The PAX East Report: Day Three

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PAX East and Daylight Saving Time make poor bedfellows. Especially when you’re up until four in the morning writing articles for your blog. I had to be at the con by 10am this morning for Watch the Skies, and my body ached with every step I made. Note to self – try not to make such poor life choices.

Today was dominated by nothing other than Watch the Skies, so this article may be little more than my thoughts on the game. At the end, however, I’ll try to do a con wrap-up and post my thoughts about the weekend as a whole. As I previously stated, Watch the Skies is a 60-person board game where you play as a human country or as aliens. As a human, you take on one of five distinct roles for your country. We were assigned the country of China. Pete claimed Head of State, and Chelsea grabbed Deputy Head of State. Dan wanted to be the Chief Scientist, and Vicki wanted to be our Foreign Relations adviser. That left me with War Minister, which was a role I was only happy to play.

I won’t bore you with all of the details on how the game is set up, but I’ll try my best to convey what the experience is like. The game consists of 12 30-minute rounds (we only got to 10 before the con started emptying out at 5pm). Each country is given some credits based on its income level that it can spend each turn on military, research, UN proposals, etc. My job as military commander was to chase down flying saucers with our military and place covert operatives in other countries. At the top of each round, each player would head off to their designated table to perform their assigned responsibilities. Halfway through the round, all players would return to their country’s table, discuss strategy, meet with other countries, and plan for the next round.

I think one of the things that bothered me was that there was no explicitly stated end-game goals for each country, with the exception of keeping the “terror track” below 250 (which we succeeded in doing). This made it hard to prioritize our actions each turn, and I felt that each country wound up merely reacting to the game’s events rather than planning out an actual strategy.

Still though, one of the more enjoyable aspects of the game was meeting new people and making friends. I wound up talking a lot with the Russian war minister while at the war map, and so our countries wound up becoming formal allies. In fact, we shared so much of our intel with Russia by the end of the game that we considered a UN proposal that would merge our countries into the mighty “Crussian Empire”. Sadly, the game ended before we could make the move.

Speaking of game endings, I think I may have made Watch the Skies infamy with my “unilateral action”. One of the big mysteries of the game is determining whether the alien players are friendly or hostile. At around turn 8, three gigantic alien structures appeared on the war map on top of Japan, Central China, and Southern India. Despite the obvious need for urgency in dealing with them, the international community still chose to deliberate whether or not they were useful to us. By the time turn 10 came around, we were still refusing to do anything, despite the game ending that round.

As such, I decided to take matters into my own hands pretty literally. I stole Pete’s nuclear launch codes and launched a single missile at Japan (an action that got my character executed in the epilogue). Why Japan? Well, they had been acting suspiciously aggressive the entire game (though later I found out that it was just their foreign minister who was dominating their country’s foreign relations). No one else trusted them. There was also an alien fungus that had clearly originated from Japan that was killing people and crops all across Asia. It felt like betrayal was around the corner, so a nuclear missile seemed like a good idea at the time. I later found out from our foreign relations adviser that Japan was definitely not infested by aliens, though that information came much too late before I decided to start World War III.

The effects of the nuke and the epilogue were quite entertaining to see. It turns out that the alien structures were terraformers that were repairing our O-zone layer. However, if they had been left untouched, they would have destroyed the entire human race, so my action wound up saving us in the end. But since my decision was unsanctioned by my country, tighter regulations on nuclear missiles left the Earth unprepared for another alien invasion 20 years later, in which the aliens excavate all of Europe. I still maintain that my action was only for the greater good, though perhaps some other players might disagree.

Regardless, I had a wonderful time playing Watch the Skies. I also have to hand it to Control (a.k.a the “Dungeon Masters”) for staying on top of their game the entire time. Watch the Skies is one fast-paced game that requires the constant attention of the Control players. Communication between the players and Control was crucial, and they were extremely dedicated in making sure every action was resolved properly. There were even a few times where Control personally pulled me aside to inform me about decision outcomes or to clarify any inconsistencies. Seriously, those guys deserve a medal just for attention to detail alone.

