Tabletop Gaming Thrives at PAX East 2012

The Penny Arcade Expo is huge. Over the course of three days, 30,000+ geeks fill a building so large it could double as an aircraft hangar, with one sole pursuit: to enjoy the video game expo hall, concerts, tournaments, panels, lectures, and workshops. Yet even if you tried, you couldn't experience every facet of PAX in one weekend.

What about the tabletop gaming scene, though? Surely, one man could experience all of the board, card, miniatures, and role-playing games that PAX East has to offer. Not so fast. As it turns out, hobby gamers have been thriving in the halls of PAX, and the tabletop presence has expanded beyond previous years' highs.

According to head Tabletop department manager Father Fletch, tabletop represents "a section that offers a lot to do, for a longer period of time, than any other part of the show." Fletch went on to describe the increased scope of PAX Tabletop's play space, stating "we had some 400+ tables (rounds and rectangles) of playable space, some of it offering structured play in the form of game demos, others as tournaments, and yet others as free play areas." Add in a slew of new exhibitors and retailers, and conquering PAX Tabletop becomes a weekend task of its own.

A single photo cannot hope to show all of the space dedicated to tabletop gaming at PAX East, but this does the best job at showing off the freeplay areas.

One man can do it all, but not without some assistance. I enlisted the help of attendees, vendors, and enforces alike to get the answer to a simple question: what were the hot tabletop games of PAX East 2012? I've merged their pool of answers with my own impressions in a patented unscientific manner to present to you, readers, the definitive PAX tabletop experience.

The Kickstarter Successes:

Indie developers ruled the video game expo hall at PAX East, and the situation was quite similar over in tabletop. Kickstarter.com had their own dedicated room for demoing crowd-funded games, as well as hosting presentations on how to succeed in startup game development. The first few games I'll be highlighting here are all alumni of Kickstarter, and were well received by the PAX crowds.

Cards Against Humanity - Let's be very clear about this: Cards Against Humanity was by far the most frequently played tabletop game at PAX East. You couldn't walk two feet without tripping over a game, and I mean that quite literally. With all of the gaming tables full, you found yourself stepping around games of Cards Against Humanity sprawled out across the floor.

If you're not already familiar with Cards Against Humanity, know that it is simply Apples to Apples for the truly twisted. The deck of cards reads like an index of Urban Dictionary mixed with every variety of offensive term the human mind can conjure. In short, it's a tiny black box of hilarity, assuming nobody in your group is of the uptight sort.

Designer Max Tempkin brought a few hundred copies of the perpetually sold-out game, and they were snatched up in short order. During a presentation in PAX's Kickstarter Arcade, Tempkin revealed that production on Cards Against Humanity has ramped up into the tens of thousands of units, solidifying it's status as a breakout success, and the hobby gaming community's lack of souls.

Zpocalypse - This zombie-themed game is actually still chugging along on Kickstarter, nearly 10x past its funding goal, somewhere in the $140,000 ballpark. Geeks in general may be starting to show the first signs of zombie fatigue, but Zpocalypse was on display at the Game Salute booth and proved that the theme has been put to good use.

What separates Zpocalypse from other zombie adventure games is that it is an every-man-for-himself quest for survival, rather than the traditional "zombie player versus human player" experience. It's also a victory point-driven game, so in addition to a heavy zombie theme, you can also expect some serious competition. Players earn points in Zpocalypse not only for killing zombies, but also for building defense and completing missions.

Z-Ward - Jared Sorensen's GMing of his Parsely Game series has become a traditional event for hobby gamers at PAX, but this year's game of Z-Ward had a wrench thrown into the works: Sorensen had completely lost his voice.

For those not familiar with Sorensen's brand of Parsely Games, they draw inspiration from classic text adventure video games. Players in a game such as Z-Ward submit commands to the GM, who then parses their text and responds appropriately, guiding players through the adventure.

Without a voice through which to communicate with the crowd, Sorensen exercised his only option: break out a word processor and a projector. This led to one of the more magical moments of PAX East, and Will Hindmarch of the gameplaywright blog wrote his story of the events in better detail than I could hope to provide, so I highly suggest you give it a read.

Honorable mention: Miskatonic School for Girls, a Lovecraftian-themed deckbuilding card game with a dash of schoolgirls. The gameplay didn't grab my attention, as it tries to separate itself from the crowded pack of deckbuilders by adding a bit of extra luck and some screw-your-neighbor mechanics, but the artwork and theme were a hit with the PAX East crowds. Miskatonic School for Girls sold like hotcakes, was easy to spot on tables throughout the hall, and frequently came up in my conversations with attendees.

The Prototypes:

Castellan - After having demoed the 2-player version of this upcoming abstract strategy title from Steve Jackson Games at Toy Fair (pictured above), I was glad to see several tables at PAX East sporting Castellan. With enough sets in play, the 4-player version hit the table quite often as well.

Players aim to score points by creating enclosures, and the higher player count simply provides more avenues to jump in and steal other player's work by placing the closing piece. Judging from my talks with PAX East attendees, Castellan was most often cited as the unreleased game players had not seen before but were excited to try.

Paint the Line TCG - Set in the Penny Arcade spin-off universe of competitive Cold War ping-pong, the Paint the Line Trading Card Game had a booth packed with playtesters for three days straight. With buzz increasing as the game's release approaches, I asked designer Steve Bowler to gauge the interest between this showing and the game's prior playtest at PAX Prime 2011. The data is encouraging, as Paint the Line had approximately three times the amount of playtesters participate at PAX East this year.

