Tag Archives: Airlines Europe

State of the Union 2011: Part Two – The Analogue Stuff

So, this second bit is all about the actual stuff that we get to sit around a table and play with. Much as it’s lovely having something like Ticket to Ride or Ascension to pass the time with when you’re on the bus, it’s an entirely different experience when you’re pushing bits of plastic and cardboard around with mates. This is by no means a comprehensive “Best Of 2011” kind of post – for all those things you’ll have to wait for my opinions on The Dice Tower Awards Show in early January – but like with the post I made about iPhone games, I feel that these ones deserve a look.

Airlines Europe by Alan R. Moon is one of my favourite new releases for the year.  When I first got my hands on it I was impressed at how much was in there – despite it being a very simple game to explain and play, there’s a level of depth that you won’t find in many more complicated releases. Sure, it helps that Airlines Europe has kind of been a Work In Progress for about twenty years, what with its roots in Airlines and Union Pacific, but this feels like a brilliant refinement of those two earlier games. Accessible enough for new players while still having enough challenge for those who are more experienced? Perfect. And I still reckon this should join the ranks of Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan as the latest gateway game.

Anyone who listens to the show will know that my favourite game is Power Grid. Again, it’s one of those “simple to explain but a bugger to play well” releases that I find so appealing, but there’s always been that issue of only being playable with three or more. 2011 saw Friedemann Friese come up with The Robots expansion which put paid to this problem by proving artificial intelligences to play against. It’s a brilliant idea that – while sounding bloody odd – actually works very well in practice. Building a robot at the start of the game from random pieces provides players with an opponent that will do well up until about two thirds of the way into play, then should in theory tail off leaving the human players to fight it out. I’ve heard tales of people actually coming in behind a Robot player, but thankfully I’ve not had that happen to me… yet. Power Grid: The Robots is a brilliant idea that has extended the life of an already excellent game even further.

A bit of a surprise to me was Vlaada Chvatil’s Dungeon Petz from CGE. I’ve only played his earlier game Dungeon Lords a few times and – to be honest – wasn’t totally enamoured with it. There was so much to keep track of most of the time, it boiled my tiny little mind. I’ve handled trickier games with no problem but for some reason I’ve never got on with Dungeon Lords. Thankfully, the spiritual follow-up is brilliant. Again, there’s a fair bit to follow, but something just clicked with this one – knowing what you have to plan for combined with trying to scupper your opponents, managing your very limited resources… it’s excellent. The game is also filled with humour and (of course) looks fantastic. If you’re looking for something that’s a bit heavier to play, Dungeon Petz is a winner.

Sentinels of the Multiverse‘s fantastic co-op gameplay really won me over this year too. The amount of work that the guys at Greater Than Games have put into their own comic book universe is incredible – not just with a great little game that is fun to play but also the almost ridiculous levels of backstory that have been created for those who want to go a little deeper. Yes, the box sucks – we all know that! – but it really is what’s inside that counts. With a bunch of mates who are willing to throw themselves into the game, Sentinels is an absolute gem, encouraging players to work together and support each other. Woe betide you if you fail to co-operate though… split the party and you’ll fail for sure!

For those times when I want to play something a little different, I’m thankful that I picked up a copy of Cranio Creations’ Dungeon Fighter at Essen. This odd little mix of dungeon crawl and dexterity game is great, especially when you’ve got a larger group. Working your way through the maps as a group, taking down monsters by chucking dice at an oversized target… it’s a lot of fun. It’s also not very easy – unlike most party games, it actually offers quite a challenge. It’s rare that you’ll actually reach the boss at the end of the level, but Dungeon Fighter is one of those games where winning really isn’t the be all and end all. It’s the journey that’s all important, those high-risk dice rolls that will either claim victory for everyone or condemn the group to defeat.

Urban Sprawl has been one of the most divisive games released in 2011, either leaving those who have played it delighted or enraged. The cause of this schism? The chaos provided by the cards that add an admittedly swingy element to the game. While many people dislike it, I was a big fan of this part of the game that can either be a great equaliser or stretch out a player’s lead even further – but hey, that’s life. I’ve never been one to complain about such a thing, but many gamers saw this as too big a deal to ignore. I like a bit of randomness in my games, but for people who insist that everything must be able to be anticipated and mitigated, Urban Sprawl will send them cracked. If you’re looking for a relatively heavy game that shouldn’t be taken too seriously though, I’d heartily recommend picking up a copy.

There’s been plenty of other great games too. Quarriors took deckbuilding in a whole new direction, Space Maze was a charming little puzzler and Eruption made lava flows fun. For those seeking heavier gaming experiences Pret-a-Porter was brilliant, as was the wonderful Belfort (which I’ve only played once but can’t wait to try again – it’s that good). Now, who’s ready for 2012? Stay tuned for Part Three…

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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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