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Airlines Europe

[We are very pleased to have Larry Levy as part of our 100th issue celebration. We’ve said this before – and it’s worth saying again – that Larry is one of the best known voices on gaming, sharing his expertise and insight throughout the world via his internet postings and writings for many game review publications. And more! Larry helped open up our 25th year with his review of Wampum in the Fall 2010 issue. Now, for our 100th issue, Larry is offering his 10th review for GA Report and, as always, Larry is flying high!]

AIRLINES EUROPE (Abacus/Rio Grande Games, 2-5 players, ages 13 and up, 75 minutes; $59.95)

 

Reviewed by Larry Levy

airlineseuropeboxWe all love new games with different ideas and stunningly innovative mechanics. But revisiting older concepts can also be very appealing if it’s handled well. There are some designers who consistently do a good job taking a single idea and utilizing it in different ways in multiple titles (Reiner Knizia comes to mind here). Others excel in coming up with interesting expansions for their original designs. Then there’s Alan Moon, who I consider the master of reworking his older games, taking something that was already good and tweaking it into something better. With his latest game, Airlines Europe, Moon does just that.

In 1990, when Moon was an inexperienced designer striving to make his name in the world of German gaming, his first breakthrough was with Airlines. It was an early hit both for him and the relatively new publishing firm of Abacus. Nine years later, Moon re-themed the game to a railroad setting, tweaked the mechanics a bit, and came up with Union Pacific, an even more popular title, this time for Amigo. UP was one of the three finalists for the SdJ award that year and remains a favorite of many gamers. But Alan still felt there was room for improvement and beginning in 2007, he started reworking the design again. The result is Airlines Europe, once again published by Abacus, which released the game this Spring.

Airlines Europe has many similarities with both of its earlier siblings, so I could spend a good deal of time just citing the differences between the three titles. But quite a few readers entered our hobby in the dozen years since UP made its debut and a goodly number of them have never played the game. And there are very few gamers who have any experience with the original Airlines. So I’ll just treat AE like any other game and describe its mechanics from scratch; I apologize in advance to those familiar with the earlier games if some of this is old hat.

Airlines Europe is a set collecting majorities game with financial and geographic aspects. There are 10 different airlines establishing routes across Europe. They aren’t owned by any one player; instead, all players can acquire stock in each of them. Alternatively, players have the option of expanding any of the airlines to increase their value. When there is a scoring round, the players with the most stock in each airline get VPs, based on the value of that airline’s routes. The essence of the game is the tension between expanding airlines to increase your potential VP haul and trying to keep up with the stock race.

The game board shows a map of Europe with about 30 cities. There are routes between different pairs of cities. Each route has spaces for one to three airlines to claim it and there is a value (from 3 to 8) on each space. Each airline has a different city which is its starting point. There is also a track which runs around the outside of the board where the total value of each of the airlines is maintained. Each airline begins the game with a token showing its starting value on the track.

There is also a deck of share cards. Each airline has a number associated with it which is both the number of its shares in the deck and the number of route markers (cute little airplanes) it has. Each player begins the game with some share cards and some cash. Five share cards are revealed to form a display.

Four Ways to Fly the Friendly Skies

airlineseurope2On a player’s turn, she can do exactly one of four things:

· She can expand airlines by purchasing one or two routes. She does this by choosing an airline (any airline can be chosen, regardless of her share holdings) and placing one of its markers on a route that is adjacent to either its starting city or to one of its already played markers. There must be an empty space on that route; if there’s more than one space, the lowest valued one must be used. She then pays cash to the bank equal to the value of the space covered and increases the airline’s total value by that amount on the track. Thus, if the chosen route has open spaces of values 4 and 6, she places the airline’s marker on the 4 space, pays 4 million Euros to the bank, and advances the airline’s value token by 4 spaces. If she wishes and has the cash on hand, she can do this again, for either the same or a different airline. Finally, regardless if she bought one or two routes, she adds one share card to her hand, either from the display or the top card of the share deck.

· She can play shares from her hand. The player does not get to expand an airline, nor does she add any shares to her hand. Instead, she either plays cards of exactly one airline’s stock from her hand or plays one card from each of two stocks. In either case, the cards are played face up in front of her to show her stock holdings. Only face-up cards count in the scoring; cards still in the hand are ignored. She then takes 2 million Euros from the bank for each share she played.

· She can trade for Air Abacus shares. There is an eleventh airline in the game, Air Abacus, which has shares, but no route markers. (Pleasingly, all the airlines are named after game publishers that Moon has either placed games with or which are owned by friends of his. So you can acquire shares in White Winds and Days of Flying Wonders.) The Air Abacus shares are not mixed in the share deck, but are in a separate supply that is available to all players. If this option is chosen, the player can either trade one of their share cards for one share of Air Abacus or trade three share cards for two shares of Air Abacus. The cards being traded can come from the player’s hand, from cards she has played, or a combination of the two. The Air Abacus shares go into the player’s hand, where they can be played using the second option just like any other shares.

