Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Mayfair Games, 3 to 5 players, ages 14 and up, 120+ minutes; $50)


Martin Wallace has a thing for travel. It’s not so much that HE is infected with a severs case of wanderlust but more that he’s apparently fascinated by the intricacies of the means of getting from one place to another. Already established as a premier designer of rail games (his Age of Steam – featured in the Winter 2003 Gamers Alliance Report – has inspired many other designs, some even by him!), Wallace explored another mode of travel and turned his attention to cars with Automobile (Fall 2009 GA Report). Now, leaving land transportation behind, Wallace takes to the skies in his latest offering: Aeroplanes: Aviation Ascendant.

Aeroplanes focuses on the early years of commercial aviation (1919 to 1939) and puts players in the position of building an air empire, by expanding a network of airports and delivering passengers to them!aeroplanesbox

The mounted board is a stylized map of Europe, Africa and Asia (the Americas are represented off-board) with space for bond subsidies and a perimeter scoring track. Colored lines (white, red and black) link cities. There are six possible European “home cities” (Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Paris, Rome and Zurich) and, around the edge of the board, spaces matching these home cities for passenger tiles representing potential clients wishing to be flown to various places (as well as an area for “passenger overflow”). In addition to naming the desired destination, passenger tiles also display the required capacity an airplane must have to transport that counter and, sometimes, a Victory Point value.

Each player begins with airport tiles in his or her preferred color (9 tiles for each of the three Eras of the game). The first player is chosen randomly and, in counter clockwise order from the first player, everyone chooses a starting city. Now players receive 12£ (give or take a £ or two depending on the starting city) as a starting money supply. Now, play begins.

On a turn, a player MUST do ONE of five possible actions: buy an aeroplane, claim a passenger tile, place an airport, buy advantage tiles or take a subsidy.

There is a deck of 46 “aeroplane” cards. These cards depict a vintage airplane, its cost to purchase, the number of airport tiles associated with it, if it can fly “long distance” (indicated by an icon) and its passenger capacity. 12 cards are placed alongside the board. These cards are numbered and are placed in number order. The first plane in line may be purchased at face value. Planes higher up the line cost additional funds (+1 £ for each higher position).

If you have an airport in a city matching the starting city of a passenger tile AND an airport at that tile’s destination AND capacity in one of your airplanes to hold that tile, you may claim that passenger tile. Such a tile is considered “delivered” and placed on the airplane used. But how do you get those airports in place? That’s a key focal point of the game.

As mentioned, cities are linked by colored routes (white, red or black). Airports located on aeroplane cards may be placed (one or some or all, if so desired – but you’re limited to 9 airports per Era) via dice rolls. The requirements for placing an airport from a city you are in to another city depends on the color of the connection. If the connection is white, no dice roll is required; you are automatically successful. But connecting cities linked by red or black lines requires a mandatory roll of the three “risk dice”.

The “risk dice” show numbers 2 through 6 and a skull & crossbones. To be successful and place an airport in the new location, a red link requires a die roll or 12 or more; a black link requires a total of 14 or more. Long distance planes enable you to skip a white link and place an airport at a city a greater distance away with only one roll. These planes are also required for some of the longer (and potentially more profitable) routes. While some routes are risky, risk is minimized if an opponent’s airport is already at a location (thereby reducing your needed total by 2). If you are unlucky at dice, you may always opt to pay (at the rate of 1£ per additional point needed to make the minimum). Rolling a skull & crossbones results in getting an “engine failure” tile. Engine failure tiles are cumulative and if you get four of them, your turn abruptly ends and the airport you tried to place is removed from the aeroplane card and placed back into stock. So what can you do about that? That’s where advantage tiles come in.

One action option is buying advantage tiles. There are five types (numbered from 2 through 6): Daring Pilot (which adds 3 to your dice roll to place an airport outside of Europe), Engine Maintenance (allowing you to discard those pesky accumulated engine failure tiles), Increased Production (enabling you to add an extra airport tile to an airplane), Night Flights (allowing you to deliver TWO passengers on a turn – but one MUST be delivered somewhere in Europe) and Radio Beacons (giving you the ability to re-roll an airport placement dice roll). You may spend 1£ to buy one specific tile or roll the dice and take two tiles from the numbers rolled. (A skull & crossbones roll is considered “wild” and may be used to choose any tile.) Some tiles may only be used in Era 2 or 3 but more than one tile may be used on a turn.

Finally, if no attractive option remains and you are unwilling or unable to do anything else. you may take a 1£ subsidy. At the start of each Era, 8 1£ subsidies are placed in the board’s subsidy box along with a black pawn. Once all 8 subsidies are taken, the player taking the black pawn ends the Era and Era scoring occurs.

