Back in September 2019 when I was attending my first overseas PAX in Seattle with my brother, I would have ridiculed you if you had told me I’d be doing 5 PAXes over the following 5-ish months.
And yet, that is exactly what happened. Fate kept placing opportunities right in front of me. I am now the proud owner of 5 consecutive PAX pins that I bought myself first-hand. Also, owner of deep respect for the PAX staff who do this every year.
If you don’t know what a PAX is, let me explain.
If you do know what a PAX is, let me tell you how they compare, and which one is best.
What is this PAX you speak of?
PAX is a shared hallucination. A massive guided meditation on Nerd Culture. A dream, wrapped in exhibitions and panels, wrapped in a massive expo, wrapped inside yet another dream.
More practically, think of it as a broader friendlier Comicon or Supernova depending on where in the world you live.
The basic ingredients of all PAXes are alike:
- Take one massive expo hall filled with exhibitors.
- Add several freeplay areas with games old and new.
- Mix in some competitive play.
- Garnish liberally with cosplay.
- Serve with panels and performances.
And all of these stretch across the full spectrum of PCs, consoles, handhelds, boardgames, and roleplaying. It is A Lot.
Another critical ingredient that makes PAXes different are the Enforcers. These are specially trained zen monks (volunteers) that roam and manage all aspects of the event to keep things friendly and orderly. They possess an uncanny ability to charm snaking queues and make them move like beaded strings of people. They are your go-to if you are lost, anxious, or in need of any other kind of assistance. They keep people on their better behaviour and it fundamentally alters the feel of the entire event. It’s hard to really explain well in words. You can feel it when you’re there though.
Unless you are completely devoid of any nerd/geek spirit, I can almost guarantee you’d love PAX (and even if you are, you’d probably still love it at least once).
A Tale Of Five PAXes
PAX West - Seattle – Aug 30 - Sep 2, 2019
It all started as an excuse to see my youngest brother. I managed to get us tickets and a hotel to stay in. We both made arrangements to make the trip useful with a work stop-over on the way in. I can heartily recommend not rolling into any PAX on the day itself – see PAX East further down.
My first impression was one of clouds. Descending into Seattle seemed to involve multiple layers of cloud as if the city was trying to pull a prank on my expectations. Once through the final layer though what struck me is how beautiful the area looks around the sprwaling waters and bays. Seattle is a very hilly city though, so I was glad to have brought my hiking legs along for the experience.
We spent the evening of our arrival disposing of the formality of having sushi somewhere, which is almost a ritual part of our meetings. And having a stroll around the streets of Seattle I wish I had had the foresight to set aside an extra day for the city itself. PAX is great, but so is Seattle.
The first impression was one of metal detectors; a thus-far unfamiliar experience for me at a PAX. This is also the one down-side to the setup of PAX West – because it is spread over multiple venues you have to calculate in not just travel time, but also queueing time to get yourself and your bag checked.
Between one convention centre, one Paramount Theatre, and multiple hotels across the city each hosting a portion of the event, I anticipated a lot of walking and I wasn’t let down. My Fitbit got a good workout over the long 4-day weekend.
Once inside the convention centre for the first time, it quickly became apparent that this is the quirkiest of PAX venues. I have no reason to believe that the reason all PAX maps look like game-level maps is because the convention centre is structured like a computer game… but I know in the truthiness of my mind that this is factually correct.
There are stairs hidden behind blocky tesselated wall structures which give you a shortcut between levels. Escalators seem to intentionally be hidden from view in several places. There are many wondrous corners that suddenly reveal a new area you could not have suspected. The architects of this building must have awoken full of inspiration from a fever dream after an overly long session of classic Mario games. And what better place for a PAX?
The expo “floor” is actually split into several portions in different halls in the convention centre. My only prior experience had been PAX Aus, so I had assumed that all PAXes must have a big expo hall that combines everything. Instead, PAX West has a hall dark as a nightclub filled with thumping music and flashing screens with intent gamers trying to defeat eachother in some PvP experience.
The boardgaming and merch portion of the expo is better lit, but densely packed with people, and somewhat maze-like. Several times throughout the weekend I had to zig-zag the entire floor to re-discover something I had seen before and could have sworn was in a completely different corner. The setup is wonderfully disorienting. My brother and I opportunistically queued for a free caricature drawing by the creators of Idle Champions, which was a fun experience.
And then there is the Paramount Theatre. The main event, the Acquisitions Incorporated D&D game had attendees queueing over the wide freeway and almost completely around the block. The theatre has a genuine classic feel about it; think scalloped architecture and rich red drapes.
