Has there ever been a normal PAX? Has there ever been a year when some wild shit doesn’t happen personally or more broadly? I think not. But nonetheless, we persevere, dragging ourselves to the Seattle Convention Center (now split into three different buildings, because why not) despite whatever madness is going on in our own lives and the gaming world.
This year, we (Melissa Brinks and Kael Langdon) made it to PAX to look at, and conceivably write about, games. But, as always, PAX West and its many madnesses had other plans for us.
Melissa Brinks: My coverage this year is spotty and scattered thanks to an ill-timed health issue from one of my cats, but that feels… apt, somehow. The experience of PAX Prime is noisy, crowded, even Disneyland-like, if Disneyland was dark and neon and sometimes someone in a costume hit you in the face with a wing or something.
This year, which was larger than last year’s and included Seattle’s new Summit Convention Center, was no exception. Our first day, Saturday, I played two games. That’s it! And not for the sake of lines, either! The thing is, you have to spend a significant amount of PAX just taking in PAX. So by the time my first day wrapped up, I had done very little—and then I spent the next day at the vet hospital, so.
Quilts and Cats of Calico was almost too wholesome for my grizzled old heart. In this digital adaptation of the board game Calico, you aim to connect little quilting pieces to score points against other players, which can include a fully AI group if you want to play alone. The rules were a bit confusing and hard to follow, which, frankly, is what most board games feel like at first, so the experience was authentic. The game is built on adding the correct quilting pieces, which have colors and patterns, to the game board, but I struggled with how “correct” was defined. I was confused about what qualified for points and what didn’t, so I wasn’t sure what was a good play. With time and experimentation, I started to get the hang of it, even if I wasn’t particularly good at building the perfect quilt. Importantly, the game includes a cat customizer, so you can design your own cat or the cat of your dreams to play along with you. The game is due out in fall of this year, and includes local multiplayer. Players who want to play with other people remotely will have to purchase multiple copies of the game.
The only other game I got to on Saturday was Techno Banter, a bouncer simulator inspired by Papers, Please. The tones are quite different—Techno Banter is humorous from the get-go, tasking you with working a shitty job evaluating who gets in to a shitty club. The potential patrons have to meet certain criteria depending on the club’s goals for the night. I found myself turning away people with bad attitudes or no money to help raise the vibe (and star rating) of the evening. The goals outlined by your boss are not cut-and-dried; for example, “bad attitude” can mean anything from being an outright jackass to being a bit of a princess. It’s tricky, but enjoyable, and the game’s inclusion of a verbal sparring mechanic that reminded me a bit of Life is Strange: Before the Storm‘s Backtalk function gave rejecting people a little extra spice. Techno Banter is due out early next year.
The real highlight of the day for me was “IKEA: Flat-Pack Furniture or Incredible Game Design?” I am nothing if not a sucker for a pedantic debate about what is or isn’t a game, (for example, I love this shit) and it just so happens that my house contains a not insignificant amount of IKEA furniture, so I was in. Hosted by Patrick Brennan of Offcut Games, the panel began with an introduction to IKEA, and a somewhat sincere, somewhat playful interrogation of whether assembling the company’s furniture can be considered a game in accordance with BoardGameGeek’s notoriously rigid definition of what a game is. With only some minor bending of BGG’s criteria (accentuated by pointing out which games on BGG break the site’s own rules), Brennan made a compelling case that building furniture is in fact a game, and thus the true focus of the panel began: a competition for who could build an IKEA LEGO set the fastest.
The contestants, Alisha Wilkerson of Offcut Games, Anya Combs of Backerkit, Nicole Amato of Kickstarter, and Chris Wulf of Fellow Traveler, competed in teams of two, one person reading the directions and the other doing the assembly portion, for who could complete the set fastest and best to the specifications. Naturally, hilarious chaos ensued. Though it didn’t hit the same notes as League of Heels, the playful approach to games was exactly what I needed to cap off the evening.
Also, in the purest moment of PAX energy, we caught a glimpse of a solo person dressed as Waluigi breaking it down on the dance stage to a song I can’t remember.
Kael Langdon: I don’t have much to say about Saturday, mainly because I was recovering from some Long Covid symptoms and hadn’t left my house in weeks. I followed behind Melissa in a fugue state and complained about how expensive vintage games are in America.
Then came Sunday. When I heard about Melissa’s cat, I knew it was up to me to bravely record my PAX experience. I got out my notepad and played a single game, instead spending most of my time in panels.
The first talk I attended was “Tabletop RPGs at Work for Fun and Profit,” and let me tell you: it was amazing. The main idea was that tabletop RPGs can help build teamwork, professional communication, diversity, and emotional intelligence. These soft skills are important in both work and tabletop gaming, but tabletop gaming gives players a low pressure and fun environment to practice them.
What stood out most to me was the role veterans play in both work and gaming. The same way experienced players can take the pressure off a GM to know all the rules, having a workforce that’s willing to seek instruction laterally can help prevent skill bottlenecks in an organization.
The whole talk was well informed and well organized, and unfortunately set the bar very high for the other panels I saw.
After taking a small break, I attended a panel for a podcast I’d never heard (that I thought was about games preservation). I felt bad because there were clearly a lot of fans who wanted to get in, and I took a spot because I didn’t read the description well enough. I ended up dipping out after 15 minutes, forgetting my water bottle under my chair, and having to come back to the second to the front row and ask someone to grab it for me. It was VERY embarrassing.
I grabbed a little lunch (sauceless turkey sandwich—not as good as my first PAX, where they had these turkey club sandwiches with bacon and avocado that got increasingly sloppy as the weekend dragged on. I miss them).