Scoring occurs for both presence and profitability. Players with the most (and second most) airports in a region (Europe, Asia and Africa) score Victory Points accordingly. Ties are friendly with tied players scoring the same as if there was no tie. Profitability is determined in an interesting way. Players total up the number of passengers on their aeroplanes LESS their unfilled passenger capacity. (So, for example, if a player can carry 15 passengers but has carried only 12, his profit is 12 minus the 3 empty spaces for a profit of 9.) Profitability translates into Victory Points (again, ties are friendly) but NO additional money! All players, regardless of profits earned, will receive 22£ to start Era 2 and 32£ for Era 3. In addition, when the Era ends, several other things happen.

First, the bottom two aeroplane cards are discarded and two more cards drawn to add to the display. Aeroplane cards filled to capacity as well as passenger tiles are discarded (those worth VPs are, instead, placed on the side for final scoring). Planes with unused space are flipped over and marked with counters to indicate there is room (and how much room) remains for passengers to use. (These passengers do not count as unused space when next calculating profitability. They do, however, count towards the number of passengers carried to increase profit.) Non-European passengers awaiting transport to their destinations are removed (1 per starting European city) to the “overflow” passenger box on the board where they may be picked up on a subsequent turn by a player who has an airport at their destination. Now, vacated passenger tile spaces are refilled. The player who ended the last Era, now rolls the die to determine the start player for the first round of the new Era.

Play continues through the second and third Eras with VP scoring done as in the first. Once the third Era scoring is completed, any VPs garnered from aeroplanes and passengers are added to players’ scores. The player with the highest total has built the finest airline in the world! (Tie? The player with the most money remaining gets the nod.)

Wallace always manages to include some quirky touches in his games and Aeroplanes is no exception. To achieve a fluid turn order, after EACH turn, the start player rolls the die to see who is start player for the next turn. (For example, if I roll a “1”, then the player to my left, is the start player. If I roll a 4 in a four player game, then the start player is ME once again!) The “roll each turn to establish first player” is something I’ve never seen before in a game – and I had my doubts. Yet, surprisingly, it works! This mechanism manages to keep turn order unpredictable and turn order can be critical in picking up passengers or purchasing the right aircraft for a needed route. But this is a two edged sword. This turn order unpredictability makes planning much more tactical than players who look at the “big picture” might like.

There is a defensive aspect to placing airports too. You can eliminate an opponent’s presence in a city (if an area is filled) by replacing a lower level airport (say, an Era 1) with one of a higher level (say, an Era 2). This can prevent an opponent from picking up a passenger and give you an edge for VPs in determining presence in a region. (Home cities are invulnerable to this attack, however.) And, of course, dice rolling plays a big part in airport placement. Although dice rolls can be mitigated through cash outlays and advantage tiles, there is significant dice rolling, both in turn order and in establishing airports, and dice rolling is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Money is tight. When it comes to picking your start city (which can add or subtract a £1 or 2 to your initial bankroll depending on how many initial passengers are at that particular location), you need to temper your desire for additional funds with the availability of passengers able to be easily delivered, ready and waiting at your chosen home city. As mentioned, going first is an advantage so the ability for players, in reverse first turn order, to choose their home city, is a nice balance mechanism. And, speaking of passengers, the presence of those “overflow” passengers helps to mitigate the problem of being shut out of a key city or two while encouraging players to press onward into Asian, African and American markets to pick up those passengers increasing their income. As an additional bonus, these passengers are often worth Victory Points at the end of the game!

The layout of the game has several good points (the board displays a reminder about needed dice rolls for routes and a large and easy to read chart for VPs for all three Eras, the attractive aeroplane cards are very nice). But there is, to use an airline term, a little “turbulence”. Passenger tiles tend to obscure their starting cities (the tiles are precisely the size of the starting spaces) and those starting spaces run together (no spaces between Rome and Zurich and Paris etc.) so it can be difficult to tell at a glance which passengers go with which city. The game, while not particularly difficult in terms of understanding what to do, is made more difficult by rules that in some instances lack clarity. One glaring example is understanding picking up and delivering a passenger. A picture to illustrate would have been a welcome addition. And the play aid cards, while actually excellent, have the disadvantage of having the advantage tiles numbered incorrectly!

In terms of complexity, Aeroplanes: Aviation Acendant is somewhere between Wallace’s higher complexity designs and his lighter efforts such as Toledo (Summer 2008 GA REPORT). Aeroplanes is essentially a “pick up and deliver” game with a bit of the route building evidenced in Wallace’s rail games. It demands flexibility in your actions (due to unpredictable turn order, tight money and reliance on die rolls) which forces you to often jettison your main strategy and go to Plan B if you wish to win. All of this makes for a challenging game that makes time spent at the gaming table, like the planes at your command, fly. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


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