Up In The Sky – Airlines Europe review

I get a lot of people contacting me looking for answers to questions they have about games. This is quite a scary thing, simply because I never looked to set myself up as some all-knowing authority on games – I’m just someone who loves to play and talk about them. However, the questions come in, and I do my best to respond. One that comes up pretty frequently is this old classic (or something like it):

“I’ve just got back into board games but don’t really know what to get – do you have any suggestions?”

Our thoughts immediately go to the Holy Trinity: Carcassonne, Catan and Ticket to Ride. Great games, easy to pick up, that show off our hobby well. There are others that could be given the title of gateway games, but it’s always those three that come out in a single breath. Now though? Now it’s time to add a fourth to the list. Perhaps the planets have aligned, maybe the gods deemed it time, but I reckon Alan R. Moon has succeeded in creating the Fourth Gateway, and it’s called Airlines: Europe.

It was a long time in the making, it has to be said. This was originally a more complex (and dare I say it, less fun) stocks and shares game simply called Airlines. Released in 1990, it was well received but it seems the designer wasn’t happy – much tinkering was performed and a new version of the game themed around railroads came out in 1999, the well respected Union Pacific. Evidently Mr Moon still had some issues with the game and continued to refine and streamline, eventually coming up with what will hopefully be the final iteration: Abacusspiele‘s latest release, Airlines Europe. Taking elements from both of the earlier titles, I honestly think he’s come up with a winner.

Players are investors throwing money into the airline industry, purchasing licenses to fly between cities. By picking up these routes across Europe, the value of the companies in the game increases. Shares in these companies are procured throughout the game and when one of the three scoring cards appear, points are doled out. After the third scoring round, the winner – as is so often the way – is whoever has the most points. While this may appear to be a rather simple game, like all the best, it hides deep strategies and the possibility of being really mean to your opposition.

You’ve got four options per turn as you bid to become the lord (or lady) of the skies. First, you can spend some of your money to invest in a company or two. Each route is marked with a bunch of numbers – these signify how much it will cost you to put a plane there and how many points up the investment track that company will move. If you choose to do this, you can only go for the smallest number on a route AND it must be linked back to the company’s home city (shown by a little plastic dome of the same colour). You are limited though – even if you have the cash, you are allowed only a maximum of two new routes per turn. When you’re done you get to take a share card from the five available face-up (which is called the Market) and put that in your hand. Option two is all about getting those share cards to the table – only ones that are in front of you count for scoring, remember! You may place two cards of differing colours (or as many as you like of the same) down, each card netting you 2M Euros (yes, it’s set in the middle-ish 20th Century, but the game uses Euros, deal with it). If you can get a decent set of one colour down, you can make yourself a nice pile of cash! Very useful indeed in a game where large sums of money are hard to come by.

Some of the shares available in the game - with a few nods to the games industry.

Third choice involves a separate company – Air Abacus. This is a company that is not represented only by shares and can net you an awful lot of points if you manage to get your hands on some. Trading in any share at all from either your hand or the piles in front of you will net you a single Air Abacus card, while any three will get you two. While they have no representation on the board, they are valuable things to own and should not be underestimated. Abacus shares need to be played to the table in the same way as normal shares and also get you the same 2M Euros per card played. Last of all, if you’re in need of money, you can top up your funds by taking 8 Euros from the bank. This will invariably happen a lot more than you’d expect – cash is hard to come by in Airlines Europe!

Each company is designated a colour and represented by a handful of share cards and a bunch of dinky planes. Some are plentiful (Air Amigos has sixteen of each) while others get scarce quickly (White Wings, for example, has only seven) so players must balance collecting the share cards while boosting the value of the companies by purchasing routes. One thing to remember is that the you actually don’t own the planes you place at all – this game is all about making the companies you’re investing in as lucrative as possible… Every time a company has a route purchased for it, their marker moves along the investment track showing how many points an investment is potentially worth. This track is split into sections, each one labelled with points values, as you can see below.

Whoever has the most shares in Rio Grande (Blue) gets 10 points when scoring rolls round. Next highest gets 5, then 3, 2 and 1. Even a small amount of shares can get some good points!

So why is Airlines Europe so good? Why do I think it could be the next Great Gateway Game? Simply because it hits so many bases. Primarily, despite the fact it looks initially daunting, it’s incredibly easy to get to grips with. With over a hundred little planes in a variety of colours, it may appear cute, but spread them across a board with stacks of share cards piled up everywhere and things potentially take a turn for the terrifying. Take a step back. Breathe. Remember, there’s only four things you can do, so choose one and do it.

Those early games will generally take the same pattern, all players racing to get planes down all over the board, focusing only on what shares they have and attempting to bump up the value. But then you start looking around the table – and this is where the second great thing about the game comes in. With more plays comes more understanding, and with more understanding comes more opportunities to cut down your opponents. You’ll be sneaking in, paying that little bit extra to cut off a route that will trap a company’s planes that someone on the other side of the table was really pushing. You’ll realise when you should dump a pile of stock that you thought would be lucrative but may well be better off exchanged for Abacus shares. You’ll react to the strategies of others, concentrating on a small range of shares as they play the odds getting one or two of everything (or vice versa). This is a game that encourages multiple plays, that will reward observation. In the same way that great Carcassonne players realise that it’s not a game about building towns and roads, but actually about trapping your opponents early, Airlines Europe will see the devious, the cutthroat, the downright nasty players who are willing to risk everything come out (more often than not) as victors.

Nearly finished, but that board still has plenty of space...

Slightly less important, but still something to consider, is the production quality. Abacusspiele have made a lovely looking game which put me in mind of something Days of Wonder may have produced. There’s something incredibly satisfying seeing the board covered in a rainbow of planes at the end of a game – Airlines Europe is a beauty, pretty enough to pull in the attention of the uninitiated. Never underestimate a good looking game! There’s also the fact it can be played in less than an hour, hitting that magical mark of being substantial but not overstaying its welcome.

It’s still early days to say whether Airlines Europe will truly make the leap that other gateways have managed to do, but I believe that it’s good enough to do so. That path of learning I mentioned, starting with simple games that race to a finish developing into deeper, more strategic affairs… it reminds me so much of games like Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride, games that would (and do) appeal to a wide audience, if only we can get that audience to see them. I strongly encourage you to check out Airlines Europe – after all, Alan R. Moon’s spent over twenty years getting it perfect! It would be impolite to not try it out at least once…

Airlines Europe was published in 2011 by Abacusspiele (and is being handled by Rio Grande Games in the States) and was – of course – designed by Alan R. Moon. Between two and five can play (two requires slightly modified rules), though I think it works best with four. It’ll cost you around £30 in the UK, and around $35-40 in the US. Seriously, try it out. You shan’t regret it.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Up In The Sky – Airlines Europe review

  1. Pingback: Friday Rules! 16.09.2011 | Rules of Play Cardiff

  2. Trevor

    Very nice review. I’m looking forward to trying this one out! Have you played with 2 players? Any opinions on that number?

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