A PAX Unplugged Roundup

Aki might have had the brainpower to check in every day of PAX Unplugged, but I  . . . didn’t. There was a lot to do and see, however: board games, events, roleplaying games, accessories, actual play opportunities! I came home with . . . a lot to write about, and more than a few review copies, but there are plenty of things that would get missed by doing things one article at a time. So here’s my PAX Unplugged Roundup of some of the things worth checking out, whether they’re things to look for next con or something worth chasing right now!

Games on Demand

Full disclosure, I was running Transit for a trio of sessions with Game on Demand this year at Unplugged, so I’m definitely biased in favor of this particular facet of the convention. Then again, I think everyone should be biased in favor of Games on Demand, which is a volunteer outfit that exists simply to provide opportunities for attendees to play more RPGs. Numbers got a little fuzzy over the course of the weekend, but before the doors opened, I can tell you that GoD were offering a total of 408 hours of tabletop roleplaying gaming – all of it small press at the largest and much of it pure indie and often run by a designer, providing everything that prospective players needed to enjoy a two or four hour long gaming session. All players had to do was show up and pick a game. How many games were there?

Lead and Gold, What’s OLD is NEW, Bulldogs!, Alter Arms, Dusk City Outlaws, Dungeon World, Women are Werewolves, Nations & Cannons, The Final Girl, Heavy Metal Thunder Mouse, For The Queen, Dungeon Tours Ltd. Hogwarts: An RPG, Pax Cthuliana, Goblinville, Fiasco, MONZ, Dinosaur Princesses, Dialect, Mothership, Monsterhearts 2, Princess World, Swords of the Serpentine, Never Tell Me the Odds, Masks of the Mummy Kings, Aeronauts, Nobilis, Hearts Blazing, The Watch, Fall of Magic, The Skeletons, Thousand Arrows, BLOCKBUSTER!, Misspent Youth, Blades in the Dark, Long Time Listener Last Time Caller, Ill Met By Moonlight, Teens with Attitude, Index Card RPG, Swords Without Master, Girl Underground, The Ward, Scum and Villainy, Monster of the Week, Apocalypse World 2e, Trapped, Trophy, Lady Blackbird, Rest in Pieces, Commandroids: A World Transformed, and Inspectres were all on the docket, and that’s just what was on the pre-con list. I have no way of really knowing how many games were added, how many pickup games occurred, or which games from the GoD library were rented out and played independent of a GoD GM.

Brian, Natalya, and the other organizers/hosts put forth an amazing effort to get more than 40 GMs rallied together with all of those games and game hours in the first place, but what even GoD players might not realize is the amount of during-the-con behind-the-scenes effort that gets put out. The Unplugged GoD Discord channel hummed all weekend with activity to wrangle supplies, substitution games to cover GMs who had something come up, extra games to fill more tables or more slots so players could have a home, and more. If you’re going to Unplugged or East next year, or any of the other cons that have a Games on Demand . . . chapter, for lack of a better word, you could do so much worse than swinging by and seeing what there is to play. 

Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Inc. “C” Team Pack

From Renegade Game Studios, Dire Wolf Digital, and of course Penny Arcade this “C” Team Pack for the popular Clank! series of board games has a lot of similarities to the Upper Management Pack I reviewed after PAX East: compatible with both basic Clank! or the Acq. Inc. Legacy version, a group of four unique starter decks that replace the base decks for either game, not recommended for your first time out with Clank! Legacy, a slight issue with diluting the new decks’ uniqueness as gameplay goes on, and absolutely stellar production values from the art to the character boards to the miniatures. So what’s new under the sun?

Well, first, while you wouldn’t want to mix-and-match these starter decks with basic Clank! starter decks, you can play them alongside the Upper Management Pack, which is a pretty sweet increase of options at this higher ‘power level’ of play. Second is, of course, that each character comes with three completely unique cards. Donaar has Acid Breath that lets him gain Clank! in exchange for Swords.K’thriss has Telepathy, ignoring one footstep or monster icon along a path for the turn. In Shadows lets Rosie ignore any Clank! from Arrive, Acquire or Defeat effects so long as it is in the hand or play area of her player. Sacred Scimitar is worth 5 points if Walnut can get five tokens and/or cards worth 7 points or more in her deck (and provides 1 Skill besides).

Another good addition to your Clank! and or Acq. Inc. collection, and again, if you want minis for your D&D Acq. Inc. campaign, well . . .

