This article was first published on November 27th, 2018. To prepare for PAX Unplugged 2023 on December 1st, we've updated the article with some new hints and tips! We hope you find it useful.
A few years ago, Zoë and I wrote a guide to our favorite convention, PAX East. It was our sojourn, our chance to get out of New York for a long weekend. It let us forget about reality, forget the stress of new jobs, and let us revel with a few thousand like-minded people. Still, PAX East is now a titan, a behemoth with 60,000 people, something that was overwhelming for those gamers new to conventions.
In 2017, PAX Unplugged launched in Philadelphia, and we had an absolute blast. At this point, our staff enjoys it more than PAX East! There’s good reason for that though: there’s a certain magic to seeing a game convention in its early years. The crowds aren’t quite as large, developers and organizers are still trying to figure out the right tempo; there’s less of a rush to it all. While Unplugged is a bit more established now, it's still a calmer, less rushed tempo than others we've been to.
Stacks and stacks of games will line many booths - when they first open on Friday, at least.
PAX Unplugged is a convention that’s all about the board games, the tabletop, the analog; it moves slower, but that doesn’t mean less fun. While you see less flashing lights and glitzy displays, it also means you don’t end each day exhausted. Still, if you have never been to a convention quite as large as a PAX, it’s still a lot to take in. For someone brand new to gaming conventions, it might be too much: where do you start? Where do you end? How do you know if you’ve gotten your money’s worth? For you convention veterans out there, maybe you are new to this particular convention, and want a few tips about good places to eat or relax.
With these questions in mind, here is our brand new guide to surviving – and enjoying – PAX Unplugged.
#1: Before Everything Else, Take Care Of Yourself!
This point gets put at the top, just because it can be so easily forgotten. The first convention I ever went to involved me driving to Boston on Friday for 4 hours after a day of work. We stayed until 1:30am to see everything we absolutely could, then woke up at 8 AM the next day to go wait in line on Saturday, just to stay again until 2 AM.
This might work for some people. For others, this would kill them. I was able to manage just fine, but I was also 10 years younger and hopped up on Red Bull. I had a great time, but I’ll be honest and say that I spent the next week with flu-like symptoms, grumbling my way through work. I had another friend who had anxiety attacks from the constant crowds without any breaks. Knowing your limits and making room for down time in your schedule can be a livesaver, especially if you are going for the whole weekend.
While not the largest convention, there will still be crowds! Pace yourself based on your own needs.
With that in mind, Unplugged is going to be a slightly tamer experience than a video game convention. The lines aren’t as long, the crush of people isn’t as huge, and the main events don’t go as long into the night. The biggest change for me is how the expo hall is blessedly quieter; you don't have various gaming booths competing for attention with loudspeakers blasting EDM or gunshot blasts. Still, it’s so very important to know your limits!
Time for the basics: while at a convention, remember to eat! I’m not just talking chips or a convention hot dog either, but full meals with plenty of water. You want to enjoy yourself? Power your body. On the other side, don't overdo it on caffeine or alcohol! I’ve seen both at other conventions, where people rely on substances to sustain or enhance the convention experience to the point of pain. Trust me, I’ll be enjoying a nice cocktail to toast with my friends, but binging on drinks of either kind can severely dehydrate you.
The summary of this section is to take breaks. Take time off the show floor for a while to get away from the noise or crowds. I know you don’t want to miss anything, but just a little recovery time can really help you enjoy what you do get to see. Take a look at your guidebook map when you get a chance: The amazing Take This organization organizes an AFK room to PAX events for years. It’s dim, quiet, has free water, has lots of comfy seats, and even some on-hand counselors to talk to in case you need to chat away some stress.
One last note that has to be said, in a post 2020 world - be respectful of those concerned about COVID. PAX has very straight-forward guidelines about masking, and a little bit of care about washing your hands, giving other people space, and minding boundaries will do a lot to let everyone try and enjoy a social event while also maintaining their health. While masking is just recommended by now, I'd highly suggest still trying to when in crowded areas, as it will help stop the spread of not just COVID, but other convention-loving viruses that love to get passed around.
Know your limits, take some time to make sure you’ve handled your basic needs, and the rest of the convention will be that much better.
#2: A Little Preparation Goes A Long Way
Conventions give out guidebooks as you walk through the door, but there’s a much easier way to get ahead at a PAX event. If you don’t have the PAX App, get it now! Once download it, you can have access to a floor map, a vendor list, and a full schedule that will self-update. You can even make your own schedule, where you check off the events you are curious about to set notifications. As a reviewer, I write in my own appointments, making sure they don’t interfere with any panels I want to see.
