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The best board games to play at PAX Unplugged 2021

Get your fill in Philly.

Tomorrow is the first day of PAX Unplugged 2021, the tabletop gaming convention taking place in Philadelphia from 10th to 12th of December. Unfortunately, team Dicebreaker aren’t able to make it to the convention this year - though our wonderful freelance writer Chase will be covering the event - but that doesn’t mean that we’re not excited about what comes out of the hallowed PAX Unplugged halls. (Disclaimer: PAX Unplugged is an event run by ReedPop, which owns Dicebreaker.)

The event, which will require visitors to be fully vaccinated and be wearing masks, will see several publishers showcasing their latest and upcoming board game releases for the press and the viewing public. From Machi Koro publisher Pandasaurus Games to Cephalofair Games, the studio responsible for dungeon-crawling board game Gloomhaven and its anticipated follow-up Frosthaven, the convention will be filled with prolific publishers excited to have players get their hands on their games for potentially the first time.

In anticipation of these exciting showcases, we’ve curated a list of the best board games to play at PAX Unplugged 2021, so that you can enjoy them on our behalf. Whether they’re newly released or set to arrive sometime next year, you can experience some of the most anticipated tabletop titles at this weekend’s event. From co-op board games to competitive roll-and-write titles, here are the best board games to play at PAX Unplugged 2021.


1. Familiar Tales

The next game from the creator of Mice and Mystics looks fantastical

Familiar Tales Chalk image
Chalk is one of the playable characters featured in Familiar Tales.

Jerry Hawthorne has already designed some beloved co-op board games in Mice and Mystics - a board game about exploring a castle as a team of little rodents - and the more child-friendly Stuffed Fables, and it looks like they might be onto another one with their upcoming board game Familiar Tales. Announced just last month, Familiar Tales is yet another co-op game set in a fantasy kingdom from Hawthorne, with this one seeing players taking on the daunting task of parenting on top of all the usual exploration and fighting.

As the parental figures to a royal ward, the players will need to think carefully about how their actions reflect onto the heir to a kingdom, as the child will learn how to rule from them. Otherwise, the players will be working together to keep their vassal safe and happy, all whilst the forces of a wicked sorcerer pursue their innocent charge. If you’ve enjoyed Hawthorne’s previous releases or if you like narrative-driven board games, then Familiar Tales is definitely one worth checking out at PAX Unplugged 2021.


2. The Loop

Chase an evil scientist across time and space in this co-op board game

The Loop close-up image
Dr Faux's villainous machine must be destroyed by the players in The Loop.

It can never be said that Pandasaurus Games doesn’t produce some interesting looking tabletop titles - and The Loop is certainly no exception. Having been released this year - and subsequently had copies stolen in September - The Loop is actually a little difficult for players to get their hands on at the moment, so PAX Unplugged 2021 might provide the perfect opportunity to experience this unique board game.

One of multiple time-hopping adventures from Pandasaurus, The Loop has players working together to sabotage the evil plans of Dr Faux, a scientist whose schemes have spread across both space and time. As temporal agents, the players must travel through time to collect the powerful artefacts they need to take on Dr Faux’s many clones - who have managed to hide themselves in various time periods - and eventually destroy his wicked machine. Don’t miss this strange and challenging co-op game at this week’s convention.


3. The Spill

With its relevant environmental theme, this board game is sure to make some waves

The Spill cover art
The artwork for The Spill was created by illustrator Kwanchai Moriya.

After getting crowdfunded via a successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year, The Spill - a board game about curbing the environmental impact of an oil slick - is making an appearance at PAX Unplugged 2021. Besides the incredible art from Kwanchai Moriya, the illustrator responsible for Catacombs: Third Edition and Flip Ships, and its timely environmental theme, The Spill is worth paying attention to for its unusual take on a tower defence-style board game.

Rather than players working together to protect a structure, in The Spill players will be collaborating to prevent the oil slick pouring out from the damaged oil rig in the centre of the game board. Throughout the game, a set of black dice will be rolled, with the result determining whereabouts on the board the oil spill will spread. Players will need to respond to this environmental threat by travelling across the board to rescue the various sealife featured in the game, or otherwise push back or even remove the oil spill from the board. Lovers of the classic co-op game Pandemic should keep their eyes out for The Spill when they’re walking around the show floor.