The game ended at about 5pm, leaving us an hour before the show floor closed. Not one to waste an ounce of time, I decided to at least check out the line for Dreadnought. It was one of the few games I really wanted to try out after everyone else loved it. It turns out we were in luck! The line was short and moved rather quickly. Dan, Vicki, and I all played a round of it with two others in a 5v5 game and won. It was the perfect way to end the con.

My energy thankfully held out until the very last minute. I nodded off during the Uber ride to the hotel, and then passed out entirely the second we hit the road. I must have slept for a few hours, because before I knew it, we were already passing through New York. When we got back into New Jersey, Andrew also told me about his hands-on session with Nintendo’s Splatoon, which he said he loved. After returning to New Brunswick, we bid Vicki and Dan farewell, and finally made our way home.

Noteworthy Games of 2015

I skipped out on most of the panels this year in favor of spending more time with friends and on the con floor. Even with that extra time, I found it difficult to explore every booth at the con. From what I did see, here are the games that stood out to me at PAX East this year:

Social Justice Warriors: My personal favorite at the con this year, Social Justice Warriors satirizes Internet chatroom debate. You need to defend your views from an army of forum trolls by depleting their sanity and reputation with counter-arguments and retorts. This is actually already out, so I think I might go for this one fairly soon.

Dreadnought: All of my friends who played it loved this spaceship-based battle game. Rather than piloting a meager fighter ship, you captain a capital-class warship into battle. The ships’ lumbering, deliberate movements make tactics and teamwork more necessary than mere speed and reflexes.

We Happy Few: A highly polished indie game that reminds me a lot of Dishonored, Thief, or Bioshock, from what I could tell from the demo. This already has a ton of polish for a pre-alpha build, so I suspect this will do rather well for itself on its release.

Never Have I Ever: A card game for people who make poor life choices. Enough said.

Shovel Knight: Drew a nice large crowd and had the game on display for the 3DS. Lots of people kept coming up to the booth saying it was their personal 2014 Game of the Year, which is a great example of how PAX East gives developers and gamer’s an excellent opportunity to communicate.

Enter the Gungeon: A Binding of Isaac type rogue-like where your enemies are giant, anthropomorphic pieces of ammo shooting their corresponding guns. Has a wonderful sense of “Disney meets the NRA” kind of humor to it.

Steel Battalion: This definitely doesn’t count as a new release, but it’s a con classic regardless. Check out my Day 2 coverage for a description of what this game is like, and why you only ever play it at conventions.

Honorable Mentions

I didn’t get to play these games myself, but others reported enjoying them a lot when they tried them out.

Overwatch: I wasn’t personally interested in checking out Overwatch, but it was obvious that a lot of other gamers there were. I overheard lots of chatter about it while waiting in various lines. What actually blew my mind was their Pixar-esque cinematic trailer being shown off on LCD screens on the con floor.

Splatoon: Andrew seemed to really like this game, and I trust his word on it. Seems like a very refreshing concept for an FPS, and made by Nintendo nonetheless.

Amplitude: Randall and Austin got a chance to play this, and they seemed pumped for the reboot of Harmonix’s 2003 rythym action game. I’ve never played the original myself, sadly.

Axiom Verge: I desperately tried to make it to their booth at the recommendation of Jeremy Banks, but I just couldn’t fit in the time. They were apparently pretty popular at the con nonetheless, according to their Twitter page. And you have to admit, they absolutely nailed the old-school Metroid look and feel in their announcement trailer.

Final Impressions:

I decided to take it easy with panels this year, and I honestly had a much better time because of it. I had a lot more time to explore the show floor, and managed to do things I’m usually not able to enjoy like playing some tabletop games and relaxing in the mobile gaming lounge. I didn’t even feel bad for leaving the con a little early on Saturday to meet up with friends for dinner, since it meant I could spend some time unwinding with them.

Otherwise, it was a great convention as always. It had it’s excellent mixture of indie and traditional games, and from what I hear from Andrew, Randall, and the others, some fairly interesting panels as well. My plan next year is to be more deliberate and methodical with my exploration of the con floor, so that I get a more complete coverage of all there is to offer. If you don’t, you’ll never manage to see everything PAX East has to offer.

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