Going Unplugged: Not Your Average PAX

No convention is going to be enticing to all people at all times. Just as there are innumerable genres, subgenres, and individual preferences that compete for your attention and your budget, no one single convention is going to perfect for everyone. Even if you designed a convention whose sole purpose was to hand out buckets of free cash, you’d still find someone who wouldn’t want to partake because the crowd was too big or the line was too long.

The trick, ultimately, is to figure out whether a convention is right for you.

Everyone has their own rubric of why they go to a convention, whether it’s to be entertained, to socialize, to be informed, to work, or to purchase something. Maybe your focus is to sit around for days on end casually playing games with friends. In which case Gen Con and Essen are probably not your scene. On the other hand, maybe you love being on the forefront of what the industry is offering in terms of new publishers, new titles, and a positively overwhelming array of breaking news. In which case hanging out in a Dallas airport for five days the week before Thanksgiving at BGG.Con probably isn’t going to give you your fix.

Both of these are viable convention styles, and neither is inherently better than the other; it’s all a matter of what you want in an experience.

Because of the incessant need in the gaming world to arbitrarily rank, well, everything, you inevitably have people talk about what the “best” conventions are. Yet that opinion is always informed by a multitude of factors, mostly including the speaker’s aforementioned biases. Therefore, the most anyone can do is to offer up their personal favorites. Which in the end is largely only useful for the person creating the list and those trying to find something that aligns with their own criteria.

For instance, after having sampled numerous conventions over the years, my hands-down favorite is still Gen Con. It’s an expensive, sprawling, congested mass of geekified humanity, an expo-style convention whose main focus for drawing in its 60k+ attendees is a cavernous show floor where hundreds upon hundreds of vendors can show off their latest games. Space is tight, playing games can be a challenge (if it happens at all), and the crowds alone are enough for many to want to stay away. But it also comes with an energy unlike any other US-based convention, in no small part due to the sheer concentration of industry publishers, designers, media outlets, and content creators all converging on a few blocks of this medium-sized Midwestern city. It’s entirely a working convention for me, but I absolutely love it.

BGG by contrast is a very close second but amusingly because it’s the exact opposite in nearly every way.

Moreover, a convention doesn’t need to be hundreds of miles away for it to resonate; for many people, smaller more regional cons are precisely why they are appealing. Thanks to most smaller cons being just a few hundred local(ish) individuals and something you’re able to drive to and from (even in the same day), they can be highly beloved because they’re saving you the investment of taking time off work and the prohibitive costs of airfare and hotels while still letting you partake in a hobby you enjoy.

There are certainly more treacherous road trips one can make than Philly…

Taking all of that into account, PAX Unplugged had thus far been something of an enigma to me. Although only in its second year, Unplugged is still a PAX show, which means it’s not exactly a tiny operation. On the other hand, being situated in Philadelphia, it’s relatively close to us – short enough to drive but long enough to still be a dedicated trip.

For the last few years I’ve made an effort to try out one new game convention a year for the experience if possible. Accomplishing that hasn’t always been easy. For one, while there are still a few in the Northeast on that list, it creates a relatively limited pool of options. And until we’re bought out by Hasbro or Asmodee, traveling across the country for smaller conventions can be prohibitively expensive.

From the Boston area, for example, it’s actually faster (and in many cases cheaper) for us to fly to London than Vancouver, making something like SHUX far less viable.

Nevertheless, since this year PAX-U and BGG.Con didn’t end up on the same weekend, I like many decided to give this one a shot.

I didn’t fully commit to this until very late in the process, which meant I wasn’t definite on attending until just three days before the convention was due to start. As a result, I made little effort to plan or schedule anything and decided, as I often do the first time around anyhow, to head into this convention’s sophomore year completely unbound.

And so, as I’ve done a several times before, I offer up an account of my first time attending a new con. My intent isn’t to go into every game played or thing seen, but rather share my thoughts as my first time Going Unplugged: the good, the bad, the mixed. Let’s hop to it.

Next: My Top Experiences of PAX Unplugged 2018 (And A Couple Things Less So)