Board games at PAX. What is our place?

The popularity of tabletop games has been growing since the late 90s, and only getting stronger.

Germany met the US in the late 90s, Scott Nicholson made scads of videos showing us how to play them, Meetup, YouTube and Kickstarter became a thing, and Wil Wheaton inflated the craft exponentially by showing people actually having fun playing a game. It turns out that, for all the hype about video games, people really like sitting around a table having a good time. Who knew?

Nothing quite beats the impact of having physical components in hand and actually playing a game, and this is where conventions come in.

PAX AUS 2017 Tabletop Area. Packed!

It was awfully hard to get government departments to take any games industry seriously, but commerce came around when they saw massive bottom lines under video games’ balance sheets. Tabletop games are a much harder sell, since the nature of the industry is completely different. Large, but fragmented into as many people as are willing to design a game or produce components.

It seems to be that, dazzled by dollar signs and their own political motivations, those in the department of commerce get excited by the size of the digital industry, but can’t see the point of tabletop games designers.

This is like heaping praise on a cheese export market while failing to recognise that at some point in the process, someone has to squeeze a cow.

And cow-squeeze we do. Tabletop designers bring the milk. Any digital game can be traced back to its non-digital roots. Board games and books are the precursor to anything that ends up on a screen. Digital’s mother is made of cardboard.

Tabletop has been with PAX Australia from the start, from a few people in a big tent at the Showgrounds to the preferred chill-out area in Jeff’s Shed for patrons to get away from all the dazzle and clamour of digital games for a while.

Board games don’t have the high profile of the glitzy digital games with big-budgets, and sometimes they aren’t given the same love by organisers, but when you talk to many in the digital game industry, their eyes glow with nostalgia and their hands clasp the dice of their fondest memories. The constant flood of PAXers to the bottom half of the hall certainly indicates that there is something there, something in people that craves what only physical games offer.

Attendees would come to PAX for the digital delights, then take a break from close-ups of spines snapping and see what’s around at the other end of the hall. A few nostalgic pangs later and they’d be at a table rolling bones, chatting and laughing across a table. You know, human stuff.

Some tabletop enthusiasts would come to PAX mostly to play tabletop games – with the occasional mental break to look at some screens while munching on a chicken wrap.

Most importantly, there were people there who knew how to play and could teach you these games – sometimes the designers themselves, but more often avid fans of the game.

This is where PAX provides tabletop games an invaluable service: to have people playing games with people who know how to play them.

A modern digital game is an easy sell – the game itself teaches you how to play.

A non-digital game does not – you have to read it yourself. It is a verbal, person-to-person tradition. There is no tutorial mode, so you need the presence of someone who knows how to play in order to learn how to play it.

When it comes to buying a game, non-gamers will not take the risk of buying a game they know nothing about. To play it safe, to avoid Junior’s disappointed face, they buy something familiar-but-awful, like Monopoly.

We can do better than Monopoly!

Tabletop games at PAX takes advantage of hundreds of overstimulated attendees idly wandering into the quieter area to get away from those screens for a while and connect with people for a while. Even if only half of these attendees find their way to a table and play one game, that is a lot of people learning at least one tabletop game, perhaps buying it and spreading that knowledge.

If a game is catchy enough – simple enough for non-gamers to learn, or deep enough for gamers to appreciate – then the spread of this game could reach a critical mass, start a chain reaction of people who like it, perhaps find its way to Essen, or onto Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop, to go nuclear from there.

This explosion happened to Sydneysider Phil Walker-Harding. Sushi Go! took off and sold millions internationally, followed soon by his roaringly popular Bärenpark – but for some reason this doesn’t count to the department of Commerce. It should be of interest to other departments: Education, Health etc., as non-digital games offer mental health, social connection, education and innovation. Plenty more happens at a games table than does on a console.

PAX is a fabulous opportunity for someone with a published game ready to cast it into the eye of the world, and for shops that stock them, but can designers do better than PAX?

Oh yes. A ticket to PAX is an expensive outlay for a designer with a prototype, and bears little fruit. That cost could be better invested at a more designer-focussed event.

So what should we do? It’s alright, we’re already doing it. And PAX is on the case.

For years in Melbourne, the Games Lab Incubator design group has met in person monthly, and this year was forced to go digital. Turns out that only increased its strength and scope, now with participants from all over Australia and New Zealand, running every Wednesday, and they are looking at Fridays as well.

Tabletop Game Designers Australia (TGDA) has also played a strong hand by creating DevCon, a tabletop designers’ mini-conference the day before PAX. This has been running since 2014. Cheaper to get in, it is tabletop only, and draws interstate and international designers and publishers who were in town for PAX.

But even more – and here you can feel the love from PAX – comes ‘The Collaboratory.’ For the last three years, PAX has hosted a three-day designers’ playtesting space. This year was online, featured 34 games, and was extended out to all nine days of PAX. So long was this event, and so quick the iterations possible on digital prototypes that some designers were able to make adjustments to their games for the next day’s play. It was a hotbed for designers.

I think these can be expanded upon, and more of these designers’ events would leave the tabletop games section at PAX for games ready to market, making a much more presentable and legitimate feeling to the craft, which is likely to result in more games enthusiasts, more sales, and may encourage those government heads from commerce to education to take the non-digital games sector a bit more seriously.

Already some games companies provide game enthusiasts with a free ticket and lunch to go to PAX, to teach those games and thrust them into the Australian market and culture.

Commerce could sponsor a few copies of the games that they want to hit the Australian market – say games that are designed in Australia, and throw a few tickets and lunches to volunteers eager to teach those games (just for a couple of hours – they can wander off and enjoy the rest of the show after that). The Minister of Education could fund the Family Games section, throw in a ticket or two and sponsor a stack of family games, while environmental groups can fund tickets to teach games with their choice of social conscience.

This, I believe, is good use of tabletop’s involvement with PAX – a separate and longer function before PAX just for game designers to meet games enthusiasts and other designers, prototypes in hand. PAX proper would feature only games that are ready to hit the market, if not already on it, and have supporters aplenty with a free ticket in hand, ready to teach regular people some market-ready games that they’d be happy to buy, to gift, and to play.

PAX is supporting us, the cow-squeezers, and enjoying our fine cheese.

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