I took the opportunity to buy the Acq Inc D&D manual and get it signed by many of the contributors.
Another highlight I cannot quite place chronologically anymore was the fantastic Supergiant concert where they played operatic versions of many of the songs from their games. I have only really played Bastion all the way through but the music they create for their games is simply epic.
And at the end of the ride, for the first time ever, we stayed for the Omegathon final. The Omegathon is a multi-round elimination competition where on the order of 16-20 attendees enter, and only one leaves victorious with a free pass to another PAX. They played an unfamiliar VR game which involved hitting virtual targets hurtling towards the players at immense speed. It was an unbelievably spectacular end to a 4-day weekend that was just long enough to feel completely satiated.
PAX Aus - Melbourne – Oct 11 - Oct 13, 2019
Even after 4 other PAXes, there is still something special about PAX Australia to me. Maybe it’s the big LED-sign on the front of the convention centre. “Welcome Home” has always feeled pithy but immensely deeply loaded in context. I hope it is no insult to mr. Holkins that despite his numerous other works I feel this might in fact be his very best writing… if it doesn’t sound strange to apply the term to two words. There is a reason this is the PAX slogan.
If you live in Australia, and you’ve only been to a Supernova or something equivalent before, you might think you understand what to expect from this event. If so, I’m sorry you feel that way.
The expo floor is small compared to a PAX West or PAX East, but it brings such an exciting mix of exhibitors to Australia that it really doesn’t matter. Quality over quantity. And it’s still larger than other similar expos I’ve been to in Australia. I really don’t bother with any substitutes anymore.
One thing that seems to be unique to PAX Aus is how the PAX XP treasure hunt works. In all other venues it involves tablets that you tap your badge against to collect fragments of a story, and once you complete the story you can hand it in to get a prize. In Australia it involves scanning special QR codes that give you fragments of a picture on a 4x4 grid and once you complete the picture you can claim a prize. Completing a picture still feels more satisfying to me on some visceral level than completing a story.
Australia also has the best positioning for the Just Dance stage and the Jackbox party games. In most of the other PAXes they feel like less well attended afterthoughts, but in Australia they sit ideally positioned in the open space outside the main Panel theatres, so that you can while away some time playing a game or watching attendees bust a move while you wait for a queue to start forming for the panel you want to attend.
And I hadn’t really appreciated the free miniature painting and competitions at PAX Aus for the near-unique element they apparently are. My friend Jason at the start of the year infected me with the miniature bug, so now I’ll have to actually practice my skills. As if I had time for another hobby.
The only downside to PAX Aus is that it only lasts 3 days. Although there is enough time to see/do everything that is important to me, it always feels like it ends just a little too soon. Having attended two 4-day PAXes now, I can conclusively say that 4 days is the ideal length for a PAX.
PAX Unplugged - Philadelphia – Dec 6 - Dec 8, 2019
And then it slowly started getting out of hand…
Late 2019 I had two work trips scheduled with two weeks inbetween. So I decided to visit family in the Netherlands inbetween without telling anyone but my youngest brother beforehand. But to top off the madness I decided that if I was already taking 8 flights in 4 weeks, adding 2 more to get to Philadelphia and back along the way was a neat cap-stone.
I anticipated this PAX was going to feel much closer to my heart because of its sole focus on non-digital games (boardgames and role-playing games). And I wasn’t disappointed.
The expo is huge. Not larger-than-East-or-West huge, but it’s a PAX East worth of nothing but tabletop gaming. And contrary to PAX Aus, 3 days is actually inadequate for me to properly look at everything the expo has to offer here. I zig-zagged the floor to get a general sense of everything there was, and I spent in-depth time at about half the stands that I was interested in.
The Wyrmwood display of their gaming tables felt deeply cruel. The tables are expensive… but shipping to Australia is prohibitive to even consider. The carefully crafted and polished woodwork was glorious to behold. Envy-inducing even. Someone somewhere has a gaming table like those and I don’t!
I did however manage to get Chris Perkins to sign my backpack, which thrilled a customs officer on my way back out from Philadelphia. It took me so by surprise that he recognized the name on my bag that he had to repeat his comment three times before I understood what he was talking about.
And I also got Pat Rothfuss to sign my Kindle cover. I assured him the entire surface was his to deface since there were no other authors on it that were worthy. I think he may still have held back slightly. He is polite like that.
