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In Board Games, Seattle, Travel, Video Games on August 31, 2011 at 4:42 pm

PAX is, bar none, the best convention I have ever been to.

Granted, I don’t have that much experience with cons. I’ve been to Seattle’s Emerald City ComiCon and once went to a Star Wars con in Japan. I’ve also turned up at several geeky gatherings in Portland, but I’ve never really traveled with the sole intent of going to a convention. Until now, of course. It was entirely worth it.

Being able to go at all was something like winning the geek lottery- PAX had long been sold out, and it was by pure fortuitous chance that I was able to get a three day pass at face value. Pass in hand, I made my way up I-5 with the photographer extraordinaire Sarah Giffrow and two other lovely Portland geeks.

Day One: I Am Surrounded By Shiny Stuff and Don’t Know What to Do

Upon arriving at the Washington State Convention Center, I had only a vague idea about what was going on. I knew that there were panels, exhibits, and free-play areas but had no coherent idea of how to address them all. I flipped through the schedule and, not really knowing what to do, just wandered into the main exhibition hall.

The hall is probably the most “normal” part of PAX. It’s all exhibits by major game companies promoting various triple-A titles and new releases. The screens are huge, the lines are long, and noise and light pulsate from displays that range in size from big to huge. I don’t really try to stay current with my gaming habits (the last game that I got really into was the original Dawn of War) so the new releases didn’t hold much interest for me, but the exhibition hall was amusing in an over-the-top sort of way.

Wanting to do something that did not have the volume turned up to 11, Sarah and I attempted to get in line for the Wil Wheaton panel. We thought that we would most assuredly have a spot, given that we were there an hour ahead of time. The line, though, was closed. Wheaton is a popular fellow at these events.

We wandered around the indie games exhibit for a while, and were somewhat amused by a booth promoting a game called Uncle Slam. “It’s like Punch-Out but with presidents.” The game’s concept was amusing enough, but the poor play control got in the way of my enjoyment. For my comments, they gave me a t-shirt.

We ended up playing some Marvel VS Capcom 3 in the console free play area, which I found to be an absolutely wonderful space. PAX goers could sign up to play games on current-generation consoles and stay there as long as they liked. It was a great space to try out new games, and it also served the function of being a place where people could chill out, sit down, and yet still do be doing something PAX-related.

I got a text from a friend of mine, and we ended up joining him and his wife for a panel on indie RPG design. I wasn’t initially excited about it, but it was kind of inspiring to hear self-made creative types talk about what they do. After that, we got some dinner, played some Steve Jackson card games with people, and went to bed. It served as a nice introduction to the whole thing, and the next day I was able to much more coherently enjoy the event.

Day Two: You Will Stand in Line and Like It

One of the main things that I’d wanted to see at PAX was Tycho and Gabe from Penny Arcade actually make a strip in front of an audience. Even though it was one of the first events of the day, I knew it would be popular. I took my place in line in front of the main theater an hour and a half early. My expectation would be that I’d spend most of the time reading, but someone shouted “JOE!” and I ran into someone else from Portland. The line ended up being quite the fun social hangout. People were playing card and dice games, I ended up having a nice chat with some complete strangers, and various PAX volunteers (amusingly known as “enforcers”) kept things interesting by giving us stuff to do. Several of them were handing out pipe cleaners for people to make pipe cleaner art (there were some very magnificent specimens- later on, one woman ended up making a pipe cleaner Sonic Screwdriver), enforcers gave out candy and buttons to people who could answer trivia questions, and several beach balls ended up getting bounced around the crowd. (At one point a beach ball got lodged in a fire escape and had to be rescued by a rather daring gentleman. He was cheered as a hero, and was pretty much our very own Spiderman.)

I appreciated all of this. If participants are going to spend a lot of time in line, then the line might as well be interesting. There was very much a carnival atmosphere in the air, and by the time we all went into the main theater, we were already having lots of fun.

Tycho and Gabe (aka, Jerry and Mike) both have fairly good stage presence, and it was clear that they were quite happy to be in front of their fans. Tycho wrote a comic script in the first few moments of the event, comically pretending to make typos and punctuation errors. For the rest of the event, Gabe’s drawings were projected onto a large screen, and various fans asked them questions.

I found the relationship between the Penny Arcade guys and their fans to be kind of wonderful. Neither of them seemed standoffish or inaccessible, and frequently fans presented them with whimsical gifts such as stuffed animal microbes. It was amazing to watch Gabe/Mike draw. It really is true about skilled people making it look easy. What he was doing looked extraordinarily simple and intuitive, but only because he’s been drawing for years (I guess it’s fair to say that at this point, it’s simple and intuitive to him.)

The whole thing was excellent, and later on I met up with Sarah again to see a live recording of the Acquisitions, Incorporated┬ápodcast. It was pretty much the PA guys, Wil Wheaton, and Scott Kurtz all playing D&D, but they were amusing enough to make it a whole lot of fun. Later on I went to a panel all about gaming’s relationship to the LGBT community, and ended the evening playing the Battlestar Galactica board game until about 1:30 in the morning. (The game perfectly captures the paranoia and desperation of the show- I kind of want it now.)

I went to bed immensely satisfied

Day Three: Portland Geek Pride

On day three I wandered about a bit more, played a whole lot of Marvel VS Capcom III and Street Fighter IV, and realized that as much as I like fighting games some guys are just mind-bendingly skilled. I also went to a panel on freelance game journalism, which is relevant to my interest, but none of that is what I want to focus on. No, day three was all about the Omegathon.