Designers Steve Bowler (center) and Kiko Villasenor (right) were both on hand to demo the game and run a panel showing the evolution of Paint the Line.

The new beta set showed off final artwork for a majority of cards, as well as subtle improvements to the game's graphic design. A new system of indicators help players remember the "rock-paper-scissors"-inspired circle of different shot type advantages, making Paint the Line easier to pick up and play.

The New Hotness:

Several games made their retail debut at PAX East, and gamers where quick to snatch up these early copies. Appropriate for the venue was Penny Arcade the Game: Rumble in R'lyeh, Cryptozoic's standalone expansion to the Penny Arcade deckbuilding game that debuted at PAX Prime 2011.

Fantasy Flight Games was also in their booth selling early copies of Dust Warfare, the miniatures combat game set in the Dust universe. Lastly, Steve Jackson Games had internet celebrity Felicia Day on hand to help promote the launch of the Munchkin: The Guild booster.

The Tabletop Library Classics:

Now this post isn't just entirely hearsay and conjecture, it's actually got some hard data too! I asked Father Fletch, PAX's Tabletop department manager, to provide me with the convention's game library check-out statistics. He obliged, and the numbers provide insight into what titles from prior years are still strongly lodged in the consciousness of today's gamers.

Of course, the results are a bit skewed being that this is Penny Arcade's convention and the comic strip's fans turned out en masse. Penny Arcade: The Card Game, an out-of-print (and decidedly mediocre) 2006 release from Fantasy Flight Games, topped the PAX East Tabletop Library charts with 76 checkouts. It was closely followed by Cryptozoic's Penny Arcade: Gamers vs. Evil in 7th place with 59 checkouts.

Two other interesting observations can be made from browsing the tabletop library checkout data. First is that the PAX East audience had a hunger for card games. Of the top 10 games, 7 of them were card games, including We Didn't Playtest This At All, Cards Against Humanity, Munchkin, Guillotine, and Food Fight. The real surprise was that the second most checked-out game was Power Grid (73 checkouts), indicating that the game's reputation might be earning it a place on the table for gamers looking to dive a bit deeper into strategy board gaming. The top 10 list is rounded out with "gateway game" classics The Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride.

The RPGs:

The big names were there, but indie RPGs were the real stars of PAX East. I asked Father Fletch about this trend, and he explained: "one of my goals at every show I manage (PAX Prime, PAX East, and Emerald City Comicon) is to feature as many different RPGs as possible. Early on I was connected with Luke Crane of Burning Wheel, and he has connected me with numerous other creators and fans. Since then we have built a strong group of GMs who offer lesser known but creative titles such as Bulldogs, Microscope, Apocolypse World, Mouse Guard, and Fiasco, among many others."

Indie RPGs have always edged their way into the spotlight at PAX, but their presence was felt moreso this year largely thanks to the excellent Games on Demand service. PAX East attendees had a cadre of talented GMs waiting to run games for them. All they needed to do was gather a few friends and pick out a game.

Games on Demand GM John Stavropoulos sets the scene for a group of eager roleplayers. Photo credit: Games on Demand

Fiasco - More often than not, that game wound up being Fiasco.

Nearly 30 times throughout the weekend, Games on Demand GMs stepped up to run the RPG that can be simply described as "create your own Coen brothers movie." With a pitch like that, it's an easy sell for new players. Both the materials-light play and easily-condensed game time made Fiasco the number one choice for drop-in RPG play.

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying - The cult of the new is a strong force to contend with, but it's a nearly impossible challenge when that new product is actually quite good. The new Marvel RPG, fresh on store shelves, offers simple roleplaying mechanics that make sense for a comic book narrative, while also providing just the right amount of rules crunch.

Oh, and there are heaps of dice too. The hardcover rulebook sells for a bargain price of $20, which lead to PAX East attendees snatching this one up like hotcakes. In fact, the Games on Demand booth clocked with title in at #2 right behind Fiasco.

D&D Next - Not much new was revealed about the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons at PAX East, but product manager Mike Mearls was on hand for a Q&A, which you can watch in full on Youtube. Attendees were also given the chance to playtest a beta version of D&D Next that closely resembled the game tested at the DDXP event earlier this year.

At one point in the Q&A, a fan contends that Wizards of the Coast is making a long list of promises with this new D&D version, yet also pledging to include the voice of the fan in the game's design. The concern is that if the concepts behind D&D Next are already well defined, then the user input could be for show. Mearls responded by stating that D&D Next's design is only roughly 10% set, and that WotC's efforts to gather playtesting feedback are both genuine and necessary to mature the product into a success.

The Spectacle:Crokinole

The final round of PAX East's epic Omegathon competition was revealed by Penny Arcade co-founder Jerry Holkins  to be "the other, other, OTHER national game of Canada: Crokinole." If you watch the youtube video, you can even hear a voice of the crowd of thousands exclaim "Croki- what?!" following the game's introduction.

Omeganuats Risotto Ball and Pork Buns eye up moves on the Crokinole board, as Jerry Holkins narrates the game.

Mike and Jerry described Crokinole as "a combination of darts and suffleboard, and sex." They're mostly accurate, but you get the idea.

When I say that this game was a spectacle, you really need to understand the tension of an Omegathon finale. With a free trip to Germany to attend Gamescom on the line, the packed-house crowd amps up the pressure. The finale also serves as the closing ceremony of PAX, so the combined energies of three days of fun are channeled into this fever-pitch event.

Nobody said it was easy, but if you somehow managed to play all of the above games, then you truly had the definitive PAX tabletop experience. Of course, if you didn't check off every box here, there's always PAX Prime in the fall!