Ducks in Tow

Designed by Stephanie Kwok, illustrated by Andrew Bossley, and published by First Fish Games, Ducks in Tow struck me as one of those games that looks really relaxing but ends up being quite competitive when it comes to scoring. Every player is walking around the park, feeding the ducks. As different colors of duck are fed their respective favorite food, they will begin to follow you, which allows you to lead them towards their favorite locations in the park. As you get them there, you’ll gain Location cards; gaining more location cards means you’ll be able to create rows of your waterfowl friends, and at the end of the game you get points for the longest row of each color of duck. A big complication, though, are the Formation Cards which provide bonuses for certain arrays of ducks on your combined location cards. So there’s a lot of thought that goes in to which ducks to feed and which locations to lead them to and in what order.

As of this article going live Ducks in Tow has a little less than a week left on its Kickstarter, is already fully funded, and has a KS-exclusive mini-expansion titled The Angry Goose that chases off your ducks to make things more complicated. With a play time of 30-60 minutes for 2-4 players ages 10 and up (although Kwon said that you could start as young as 6 depending on the kid), this strategic puzzle game of getting your ducks in a row is worth throwing some bread at.

Game Toppers

After Geek Chic infamously imploded a few years back, the market on high-end gaming tables has diversified a bit, with a decent number of names in the game instead of one massive behemoth . . . which has done nothing, really, to make those things more affordable. A four-seater Sojourn from Wyrmwood starts at $3,750. Plus, they do take up quite a bit of space. Game Toppers aren’t (usually) full tables, however: instead they’re placed on top of a normal table, providing the high-quality dice-catching experience without breaking the bank or taking up an entire other table’s worth of space in your house.

Sizes vary, and there are a couple coffee-table–looking options, but the toppers looked very high quality across the board, along with the play mats Game Toppers sells to place within them. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is still a luxury item . . . but the most expensive item I can find is the Holmes Limited Edition Sculpted topper at $1,399, and the cheapest is the Lestrade Standard at $399. So if you’ve spent some time pining after the fancy game tables you see at cons but getting slightly ill at the price tags, a game topper might be an alternative worth checking out! As of this article they’re still doing Late Kickstarter pledges.

Homebrewers

Brought to us by Greater Than Games, Homebrewers is an engine-builidng and dice-trading game all about, you guessed it, brewing your own beer and competing for the best reputation amongst the homebrewing community. At the start of every ‘month’ every player rolls their dice, which will provide them with a number of actions: brewing, buying grain, acquiring or adding flavors flavors, sanitizing equipment, or participating in monthly events. Dice can be traded among the players, and then starting with the first player everyone takes all of their actions. Money is a factor, but it’s more of a resource instead of the goal, spent to gain different or even additional actions or (if you’re playing with them, use the special abilities for each unique brewer). 

Actual victory is gained by brewing beers, making them climb the reputation track, and by placing in the annual summerfest and Octoberfest competitions. A huge source of bonus points is a multiplier of your least reputable beer’s score, so diversifying is key. Things get more interesting when you start adding flavors: they’re not required for brewing, a beer, but each flavor adds an additional effect when the beer is brewed, like more money, extra reputation, and more. Brewing with a certain number of flavors across your beers also offers the opportunity for end-of-game bonus points.

An interesting touch is Charlie, the AI-driven brewer for when you have a low number of players. Charlie acts as a trading resource for the actual players, and while he can’t actually score points or win he’ll automatically brew randomly-determined beer every round, forcing players to compete with him for the top spots.Homebrewers was a lot of fun, and perhaps most notably it has a lot of replayability: the bonus effects for climbing the reputation tracks, along with the bonuses for brewing with certain flavors, are randomly determined, every brewer plays differently, and sheer luck of the draw will have you trying out new things. Cheers!

Legend of the Five Rings: The Highwayman

I don’t get to play enough RPGs from Fantasy Flight Games these days, and I do mean ‘play’: I’m the FFG-perma-GM in several circles. That’s actually a role I relish, but I’d still like to just be a player now and again, so when I saw how many offerings FFG had at Unplugged I made it a priority. While Aki got to fight in the Clone Wars, I tried to stick to the honorable path in Legend of the Five Rings.

GM Keith Kappel led us in an increasingly spooky adventure, trying to find a shipment of sake for a lord’s wedding that our mechant boss had offered us a ludicrous amount of koku to find. This was primarily an investigative adventure, talking to people to find information and then tracking our quarry into the forest, all the while hearing and seeing signs of the supposed Highwayman plaguing travelers. It ended in a fight and near-flawless success despite some really long odds, and way more fire than most of us were comfortable with (although it was awesome). 

Overall? It was a lot of fun. Kappel might have spent a lot of his recent time on a different project, but he was great at walking the group (most of whom had never played L5R at all before) through the mechanics while also leaving things open to player choice. All of the pre-generated characters were built to have their moment to shine, and we actually wrapped up some of their personal quests over the course of the adventure. What was most interesting were that all of the characters were built using the upcoming Path of Waves sourcebook, offering us a glimpse of what the book will offer: ronin, outsiders (geographical or social), and even the lowest of peasants. So yes, there’s definitely a Path of Waves Meet the Party in the future, as if there was any doubt. Anyway, hopefully FFG will follow their own example from the Wedding at Kyotei Castle and release The Highwayman for the rest of the world to enjoy somewhere down the line.

