I’ve been to the last three Penny Arcade Expos, and at both PAX East and PAX Prime in 2010, the miniature wargaming space didn’t feel like it got enough love.
In both cases the miniature wargaming was tucked away into a room off a main hallway, and felt more than a little off the beaten path. At PAX East 2011, held in the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center from March 11th-March 13th, the terrain tables were right out in the open. Throughout the three days I covered the show for a variety of video game journalism outlets, I always made time to stop by the miniatures tables and see what was going on, and take some pictures.
The main draw for many PAX attendees is the exhibition hall, which boasts video game booths that might feel right at home at E3 in Los Angeles. I was at E3 2010, and saw some booths at PAX East 2011, which looked like they were flown in wholesale straight from the L.A. Convention Center. Video game publishers are beginning to take PAX more seriously as a publicity vehicle, as evidenced by the unveiling of the highly-anticipated Duke Nukem Forever at PAX Prime 2010. It’s easy to think of the tabletop gaming at PAX as a lesser-than aspect of the event.
|Warhammer Fantasy at PAX East|
I spoke with Christian F. McDonald-Kelley, also known as Father Fletch by the PAX volunteer Enforcers who help run the Expo. McDonald-Kelley organizes and is in charge of the tabletop gaming portion of PAX. I wanted to know about the challenges he faces in a space that is so otherwise dedicated to video games.
“The size and spectacle of the Expo floor are a big part of what makes PAX the show it is,” said McDonald-Kelley via email. “The thing that is different about our show is that [the] Expo hall has never been the only part of PAX. From the beginning in 2004 the show has always given over a good bit of space to Tabletop. Senior staff at [Penny Arcade] are [tabletop] gamers, both in the past and now. The webcomic routinely has strips about tabletop gaming and Mike and Jerry [a.k.a. Gabe and Tycho, the artist and writer of the Penny Arcade comic] blog about their games on a regular basis.
“As an industry, tabletop gaming simply is not as large as video games. This means there are scales of budget that simply operate at different levels. Comparing one to the other doesn’t do justice to either. However, video gaming has its roots in tabletop gaming, and some tabletop gaming uses elements from video gaming that weren’t present 20+ years ago. I think that there is a lot of cross-pollination going on right now.“
|Warhammer 40,000 at PAX East|
We could certainly look at the number of video game titles produced from the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 universes, over the past seven years especially, as direct evidence of what Father Fletch was talking about more generally. At PAX East 2011 the miniatures wargames which inspired Dawn of War and Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning were not tucked away in a side room.
“We were able to place the mini tables in a visible location that was going to have a good bit of traffic,” McDonald-Kelley told me. “The terrain tables were actually located at one end of the massive tabletop gaming section, and would have been one of the first things PAX attendees entering the section from that end would have seen.
“That was a real success, I think,” McDonald-Kelley said. “While I didn’t keep any kind of census for that section, I can say that during the day, whenever I came through, the miniature tables were hopping! I know that Mike and Jerry (Gabe and Tycho) were really happy to see all the miniature action. Warmachine gets a lot of play at the Penny Arcade offices. “
The miniature wargaming certainly felt more alive than at any PAX I’ve previously attended, and McDonald-Kelley confirmed my assessment. “I was very happy with that section of Tabletop (TT). In the past PAX has had mixed results outside of events developed and put on by a publisher/manufacturer. Privateer Press has a strong showing every year at Prime (the Seattle based show), and Soda Pop Minis had a hopping booth demo presence at Prime last year. Beyond that, though, we have not seen the kind of serious tournaments like the ‘Arvard ‘Ardboyz did this year.”
|Tournament organizer Sam Butler (right) watches a game of Warmachine|
McDonald-Kelley is referring to the ‘Arvard ‘Ardboyz, a miniature wargaming club that runs their weekly gaming sessions out of Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA on Thursday nights. I should also disclose that I’m a member of the ‘Ardboyz myself (though I haven’t paid my dues this year). At PAX East 2010, the ‘Ardboyz organized the miniature wargaming through Pandemonium. For PAX 2011, the club handled the organization themselves.
“Most of my interactions were with Sam Butler directly,” McDonald-Kelley said, referring to Tournament Organizer Sam Butler, who organized and led his club’s efforts. “I found him to be energetic, creative, eager to help, willing to accept feedback and all around excellent to work with. Without his stepping up, along with the rest of the club, there would not have been miniature gaming at PAX East this year. He was on board before I even had exhibitors who wanted to feature miniatures on board. Other than Sam I found the folks helping out at the show to be pleasant and BUSY!”
The ‘Arvard ‘Ardboyz might have provided the muscle but two local stores, Battleground Games in Abington, MA, and Comicazi in Davis Square, Somerville, lent some really nice terrain to the effort and supplemented the terrain and table surfaces that the ‘Ardboyz carted in to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center for the three tournaments they held during PAX East.
|Sam Butler of the ‘Arvard ‘Ardboyz records tournament results|
According to Butler, the Warhammer Fantasy tournament had 10 players, up from 6 the previous year. The Warmachine tournament was new to PAX East 2011, and also had 10 players. The Warhammer 40,000 tournament totaled 16 players, up from 12 the previous year. “It’s been pretty good,” Butler said. “The support I’ve gotten from the tabletop HQ people is spot-on and stellar.”
Butler took a break from tallying tournament score sheets to talk to me about the attention miniatures wargaming was garnering over the course of the Expo. “People have constantly been walking up going ‘Hey, what’s that?’ Occasionally they’re like ‘Hey, can we play?’ So we’ve been running demos as well [as the tournaments],” he said.
“A lot of people have been taking pictures of some of the terrain and some of the tables that we have here. On several occasions people have walked up and literally hit themselves in the head because they did not bring an army with them, because they didn’t realize PAX East was going to have this sort of thing.” The hope is that the success of this year’s efforts will be remembered, and PAX East 2012, which is also being held at the BCEC in Boston, will feature even more miniature wargaming now that attendees understand it will be featured there.
Butler also reported to me that Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik spent about a half hour checking out the miniature wargaming. When the two bosses of the show take time out of their insane schedules to stop by and check things out, I think that’s as sure a sign of success as any other.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. He has contributed to Gamasutra, The Escapist and Joystick Division, and recently covered the Game Developers Conference and PAX East for G4TV.com, GamePro, and @Gamer magazine. He writes a weekly column on Bitmob.com, blogs at punchingsnakes.com, and you can follow him on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.