve it in time it ‘erupts’. And some of the eruptions can be unrest. Sometimes the eruptions are resources getting destroyed. So now every house is weaker than ever. So it’s very much in line with the kind of things you also see in the books.”

While I might personally prefer the storytelling that takes place in a full tabletop world, sometimes players might need a spark to get them into the setting, or may want to dip their toes in when there is a more defined time period within a few hours. My one concern would be that outsiders to the fiction might be a bit lost but it’s a solid design that would look to please fans who want more of a board game flavor.

Finally, I had a surprise introduction to a game that I honestly did not expect. The Tea Dragon Society Card Game, created by Renegade Game Studios, is based on a graphic novel by Katie O’Neill about a young girl who rescues a Tea Dragon, a small creature who grows tea on the top of it’s head.

To be honest, I myself likely would have passed the table by without a second thought, but a wide swath of the group I attended Unplugged with (mostly not hardcore tabletop or board game enthusiasts) with were immediately taken. After a closer look, I couldn’t blame them. The artwork is adorable, which is what drew them in at first, but the rules are light and there is no direct player PvP. At its core it’s a deck building game like Ascension or the legion of versions provided by Cryptozoic (DC Heroes, Cartoon Network Crossover Crisis etc.), with each dragon getting a standard deck. These decks offer points to buy items and memories (which offer benefits, and contribute to points in the end of game tally), but also include actions that remove them. As you buy items and memories they are placed into your discard pile, and you shuffle and redraw whenever you finish your deck. The game progresses by Season (starting in Spring, going through Winter), with each passing as players purchase a set number of memories. When Winter is over, the point values of each card are tallied and a winner is decided.

Like I mentioned, it’s cute, lighthearted, and has no PvP, and it ran pretty quickly. It sold more copies to my group than any other we came across. I can really see it as a great present to children, and a fun game to play as a family. Get your kids started young folks!

As I mentioned, this is an entirely cursory glance at what was available at PAX Unplugged. I didn’t get to spend as much time there as I would have liked, and I feel that there is a lot more to be discovered. As much of a disservice as I am doing by not nailing all of the details, I really would recommend to people that you check it out in person. The event was great for families, and there are tons of games and potential holiday gifts available. I even managed to get an autographed copy of a new Foxtrot comic book, and got to meet one of my favorite comic artists, Bill Amend. It’s a young con, but they really have a lot of room to grow both in terms of figured out the use of space they have, and in the events they can prepare for. I can only imagine it getting better with more experience with the space and more feedback from people running games and panels.

Hopefully, I’ll see you back there next year!

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