PAX UNPLUGGED 2018
by Kate Foil the Geeky Redhead
It’s been… embarrassingly long since I wrote up one of these. So try to take it easy on me ok? No? Ok, fine…
This was my first time at PAX Unplugged and, surprisingly enough — my first time at a convention in the Philly Convention Center — so I was a little nervous, especially since I was going to be helping out my friend Jay Justice with her table at the Diversity Lounge. She’s amazing, btw, go check her out. She’s done cosplay for Marvel, editing, you name it. Finish reading this first. But go check her and her stuff out.
To start with: I was incredibly excited for PAX Unplugged. I’d never been to a board game convention before. The vast majority of my experience is with comic book cons. To top it off, I’ve been going through a rough transition in my life so this break was eagerly anticipated. While my overall take away from it was great… my first impression: Not. Good.
Since pretty much all my issues with the con are about this, we’ll just start there.
The first one isn’t actually the con’s fault but the Park America parking garage doesn’t have wheelchair access on all levels. Jay uses a scooter. We had to park on level nine. The parking garage literally has a locked gate across the ramp that would have allowed her to access the elevators. We figured out that it’s probably not actually graded for a wheelchair and that is why they lock it… but it was REALLY annoying. So this means that if you have a mobility aide, congrats you can only use level three. This also means that you have to be picked up at the street level because cars can only hit level three going UP, not down to exit.
It’s possible that other parking garages in the area are better – we stuck to the same one because “better the devil the we know”. It was also pricey – 30 dollars for the day Sat and Sun. We paid 15 on Friday, but only because we got in before 9 AM and were out before 7PM.
When we tried to get into the con itself, we ran into several problems with both event staff and building security regarding a lack of ADA line and a lack of information about where we were supposed to go to pass through security. The enforcer we spoke to certainly had not been prepared for these questions but also did not call for answers. We eventually snagged a building security officer who wanded us and we were able to get in.
Beyond that first day, we were good as far as security went. However, if there were any ADA services available, we certainly didn’t know about them. Beyond that I saw some folks who were letting ADA folks line up for something early in the mornings. One evening, as we were leaving, the elevator stopped about a half inch away from level. Again, not the cons’ fault, but it’s an issue.
This was awesome. Like I mentioned, I was in the Diversity Lounge. I didn’t get to talk to the other queer gamers as much I would have liked but it was just a blast to hang out. There were about… seven or eight tables at least of different queer groups who were all there to share our interest in gaming. Geeks Out! was there with their pronoun pins and stickers (I adore them so much), and we had a ton of queer foot traffic. The conversations I had were amazing – I literally geeked out about Dragon Age sooo much – and I heard so many people commenting about how great it was to have a space that they felt safe in. Beyond one weirdo in a MAGA hat, the entire con was very queer friendly. I got to chat with Kira Magrann, who created the game A Cozy Den — a game about role playing lesbian half-human snakes who are preparing their den for winter.
I also noted (solely through casual observation not a scientific tally) there were a lot more female vendors than I am used to seeing at comic book conventions. PAX bills itself as being anti booth babe but there are tons of women involved in all aspects of the convention as creators, sales, con staff, etc. That is always good. Also… GENDER NEUTRAL BATHROOMS!
Your basic con diet. Overpriced water. Overpriced coffee. Bring snack bars or be prepared to venture out into Philly. Reading Terminal Market is just across the way, so if you are able to walk a block you have a ton of options. The lines will be long though so be prepared for that. That’s fairly standard for a weekend in Philly but seeing badges made it obvious that there was a lot of convention traffic happening as well.
The good news is that Philly has a lot of options, between the abundance of WaWas and independent restaurants. The bad news is that you have to leave the con to get to them which requires you to be both comfortable and interested in doing such.
This con is limited in scope – and that isn’t a flaw. PAX Unplugged is designed with a hardcore focus on tabletop gaming – board games, RPGs, minis. There are no computer games and very few of the merch areas had anything that was not directly related to tabletop gaming. I saw specialty dice sets that made my mouth water – seriously, someone buy me some amethyst dice, please! – and I saw a frikkin’ dice catapult.
There was one vendor selling some gaming inspired jackets and clothing, and there were plenty of dice jewelry and plushies. Overall though… games and game accessories. So if you are looking for more diversity in shopping, you are probably going to be let down.
I loved it.
Just. Loved. It. There was a feeling of joy and fun that simply permeated the air. I saw children and parents learning new games together. Kids who were learning the classics as well as discovering niche games. There was a shared love of games. It didn’t matter what kind you were into, how much you knew, it just mattered that you were there and you wanted to play.
My favorite area was probably the “Looking For Group” area, as I called it mentally. A number of tables were positively loaded with games of all varieties. All up for play – you checked one out like a library book and could sit at seemingly endless rows of tables to play with your friends. Or, if you didn’t have enough players, you could put up a looking for group flare – in the shape of a traffic cone with LFG on it. This is one of the few cons I’ve found that truly had built-in socialization through the non-stop gaming. Yes almost all cons have game demos and a bunch have an area where you can sit and game, but almost everyone there is there to play games. Not just with their own clique.
The reports I got about last year was that cosplay was nonexistent. This year there was cosplay but not a lot. PAX has pretty strict rules about cosplayers and what they are allowed to wear, especially women-presenting ones. I’m divided on that – the wording borders on slut shaming IMHO.
HOWEVER… and this is a strong HOWEVER… This is tempered with a strong women’s presence, a number of programs that are geared at diversity, and the overall feel of the con is that of family friendly, joyous and supportive. I never felt dismissed, mansplained or dealt with gatekeepers. I’m sure they existed — I’m not going to pretend this was some perfect place — simply to say that while I’m uncomfortable with dress codes that emphasize modesty, I wouldn’t penalize the con for it in light of their other successes.
If you have even the faintest interest in board games or tabletop RPGs, and can reasonably get into Philly… definitely go. I encountered some folks who had traveled internationally and I’m not sure that I would suggest coming that far for it, but I would certainly say that it’s worth a few hours drive and a hotel room for. When you combine it with a chance to walk around Philly and explore the historic city, it’s practicality required. (PS – Look up the Mutter while you are there. It’s my favorite museum of all time.)
The enforcers that were new seemed to not know what they were doing – in addition to our aforementioned issues, no one came to close the Diversity Lounge the first day, but the old hands were confident and comfortable. As this is a fairly new addition to the PAX family, I am hopeful that this will get ironed out. I’m crossing my fingers that it’s just a matter of newbies not feeling empowered to do what they need to do. It is, however, worth watching to see if it remains an issue.