· She takes 8 million Euros from the bank. Short and sweet.

The same airline can’t cover more than one space on the same route. Its expansion is limited by the number of route markers it begins the game with.

The four smallest airlines have destination cities listed for them, which are always on the other side of the board from their starting city. If one of these airlines connects to their destination city, their total value is increased by a specified bonus amount. This gives the smaller airlines the potential to be just as valuable as the larger ones.

Prior to the beginning of the game, three scoring cards are added to the shares deck. This is done in such a way that the players have some idea when they will appear, without being able to predict exactly when this will be. When a scoring card appears, each airline is scored. The airline’s total value determines what its VP award is. This is clearly listed on the Value Track, which is divided into sections, each of which shows the VPs for the player with the most shares, the second most shares, and so on, for an airline with that total value. The awards for each position are half of the next higher one, rounded up. So, for example, if the airline’s total value is between 16 and 21 million Euros, the VP awards are 5-3-2-1-0 for first through fifth place. The player with the most displayed shares of that airline would get 5 VPs, the one with the second most would get 3 VPs, and so on. If there is a tie in share holdings, the positions are summed up and evenly divided, rounding up. This is done for each of the 10 airlines.

VPs are also awarded to Air Abacus holdings at this time. As there are no route markers for this airline, the VP schedule only depends upon which scoring it is. The VPs awarded for the first, second, and third scorings increase, from a first place award of 4 VPs in the first scoring to 16 VPs for the third (with the VPs halving for each successive place, just as with the standard airlines). 16 VPs is the most that the other airlines can earn (and they’d have to be very large to achieve that), so you can see that the Air Abacus shares can have a significant effect on the game, particularly towards the end.

After the third scoring, which will occur near the end of the shares deck, the game ends. The player with the most VPs wins.

Good Then, Better Now

airlinesI’ve been a fan of the Airlines system for 15 years and I think Airlines Europe is the best implementation of it. The basic concept of having to decide between expanding the airlines you have the most stock in and getting stock down so that you won’t be caught short during a scoring works just as well today as it did back in 1990. But now there’s also money to worry about, which gives the game another dimension. The end result is an excellent middleweight game, which can be enjoyed by both casual gamers and grizzled veterans.

Each of the four turn options serves a useful purpose; sadly, you can only do one a turn. Buying route expansions not only adds value to the airlines you have the greatest interest in, it’s the only way to acquire stock. Expanding by two routes can be useful to meet an objective prior to a scoring or to avoid being blocked on the map, but it can be inefficient since you’re spending more money but only getting the same one share of stock. I usually focus on single routes until the end of the game, but different players have different styles and I’ve seen varied approaches work.

All that stock doesn’t do you a bit of good unless you can get it out of your hand. For that, you need the second turn option. It’s also the principal way of getting money in the game. Plopping down a large number of identical shares is the most efficient way of doing things and results in the biggest payday. But sometimes you just gotta get down one or two key shares, particularly when the scoring rounds approach. Good players develop a sixth sense for when the scoring card is close to appearing and knowing how many turns you need to gain an edge on your opponents’ stock holdings is vital. (By the way, earning second place in a lot of airlines can be just as effective as gaining first place in a few, particularly since you can count on your opponents to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to purchasing routes. There’s definitely more than one successful approach to stock ownership in this game.)

How much effort you should put into acquiring Air Abacus stock depends upon the individual game. An extended battle to grab the most shares is rarely worth it. But if you can gain first place without sacrificing too many turns or ditching too many shares, it can be very lucrative. Even a safe second place can be very worthwhile. The rules for getting the Air Abacus shares are well balanced, which should come as a relief to those who had to deal with multiple variants for the same situation in Union Pacific.

Finally, devoting your turn to taking 8 million Euros sounds pretty dull, but the quick infusion of cash can be vital, particularly if the shares in your hand are mostly unmatched. As much as possible, you want to maintain at least some cash on hand, in case a much desired share of stock appears in the display—there’s nothing worse than aching to grab that share, but not having enough money to carry out the first action! Money management is important in AE, so figuring out how to best mix this action in with the stock laying action is valuable.

None of this requires brain-melting analysis, but the challenge is a good one and sound judgment is rewarded. There is tension between expanding airlines and putting down stock, but often the real conflict is the desire to get your stocks in play and the urge to grab just one more juicy share that’s sitting in the display—and to get all this done before a scoring round comes up. So there’s plenty to keep you involved, but the pacing is still good, as turns are quite short. Player interaction is a plus, as there’s constant battles for stock superiority. The gameplay is relaxed, but still mentally stimulating. For me, it’s an ideal middleweight game and should appeal to a wide variety of gamers.

