The best board games we played at PAX Unplugged
A few of our favorite games from the big new board gaming convention.
As with any con of this scale, there were bound to be disappointments—we simply ran out of time to try things like Merlin and Transatlantic and Ex Libris and Queendomino. But we did get in plenty of sessions with great new games; here are some of our favorites from the show.
Wolfgang Kramer, Restoration Games, 2-6 players, 10+, 20-40m
Wow—this was a surprise. A remake of Wolfgang Kramer’s classic, the new edition of Downforce plays like a dream. Too many racing games play more like strategic brain-burners, but Downforce flies past. Car movement is card-driven; discard something from your hand and move multiple cars the requisite number of spaces shown beside their colors. You only play each card once per game, though, so deciding when to blast your car ahead eight spaces and when to hold back, advancing other colors instead, is the game’s main decision. Sounds simple, except that you can bet on a winning car that’s not your own—meaning you might actually want someone else to come in first. Combined with special player powers, the ability to create traffic jams through the turns, and the need to bid on cars upfront (thus lowering your overall winnings at game end), this is phenomenal quick racer that’s perfect for families. My 11-year old daughter and I both wanted to play again immediately.
Friedemann Friese, Stronghold/2F Spiele, 2-5 players, 8+, 20-30m
This one isn’t brand new, but with a Limes expansion appearing in December, I took some time to demo Fabled Fruit for the first time. It’s a simple enough game of taking worker placement actions on various card “spaces” in order to collect fruits and turn them into juices. But the fact that new card types appear over the course of many games, while initial card types are continually retired, keeps everything fresh—and new mechanisms like marketplaces appear to alter basic rules of the game. Set collection is a particularly satisfying mechanism but one that stales easily; Fabled Fruit tweaks the formula in every game to bypass that problem. Neither “heavy” nor terribly strategic, this is a fast and fun card game that can be explained in a couple of minutes, making it perfect as a “filler” or with the family. Highly recommended; I can’t wait to play through the whole deck.
Michael Kiesling, Plan B Games, 2-4 players, 8+, 30-45m
Unfortunately, I already used “wow!” when describing Downforce. Azul deserves the description, too, though, generating significant buzz online and at the convention due to its amazing table presence, accessible gameplay, and the interaction between set collection and pattern creation. Based on Islamic-inspired Portuguese tiles called azulejos, this pure abstract involves collecting sets of similar tiles and slotting them into rows on your personal game board. When a row is completely filled, one of its tiles is moved over into the square pattern to the right, garnering bonuses depending on placement and for completing rows and columns. Turns are quick, and each set of tiles you grab creates both problems and opportunities for other players. Michael Kiesling, creator of the criminally overlooked Sanssouci (among many other designs), looks to have another hit on his hands.
Rüdiger Dorn, Pegasus Spiele, 2-4 players, 8+, 20-40m
Not out until 2018 in the US, this one has just appeared in Germany—and one copy was brought over to PAX Unplugged. This became one of my must-try games of the show, as the original Istanbul was an amazing and colorful achievement perhaps only marred by its slightly fiddly setup. The new dice version does away with the core “move your merchant and assistants around the board” mechanism of its bigger brother, but it provides some of the same ruby-grabbing rush for glory. Six rubies wins the game, and you can collect them by spending goods, paying money, or collecting mosque tiles. Dice take the place of assistants here, with rolls providing goods, money, access to bonus cards, and more. Choosing how to cash these in for resources during each turn’s two actions drives the gameplay, which is quick and engaging. (I was surprised just how quickly those last few gems were snatched up.) An insta-buy for me when it arrives next year.
G.W. D’Arcey, Rob Daviau, Justin D. Jacobson, Restoration Games, 3-4 players, 14+, 40-60m
A trick-taking game from the same studio that brought back Downforce, Indulgence‘s twist is the presence of three “edicts” available every round. Each edict changes the win/lose conditions for that hand, sometimes in surprising and complicated ways. Players can also attempt the inverse of a given edict—so taking all the red cards instead of taking no red cards, for instance—in order to win (or, more usually, lose) even more points. Great art direction, oversized cards, and a free ring in the box for $20? A great pick for anyone who enjoys more traditional card games. (If you like trick-taking games, take a gander at Renegade’s new two-player-only Fox in the Forest—it looks similarly solid.)
Listing image by Nate Anderson