It's official. With a daily attendance of 24,000 gamers, PAX East has become the largest gaming convention in North America, and tabletop gaming is a huge part of that formula. In addition to the large freeplay area, game publishers such as Wizards of the Coast, Mayfair Games, Steve Jackson Games, Fantasy Flight Games, Z-Man Games, Cryptozoic, Gamewright, Indie Press Revolution, and many others set up booths, giving PAX attendees access to some of their favorite companies.
After PAX branched out to the East Coast last year, it brought a hoard of gamers along with it. The Hynes Convention Center nearly burst at the seams, causing this year's inevitable move to the massive Boston Convention and Expo Center with its 600,000+ square feet of space. Tabletop gaming stood to benefit from this expansion, and attendees did not disappoint. Take a look at this portion of the 2500+ seat play area, which was crowded from opening to closing all weekend long:
The most surprising factor to this jam-packed gaming area was that the majority of these players were recent converts to the hobby. Attendees were drawn in from the video game expo hall by the large tabletop crowd, and the volunteer Enforcer staff was on hand to recommend games or help players check out a title from the library.
Here, I'll be presenting the top 10 hottest games of PAX East, as determined by my observations and interviews with many gamers, exhibitors, and staff members. The important thing to remember here is that while some of these games are hot off of the shelves, some of them have been around for years. The crowds at PAX East had generally never even heard of an Origins or Gen Con, meaning that everything was new and exciting. If you're looking to get into tabletop gaming, this convention is the place to be.
In no specific order, here are the 10 most popular and sought after games at PAX East:
The original deck building card game is still going strong, and its expansions have only helped it maintain its popularity. From speaking to the volunteer Enforcers at the tabletop library, Dominion had the quickest turnaround time from check-in to check-out of any game. The few copies available simply couldn't be kept on the shelf, and the evidence was on the freeplay tables. Dominion was everywhere. Of the expansions, the new Prosperity set was the hottest seller among the retailers in attendance.
This fast-paced word building game got a huge bump from Penny Arcade this year, with the talent behind the web comic professing their love for the little yellow sack of tiles. It was no surprise to most that Bananagrams made it into this year's Omegathon, a 5-stage gaming tournament with a grand prize trip to Cologne, Germany to attend Gamescom 2011. Bananagrams was the game of choice for those waiting in lines to attend panels and concerts.
Mansions of Madness
The spiritual sequel to Fantasy Flight's hit Arkham Horror board game, Mansions of Madness pits up to four players (investigators) against one (the keeper), in a blend of co-op and versus gameplay. Mansions of Madness had a huge amount of hype entering PAX East, as it had just hit store shelves after a delay. Fantasy Flight Games had their own demo set up, churning out a stream of new MoM players who went on to buy the game. It plays like a mix of Descent: Journeys Into Dark and Betrayal at House on the Hill, and that's not a bad thing.
Action Castle was the only game with so many interested players that it required its own reserved panel space just to run a game. But what a game it was. Players take turns giving verbal commands to a GM, slowly but surely progressing the plot with a group effort. Over 200 people showed up to participate in this homage to PC text adventure gaming, so how could Action Castle not be one of the hottest games at PAX East? Designer Jared Sorensen ran the game himself, and gave players the chance to try out the new sequel, Return to Action Castle, at the end of the panel.
Munchkin Zombies is the only game on this list that has not even been released yet, but Steve Jackson Games surprised PAX attendees by bringing along a couple hundred copies of this most recent Munchkin expansion. Needless to say, zombies are at the peak of pop culture right now, and Munchkin Zombies sold out immediately. All was not lost for those who couldn't snag a copy, though. Many got to demo the game with Steve Jackson himself! It's also worth noting that due to the popularity of the Munchkin franchise and the large number of copies available, the original Munchkin card game had the highest number of checkouts from the tabletop library.
Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer
While Dominion may be king of the deck-builders, Ascension is definitely the new kid in town. First-time publisher Gary Games has a winner on their hands with this one, which takes the cake as the most recommended game from my conversations throughout the convention. Local Boston shop Pandemonium Books & Games had a demo table running, and I was impressed when I sat down to play a round. The unique mechanic found in this card game is that the purchasable cards are not separated into stack, but instead are shuffled into one deck. Cards are then made available through a selection of six cards off the top of the deck, which is replenished as cards are taken by players. It's the Texas Hold'em of deck-building card games!
We Didn't Playtest This at All
We Didn't Playtest This At All is another game that gets it's popularity from the play amongst Penny Arcade staff. Not only is the game a hit in the PA offices, but it also comes on recommendation from Father Fletch, the man in charge of all tabletop operations. Apparently, We Didn't Playtest This At All is the game of choice for Enforcers in their downtime (and these volunteers are the lifeblood that makes PAX run, so they get a lot of say). From taking one look at the cards in this single-deck game, it's easy to see why it is so popular among the hard working staff: it is incredibly silly. It is not uncommon to have a round end in three minutes or less when there are such off-the-wall cards as "You Lose" and "The End" (which of course, ends the game upon play).
When a fan approached the microphone at the Penny Arcade Q&A #1, he asked writer Jerry Holkins what new games had been making their way to his table. Yomi was his quick response, a new card game from local Seattle publisher Sirlin Games. Yomi is a 2-player card game that simulates the play of a traditional fighting genre video game. There's plenty of variety, though, as each of the ten fighters gets their own customized deck of cards. I only actually spotted one copy of Yomi at PAX East, but there was a small crowd around the table whenever it was out.
Making their first appearance at PAX, publisher Gamewright was demoing Forbidden Island, a lighter version of the popular co-op game Pandemic also from designer Matt Leacock. There was a large contingent of geek and gamer parents in attendance, and Forbidden Island is the go-to game for introducing strategy and decision making into children's playtime. It is a particularly good choice because of its co-operative nature, allowing parents to instruct children on how to make optimal moves without ruining their sense of competition. When traditional board games have become licensed dice-fests that more often than not insults children's intelligence, it's important to bring games such as Forbidden Island to the table.
Up-and-comer Privateer Press and the Warmachine system has always been a favorite of PAX attendees. The system appeals more to the casual gamers who appreciate Warmachine's inexpensive miniatures, tight rules, and focus on offensive gameplay. There were several terrain tables set up in the back of the tabletop area, and Warmachine was the game of choice.