Then I went to “How to Give and Receive Feedback.” It aimed to help tabletop game makers get the most out of playtesting. They covered some basic techniques like the compliment sandwich, and encouraged receivers of feedback to keep in mind what they want and be ready to filter what is unhelpful.
Between the back to back panels, and still getting used to public life after illness, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed by this point. But I really wanted to see the Seattle Indies Expo, so I forced myself to walk a couple of blocks and see what was going on. I only had the energy to play Rocococo, which is an item collector without any visible elements. The player navigates entirely by sound, isolating different pieces of the soundtrack and chasing after them. What I played was only a demo, but I thought it was a really creative way to incorporate other senses into the play experience.
I went and grabbed some very delicious Thai food at Pacific Place.
Finally, I ended the day with the “Lavender Catwalk,” a queer fashion show put on by the Pacific Northwest Guild of Cosplayers. Let me tell you, the energy was electric. It was the most fun I had at PAX. People were doing karaoke in line and passing around con questionnaires about whether Mario and Waluigi ever explored each other’s bodies. Once the cosplayers hit the stage, nobody stopped cheering them on, whether they were veterans in animatronic Rauru fursuits (Tears of the Kingdom has only been out for like 3 months. How???) or newbies who threw something together from their closets.
I was uncomfortable that the event was labeled 18+, when all cosplays ostensibly had to fit the con’s all-ages dress code, so I talked to the guildmaster on Monday. They said that a different event had originally been planned, but had changed to the catwalk at the last minute. Not wanting to cause confusion, they chose to change as little as possible about the event description.
When I asked if there had been any pressure on the part of PAX to add an age limit to the queer event, they stated that the decision had come internally, from the queer team within the PNW Guild of Cosplayers that put on the “Lavender Catwalk.” They stated everyone they liaised with at PAX had been nothing but supportive.
Melissa: I was waiting for a phone call from my vet on Monday, so I spent most of my time on the tabletop floor, browsing what was for sale and playing a bunch of games. It was nice to see that the tabletop exhibitors had expanded this year, although most of them still felt confined to a relatively strict idea of what tabletop gaming is like—dice sets, collectible card games, and a specific type of board game that I don’t have a clear word for but can best be described as “the same games I see at every convention.”
There were also some new-to-me retailers and publishers—Many Worlds Tavern was absolutely hopping all weekend with their selection of themed teas and coffees. I picked up their Verdant Harbor and Electric Sheep, a jasmine green tea and decaf (!!!) coffee, respectively. Both are nice—not necessarily the best example of either I’ve ever had, but tasty. And the packaging is second to none! It’s gorgeous and evocative, making me want to sit down and design a tabletop setting based on the imagery.
I was also drawn to Snowbright Studio, a tabletop RPG publisher of numerous cute and creepy games. I ended up taking home ink as a gift from the publisher. I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, but it sounds intriguing: inspired by roguelites like Hades or Hollow Knight, players take on the roles of characters who have died in other campaigns, only leveling up when there’s a total party kill. I find anything that plays with expected mechanics and examines other sides of common stories to be fascinating, and I look forward to giving this one some time in the future.
As a lover of food and tea, I was also drawn to Snowbright’s Teatime Adventures, a TTRPG that combines D20-style mechanics with cozy mysteries and, best of all, baked goods and tea pairings for the adventures. Like all TTRPG books I buy, this purchase was ambitious—I haven’t played it yet, and don’t have any plans to play it in the immediate future, but I’m nonetheless glad to have it on my shelf.
I rounded out the day by trying out some low-stakes board games with friends, Kael included. We started with Pantone, in which you arrange little colored cards like paint chips to get the other players to guess a pop culture character. It’s a fun game that’s very easy to pick up, and results in some hilarious circumstances, such as how little you remember of what a pop culture character actually looks like. My Woody (of Toy Story) was tragic.
Next, we moved on to Hundreds of Horses, an aptly named game I felt obliged to try as Sidequest’s resident unwilling Horse Girl. In Hundreds of Horses, you deal out four cards bearing images of horses on them, then roll a die. Depending on the result of the die, you either read out a short story, the name of an award, or a single word, and everybody votes with a face-down tile for which horse the prompt should apply to. Matches earn points, and the player with the most points in the end (which is somewhat random, as the points tiles are grabbed face-down and may be worth more than one point) is the winner. It was remarkably fun for a game that is absolutely for children. Probably not something I’d pick up to play with my friend group, but a suitable gift for the horse-loving child in your life.
And lastly, we tried out Game of Phones, a scavenger hunt/truth or dare style game played with smartphones. It’s a great pick-up-and-play party game that resulted in us spamming a shared group chat with food emojis and context-free weird ice cream flavors, and me daring my friends to leave comments on Phoebe Bridgers’ Instagram. It’s not a game that’s going to change your life or anything, but if you want to have some quick fun with friends with minimal rules, Game of Phones is a solid choice.
Kael: I spent most of Monday playing games with Melissa. I can emphatically say I had a great time playing Hundreds of Horses, and recommend it to anyone who loves to attribute humanlike qualities to all animals they meet.
I also made it to one panel, “Inclusive Adventures: Autistic Perspectives in TTRPGs.” If I’m being entirely honest, most everything that was said is lost to the memory fog that is the third day of a convention. But I do remember it was nice to listen to a group of autistic friends talk about their experiences in the tabletop space. I left feeling affirmed and excited to keep playing and making tabletop games.
I can’t speak for Melissa, but (chronic fatigue aside) I had a great time at this year’s PAX. It was my first con since moving back to the United States, and really nothing beats hanging out with friends and marveling at people in costumes. That and thanking god above I don’t care about most AAA titles enough to wait in line for demos.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.