It’s a bit over a week since PAX Australia wrapped up again at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Running for 3 days over the weekend of 4-6 November, PAX Australia is the biggest games convention in Australia. Though PAX never officially releases attendances, the number of unique visitors is usually somewhere in the vicinity of 50-75K. So it’s huge, and of course we here Games vs Play have to be part of it. This year we had an awesome time catching up with old friends, meeting some new friends in person for the first time, and naturally playing some games. There was also a bit of time spent waiting in queues and eating understuffed and overpriced burgers, but that’s all part of the rich and textured experience of fan conventions in the early part of the 21st century.
For those who haven’t been to a PAX event (it started in the US in 2004, where there’s now currently four annual cons being run), it’s split into a digital games section and a tabletop section. And never the twain shall meet! No, that’s not true, you can go wherever the heck you like once you’re inside.
Still, the contrast between the two halls is huge, and makes you feel like you’re attending two very different cons. The digital hall is pure sensory overload, a cavernous subterranean space filled with the flickering lights and electronic squall of towering video screens and spotlit exhibitors’ stalls. Imagine the kind of travelling carnival that would exist in the world of Blade Runner (um, minus the constant rain and killer androids), and that’s digital PAX.
In contrast, the relatively brightly lit tabletop hall was a sea of people crammed around tables for almost as far as the eye could see. Instead of computer generated gunfire and starship drives, the ambient noise was a mid-level crowd chatter that never seemed to drop below a steady hum. Think of the largest exam hall you’ve ever seen crossed with an airport terminal where all the passengers have decided to cancel their flights and play boardgames instead, and you’ll get some idea of the tabletop section.
Unlike PAX 2015, where the GvP crew split our time pretty much evenly between the two main halls, this year we ended up staying mainly in the tabletop section. There was no real reason behind this, but you know how it is once you get inside a convention – there are just too many things to see! As a wise old fan I once knew put it so eloquently, “No convention plan survives contact with your entry wristband.” (That was actually some 19th century Prussian general talking about something completely different, but the idea is basically the same.)
One of the first things we noticed was that the tabletop section seemed much bigger this year. Certainly there were many more boardgames tables, with games spilling out of the official areas into the café tables due to the demand. Don’t get me wrong, that was awesome to see – and I think due in part to the well-run boardgames library, which was running at an absolutely cracking pace over the entire weekend.
I was really impressed by the library at this year’s PAX, from the huge range of games on offer to the super-friendly volunteers. Everyone we spoke with were more than happy to help with suggestions, and generally make the checkout process quite painless. Hats off to our friend Melissa Rogerson and the rest of the team behind the PAX games library, you guys did a splendid job.
The roleplaying game section was also absolutely bonkers this year, with long queues forming for some of the more popular tables. The big 3 RPGs at PAX this year – D&D 5th Edition, Pathfinder and Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition – were all running 1 hour sessions on the hour, but there were also heaps of other RPG sessions for Crucible, Planet Mercenary, Numenera, SLA Industries, Gods of the Fall and more.
On a whim we jumped onto a Pathfinder table that was running the “Basilica” scenario from the Pathfinder Society’s Honour’s Echo quest. As most fantasy RPGers will know, Pathfinder originally started as continuation of the D&D 3.5 rules after Wizards of the Coast announced 4th edition, but has since evolved along its own path. Pathfinder is hugely, hugely popular, and the schism between Pathfinder converts and D&D loyalists is often a painful one, dividing families and communities and in at least one documented case resulting in open hostilities between two neighbouring towns in a remote part of Kentucky’s Blue Ridge Mountains (ok, that’s not actually true). We won’t add to the debate here – but let’s just say that whether you like one system or the other maybe comes down to personal tastes, a bit like the difference between Coke and Pepsi, except that neither D&D nor Pathfinder are bad for your health.
Meeting up with people – players or industry players, you name it – is of course another major draw for a convention as huge as PAX. In between games and panels, we managed to catch up with some of our friends among the tabletop exhibitors stalls. In the Fragged Empire booth RPG designer Wade Dyer was looking a little fragged himself, busy meeting fans of his post-post-apocalyptic RPG, selling rules books and giving out pledges to Kickstarter backers. It must be such a buzz for designers like Wade to think of all these players inhabiting the world they created. We also had a good chat with Alistair Clough, who demo-ed the new miniatures skirmish game he’s been developing for the Fragged universe under the working title of Fragged Assault (pictured left). If you’re into tactical skirmish games this looks fantastic. As Alistair told us, Fragged Assault is designed to be a fast and brutal game that won’t get bogged down with crunching through stats or excessive dice rolls. The artwork and design were basically complete, and Alistair and Wade were now considering options for production and rollout. We’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing later versions of this game.
