The PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) consumer events across the United States and around the world celebrate gaming in all its varieties, but most especially video games. Everything from the classic arcade areas, to the esports competitions and the BYOC (Bring Your Own Computer) LAN areas emphasize the power of video games as a means of bringing people together.
But PAX will be turning off the screens this fall when it launches the first PAX Unplugged, which will take place on November 17-19 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As its name indicates, this convention shifts the focus from digital electronics to an analog approach to gaming with board game experiences. Every PAX convention has a tabletop gaming area, which have steadily grown over the years, so it’s about time for face-to-face gameplay to get a show of its own.
Ryan Hartman, director of events at Penny Arcade, told AListDaily what inspired the creation of PAX Unplugged.
“It was born out of a few factors, but first and foremost, we all really love tabletop games,” explained Hartman. “There’s constant talk around our offices about the newest board game that we’ve discovered and gotten to try out when we come back from a PAX. But the excitement that we have for these games is certainly reflected in the explosion of the industry as a whole. I’d say that we are in a renaissance of tabletop gaming at the moment, and to that point, it’s only making more sense to do a tabletop focused show. We have a specific area of our existing show that’s dedicated to board games that fans love, and the exhibitors in those areas are always asking for more space. The appetite is there from our exhibitors, fans and the industry at large, so we finally decided to pull the plug.”
Hartman continued by talking about how the idea to create a tabletop-oriented PAX had been in the works for some time. “In seeing the expansions and explosions of the tabletop areas in our existing shows, we had been thinking on how we would execute a standalone concept for a year or two now,” said Hartman. “Thankfully, the stars have aligned a bit and we were able to get this one off the ground. I’m very excited about the early reception so far from both potential attendees and exhibitors. I think it will be a great addition to the overall PAX lineup.”
We asked how the dedicated convention would differ from the tabletop areas from other PAX conventions, and Hartman admitted that, “it will be a similar feel to our overall PAX shows, that’s for sure. We want to keep the consistency of the fan experience that makes each PAX so special. That being said, this is an exciting opportunity to reinvent the wheel a bit. A board game focused show will require different areas and pieces to the overall convention that we will have to figure out, and we have some exciting ideas.”
Hartman then talked about what made Philadelphia the ideal location to hold the convention. “We looked at a lot of different places, but much of the information we got back from exhibitors in terms of player data pointed to the Northeast. We also looked at attendee survey data on our end and it indicated the same thing. So, everything was pushing us in this direction, and in looking around at what was available and where some of the bigger gaming hubs were located, Philadelphia revealed itself as the early optimal choice. Also, the fact that I’m originally from outside Philadelphia had nothing to do with it, despite what everyone has said.”
While PAX Unplugged is a unique concept, it’s difficult to overlook how many tabletop games and their gameplay styles—especially collectible card games (CCGs)—are making their way into prominent video games.
“It’s something we are actively looking at, actually,” said Hartman, indicating how this PAX might not be completely unplugged. “We want to adhere to the spirit of analog gaming, but we would be remised if we didn’t acknowledge and celebrate the prevalence of tabletop elements making their way into digital games. Things like CCGs, which you mentioned—with Hearthstone being an obvious example—will have a place at the show, and we are designing a track of content around them. But the primary target and idea on the show will stay focused on the table itself. It is being built as board games first.”
So, what is contributing to the growth of tabletop gaming when digital entertainment is so prevalent? “It’s difficult to say,” Hartman admitted. “I mean, the growth in the sector is undeniable, but to speculate on exactly why is an interesting thought experiment. I think the barrier of entry is certainly fostering a lot of it. With crowdfunding and other direct to consumer engagement, people are able to access different distribution models that they might not have been able to in the past.”
Hartman considered the question further and said, “on a more philosophical level, I think the in-person nature of board gaming has a lot to do with it. Digital gaming is here to stay for sure, but if you think about how ultra-connected we all are at the moment, and how we can access anyone in the world with the touch of a button, and able send them a text message or see them through a screen—I think on a certain fundamental level, people like being able to get back to playing a game and interacting in person. Seeing the people you are playing with and talking to them face-to-face. Moving the actual physical pieces around a board is always an enjoyable experience.
“It’s entirely speculation, but I feel like personal social engagement is a big factor. Board game bars are popping up all over the place. People like being around other people. I mean, there are a lot of folks who have grown up with a ‘family game night’ tradition.”