Namiji

Billed as another chapter in the Tokaido universe, Namiji sees 2-5 players circling the sea making their living and seeing the sights along the way. Each player moves their fishing boat from spot to spot along the route – the player who is the farthest behind getting to move next. Options include shrimping, hook fishing, net fishing, viewing sealife and collecting panoramas, making offerings to ease troubles, and visiting sacred islands to draw helpful card. At several stops along the route the fishing boats stop at docks: the first player gets to draw dock cards, pick one to keep from themselves, and give the remainder to other players as they arrive at the docks in turn. There are a lot of ways to earn points: island and dock cards, shrimp, building rows and columns of the same shape and/or color of fish on your boat, and finishing panoramas (with bonuses for being the first to complete each). The first boat to return home gets the most bonus points, with later arrivals getting fewer bonus points the later they arrive.

We found Namiji in the freeplay area, and even with a friendly Enforcer’s help we didn’t have a 100% grasp of the game’s rules as we were playing. I know that personally I was too scatter-brained by Sunday to put together an effective strategy, but overall I’d say it was a fun little game. The idea of the last person in line possibly getting to go twice seemed a little overpowered, but then you also run the risk of something you want getting filled up. 

Klask

This was one of those fun little games that we happened to stumble upon right as a table freed up. Klask is a well-put-together (and decently portable-looking) entry in the foosball ‘genre’ of games, with a magnetic twist. Each player has a game piece and a circular goal cut into their side of the board; get the ball into the other player’s goal and you get a point, standard fare. Things get interesting with the mechanism used to play the game, though. Each player controls their game piece with a magnet held to the underside of the game board, moving it around to drag the game piece where you want it to go (there’s a divider on the underside as well, so you can’t go into your opponent’s half of the board). 

If you lose control of your game piece and it flies free of the magnetism keeping it standing up on the board, your opponent gains a point. If your game piece ends up falling into your own goal, your opponent gains a point. Finally, there are white beads on the board as well, also magnetic; if two of them get stuck to your game piece, your opponent gains a point, and yes, trying to use the ball to knock these beads into your opponent’s territory is a viable strategy. Fast-paced, fun, surprisingly challenging (damn those white beads), this probably would have wound up an insta-buy if the same cargo issue that caught Clank! Legacy hadn’t stopped us.

You can find Klask right now at Target and Amazon and a good few other such locations. There’s a 2 player version and a 4 player version, which seem to go for $39.99 and $59.99 respectively.

Emberwind

An RPG from Nomnivore Studios, Emberwind first caught my eye because of the production values: plenty of high-quality art, neat-looking books, and shiny metal dice off to the side. Using the RISE system, Emberwind is primarily about rolling a d20 to get under target numbers, not an enemy’s defenses. In a neat little twist one roll tells you three different things: whether or not you succeeded, whether or not you were able to pierce (ignore) an enemy’s resistance to damage in combat, and whether or not you got a critical success. The lower the roll, the more of the three levels of success you’ll achieve. Characters have a certain number of action points per turn, with different abilities and powers being ‘slow’, ‘fast’, or ‘free’, costing a different number of points, and initiative is set up like a ladder with heroes and increasingly dangerous bad guys trading slots.

The most interesting thing, however, was that Emberwind is built to act as a GM-less, and even single player, RPG. Adversaries can be controlled by an AI system that means rolling dice to determine which of several actions they perform, and each comes with a guide on how they behave while executing those actions. Blood hounds, very simple foes I faced in the demo, tend to do a lot of basic attacks, and they default to charging the nearest enemy, but craftier foes will have more complex tactics. 

This one might be worth a more in-depth review later, actually.

Syrinscape

There’s a lot of noise at a convention, so when something pleasing to the ears cuts through everything it’s worth making a note of. I first heard of Syrinscape through our friends from R. Talsorian, so the booth was definitely worth listening to. There’s a wide variety of soundsets and scenarios to use in your game, both pre-mixed and customized by your yourself.

There’s not a lot that the written word can do for this one, so I’ll simply encourage you to head to their site and give the free downloads a listen. The subscription fees seem very reasonable and the quality very high.


Whew, that was a lot of game and game-related material. You didn’t think that was it, though, did you? Hardly. There are still a lot of games to be pulled out of the Vault, some interviewing to transcribe, and a Conspiracy to unravel with that one-article-at-a-time treatment. Keep visiting CHG over the coming weeks as I unpack (mentally and in some cases physically) everything else that PAX Unplugged put in front of me.

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