Reviewed by Eric Brosius
BLUE SKIES (Rio Grande Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 14 and up, 30-60 minutes; $39.95)
Commercial aviation is an intriguing subject – and it’s a popular one for boardgames. For some reason, aviation games don’t tend to focus as squarely on airline operation as train games do on railroad operation; there is often a “twist”, and (frequent Gamers Alliance Report contributor) Joe Huber’s Blue Skies fits this pattern. Players open gates at airports across the United States and seek to attract passengers to those gates. The twist in Blue Skies is that you don’t buy or fly planes; a passenger that arrives at an airport stays there for the whole game (though they may wander from gate to gate.) We joke that you keep them waiting so they will keep buying your overpriced airport food!
The main things that happen in the game are adding passengers and opening gates. Players add passengers at airports by playing demand cards associated with those airports. Passengers are also added automatically both during setup and, as the game proceeds, by drawing cards from the top of the deck – your advertising attracts some people to the airport, but others show up on their own. Players purchase gates during setup and throughout the game using points that they receive for that purpose. Other gates are opened by local airlines (not associated with players) in airports that have passengers but no player-owned gates (someone has to sell them food!).
The game board shows 30 airports in 30 cities across the United States, each with room for 2 to 4 gates (depending on player count) and space for passengers at each gate. There is a lot of information, and the graphics are streamlined to make the information easy to read. There are 59 demand cards, with more for busier airports – so, for example, there are 5 cards for Atlanta, but only 1 for Cincinnati. Gates at busier airports cost more points to open and later gates at an airport often cost more than earlier ones. In smaller airports, players can “buy out” local airline gates, often at a higher cost in points, eliminating competition from the local airline.
Passengers are represented by wooden cubes drawn from a bag. Most of the cubes are red but 20% are green, representing passengers who are traveling together with other passengers – a parent and a child, for example. When you play a card to add a passenger, you draw a cube and place it in that airport. If it is red, you are finished, but if it is green, you place it and draw another (and keep drawing until you have drawn and placed a red one.) Cubes are distributed as evenly as possible among the open gates in the airport, with odd cubes going to gates that were opened earlier. Whenever more passengers are added or new gates are opened, you re-distribute the passengers to even things up again.
You score points in two ways. Each turn you score 1 point for each passenger currently at one of your gates (each of them buys a fast food meal). Then, at the end of the game, you score for majorities in each of the seven regions (Pacific, Southwest, and so on.) Each gate is worth a specified number of points toward achieving a regional majority – for example, Atlanta is worth 6 points in the Southeast, but Cincinnati is worth just 2 points in the Midwest. There is a balancing act: you must look for opportunities to add to your passenger count (especially if you can get passengers to move from an opponent’s gate to your gate at the same airport,) while keeping an eye on the regional majorities which can be significant.
It’s easy to see how a game like this could be one of pure calculation. Blue Skies avoids this in several ways. First, you add passengers using cards drawn from the deck. Your plan must work with the cards you draw, not the ones you wish you had drawn. Also, additional passengers are added each turn by drawing cards from the top of the deck; this increases the chances that an airport where you have a gate will get passengers. You do receive a special action that lets you add a passenger in any city of your choice and discard and redraw cards you don’t want (at a cost of 3 points), but you may use this option only once per game. In addition, partway through the game, as soon as some player reaches or exceeds 30 points, there is a small catch up phase where players who are behind can add cubes and where all players can discard cards they don’t want. And finally, when you add passengers, you may draw one or more green cubes. Don’t be fooled, though – skill matters a lot in Blue Skies, and better players win more often.
Blue Skies has a lot of numbers in it, so you might think it is complicated, but everything that happens makes sense. For me it falls squarely in the middle of the family game category. The random elements force you to adapt on the fly and also give less-skilled players a chance. The components are clear, attractive, and sturdy. I was a playtester for Blue Skies and have since played multiple games both using the published version and on line at boardgamearena.com and it has been enjoyable every time I’ve played it. It works well with 2 players or with larger groups. Give it a try! – – – – – – – – – – – Eric Brosius
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