4. Boonlake

Step into the unknown and create something amazing in this civilisation-building game

Boonlake layout image
Boonlake was created by the designer behind Great Western Trail.

Great Western Trail is regarded as one of the best board games of the modern era and it doesn’t look like the game’s designer, Alexander Pfister, is stopping the hits anytime soon. Boon Lake is a civilisation-building board game set in a world wherein a band of enterprising humans have struck out to find their own little utopia, before happening to stumble across the natural beauty of Boonlake. Players take on rival leaders of these settlers tasked with getting their people the best living spots, a suitable amount of food to eat and good homes to live in.

Like many civilisation-building games out there, the main appeal of Boonlake is the potential for players to grow from what they started out with. Seeing a group of people advance from having a measly collection of resources to an impressive infrastructure will never not be satisfying. For players who have already enjoyed Pfister’s brand of board games that reward player efficiency and planning - or those that want to experience these kinds of tabletop titles - then you’d best check out Boonlake at PAX Unplugged 2021.


5. Mortum: Medieval Detective

The dark streets of Mortum are awash with mysterious and death

Mortem: Medieval Detective artwork
Many secrets lurk within the shadowy corners of this medieval town.

Mortum: Medieval Detective is one in what appears to be a line of detective-themed board games that have been springing up over the last year or so. How this particular title stands apart from its contemporaries is in its setting - it takes place in Europe during the Dark Ages, where superstitions plagued the streets - and in its heavy emphasis on narrative decision-making. As members of a secret organisation that’s dedicated to investigating strange goings-on around people’s deaths, players will be drawn into three different scenarios that make up one epic storyline.

Players are able to explore the town of Mortum and pursue certain missions in any order they like, with the freedom to go about their investigations however they see fit. Maybe players will tail certain suspicious individuals or interrogate potential suspects. With the option to go in all guns blazing or to try for a subtler approach, it’s entirely up to the players. Regardless of how they go about things, players will want to gather enough evidence to figure out what exactly happened and solve the ultimate mystery by the end. Why not venture into the shadowy streets of Mortum at this year’s PAX Unplugged event?


6. Furnace

Wannabe entrepreneurs can live out their dreams in this intense business-building game

Furnace components image
Only the most efficient business tycoons can win a game of Furnace.

Sometimes it’s fun to fantasise that you’re on top of the food chain… in Victorian England. Furnace is exactly the board game to satisfy this particular fantasy. An engine-building game, both thematically and literally in the sense that players are able to build systems that give them better and better benefits, Furnace is all about creating something from very little. Players begin the game with a collection of resources that they must use in order to acquire and develop various companies throughout the game. After an auctioning phase in which the companies are dished out to the players, they can then use these to perform various actions.

Potential actions in Furnace include gaining resources, turning resources into money or other resources, and upgrading company cards. Improving companies can enable players to perform more actions on their turn, providing more opportunities for business growth. Players can also use their unique capitalist card to gain an advantage over their opponents and potentially win the entire game. Those people who love nothing more than a chunky business game should keep an eye out for Furnace.


7. Stationfall

If Among Us was made into a board game, it would look a little something like this

Acquiring assests can help players gain extra points at the end of the game.

Initially announced in May, Stationfall is a board game that has a striking number of similarities to the popular video game Among Us. Takes place in a space station? Check. Features hidden-role gameplay elements? Check. Players characters can suffer gruesome deaths? Checkmate. As a group of unfortunates who find themselves on a space station that’s hurtling towards Earth, the players will need to seek out an escape together before it’s too late, whilst being wary of any possible traitors in their midst. Players will have unique actions they can perform depending upon their various identities, as well as certain loyalties.

