Behind the Scenes at PAX East 2011: The Tales of Tabletop Enforcers

In the closing moments of PAX East 2011, I was able to sit down with the lifeblood of the con: the enforcers. These are the selfless volunteers who provide the inner-workings of PAX. Four of the enforcers from the tabletop area joined me to discuss what PAX truly is, their favorite moments of the weekend, what separates PAX from other similar conventions, the state of the board gaming industry, and more. Before we get into the full interview though, here is a bit of background on the enforcers who participated:

Matt Baskett – Seattle, WA – Enforcing at PAX since 2007

Tan Curtis – Exeter, NH – Second PAX

Christian Kelly – Tacoma, WA – Attending and Enforcing since 2004

Robin Eastman – Washington D.C. - First PAX

Now that we’re not strangers anymore, it’s on with the interview:

MTV Geek: Let’s start off with a little background on how and when you first started volunteering at PAX. How did that come to be?

Matt: I was actually on the Fantasy Flight Games website and they had a post about being at PAX. I had been doing board games for several years up until then and that’s my passion. I clicked the link, saw the sign up for enforcing, and experienced my first PAX as an enforcer.

Tan: I’ve been a fan of Penny Arcade for a lot of year and have kept a close eye on all of the PAXes in Seattle. As soon as we got one on the east coast I was right there in the door.

Christian: I had been a fan of the Penny Arcade web comic as well, and they said they were putting on a game convention and I though “oh, that’d be cool.” I actually was only able to make it to the Sunday of that first PAX, and that was the first and last PAX that they took volunteers at the show. So they gave me a shirt, I joined in, and the next year they invited me back to be on what used to be called the “A-team”, the medical response team, because I was a medic. In 2006, they called me and explained that the person who had managed tabletop had quit suddenly about 2 ½ months prior to the show, and I’ve been managing tabletop ever since.

Robin: I don’t think I have as great an answer as these guys. I have not been a big fan of Penny Arcade! I have heard a lot about stuff that they do, though, and the description of PAX as a party that they put on for their community drew me in because I like hosting parties and I like this community. I hate to be “that girl”, but my boyfriend wanted to come and any opportunity I can get him to go somewhere new, meet new people, and be social: I am there.

Geek: But what made you do it? What drew you to sign up as a volunteer at PAX?

Matt: I’ve attended cons before but it was a lot of years ago back in college, so signing up as an enforcer was my re-introduction. I was getting back into it.

Tan: Being an enforcer is a labor of love for everyone involved. There’s no one who is an enforcer who isn’t here because we don’t love what this place stands for. We’re here because we want to be a part of the culture and community that PAX has created.

Christian: I volunteer outside of my community outside of PAX, and have always enjoyed volunteerism, but PAX has a community of both the enforcers and the attendees. The energy is awesome, and it really is the best game convention I’ve ever been to. I’m always just humbled by the amount of energy and heart that people put into it, so it’s a bit humbling. Something I experience that’s a bit different than the other enforcers is that I’m working on PAX year round as we’re planning out exhibitors, content, and floor layout.

The other part is that there are a fair number of enforcers that get a little bit of access and get to work backstage. When you’re backstage, you’ve got to work hard, but there are little perks where you get to see or talk to people, access things, and talk about things from an insider’s perspective. I don’t mean to diminish what all the attendees get or what they come here for, but enforcing is a different way of attending. You still get to attend the show, walk the expo hall, and maybe see a panel or two but you also are inside and a big part of it.

Robin: For a living, I work with adults with developmental disabilities as a case manager. So what I do is listen to them tell me the problems going on in their lives, and I figure out how to help them with that. There’s no guidebook to what I do. I feel like I can jump into any situation without knowing a lot about it ahead of time and just have people come to me with issues. I may not have the solution but I know how to get to a solution, so I thought I’d come here to PAX and jump in.

Geek: What Robin just described sounds like that you’d want from any enforcer. Does that play into your selection process?

Christian: That skillset is a defining aspect of a lot of enforcers. The ones who stick it out are the ones who are about creative problem solving who just get it done. The attitude that the enforcers have is “what do you need, let me do it, or let me find who can.” That is a defining aspect, and Robin embodies that in spades.

Geek: You have all touched on the topic of community and atmosphere as things that make PAX great, but what do those words really mean? Does anyone want to take a stab at defining this aspect of a PAX?

Tan: I’ll talk about the community. The fascinating thing about both being an attendee and being an enforcer is that they’re each essentially self-selecting groups of people that you are virtually guaranteed to get along with…the line culture alone at PAX is incredible. Anyone you’re standing next to, you know you’re going to be able to strike up a conversation, everyone’s going to pull out their DSes, and everyone’s going to have an instant great time.

Geek: So how would a PAX stack up to other major conventions?

Christian: Now I have to be honest, there are the grand daddies of gaming conventions, Origins and Gen Con, which I’ve never been to. Having been to PAX, the only reason I would go to one of those is in my role as tabletop manager to network, and look at how they run our show to try to help ours run better. This will be published, and it’s not a trade secret that other people look at how people do stuff, but that would be what I would do.

