The Unpublished Network at PAX East 2023

If you want to catch a tabletop game in one of its more interesting stages, it’s always a good idea to swing by the Unpublished Game Network.  The ‘Unpub’ Network  provides, well, networking for unpublished games that are still in development and at a convention gives them a place to put their game through its paces. It’s notable that the signage says ‘looking for playtesters’ instead of just ‘looking for players.’ While not quite as rich in traditional CHG content as its Unplugged sibling PAX East offers the advantage of being right in my own stomping grounds, and getting to attend its ’23 iteration for all four days meant I was able to swing by the Unpub tables multiple times.

Mycelia: Fungus Families

The first game I got to sit down with was Mycelia: Fungus Families from Drayer Ink. The name of the game is cultivating said fungi by creating areas they can thrive within. Hexes with various combinations of symbols (trees, leaves, fire, water, and bones) are dealt from three separate stacks, and players also receive cards with different kinds of fungi on them with the same kinds of symbols. Taking turns placing any two of the dealt hexes  as pictured above, players are attempting to surround the empty space (referred to as an Environment) with the symbols on their cards. If they can get the four outer symbols to be part of a closed hex, they may place one of their fungus tokens. If they also managed to include a card’s fifth symbol in the hexes they’ve created a fairy ring, and can place a fairy ring marker on their mushroom token for an additional point.

An interesting strategic quirk is that you can create an Environment without claiming it – perhaps you need to in order to try and complete a different Environment, or maybe you’re trying to foul up another player’s plan somehow. Going forward, anyone who ends up having a card that matches the appropriate symbols can make a claim – it just so happened that I did the former, and it ended up working out that I was able to claim that forlorn Environment a few turns later.

The game comes to an end either when one of the piles of hexes get depleted or when one player has placed all of their tokens and markers, at which point other players get one more turn to try and get ahead or at least tie it up.

Mycelia is still hot from the forges of development, and although I felt it was fully functional might want a few more whacks and a bit of quenching. A good example of its still-cooling nature is that the rules video that you can find at the link above says that you have ten mushroom tokens and five fairy ring markers to place, whereas now the game only has seven such tokens. Cat Drayer explained that this made the game a little more strategic – you have fewer chances to get those five fairy ring markers into play. An example of where they might want to whack it a few more times is that they’re also playing around with some sort of matching set mechanic – for my druthers I’d say that the art on each card (would be the thing to make sets of, as that’s what Cat creates first to then inspire the game, but only more testing will determine whether that mechanic even gets included.

Overall I found Mycelia to be a fun game, and it can’t be overlooked that the art really pops. It’s a simple game to learn, but has enough going on that your brain will hum a bit as you try to keep track of what’s in your hand and what’s on the table. To be honest the worst thing about the game is that I can’t immediately point you to where to check it out yourself, but keep track of Drayer Ink in its many digital/social manifestations – the plan as of the con was to be Kickstarting the game this summer.

Hero Forge Tactics

On the con’s Saturday I was quite surprised to see iconography from Hero Forge at an Unpub table. Eldritch Foundry had a notable and pretty impressive presence at the con, and had actually made a point that they were the only custom 3D miniature company making the con circuit rounds, so seeing any sign of the ol’ Forge at all immediately made me spin around and investigate. Color me surprised to find that they were playtesting, practically for the first time ever, a tactical minis game!

Well, actually, it’s a tactical standees game, using Hero Forge’s newest product to portray its characters. I have to say they look pretty good, and they feel pretty sturdy, likely quite a bit more durable than the true 3D miniatures from Hero Forge. 

Designed for 2+ players, with the two-player version being what was ready to try at the Unpub tables, you’ll be taking control of a team of adventuring characters and drawing swords and slinging spells in order to claim victory. The goal of the game is to have a total of 5 or more victory points possessed by your characters and then getting any one of your characters to an escape hex. Each of your characters starts play with a victory point, so technically you’re already 3/5ths of the way there, but the trick is going to be hanging on to them.

Every turn you have three actions that you spread across your entire team of characters. You can move a character a number of hexes up to their movement value. You can make an attack. You can commit/ready a character to activate certain abilities or recover from having done so earlier (another game would call this tapping and untapping). When you’ve made an attack, you can add a face-down card to effectively be a second attack, possibly with an additional affect as well. The defending player can place a face down card of their own, revealing it to reduce damage; some defensive-specific cards will have unique properties as well, but every card has a defensive value that can be used for this. If a character runs out of hit points they are taken off the table and their victory point is dropped on to their former hex on the map.

If one side or the other has more characters on/next to a dropped victory point at the end of a turn, one of that side’s characters can grab it, putting it on their card. The player who knocked out a character gets an additional victory point that isn’t carried by a character, and this isn’t vulnerable to being dropped/stolen. The player whose character got knocked out, on the other hand, has to go without them for a turn, but then can send them back into the fray at their team’s starting point.

For an added bit of resource management and zone control, most abilities cost a certain amount of mana. You get one point of said mana every turn, but if you can have your characters be the only ones in one of the colored areas you’ll capture it. It’ll then spawn an additional mana point that you can claim, provided you maintain control of the zone.

