If you’re still on the lookout for that perfect gift for the tabletop gamer in your life, we’ve got you covered. Our writers recently returned from PAX Unplugged, one of the largest tabletop gaming conventions in the country. While we were there we had the chance to try out some great games, and we’ve written about our eleven favorites. Unfortunately, a few of our favorites are still prototypes and aren’t for sale yet—sorry! But keep your eyes out for them because they’re sure to make great gifts in the future!
With its beautiful artwork prominently displayed, numerous freeplay tables covered with its colorful wooden pieces, and the giant copy on the show floor with knee-high miniatures and a game board the size of a garage, Root was hard to miss at PAX Unplugged.
An asymmetrical board game published by Leder Games (Vast: The Crystal Caverns), Root takes 2–4 players (or 1–6 with the expansion) through a wonderfully-painted woodland battle. You play as one of four different clans: the Marquise de Cat, nefarious and militaristic cats who are intent on harvesting the land’s riches; the Eyrie, proud hawk-like creatures who believe their new leader will restore them to glory; the Alliance, who revel in their role as the underdog by recruiting forces and causing unrest for the Marquise; or the Vagabond, the one lone character who plays all sides while pursuing his own goals.
This is a game for Redwall fans who grew up. It has art that will appeal to fans of Brian Jacques’ stories of woodland animals and adventure, yet gameplay that requires a bit more than a fifth grade reading level. As someone who grew up reading about the adventures of Martin the Warrior, I love this game. Each faction has a vastly different play style than the next and requires a different strategy, but all the clans are forced to interact with each of the others in their race to reach the 30 point threshold for victory. The game has a good balance of unit management and easy-to-understand mechanics, yet requires a well-planned strategy.
Root takes us back to our childhood, only this time we are the characters, and we decide the outcome of the vast wilderness.
Root is designed by Cole Wehrle (Pax Pamir, Infamous Traffic, and John Company), published by Leder Games, and brought to life by master illustrator Kyle Ferrin (the Vast series, Stitches). It is for 2-4 players (1-6 with expansion) aged 10+ and plays in about 60-90 minutes. It is available now.
Architects of the West Kingdom
It’s 850 AD,and the Carolingian Empire has lost its luster. Therefore, it falls to you, a royal architect, to restore the kingdom to its former glory by collecting resources, hiring apprentices, constructing buildings, and contributing to the grand cathedral. The architect who most impresses the king will maintain their noble status and win the game while everyone else is demoted to serfdom. In the race to impress the king, players can get ahead by engaging in various underhanded dealings and even construct ignoble buildings. However, hire one too many crooked apprentices or take one too many trips to the black market and you might find yourself on the outs with the king.…it might not be lucrative to hold onto other players workers when you can instead take them to the town prison in exchange for silver.
Architects of the West Kingdom provides a fresh take on the worker placement genre by providing players with the ability to capture each other’s workers, forcing them to adjust their strategy. Each turn, players can either place one of their twenty workers in order to retrieve a resource, spend resources to build, or capture other players’ workers. The more workers you place on a location, the more resources you accumulate each time you send a worker there. Placing several workers on one spot can be quite lucrative, but doing so might invite other players to hinder you by capturing your workers. Fortunately, there are ways to buy captured workers back, and it might not be lucrative to hold onto other players’ workers when you can instead take them to the town prison in exchange for silver. The result is a worker placement game that had me dialing into my role as an ambitious medieval architect.
Architects of the West Kingdom, designed by Shem Phillips and S. J. Macdonald and co-published by Garphill Games and Renegade Games, plays 1–5 players in 60–80 minutes. It is rated for ages 12+ and is available to purchase now in limited quantities.
Projectile Object Games (aka #notPOGs)
Projectile Object Games, aka #notPOGs, began as a joke on the internet between Manny Trembley (co-designer of Dice Throne) and some of his fans. But like many jokes on the internet, it took on a life of its own. By the time PAX rolled around, it had become a real game prototype, and many who played it said it was their favorite game of the show.