Throughout the game, players will need to rush across the station to carry out the necessary processes to get them to safety. However, things are further complicated by the addition of influence, which provides players with points at the end of the game. Chasing after influence can lead to a player character’s demise, but not having enough will likely result in them ultimately losing - it’s all about maintaining a balance between the two. Those players who are traitorous will need to be cunning to pull off their plans without coming across as guilty, whilst the innocent character will need to keep their eyes peeled. If you love Among Us or social deduction board games, sneak on over to Stationfall.


8. Stella: Dixit Universe

Another entry in the beautiful and brilliant Dixit series is on its way

The gorgeous illustrations found in the Dixit series are second-to-none.

Dixit continues to be one of the most beloved family board games in existence, having already shifted over nine million copies since it first released in 2009. Which is why, last month, it was so exciting to learn that another entry in the interpretive card game series was coming. Called Stella: Dixit Universe, this next game is similar to the original Dixit in that players will be using illustrated cards, but differs when it comes to how players interact with them. Rather than each player offering a word about a card, players use a pen to mark which cards played that round are most connected to the clue they’ve been given.

The more cards a player selects, the more points they’ll score. However, selecting two many cards may result in a player losing their points if their others don’t think that their choices do connect to the clue. If players reveal some of their choices and they match with other players’ then they score additional points. Whichever player manages to score the most points by the end of the game is named the winner. It wouldn’t do to miss out on what this brilliant series has to offer, which is why you should have a look at Stella: Dixit Universe at PAX Unplugged 2021.


9. Frosthaven

An ice-cool sequel to the hit dungeon-crawler

Frosthaven board game promo layout
The anticipated follow-up to Gloomhaven looks to expand the series to even greater heights.

The follow-up to Isaac Childres’ gigantic smash-hit dungeon-crawler Gloomhaven takes players’ adventuring heroes to the frozen north of the fantasy land.

Frosthaven introduces some exciting new gameplay additions to Gloomhaven’s mix of crunchy card-driven combat, RPG-lite storytelling and legacy game world-building, with players now tasked with helping rebuild the chilly settlement by collecting valuable resources during their quests.

Otherwise, Frosthaven keeps the core of what made Gloomhaven one of the most acclaimed tabletop releases of recent years at its centre, as players develop their characters and use their unique deck of abilities to overcome each of the game’s more than 100 scenarios. Based on Gloomhaven’s lengthy campaign and many unlockable surprises, expect Frosthaven to keep you busy for a good long time to come.

After becoming the biggest board game on Kickstarter to date last spring, Frosthaven is currently expected to arrive sometime next year after being delayed out of 2021 by the ongoing shipping crisis affecting the industry. Ahead of its full release, the game will be making a showing at this year’s PAX Unplugged - we’re excited to delve back into Childres’ sprawling fantasy world.


10. Welcome to the Moon

The flip-and-write series takes a giant leap with a new campaign

Welcome to the Moon artwork
From suburban USA to the Vegas strip to the moon, the Welcome to... series has certainly travelled far.

The Welcome To… series has quickly become a roll-and-write darling since its flip-and-write spin on the genre debuted in 2018 with Welcome to Your Perfect Home (or just Welcome To…, as everybody calls it).

Swapping dice for a deck of cards, the Welcome To… games put players in the boots of architects looking to build the most valuable houses by filling in spaces on their individual sheets as each card is revealed. Completing public objectives nets more points, as does using various abilities to make your homes even more appealing with parks, pools and other amenities.

Last year’s Welcome to Las Vegas moved the planning action from the suburbs to the strip, replacing homes with casinos while keeping the central flip-and-write gameplay mostly the same.

This year’s Welcome to the Moon goes one small step and a giant leap further by departing Earth altogether for a lunar expedition. New to the series is a campaign mode set across eight connected adventure sheets, with the players’ choices affecting later missions.


About the Author

Alex Meehan avatar

Alex Meehan

Staff Writer, Dicebreaker

Alex’s journey to Dicebreaker began with writing insightful video game coverage for outlets such as Kotaku, Waypoint and PC Gamer. Her unique approach to analysing pop culture and knack for witty storytelling finally secured her a forever home producing news, features and reviews with the Dicebreaker team. She’s also obsessed with playing Vampire: The Masquerade, and won’t stop talking about it.

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