Again, I didn’t have enough time to appreciate all-that-is-outside-PAX; there was a wonderful German-style winter market in progress in the city, and I had a quick dash around, but I wished I had had more time. It was bitingly cold though, and I did not yet have an Acq. Inc. scaft and PAX beanie at the time.
My most cherished souvenir is the Wild Bill’s double-walled metal tankard that I bought; it came with a day’s worth of free refills with brewed soda. I only tried two flavours, but I reckon they are probably all a bit sweeter than I really care for. Now the tankard does regular Negroni duty though. And it comes with me to D&D games.
PAX South - San Antonio – Jan 17 - Jan 19, 2020
If PAX Unplugged was an opportunistic planned add-on to a holiday, PAX South was an entirely last-minute addition to an already booked work trip. I think PAX South is normally too early in the new year for it to register.
It was a very quiet affair though – I don’t know what might have caused it, but the entire show felt fairly under-capacity for the weekend I spent there. It also felt like the expo hall perhaps was missing some content; there was a large empty corner that looked like it might have been a last-minute consolidation of dropped-out exhibitors.
PAX South also feels very much like PAX Aus to me. The setup although not identical has a very similar feel and setting.
I actually got a lot more novelty and value from the outside-PAX at this event. The city is gorgeous. The people are friendly. And the most noteworthy feature is “The Riverwalk” which is a sunken-below-street-level system of canal-like streams surrounded by parks and bordered on both sides with pedestrian paths.
I went to get my regulation-mandated sushi at a restaurant about 4-5 blocks from the hotel and convention centre, and I did not cross a single street to get there. The sushi was also a pleasant surprise… anticipating robust pricing I may have slightly over-ordered for a single diner. But no regrets. It was delicious and worthwhile.
PAX East - Boston – Feb 27 - Mar 1, 2020
This fell precisely over the middle weekend of my most recent two week work trip to San Francisco, so it was impossible to pass up the opportunity. Besides which I had been stuck in doing Compliance and Audit work for so long that I had earned a little break.
I flew my first ever red-eye to Boston on this trip. Sadly there was a stop in Philadelphia that broke up the 7-hour trip meaning I at best got about 4-5 hours sleep before my first day at PAX.
I arrived at the hotel for my stay bright and early; 8am, feeling in need of a shower from my flight. I had faintly hoped they might be able to get me an early check-in; I’d even have paid for the privilege. Sadly, the hotel was booked so solid that the kind guy checking me in really couldn’t do anything. He took my email address and would mail me as soon as the room became available.
So, after leaving my bags at the hotel, I started my trek to the convention centre a little before opening time.
The distance on the map from the city centre to the convention centre didn’t look too far. It proved to be a 20-minute trek at a brisk pace. I crossed an inlet that looked like a river, and a fly-over over a parking lot that seemed just as wide.
Looming before me was the 2-by-3-city-block behemoth known as the Boston Convention and Exhibition Centre. Overall, it wasn’t the most inspiring architecture, but it definitely was the best designed convention centre layout I have ever seen. I didn’t experience any serious traffic jams or awkward cross-flows that seem common at other PAXes. Germany:Cars == Boston:Convention-Centres.
And the expo hall itself is spectacular. Set on the bottom level of the 4 level structure, it looks as if it has been inset into the ground. There are two enclosed walking bridges on the entrance level that cross the width of the expo hall, giving a spectacular view of madness of thousands upon thousands of enthusiasts mingling among the exhibitors.
I don’t know whether the food trucks were a nod to the fact BCEC is far outside the city centre and thus far away from readily available restaurants. But whatever the reason, one lawn area to the side of the convention centre was surrounded every day by campervan sized trucks each selling a different cuisine. It felt like a mobile mirror image of the eateries just outside the Melbourne PAX. Though seemingly somewhat over-priced, I tried a couple and didn’t regret the experience.
On the first day I bought a scarf and beanie to ensure I woudln’t freeze on my twice daily trips between the hotel and the BCEC. I did a quick exploration of the scope of the PAX, but around noon got an email that my room was ready. I had a quick shower and change at the hotel which felt fantastic, and I had hoped to make it to the concerts at the end of the first day… alas, I was too tired by 6pm, so I went to the hotel to have a good night sleep.
The second day felt much more comfortable after a 10 hour sleep. I tried to queue for the limited-edition show pins, but found out that they had already sold out even though there weren’t even physically present. On the fourth day I managed to get in early enough to get a code voucher to pre-order the pins and have them shipped (free of charge! what service!) to Australia once they become available at the end of Corona-induced production delays.