At first glance, #notPOGs looks a lot like POGs, those cardboard discs that us 90s kids hoarded in great quantities and the plastic and metal discs we threw at them. But #notPOGs differs in some very important ways. The discs that were “POGs” now represent hit points for your chosen character, and what we once called “slammers” are now “heroes,” attempting to defeat their opponents in glorious battle. There is still plenty of throwing, but each hero also has its own unique abilities, which are triggered if you can catch said hero as it bounces back up. The characters are the same heroes from Dice Throne, so you may choose to play as Pyromancer, for example, and throw fireballs to do extra damage, or play the Gunslinger and force your opponent to duel you.Playing Projectile Object Games involves lots of chasing, dropping, cheering, chucking, groaning, and missing your target hilariously.
Catching your hero is harder than it sounds. So is getting the discs to flip over at all. (How did we do this as kids?!) But even your failures are entertaining. Playing Projectile Object Games involves lots of chasing, dropping, cheering, chucking, groaning, and missing your target hilariously. Projectile Object Games capitalizes on our innate desire to play, and as adults, to shed some of our boring grownup inhibitions.
Projectile Object Games is designed by Manny Trembley and Nate Chatellier, and is still in early prototyping, with no official release date. But rumor has it that one day you will be able purchase your very own copy of #notPOGs. In the meantime, their game Dice Throne: Season One (2–6 players, 20–40 minutes, ages 8+) is available for purchase online and at Barnes & Noble stores across the country, and Dice Throne: Season Two is available for pre-order.
It’s almost lunch time at Polar Island Penguin School and you are starving. Most penguins would wait 15 minutes for the bell to ring but you are really hungry and also too cool for school. So you race out into the hall and head for the cafeteria for some fresh fish. You turn a corner and see her, that goody two shoes hall monitor who’s always busting your beak. So you barrel down the hall, bouncing off walls, and leap into a nearby room to hide. The coast is clear and that fish is within reach.
ICECOOL2 is essentially hide and seek, only instead of running, you flick little plastic penguins around an ice rink, which you create with the cardboard boxes stacked inside the game’s box. Each round, one player takes the role of the “catcher,” or hall monitor, whose job it is to flick their penguin into each of the penguins belonging to the other players. Hit every other player before they retrieve their fish scattered around the board and you win the round. The main difference between ICECOOL2 and the original ICECOOL is new cards that encourage players to take risks by scoring points for various trick shots.
This is a great game to play with kids, but the trick shots make it an equally entertaining game to play with adults. It can be combined with the original, which allows for up to 8 players in one massive rink, and the boxes from the two games can also be shifted around to create custom game boards.
It is 1570 and you are the representative of a powerful Chinese family during the reign of Emperor Longquing of the Ming dynasty. It was during this dynasty that the Great Wall of China was rebuilt, fortified, and expanded in order to fend off attacks from the Mongols. Gùgong is the Chinese name for the Forbidden City in Beijing, and the name of a new board game that recently completed a very successful Kickstarter campaign.
While the consequences for corruption during this era were high, influential families—like the one you represent—would get around this by giving gifts to the highest officials of the Forbidden City and receiving a lesser gift in return. This practice forms the basis of Gùgong and the first player who is able to artfully bribe their way to the emperor wins. What makes the game unique is the gift system that drives most of your actions. The gifts are represented by cards—when players play them, they must swap a higher value card from their hand with a lesser value card from the board. Some cards also allow players to take extra actions around the board. There are seven stations around the board for players to trade cards, gain resources, secure ongoing and endgame benefits, and slowly but surely make their way toward the emperor. The game feels open and balanced, allowing players to try drastically different strategies in successive games.
Gùgong was designed by Andreas Steding and published by Tasty Minstrel Games (US) and Game Brewer (UK). It plays 2–4 players in about 30 minutes and is recommended for children 6+. Gùgong’s Kickstarter campaign is over but you can still preorder the game here or here.