Over in the Tabletop Game Designers Australia (TGDA) stall, we caught up with Sean Fenemore (shown left) and Matt Radcliffe of Canberra-based company Savage Yeti Games. Sean ran a demo of Quaddle, a really great short and sweet abstract game that works a bit like a cross between Tetris and Connect 4 in which players take turns drawing cards showing four dots in different configurations. You then decide where to lay out the dots shown on your card by placing counters on a 7 x 7 grid. Oh, and if any of your opponent’s counters happen to be in the way, they’re converted to your pieces. First player to complete 5 horizontal or vertical lines across the board wins – simples! The intuitive nature of the rules and highly visual components would make Quaddle a great game for families with younger kids, but as there’s a fair bit of strategy involved when the board begins to fill up with counters it would equally appeal to fans of Eurogames as well. If you like quick thinking abstract strategy games, Quaddle is definitely one to look out for.
Recently we interviewed on Games vs Play Allen Chang and Alistair Kearney from Rule & Make, who founded the so-hot-right-now games company in Brisbane about five years ago. It was really nice the meet up with the guys in person (that’s Alistair on the right), along with R&M’s head of Public Relations David Scott, all of whom we’d spoken with before only via phone or email. With their latest game Skyward going through the roof on Kickstarter and Burger Up being voted one of The Guardian’s “8 best indie games to get addicted to next year”, R&M can justifiably be described as one of Australia’s best-placed games companies to stake a claim in the international market. Their stall was a hive of activity, with games designers like Sye Robertson (Robots & Rockets), Brendan Evans (Skywards) and Matt Parkes (Burger Up) giving back-to-back demos from podiums set up at the front of the stall like magicians in a circus sideshow (but not so much the Blade Runner carnival this time).
In the afternoon, we attended a panel run by Mark Yetter and John Frank from Riot Games, who took the audience on a journey through the process of creating Ivern, the latest playable champion in the massively popular 5v5 online brawler game League of Legends. From inception to launch the arboreal support/jungle underwent many changes: for a while he was set to become the first LoL champion that can deal no damage, and at one stage he might have turned into a giant snail rather than a tree! Perhaps the most impressive thing was to learn just how much time and effort goes into developing, refining and balancing champions overall – it can take more than 9 months for a whole team of developers to create a new champion. The second half of the panel was an open Q&A session. People who had questions were asked to first state their favourite champion (it turns out that there are some people who admit to maining Teemo), with queries ranging from things in store for the future (assassin update, which has now already hit the servers), to whether Riot will continue to develop the lore of Runeterra (yes!). And not too many questions of the “why did you nerf ability X of champion Y who I main?!” variety. Overall a very entertaining session, Riot clearly has a lot of dedication and many plans to keep LoL interesting and engaging.
Later in the evening we finally managed to play a session of the Call of Cthulhu scenario “Dead Boarder”, run by none other than fellow GvP team-member Leigh Carrthulhu. There were three CofC tables in the RPG section, but this 1-hour adventure was only being run on one of them. Consequently demand was huge, and with upwards of a dozen people turning up every hour the PAX Enforcers finally devised an impromptu lottery system where hopeful players organised themselves into teams of four and then rolled a dice to determine in advance what time slot they would play the adventure. Does that count as gambling?
We’d been chatting earlier with Michael O’Brien, Vice President of Chaosium, who was delighted with the reception 7th edition Call of Cthulhu was getting at this year’s PAX. Next year he said Chaosium would be running more tables, a trend that’s also been happening overseas as the CofC 7th edition rules – which are pretty damn good – keep attracting more players to the game. At Gen Con 2016 the Chaosium team ran 80 Call of Cthulhu sessions, but next year they were already planning to boost this to 500 sessions. While PAX Australia doesn’t quite get the numbers as Gen Con, the demand for CofC was proportionately just as high.
The two of us GvPers playing the “Dead Boarder” adventure (i.e. Falk and Martin) teamed up with the next two people in line, Kaitlyn and Shell, who turned out to be supercool game designers and artists themselves, though they modestly didn’t let on about this at the time (in fact Shell was a guest on a PAX panel on inclusive game design). One of the cool things about playing tabletop games and especially RPGs at a con is that sometimes you’ll find yourself on a table with people who are effectively strangers, and yet when taken together as a group the dynamic just clicks. The combination of having a top-rate Keeper in Leigh – who’s an excellent storyteller, and moreover does a great job of balancing the play between PCs – and a group of players who really get into the spirit of the game was just unbeatable. It also helped that “Dead Boarder” is a very well designed scenario that perfectly fits the constraints of a 1-hour format. For us, this was undoubtedly the standout session for the con. That’s us on the left – look how happy we were to have our characters go mad!
And that was basically our PAX Australia 2016, except for one last game of Exploding Kittens from the games library before heading home and crashing like the Canadian immigration website after the 2016 US Election. To everyone we talked or played with at PAX Australia 2016 thanks for being you, and congratulations to all the organizers for making Australia’s largest games convention so awesome – and last but not least for keeping it in Melbourne, one of the most creative and engaged cities in the world. We’ll be back in 2017.