For anyone new to conventions, the expo hall floor is the absolute hub of activity and buzz at these sort of events. Vendors (at my last count, I saw over 270 for 2019) are poised to lure you in with amazing displays, offering show floor specials, or maybe free promotions if you play a demo game. Take some time to prioritize the show floor! Everyone has a favorite developer, or a game they’ve been frothing at the mouth to try. Take ten or fifteen minutes to highlight on the map where your must-see publishers or games will be.
The 2023 PAX Unplugged Expo Hall Floor! You can find it on the PAX Nav app.
There’s other stuff besides the show floor too; you can check the schedule to see board game tournaments or events can be scheduled before arrival. There’s a giant room of tabletop RPGs, and at the start of each day you can sign up for session slots with your friends (Note: this year, it looks as though registration can be done this year through the PAX Nav starting at 8am the day of each event for most RPGs and tournaments). Make sure you look at the schedule to see the way you register or sign up for things you are really interested in ahead of time!
This is related a bit to #1 (and #3), but I usually make my three day schedule with a few key concepts in mind. On Friday, I try to see all of my ‘must haves’. Supplies and games do run out, and the first day of the convention is when vendors are at their freshest and cheeriest. I make a habit to run myself the most ragged on day one, and then let myself relax and wander a bit more on later days. Saturday is always the busiest day, and so I let myself escape the show floor by around noon. I go to free play to meet up with friends or get an extended lunch. Sunday is when I let myself buy things, after I’ve had two days to mull over what still excites me. This approach might work for you, but absolutely set your own tempo based on your own needs or schedule.
A sample floor plan from PAX Unplugged 2019. This is the first floor and the main entrance - the expo hall will be above this, available by escalators and elevators. Look on the PAX Nav app to see all the space dedicated to open play, exclusive first looks at board games not yet released, and space to try all all sorts of ttrpgs.
Before the event even starts, just a few minutes planning can make all the difference. Keep in mind that while a board game convention usually has less lines, still wear comfortable shoes and clothes. There’s a good chance you’ll be doing a few loops of the show floor while running to events and back. Bring your charger if you love taking photos with your camera, or want to keep in touch with everyone.
Finally, bring cash. Vendors usually prefer this method, and it's one way to try and set yourself a budget. I find that if I limit my convention purchases to just what cash I have in my wallet that weekend, it makes it a lot easier not to overspend.
#3: Variety Is The Spice Of Life
By this point, you might realize that these tips might seem very familiar to our PAX East article. It’s certainly true, but it’s also largely by design. While conventions based around video games and board games might play out very differently, the core tenets are the same: know your own limits, treat yourself to that one event/game/demo/talk you can’t imagine missing, and of course, make sure you wander.
There are a lot of reasons why gaming conventions are important, but one of the main ones is that it gives publishers and designers a chance to be seen. Sure, your local board game group might have an amazing collection of rare euro games, but that focus might mean you have a blind spot to some amazing dice chuckers like Dice Throne. Your friends might have every version of Pandemic, but have never been exposed other co-ops that are smaller like The Shipwreck Arcana. Both of these games were ones entirely off our radar until we stumbled onto them on a convention show floor.
There are some amazing game publishers that you've never heard of around every corner. Its where we found out about Fog of Love a few years back, an amazing game we wouldn't have picked up otherwise.
Conventions are a place to explore, and you should take advantage of that. Trust me, you should absolutely indulge yourself at your favorite publisher/game designer’s giant booth, but do you see those rows of smaller booths nearby? Clear some time from your schedule to do nothing but see what new things you can find. Plan ahead, but don’t overbook.
Lastly, there is a very good chance that something might go wrong. You might find that there’s a waitlist for the LARP event you wanted, or that all the copies of Root are long gone by the time you get to the Leder Games booth. Don’t despair! While you might have missed out on one opportunity, conventions are overflowing with options.
Participating in a Megagame in 2017 was one of the best gaming experiences of my life. Just you and 60 others, trying to declare independence for America!
If there’s one take away from this section, its that you should try something new. Conventions are one of the best chances to see what the whole of the hobby has to offer.
#4: Remember The City, Not Just The Convention!
It’s easy to get sucked up into the activity of a convention. Even though board games operate at a more relaxed pace, you can still find yourself checking your schedule or map, determined to eke out every single drop of content you can from this event. Trust me, this mentality is what can lead to burn out: my first few conventions were 16-hour binges, racing from event to event, where friends had to concernedly point out I hadn’t eaten lunch or dinner.
While I did end up getting better about food, it took me a bit longer to realize that there was a world outside the glaring lights of a show floor. Fortunately, we are absolutely spoiled at PAX Unplugged in this regard. The convention center is right in the middle of town, next to the historical district. Independence Hall is just a 10 minute walk away from the front doors! The liberty bell can be viewed right across the street, and there's usually no line for that small museum. In fact, there are over a dozen museums, large and small, within a block.
