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Big Digital Fox

I previously wrote about attending PAX Unplugged 2023, focusing on the expo hall and some standout games. As I said about last year‘s convention, PAX Unplugged (a convention focusing on tabletop and other analog gaming) has become increasingly gamified. I was happy to see that this year’s convention had a similar level of interactivity, and I am hopeful that these events continue to run at future PAXU conventions.

Puzzle materials for the PAX 2023 Interactive game.

After missing out on them at PAXU 2022 and PAX East 2023, I was finally able to play some of the puzzle rooms put on by Co-Operatives. My team was able to try out 2 of their offerings, Split the Party and Wayward Spacers (both built for 2-4 players). A note if you’re looking at the Co-Operatives website: Split the Party looks to have been renamed The Big Dig for their new pop-up experience in Boston.

Czech Games Edition Kutna Hora the City of Silver Treasure Hunt sign.

All of the rooms they offered were built around the concept of the split team, which happens to be one of my favorite game mechanics when used well. These were small “rooms,” each one being a curtained off of a larger conference room. This led to some noise bleed from other experiences, but thankfully that never became a distraction while playing. The curtained-off rooms had a single standing wooden wall with puzzles built into it, with each team dividing up between the sides.

Split the Party was the better of the 2 experiences. It was ideal for our 2-player team; we used about 12 of the allotted 15 minutes and the puzzles had fun moments of understanding. Wayward Spacers needed some extra polish and a fourth person. We went in with 3, which meant we were not able to optimize the cooperative puzzles. With some iteration, it will be a perfectly fine game in the future.

Record Times for the PAXU interactive game.

The price of the rooms increased from last year – $15pp at PAXU 2022 compared to $20pp this time around. We questioned the value of the games last year at the lower price point, and even with typical inflated convention pricing, $20pp felt high this year for a 15-minute experience. They were a welcome addition to the convention, and I’d love to see some cross-promotion with Philadelphia area escape room companies in the future.

PAXU 2022 introduced a paper-based puzzle hunt, Foodies From Outer Space. This year’s similar offering was War(ped) Games, inspired by the classic 1983 movie War Games. This year’s packet consisted of nine puzzles and a meta. Once the meta was solved, you brought the solution to puzzle headquarters and you were entered into a prize raffle.

Each of the 9 puzzles was based on a classic arcade game like Centipede and Q*bert. They were primarily word puzzles, and on the difficulty scale were comparable to completing a Puzzled Pint. While War(ped) Games was enjoyable, it was scaled down considerably compared to Foodies. Foodies had more puzzles (14) and – more importantly – was site-specific. Not only were some of the puzzles linked to some of the weird art that lives in the Philadelphia Convention Center, but the puzzles were also tied to seven booths on the convention floor. That extra level of effort elevated Foodies into something that only made sense in the context of PAX Unplugged, whereas we completed War(ped) Games mostly in our hotel room. Again the puzzles were enjoyable, but they lacked the sense of time and place that permeated Foodies.

Czech Games Edition (CGE), a board game publisher, presented another treasure hunt in the same style as last year’s. We were tasked with searching out multiple posters themed around their new board game Kutná Hora: The City of Silver. Like last year, these posters were prominent and visible throughout the convention, luring the curious to the CGE room where the hunt actually started.

The puzzles were mostly played via cell phone with some additional information and clues presented on a sheet of paper provided at the start of the trail. There were a mix of word games and visual puzzles, all with a low-to-medium difficulty level. Each correct answer provided a hint to the location of the next poster, and exploring the convention this way led us to an area or 2 that we had not previously explored. While the puzzles were enjoyable, I can’t say that I actually learned anything about the Kutná Hora board game. Even so, free puzzles are usually a good time and I’m thankful for their presence.

There were a lot of things to see, do, and play at PAX Unplugged this year. This would be true even without the playable games. Even so, I love that they were included again and appear to be becoming a permanent fixture.

And while these were all good games that I enjoyed playing, only one of them truly felt like a convention game – the CGE hunt based on Kutná Hora. Only that game was tied to the convention itself: searching out the posters involved exploring and interacting with the convention hall. The other games would have been at home at another convention or any other event.

Last year’s puzzle hunt, Foodies From Outer Space, was inextricably linked to the Philadelphia Convention Center. Experience and memory are tied together, and that makes it hard to forget searching the convention center for certain art installations and wandering the expo hall looking for aliens to complete the meta puzzle.

A convention-wide game should take advantage of the convention and the physical space that it was constructed for. I have fond memories of the ARG at RECON Boston in 2022, which made use of the venue, the nearby streets, and even the volunteers. That game remains tied to the event, and it can not be replicated even at future RECON events (… although I hear there will be another, different game at RECON Los Angeles this summer!)

This is not to seem ungrateful; I was happy for the puzzle content and look forward to it (and all the exciting new board games and video games) at both PAX East and Unplugged in 2024. I hope PAX Unplugged continues to iterate on the convention game experience, which is a great opportunity to enhance their event and potentially grow their audience.

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Disclosure: PAX Unplugged provided a media pass.

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