It’s this community, professionalism, and “go big or go home” spirit. I think PAX has really defined that you can have all of this in one show, and our tabletop section has been supported all along. I have always been a strong advocate for how can we make it bigger, how can we make it better, and how can we make sure that the industry knows about it, because we are pretty close to one of the largest gaming conventions anywhere, and our tabletop section continues to grow. I know we will become the biggest tabletop gaming convention in North America eventually, just by the sheer fact of the crossover ability for a type of show such as this.

Geek: So you’re saying that not being focused on tabletop will actually make tabletop bigger?

Christian: I have been told by various game companies who are here, and I won’t name names, that this is the best gaming convention and that this is the best tabletop convention for them. Many have said that they believe this is the future for the industry, and that for tabletop games to continue to be relevant and exist, the crossover audience and the introduction of new markets to a really good established product base dictates that this will be the future. PAX already has the wide spectrum of nerd culture and gaming culture in it. It allows the self-selecting groups to get what they want and cross-pollinate in ways that the other focused cons just can’t provide. I believe the industry is going to be catching up to us.

Geek: To take a broader look at things, not just tabletop conventions but the tabletop industry in general, I’d say it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a “golden age” in gaming. The industry is simply succeeding in both quantity and quality. As gamers yourselves, what do you feel is the cause for this?

Matt: It really started 20 years ago with Settlers of Catan and that German-style board game. Board games used to be your Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley titles: Monopoly, Clue, Risk, etc. Then you had your simulation wargames, but there was nothing in-between, so you either played with your kids or you were a total geek. Settlers and everything that’s come along since then have introduced this concept of a really approachable game for the mass market. I play Ticket to Ride with my 60 year old parents.

Tan: I’m 26 and my generation is at sort of an odd point, because for most of us we got our start in gaming with board games but almost immediately switched over to the emerging video games. I think one of the innovations that have really helped the industry out is networking. It’s really a word of mouth hobby, and things like BoardGameGeek.com have really changed the face of gaming.

Robin: As a member of that same generation, I grew up into playing board games because I grew up with older brothers. The computer games tended to be single-player experiences, and it was hard to get time in front of the screen. With a board game, we all sat down at the table and played together, and I had fun.

Christian: It’s the social building. The video game was fun, I got that visual stimulation, but with a board game I laughed with my new friend. You’ve formed such a deeper and more emotional connection to that game, so that not only do you enjoy the game more in the moment, but when you pull the box out you have that connection to the game.

There’s also a replay value. Now, when you spend $40-60 on a board game, you’re actually getting something substantial. You’ll be playing it long after the current generation of consoles is out of your house.

Tan: But now we keep seeing video game adaptations of our favorite board games. How many have we seen in recent years? They keep coming out, and getting board games on our iPhones and Androids leads to player inevitably going back to the physical game for the social component.

Geek: We’re recording this interview on Sunday afternoon, so PAX East is not quite over yet, but do any of you have a favorite moment that sticks out so far?

Christrian: I do. There was a little kid and his mom in the miniatures area and he wanted to check out all of the cool figures. His mom was a bit unsure but I said “hey, let’s go over there” and I picked up a chaos marine land raider that was on fire and explained to him that just like handling delicate items at home, that he could hold it as long as he was careful. His mom was really intrigued and thankful. The kid saw these toys and understood how they were neat. It was just really fun to have that connection, and I love these connections with all of the attendees.

Matt: My favorite moment was only about ten minutes after we opened on Friday, and someone had checked out a board game and had already started playing in the freeplay area.

Tan: There was one particular moment for me in the Ticket to Ride tournament. We had played three Swiss rounds leading to a final table. At the final match, three of the four players were within one point of each other. They wound up re-checking the score three times, resulting in a tie for first place after all these tournament rounds. That’s the level of competition these people were bringing but everyone was having a great time just witnessing this moment with two people tied at 115 points.

Robin: My favorite moment was when an enforcer I had only had some brief conversations with came up to me and declared that we were going to be friends. It turns out he had just moved in to the same local area as me and my boyfriend. He picked us both up dinner last night and we played games until 2 AM, and as it turns out we really have made a new friend here.

Geek: To wrap things up, let’s name some games. What is the game of the moment for you right now that keeps making it to the table?

Matt: My personal favorite that’s been getting a lot of play is Tichu.

Tan: At my table right now is Forbidden Island.

Robin: The game that I’ve been obsessively playing recently is Pandemic. I can play it over and over again.

Christian: My personal favorite at the moment is actually a role playing game, the Savage Worlds system. I’ve changed from a number of other systems and right now with this one, I really like the mechanics and how it handles things.

Geek: Well thank you all for taking the time to chat. I know you’ve already given a major portion of your weekend up by volunteering as enforcers, so get out there and enjoy your last few hours of PAX.