For those of you who are not from Philadelphia originally, you’ll find your experience at the convention that much more memorable by just appreciating the city it’s being hosted in. Take an hour or two to step away, enjoy the sights, and come back. It can give you a palette cleanser of sorts before hunkering down over the next board game. Keep in mind that there are a ton of events that take place outside of the convention too; if you are a fan of a D&D streaming team or another organization, there's a good chance they are organizing a meet up at a local pub or restaurant. Take a little time to look around their social media and see if you can meet up with other fans of your hobby!
#5: A Philadelphia Specific Food List
After seeing a LOT of questions on twitter about where to eat or what to avoid on twitter, I thought I'd make this a seperate section this year. To start, I just have to rave about how good the food scene was just outside of the convention center. On your walk to Independence Hall, you actually walk through Chinatown, where a half-dozen ramen, dim sum, and noodle shops are all waiting with open arms. Because the convention is so centrally located in the city, there are amazing eateries sometimes less than a block away, and for a much better price than the ones in Boston. Long story short - while there is convention food, you shouldn't feel obligated to get it when there are so many amazing options right outside.
With that in mind, here's a list of some of the places we've eaten in the past and really enjoyed in previous years.
- The Brauhaus Schmitz. It's a mile away from the convention center, but it can be worth it. Excellent German food with a phenomenal draft list, we usually make sure to go for dinner at least once, usually the night before the convention. Plus, it has a crazy happy hour deal: from 5-7pm, it has $5 drafts of beer and $7 sausage sandwiches. Their regular food menu is a bit more expensive, but this will fill you up!
- Reading Terminal Market. This is the motherlode, the food cafeteria of your dreams. It has dozens of restaurants and food vendors, ranging from classic burgers and wings to thai food to crepes. It's literally right across the street from the convention center, so you can't go wrong heading in. Well, unless you go right at noon, or right as the expo hall floor lets out. Be prepared to wait an incredibly long time if you do!
- Yamitsuki. Like Reading Terminal, if you try going here right as the expo hall floor lets out, you'll be waiting for an eternity to get in... but its literally right outside the door and has ramen bowls for $11 dollars and up. They also have sushi, hot teas, steamed buns... a very large menu. I had over twelve friends eat there last year and every one of them wanted to go back.
- Pho Cali. You have to walk a block into Chinatown, but I've eaten here every PAX Unplugged so far and loved it. The prices are incredibly low for the amount of food you get, and the lines aren't anywhere as long.
- Trader Joe's! Yes, its a grocery store, but its also right across the street from the convention center, and you can pick up a ton of cheap snack foods, granola bars, and other food stuffs to help power you through your day. Its a great lower cost option for those on a budget.
By no means is this a fully comprehensive list! These are just locations that I've really enjoyed in the past, and other writers here have also had success at.
#6: Share The Fun
Remember that a convention is a convention because of the amount of people there. Remember that what makes a convention so special is that you are suddenly in a space where thousands of others share your interests. I’m serious when I say I don’t need caffeine or alcohol during the event, because the buzz you can get just from all the excitement can be more than enough.
Find yourself demoing a game in the absolutely fantastic First Look section with other curious convention goers? Why not ask what other games they enjoy? Are you joining a Lords of Waterdeep tournament? Why not take the time to get to know the other contestants? You’d be surprised the friendships that can spring up just after a few hours hanging out together.
Enjoy opportunities you might not have at home - like seeing what games haven't even hit the market yet!
Talk with the game developers! We live in a digital world, and it’s a delight that we can interact so easily with designers on twitter. It’s still not the same as having a chance to go up, shake their hand, and thank them for killing you repeatedly in Pandemic Legacy. It’s not the same as getting a chance to set at a table with an RPG designer and have them GM their favorite campaign session. I'll absolutely admit I had a small celebrity freak out the first time I met Keith Baker, rambling about the Eberron system in a way that probably had him smiling and nodding while also trying to escape as quickly as possible. It can be downright inspirational to meet the people behind your favorite games, whether you are a hopeful game designer yourself or just an avid fan.
It's not often that we get a chance to share a public space with so many people all sharing the same goal: to have fun, and celebrate the hobby. Be willing to share your enthusiasm, and there's a good chance you'll get that enthusiasm back in dividends.
Above All Else, Remember Why You Play
There is something at PAX Unplugged for everyone. No matter how much I try to prep and plan, there’s always more than I can see in just three days. There’s always something that exceeds my expectations, something that lets me down, and something that surprises me to become a new favorite game.
Above all else, go. Have fun. Remember the spirit in which conventions like this were made: for people to gather together, revel in our interests, and know that there are thousands out there that share the same ones. If this is your first board game convention, I am genuinely excited for you. I hope PAX Unplugged blows you away.