The Omegathon is a competition wherein a small number of lucky PAXers are randomly selected to participate in a tournament-style gaming competition. Five rounds precede the finals, and various preliminary rounds can feature games as disparate as Dance Central or Mario Kart.

The final round of the Omegathon acts as a closing ceremonies of sorts for PAX, and one of the players was actually from Portland. Normally I wouldn’t have had any kind of emotional investment in the outcome, but one of the guys was from my general geographic area, and that changed things.

Several Portland geeks crowded near the front of the theater, bumping up against the stage in a manner that reminded me of mosh pits. None of us knew what the final round would consist of- in previous years it had been claw games and ski ball, and is usually something whimsical or weird.

So, we were very surprised when a familiar eight-bit theme started playing. Two televisions were set up side by side, and the final round was to be competitive Legend of Zelda. Whoever got to the first piece of the Triforce the fastest would be the winner.

A large mosh-pit like conglomeration of Portland geeks proceeded to absolutely lose their shit, and shouted various bits of high-volume encouragement at their representative on stage. Including myself. I was utterly emotionally invested in the outcome of this game, solely because one of the guys who was playing was someone I’d seen before at Geek Trivia.

When something like this happens, I sort of mentally prepare myself for disappointment. I try to cope with losing before it happens, which I’m sure is probably unproductive in a lot of ways. There was no need for that here, though. Our boy from Portland actually won, and got himself a trip to the Tokyo Games Show.

I can understand why soccer fanatic feel the way they do. It was exhilarating to be part of a large, cheering group, all of our various enthusiasm bent on one thing.

I went home exhausted, and satisfied, but also sort of wishing that I didn’t have to go back into the real world again. There’s something nice about hanging out with a bunch of like-minded people, and simply playing games together, striking up impromptu conversations, doing things off the cuff with people you’ve never seen before. That can happen in the real world, certainly, but it’s far easier for that to transpire when you know everyone in the vicinity shares something with you. You’re all there for the same thing, and common ground has already been established.

Against Monopoly: An Invective

In Board Games, Rants on December 9, 2010 at 10:34 am

The other day I had the occasion to go to a mall with some friends, and the whole Cathedral of Consumption (as per usual, this time of year) was decked out with tinsel and faux tree branches, red ribbons and assorted signifiers of consumptive yuletide. Winter Wonderland and its ilk played on the loudspeakers. Patrons moved about, negotiating mall traffic whilst clutching multiple red-and-gold bags redolent with perfunctory gifts.

Such things were expected, but in the mall I espied another seasonal phenomenon. There with the wreaths and the songs and the rest of it were several different versions of Monopoly. Not just in one store (Barnes and Noble may have been the worst offender) but in several.

Classic Monopoly. Star Wars Monopoly. Disney Monopoly. Simpsons Monopoly. Family Guy Monopoly. Anniversary Monopoly in a gold box. Monopoly called “Onyx Edition” which is in a black box for some reason. Monopoly, Monopoly, endless fucking Monopoly.
I hate Monopoly. I hate it as a game, as an object, and as a gift. I hate that it’s successful and enduring. I hate that it’s a piece of Americana and a fixture of households. I hate that it teaches bad lessons about economics and how real estate works. Worst of all, this year countless editions of it will be given as a thoughtless gift. Festive wrapping paper, glowing with festive potential, will be unfurled to reveal a board game of dubious fun and economic fallacy. The various editions will be played once, probably on Christmas or the day after, and then boxed for good. The various bills and pieces will be lost, possibly lodging themselves under refrigerators or in the ducts of heating systems. Years later, when cleaning a vent, someone will find a small, half-melted bit of plastic, and infer that a Monopoly hotel probably got lodged in there somehow.
As a game it requires little to no skill and the conclusion is usually evident from the start. Someone manages to buy up the various valuable properties, and from then it is only a matter of time until the other players go bankrupt. There are no comebacks in Monopoly, and after a certain point little of the uncertainty which lends any game drama. There is very little room for cleverness or wit, very little space for elegance. It is, ultimately, a grown-up version of Candyland- a game flush with iconic adornment, but has very little in the way of actual playability. For all of its non-complexity, it demands that we pay attention and store the various player pieces, cards, bills, houses, hotels, and dice. Upend a Monopoly box, and a whole bunch of disparate shit is on the floor. It is disparate shit that is so much sound a fury (in plastic form) signifying very nearly nothing at all.

Monopoly inspires my hatred precisely because I love games so much. I love Scrabble and Cranium. I love Jenga and Apples to Apples and Trivial Pursuit. I dearly love Risk, in all of its incarnations. Each one of these games has more elegance, more grace, more intelligence and is ultimately a better source of fun than Monopoly. Yet Monopoly gets endlessly repeated and endlessly sold, and is, for some reason, one of the best loved board games out there.

This year, I implore you: Do not buy your loved ones Monopoly. Buy them something with drama, like Axis and Allies. Gift them a game that will actually make a party better (nor more boring) like Apples to Apples. Wrap in paper a game that excites the strategic mind, like Risk. These games, I guarantee you, will be more fun the Monopoly, a terrible game that is wholly unworthy of the attention, money, and love that it receives.