This was the first PAX that I actively tried pin-trading with Penny Arcade staff. This was mainly induced by the wonderful meeple-design pins they have created this year. I will trade more later in the year to complete my set. I appear to have turned into that pin trader even though I didn’t see the point initially. I stick to pins I really like though; I don’t need to be a completionist here.
And this is also the first PAX where I queued for a session I failed to get into in the end. I had hoped to see the Baldur’s Gate 3 release panel live… but I’ll watch the video feed later.
My recommendation for this PAX is to try and get in early for the hotel attached to the BCEC. As much as the city centre has lovely restaurants, the biting cold on the walk over every time is a real killer. And we’re not here for the food after all… (are we?)
I lied a little.
There is no strict “best”.
But there might be a “best for you”.
Although all PAXes share a lot of common DNA, they each have a very distinct character and emphasis.
The riverwalk at PAX South is wonderful. The people are friendly. It’s a cozy PAX. But it’s not for me – the event itself is too similar to PAX Aus to have enough distinct DNA to overcome the fact it’s in Texas, and I’m not thrilled about gun culture. I didn’t feel unsafe per-se,… but I also didn’t feel entirely at ease here. I felt constantly alert in a way that I never did at any of the other PAXes.
The quixotic design of the convention centre in Seattle is fantastic. It feels like a perfect melding of form and content, as if the concept of PAX, the content of PAX, and the building containing PAX are all on exactly the same wavelength. Having PAX in summer weather is also a huge draw-card, especially when walking between multiple venues. And being at PAX in Seattle feels like the embodiment of “Welcome Home” as well. The tickets for this event are hotly contested so it might not be a convenient “every year” for everyone, but I can highly recommend trying to go at least once.
Unplugged is the ultimate boardgame and D&D event. If non-digital is your jam, there is so much here that you’ll feel hard-pressed to properly experience this entire PAX before it is over. This is the only PAX that is genuinely too full of content to fit in the 3 days it has been given. It also feels like the intrinsically most social PAX available. This is probably the most accessible one to a general audience.
PAX Aus. What can I say. It’s my home turf. The absence of metal detectors is something I’ll relish more after doing all the others. The big LED sign over the front entrance wishing us “Welcome Home”. And it feels like arriving home to Christmas. Held in the best city in the world for affordable food in the widest variety imaginable. This PAX is a slam-dunk for me, not just for it’s proximity, but because in many ways it feels like the idealized middle-point of all the quirks and differences of the other PAXes rolled together.
And PAX East is like a more sensibly designed version of PAX West. It has the same breadth and depth. The same line up of headliner panels. But it also has a venue that makes the most sense of all PAXes; it is a little less quirky, and that’s probably why personally I’d still favour West over East, but if you are mainly after the content and not the packaging, this PAX is by far the most practical container for the content you crave.
A Little Bit of This and a Little Bit of That
First, let me reassure you – you don’t need to do 5 PAXes to get the full PAX experience. But I would recommend trying more than just one, because they aren’t the carbon-copies you might assume if all you’ve seen is one.
Having said that, you don’t need to do both East and West. They are functionally very similar events. Pick West if you enjoy weird and quirky or if you prefer summer. Pick East if you enjoy practical and sensible or if you prefer winter.
You don’t need to do both PAX Aus and PAX South. Yes, the Riverwalk is fantastic, but so is the South Bank in Melbourne. The convention centres in both cases fully contain the event, but have some interest to their layouts as well. Kinda half-half between the “quirky” of West and the sense of East. Pick Aus if you live in Australia or if you really don’t like guns. Pick South if you live in the US.
And PAX Unplugged is a choice you should mainly make based on whether you like boardgames and/or D&D. If you don’t like either (a lot), skip this one.
Personally, I’ll always go PAX Aus, and I’d love to do West again sometime. I’d love to do Unplugged again as well, but I want to go there with some other board-gamers, so I’ll need to either convince both my brothers to meet me there, or I’ll have to see if one year I can convince all of “Wednesdays” to fly to Philadelphia for a long weekend.
The Perfect PAX
Having said all that; there is conceptually a perfect PAX, but it is not a PAX that exists in a single coherent reality.
Take the Riverwalk from San Antonio.
Put it in Melbourne branching off the existing river.
Take the Seattle convention centre.
Take a scaled-down copy of the Boston convention centre.
Stick them together and put them behind the front entrance of PAX Aus.
And bring that extra helping of boardgames and D&D from Unplugged.
That’d make for one hell of a spectacular PAX in the best place on earth.