Hero Forge Tactics was the most obviously new-to-the-table game I tried at Unpub over the course of PAX East ‘23 – the standees were clearly the only finalized part of the game, with the map being very basic. While there were hexes with environmental hazards that characters could get pushed into, they weren’t quite placed in such a way as to get good use out of them, and I had a very ‘punt an opponent into the next hex’ character on my team. There were also some pain points about some of the language on the cards – ‘Protect’ abilities allows characters to step in and defend others, for instance, but sometimes an ability would have an attack function and the Protect tag, and by the raw text it wasn’t entirely clear that it was an either/or ability.  

None of that is unexpected from a game that hasn’t been published yet, especially considering I was told the developers are a team in Ireland who weren’t able to make it to the con. Game demo-er Rachel also had a harder-than-usual task in that she was both playing a game with me and doing a great job assisting another pair of players who were facing off. The pain points about certain abilities would fade and quite possibly vanish entirely with more familiarity. More importantly, it was overall a very easy game to pick up quickly and it was a fast-paced blast. The point-blank size of the map, the tight actions-per-turn restrictions, and the fact that you could keep throwing your downed characters back  into the thick of things made every choice feel like it mattered a lot, helping to make things feel both tense and dynamic.

Safe to say that Hero Forge Tactics  is in the alpha stage of development, and there’s not much on the net I can point you towards  – so if this sounds/looks fun, let Hero Forge know about it so the team can keep working!

Winds of Numa Sera

Based on a graphic novel of the same name, Winds of Numa Sera is a dominate-the-world type of board game that sees each player take on the role of the one of the settings’ factions, each vying for control through their own preferred methods.

Knowing more of  the world of Numa Sera is paramount for controlling it, so every player’s turn starts by Exploring, drawing a card from a central deck. This card could be something you add to your hand, or you could have to reveal it immediately as it takes effect. It could be a good thing (such as a sudden influx of money, aka Capital, or an ability you can use later) or a bad thing (such as a plague that hits your hit points, called Power during the playtest, terribly hard). Once you’re done exploring, you’ve got some choices to make. You can spend Capital to buy various things, from ranks in skills to cards for your hand. The real crossroads point, however, is whether you’re going to Build or Attack.

Every faction that can be played has a Build tree. At its most basic level it can influence how much Capital you gain per turn, so it’s not something that any player can outright ignore. Moving further down the tree, some nodes are going to provide a single-instance boon, such as additional Capital. Others are going to provide ongoing abilities or modifications – my faction was heavily focused on Capital in the first place, modifying attack and defense rolls if I had the correct relative amount compared to an opposing player and generating additional Capital both with single-instance nodes and ongoing ones.

Now when it comes to attacking, you’ve got two options – you can go after another player and their strongholds, or you can target a ‘neutral’ stronghold generated by the game board. Why do so? More Capital every turn for each one you control, some unique abilities, and a point towards final victory. Either way, you’re rolling a die and then adding up your faction’s offensive ability, and then rolling another die to subtract its value from your first roll’s total in order to get the final result which will either be compared to another player’s roll or a static number. At first blush that may seem overly complicated, but even within a single playthrough there were multiple cards/abilities that could effect things, from not having to roll the negative die when attacking neutral strongholds to not having to roll it provided your initial die role wasn’t too high. Essentially, it makes initial gameplay more swingy and provides a handy focus for faction advancement.

The biggest strength of the game, from a strategic standpoint, is that there are so many ways to win. You might get a type of training to its max level. You might knock all the other players out by attacking them directly. You might win via capturing a certain number of strongholds, either by taking them from other players or adding them to your holdings via what the board itself generates. You might gain a certain number of titles!

Speaking my first impressions honestly, however, Winds of Numa Sera has ‘big budget board game Kickstarter’ written all over it. You know, the kind with a bunch of fancy exclusive doodads that are admittedly awesome but that you don’t really need. It already has fancy metal coins for its resources, tons of art (not surprising given its comic roots), a really nice box. With how we were told to disregard the turn order printed on the playmats at the con because it had already been changed to make play flow better, it seemed like a lot of scratch spent on a very early-days version,  felt a little cart-before-the-horse, and despite having fun I wasn’t 100% sold on showcasing it.

However, I submitted playtest feedback because That Is Simply What One Does when playing a game at an Unpub table, and in WNS’s case it was done online. As it so happens a consequence of doing so was that a week or so after the convention I got an email that included a for-beta-testers-only document. While it confirmed that, yes, there will be deluxe and collector’s versions with all sorts of luxury goods, there’s also a very affordable standard version. More to my point, though, is that there are almost ten pages of notes consisting of feedback gathered during the convention, changes already made to the game, and adjustments being considered. Maybe they do have their eyes on a luxury kickstarter… but they’re not skimping on time and effort put into improving the game itself. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

I’ll be watching out for all of the games I tried at the Unpublished Game Network’s PAX East 2023 offering, and the only sad part is that there were so many more games that I didn’t get to try. Curse linear time and the fact that there’s only one instance of myself! Ah well, I’ll just have to swing by to see what’s new the next time we’re in the same place – and so should you!

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