Cost: $45.00 From: Abacus Spiele Players: 2-6 Playing Time: 90 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Complexity: 7 Skill level: 7 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 2.2, Winter 1993
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Sid Sackson should be flattered indeed. Airlines, Alan Moon's game of flight path building and airline control, was clearly inspired by Sackson's classic Acquire. Fortunately, it brings some new elements to the party, resulting in a fresh, lively variation that stands well on its own.
The beautifully airbrushed game board depicts a network of flight routes connecting major cities throughout North America. The routes are divided into five different networks, distinguished by their line style (dotted, dashed, etc). Each route contains from one to three numbered circles along its length. The nine airlines expand from their different hub cities along these initially unowned routes, but each airline is restricted to the use of specific networks.
Two decks of cards provide the main impetus for the game's progression. The first is a deck of eighty-four stock cards representing shares in the nine airlines. Each airline has from seven to thirteen shares of stock in the deck. The second deck contains forty-two flight cards. Each flight card has a value from one to fourteen and a frame, the style of which indicates one of the five flight networks. At the start of the game, players are dealt five stock cards and three flight cards. Another five stock cards are turned face up on the table.
On a player's turn, she may perform one of three actions: founding an airline, expanding an airline's flight network, or playing stock cards and optionally sabotaging competitors. If all nine airlines have not yet been established, she may found an airline. This is accomplished by laying face-up one or more shares of stock in the airline being founded, then beginning that airline's flight network along one of the routes radiating from that network's headquarters. If a player can't or chooses not to found an airline, she may choose to expand an existing airline's flight network. Beginning and expanding an airline's network is accomplished in the same way: by playing a flight card. The flight card played must have the same line style as the flight route being claimed, and must have a value at least as great as the lowest free numbered circle along that route. To claim the route, a marker of the expanding airline's color is placed on that numbered circle. Thus as airlines expand, it requires higher valued cards to gain the rights to a route already being used by another airline. And once all circles on a route are covered with markers, no more airlines can use that route. This can become very important in the later stages of the game.
If a player neither founds nor expands an airline, he may instead play stock cards face-up. Any number of stock cards may be played, but they must all be of the same airline. Once stock is played, it remains face-up in front of that player for the remainder of the game. If only one stock card is laid down, that player may choose to engage in sabotage. Each marker has a white adhesive dot applied to one side (well, they don't at first-- you have to apply them yourself when you get the game). The saboteur places a marker of the airline of his choice sticker-side up onto any free numbered circle with a value of at least 5. Why bother? At the very least, sabotage makes it harder for airlines to expand along the sabotaged route. When a numbered circle is covered, the next highest circle dictates the flight card value required to expand along that route. The higher the value, the harder it is to use the route. A sabotage marker uses a circle which would otherwise be available for an airline, reducing the number of airlines which can use that route. And you can choose any color marker to sabotage with. Since each airline has a finite number of markers, this reduces the potential size of a rival airline. Only one circle may be sabotaged on any given route, so you can't block off a path entirely through repeated sabotage. But judiciously timed, sabotage can be devastatingly effective in curtailing the growth of an airline in which an opponent has a major interest.
So what's the goal in all this? Whoever has the most shares of each airline face-up is considered to be the majority shareholder of that airline. When it comes time to score points, the majority shareholder gets one point for each marker of that airline's color (not including markers used for sabotage) currently on the board. Whoever has the second-highest number of shares (the secondary shareholder) gets half that number of points. Nobody else scores.
The trick in Airlines is that scoring occurs at three random intervals during the game. Three scoring cards are shuffled into the deck of stock cards. When one of them gets drawn, play pauses and points are tallied immediately. Points are scored a final time at the end of the game, when the deck of stock cards is exhausted.
Players are entitled to draw a new stock card whenever they found or expand an airline. Players always have the choice of drawing one of the five stock cards lying face-up beside the deck, or drawing the top card from the stock deck instead. This is a nice touch, one also seen in Alan Moon's Elfenroads. It allows players to maintain some control over their portfolios, helping to eliminate some of the vagaries of chance. It can also lead to temporary alliances among players, as one promises not to use up the last circle along a key flight route if another agrees not to take the stock card the first player wants.
The randomness of the scoring intervals injects a lot of excitement and trepidation into the game. Once all airlines are founded, playing stock cards consumes the entirety of a player's turn. Deciding when to play them is a factor crucial to success. Should you play the two green cards you have now, or wait another round and hope to be able to take the green card sitting face-up near the deck, playing all three the following turn? If you wait, you might miss your window of opportunity and get hosed when a scoring card turns up, leaving you as a minority shareholder in green. On the other hand, you'd prefer not to have to spend two turns playing green stock cards if you can avoid it, because you want to have a chance to expand its flight route before a rival airline cuts off its access paths.
These trade-offs between cementing your grip on an airline and increasing an airline's size and worth are fun to play with. It's the classic gambler's problem of how long to push your luck before you cash in. Eventually, you'll decide to hold on one turn too long and be caught short when a scoring card turns up. Stock cards in your hand are absolutely worthless-- they must be played face-up to count. You can always play them later on, of course, but that's small consolation when the scoring card appears before you're ready.
Aside from requiring you to apply over one hundred stickers when you unwrap the game, the quality of the Airlines package is top-notch. The full-size cards are sturdy, the colors chosen for the wooden markers are distinct and easy to tell apart (a frequent pitfall for many games), and the game board is much prettier than it needed to be. The scorepad is clearly laid out and has ample sheets. Two rule booklets are included, one in German and one in English. Thoughtfully supplied are a bunch of handy reference cards, showing which networks can be used by which airlines, the number of markers available to each airline, and total number of stock shares for each airline. My only complaint is that only one large ziploc is provided for all the markers-- you'll probably want to use a bunch of smaller ones to keep them separated by color.
As with most European games, Airlines is fairly hard to come by in the States. Some U.S. retailers specialize in imported games, however, such as Games People Play in Cambridge, MA. Be prepared for sticker shock at such locations-- it does cost a bit to bring these babies overseas. It's well worth the trouble to get your hands on a copy, especially if you're an Acquire fan-- the similarities are unmistakable. Heck, in my book, any game with Alan Moon's name on it is worth picking up. Aside from being a nice guy, he's proven his ability to design a quality game that holds your interest and keeps you coming back for more.