#notPOGs was not the only celebration of 90s nostalgia that filled nerd hearts with joy at PAX Unplugged. Dinosaur Island lets 1–4 players channel their inner John Hammond by tasking them with building and managing their own dinosaur theme park. Players collect and combine DNA to create dinosaurs, build larger enclosures to house more dinos, hire security to ensure the safety of park guests, and build attractions to lure more visitors to their park. The winner is the player who has the most favorable ratio of excitement vs. guests eaten by dinosaurs.The winner is the player who has the most favorable ratio of excitement vs. guests eaten by dinosaurs.
After Dinosaur Island’s wildly successful Kickstarter, Ian Moss worked with Dinosaur Island designer Jon Gilmour to create an streamlined version of the game for 1–2 players. Thus, Duelosaur Island was born. This new game distinguishes itself by its multi-use cards. A single card in your hand can be used one of three ways. Each contains DNA sequences to create dinosaurs, a blueprint for an attraction you can build, and bonus actions you can take when you discard it. You’ll be shooting for the most exciting park while managing its threat level, hiring specialists, and bolstering your security. Duelosaur manages to capture the same feeling of nostalgia-fueled strategic goodness found in its predecessor but plays in half the time (30–45 minutes).
Someone Has Died
The most fun I had at PAX Unplugged came about because someone was dead. Fellow grievers and I gathered around a table to argue over the deceased’s worldly possessions. Someone Has Died is a storytelling game in which each player is randomly assigned an identity, a relationship to the deceased, and some backstory, then must present their case to the arbitrator (game master) incorporating these details. The arbitrator can give out objection cards for particularly good/amusing presentations, which players can use to sabotage other players and bolster their own chances of winning.
The premise of this game was somewhat interesting, but it was in the playing of the game that I was sold. If you enjoyed the concept introduced in Superfight of arguing about the random things that you love, but wished there was more to the game than an argument, Someone Has Died is your game. By structuring the arguments around a purpose, the game begs for improvisation and role play that breathes life into those passionate arguments.
Someone Has Died is a game designed by Ellie Black, Liz Roche, and Adi Slepack, published by Gather Round Games, LLC. It is recommended for ages 13 and older. Game time is listed as 25–35 minutes and it’s recommended for 3–6 players. So many people love it that it’s just recently back in stock!
Chronicles of Crime
Half of my TV diet consists of British murder mysteries, so Chronicles of Crime was a game I didn’t want to miss at PAX Unplugged. You and your friends play as a team of investigators tasked with solving a case in London. Visit locations, talk to witnesses, and gather evidence—all by scanning QR codes in the corners of the cards. Most of the game plays through the app on your phone, with the physical board and cards acting as the console for each of the five scenarios that come in the base game. The mysteries unfold naturally, with options branching out to webs that might just give you the missing piece of information you’ve been looking for … or might waste your time.
It’s a much smoother experience than other clunky roll-and-attempt investigation games that I’ve played. Unlike Time Stories, there is no mandatory reprogramming of a scenario several times to get it exactly right. Chronicles of Crime gives partial credit and allows you to read the full solution to an attempted case if you so choose. I know I praised another game on this list for bringing more structure to a format than a predecessor, but I’m praising Chronicles of Crime for cutting away structure to get to the heart of what makes an investigative experience fun.
Chronicles of Crime is a game designed by David Cicurel and published by Lucky Duck Games. It is recommended for ages 12 and older. Game time is listed as 60–90 minutes for 1–4 players. You can find it at your friendly local game store or on the heartless internet.
Believe it or not, I was once a Boy Scout. I can remember spending weeks on ranches, in the mountains, and trekking through valleys. If there was a place that we could pitch a tent or repel down the face of a cliff, then our Scout Master (my dad) would load us up and take us on an adventure. We hiked trails, caught fish, build campfires, and made peach cobbler inside of orange peels. Seriously. It was awesome!
Since I was a kid my life has changed quite a bit, however, and I don’t get to go camping nearly as much as I’d like to. My oldest son is 6 and we still have never been. I find myself in an interesting stage of life where I am too busy to actually get out there and blaze the trails; instead, I live vicariously through things like movies, TV and games. Thank God for the last one.…there is a large part of me that just wants to play a game where I can relax and take in the sights.