I’ve played AE with both 4 and 5 players. The 5-player game is pretty good, but can drag a bit if the players aren’t fast. Moreover, I find it a bit more difficult keeping track of what shares everyone has than with 4. I won’t turn down a 5-player game, but I prefer to play with 4, where the game moves along at a good clip and it’s easy to take in everyone’s holdings. I haven’t tried the 3-player game, but I have no reason to think it wouldn’t play well. The 2-player game uses some special rules; I suspect it’s playable, but that the game is probably better with more.

How does Airlines Europe compare to older versions of the system? The big difference is the financial subsystem and how it replaces the other methods of dictating which links are built. In both the earlier games, there were different kinds of links and different companies were restricted in which ones they could construct. In addition, there was a separate deck for the links and a card of the appropriate type needed to be played to add the link. All of this was nice in theory, but in practice, it didn’t come into play very often—on the vast majority of turns, you were able to add a link pretty much wherever you wanted. AE not only does away with the fiddliness of the different link types, it adds another element with the money management. I much prefer the new way of doing things and consider it a significant improvement.

Most of the other changes are refinements of what was already there, but I think they all represent improvements to an already good game system. I particularly like the way the scoring cards are injected into the shares deck. In Airlines, they came up totally randomly, so that you could well have back-to-back scoring, which was clearly unfair. There was more regularity in UP, but wacky things could still occur and there were a variety of proposed methods (a common problem with that design). The system used in AE matches my tastes perfectly. And for those who prefer something less predictable, the Rio Grande version of the game includes an alternate set-up that should work nicely.

unionpacificDo I have any complaints about the game? A couple, although neither is particularly significant. It’s nice that the smaller airlines can now compete against their big brothers, but with the addition of the destination bonuses, Moon may have gone a bit too far in their favor. With their smaller number of shares, it’s not unusual for one player to gain an early lead in one, build up its routes to achieve its destination bonus prior to the first scoring, and earn some nice VPs as a result. Frequently, one or more of these airlines wind up with the biggest VP awards at game’s end. I’m not sure there’s much the other players can do about this. On the other hand, it’s not easy to maintain a wire-to-wire lead in the stock, so as long as all the players have a shot at the big points from the third scoring, it’s not a huge issue. A somewhat bigger concern is how hard it is to block airlines from expanding. Playing defense was tough in Airlines and Union Pacific (to the point that many considered the board play to be almost superfluous), but if anything, it’s harder to execute in AE. This is clearly a deliberate decision by Moon and Abacus, as they’ve positioned the game for families as well as more experienced gamers. And you wouldn’t expect too much defensive play, as more than one player usually benefits from each airline’s expansion. But it would be nice to at least have a shot at reining in an airline that you’ve been shut out in. When Bruno Faidutti added Airlines Europe to his Ideal Game Library, he made a request for a game expansion with a more unforgiving map that would feature more opportunity for screwage. I agree such a map would be interesting, at least as a change of pace. In the meantime, I don’t have a major problem with the game as it’s currently structured, as it works very well and the board play is still important (if only to ensure that at every stage you position your airline so that it can expand by a variety of values each turn, to accommodate whatever amount of cash you find yourself with).

In addition to being the best playing member of the Airlines family, I think AE is also the best looking one. Christian Fiore was responsible for the physical design and he did an excellent job throughout. I think the box art is particularly striking. It shows a stewardess, smartly dressed in a 1950’s style uniform, welcoming customers onto a propeller-driven plane. It feels both modern and nostalgic at the same time and is a welcome change from the art used in many German games. The rest of the design is very attractive as well. The board and share cards look good and are very functional. The airplane markers are very cool and stand up nicely. There is one SNAFU and it’s a significant one: the red and orange planes are way too close in color. Even in good lighting they can be hard to tell apart and in less than ideal conditions, they can be close to indistinguishable. This is unfortunate, but as long as the players are aware of the problem, it can usually be dealt with. If this is a concern, there’s one readily available solution, as long as you play with four or fewer players. In those instances, one or more of the airlines isn’t used. The yellow planes are the first to be taken out of play, but there’s no reason not to take out the red ones instead. Players will just have to make sure to remove some of the yellow planes and shares to match the appropriate numbers for the red airline and to adjust the starting position and start city for yellow as well. Once that adjustment is made, the game plays the same as normal and all the airlines will be easily distinguishable.

Airlines Europe is currently one of my favorites of the 2011 designs. It represents a solid improvement over earlier versions of the system. It plays quickly, with easily digestible decisions, but is still challenging to play well. It’s an ideal title for a variety of gamers and plays particularly well with mixed groups. I have no idea if Alan Moon has even more ideas for this system but until the next one shows up, I’ll be flying high with Airlines Europe.


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