At PAX Unplugged I had the opportunity to relive one of the best parts of my childhood—I was able to play a prototype of a game simply called Parks. This is not a war of attrition. There is no need to build a vast empire or grind your opponent into a fine powder. This upcoming release from Keymaster Games focuses on the journey rather than the destination. In Parks you play as an avid hiker doing your best to visit as many national parks around the U.S. as you can over the course of four seasons. You and your friends will take pictures of the gorgeous landscapes, swap stories over a warm campfire, and collect supplies as you hike your way through these government-protected preserves.
Though I enjoy playing lengthy games chock-full of strategy and competition, there is a large part of me that just wants to play a game where I can relax and take in the sights. This is a game that allows me to do just that. If you like Tokaido, then you’ll love its American brother Parks when it hits Kickstarter next year. I know it will be a welcome addition to my library.
Parks is being designed by Henry Audubon and published by Keymaster Games, with gorgeous art by Fifty-Nine Parks. It is currently unannounced, but expect to hear more about it in Q1 of 2019. All art is subject to change upon release.
Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Champions
For too long, the God-King Sigmar has watched the forces of evil decimate his realm, biding his time, kindling his wrath, and building an army to restore order and purge the realm of darkness. Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Champions places the player in control of one of the four Grand Alliances: Death, Chaos, Destruction, or Order. Each alliance uses its units, spells, and abilities to please the gods and undermine the opposition. Unlike most trading card games (TCGs), Warhammer allows players to begin the game with their strongest cards already on the table and uses a rotating card mechanic to keep track of the Champion’s quests and damage done.
Warhammer is a fun take on a TCG, but what sets this game apart is what the developer refers to as a “new dimension in gaming.” It allows the player to scan any card they own in to the Warhammer app to use for in-app gameplay. Though both the app and the cards can each be played as a stand alone game, scanning the physical copies of your cards makes it easy to switch seamlessly between card and app play, without spending extra money. Not to mention the convenience of not having to carry your entire collection with you. Once a card has been scanned into the app, it cannot be scanned again by other players. However, scanning another player’s card can give you bonuses, so there’s a unique community aspect to this game. Warhammer packs all the enjoyment of a TCG, combined with the ability to meet your friends and foes in the Mortal Realms for a clash of order vs. chaos from the comfort of your own bed, cubicle, or toilet.
Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Champions is published by Games Workshop and PlayFusion, plays 2 players IRL, or against players worldwide via the app, in 15–30 minutes. It is rated 12+ and their newest booster-pack expansion, Onslaught, is available now.
Showdown! The Samurai Card Game
I discovered this game when I happened to walk by the New Experience Workshop booth and the artwork caught my eye. Who doesn’t love a good samurai showdown? I stopped to watch the game unfolding between two friends as they mercilessly attacked each other.
Showdown! is all about building the best five-card hand as quickly as possible. The objective is to have one of each Bonus card, which includes Titles (e.g., Peasant, Shogun), Weapons (e.g., Katana, Ninjato), and Notoriety (e.g., Respected, Wanted) plus special cards that have the potential to turn the tides of battle. You and your opponent take turns drawing a card from the top of the deck and laying it down so all can see, then choosing whether to take this card or the next card on the top of the deck, then discarding back down to five. I watched the two frenemies go back and forth like this until a Duel card was drawn. The time had come.
The players laid their cards down one by one and put their samurai training to the test. Only one could survive. The first samurai swung at his opponent with his katana only to find out that his enemy had a card that allowed him to dual wield weapons. Their swords clanged against each other as they realized they were evenly matched with the same value of Bonus cards. But unbeknownst to the first, the second samurai had a trick up his sleeve! He played the Special card Lucky Talisman, which allowed him to win an evenly matched showdown. He slashed down his opponent in a swift and brutal attack. The battle was over as quickly as it began.
Between the fast-paced action, the artwork, and the enticing idea of brutally killing my friends and family (hypothetically speaking of course), I was sold and picked up a copy for my own game night.
My mom killed us all.
Showdown! The Samurai Card Game is designed by Chris Amburn and published by New Experience Workshop. It can be played with 2–6 players with a play time of 5 minutes per player. It is recommended for players 12 & up, and is available now.
– Dustin Davis