The usual opening of a Siggins review is a short waffle on the company, the game or a tenuous link to whatever was on TV last week. This time, I feel I have to start with a disclaimer. As many of you know, Alan Moon, the designer of Airlines, is a friend of mine. This lays me open to problems in reviewing the game. Sadly, I couldn't find anyone else willing and able to tackle it at short notice, so I'm going to do it as I really wanted to get it in for this issue. You will just have to trust my legendary objectivity and honesty; I hope my past reviews will bear this out. OK?
Abacus Spiele made quite an impact with Dicke Kartoffeln last year and have now established themselves as the adult gaming branch of Hexagames, though I'm pretty sure there is no formal link between these two Joe Nikisch-run companies. Airlines is their big release for 1990 and while it is no secret that they have another Moon design in the works (involving horses and betting), that one is unlikely to see the light of day this year. [Ken: This became Pony Express, I believe.]
Airlines is a game about airline companies building networks around the USA. It is also essentially a system heavily based on Acquire, featuring a neat slant on the share dealing of that noted game. It is true to say the designer claims no more than this. However, it is a game that offers a rather better background and rationalisation than the Avalon Hill classic and also presents some clever tweaks in play. Alan set out to design a game which improved upon Acquire and whether this has been achieved will be debated for some time. My view is that the game is sufficiently different to warrant separate consideration. I also feel it works rather well.
Airlines was originally called Nine Railroads and took the theme of laying track and buying shares in the growing companies. In the course of production and development it became an airlines game, probably because of the sheer number of railway games on the market. Perhaps because of this heritage, but also because of game balance, the routes comprising the overall network are separated into five types onto which only certain of the nine airlines can build. So, for instance, BOI which is based somewhere near Sacramento can only build onto the short haul broken lines whereas ITA, potentially the largest of all the companies, gets to use any route type available. What this would appear to indicate is that certain companies have a greater chance of expanding than others, but in practice it is very much dependent on the cards.
This is because, unlike Acquire, placing 'tiles' or control markers is not done through free choice. To build or 'open up' a route between two cities, you must have an appropriate card with both the correct route symbol (solid, broken, dotted, wavy etc) and a number larger than the current minimum required for the route. Broadly speaking, each route has one, two or three numbers which allow that number of companies to use the route. The first player to place a marker usually gets it quite cheaply (except on the long distance wavy routes) but subsequent markers may require high value cards. Once completely full, the routes can't be used by any other company which leads to some interesting placements to close off expansion areas and so on. In addition, there is a neat sabotage rule that can be used for the same purpose.
So, in the same way as Acquire uses its tiles to expand the hotel chains, Airlines uses its control markers to show growth of the company networks. The counters are laid by most players in most turns and the networks are therefore built up steadily, giving ample time to see which company might be the largest (and therefore the most profitable - no size disadvantages here) at game end. Throughout the game, every time you successfully expand a network, each player may choose one of five exposed shares or take one at random from the pack. In this way, share holdings are built up in one's hand. These are ultimately used for founding as yet unestablished companies or building up stakes in others that show growth potential.
A nice twist in the game is that shares held 'in hand' are worthless in victory terms. Only when the shares are declared and laid out on the table does your holding have any significance. In the same way that the nine airlines are of different sizes (available routes and counters), they also have different numbers of shares. In the smaller companies it is possible to gain a majority with just a few shares, but the 'giants' like ITA and the regularly successful GAP (flying out of Los Angeles) often have close power struggles. The drawback of going 'ouvert' in one company's shares is that you may perform no other action in that turn, which can be quite a hindrance.
Right, so everyone is grabbing shares and building up 'their' networks or unwittingly those of other players. So how is the money earned? Well, it isn't really. One of the attractive points about Airlines is that it has no play money floating around and minimal bookeeping. Instead, points (cash, if you like) are earned at four stages in the game; when each of three dividend cards is revealed from the shares stack and at the end of the game when the airlines have become quite large and the share stock has been exhausted. The rub is that the dividend cards are shuffled randomly into the share pack so no-one knows when the next one is due.
Given that the payouts are based directly on the size of the company (number of counters on the board) and are paid only to the two declared shareholders with majority and second largest holdings (in a 2:1 ratio), it is easy to see that coming out with your shares at the right time is vital. It certainly gives some information away to your rivals on the likely size of your holding, but it also lets you into the running for any dividend cards that appear. Ideally of course, your first lay will be big enough and timed right to gain an instant majority. This is thankfully rare. The end of the game normally sees a rush of declarations with control of the companies changing hands several times in an effort to oust the majority shareholder and to get all your important holdings out before the often sudden game end.
There was much talk about the random dividend payment system and many thought it took a lot of the skill out of the game. I tend to disagree but it certainly can be annoying. In two of the four games, a dividend card came up very early when only two or three airlines were running and very few shares were out. This gave the declared players a small points advantage but didn't prove decisive because there are much bigger rewards towards the end of the game. The game tends to be closely balanced anyway. Whatever, I am not sure there is a better system as with no fixed number of turns it would be difficult to regularize payments every ten turns, say. This would also remove the interesting decision over whether to declare and when. The trade-off between building up or declaring is a fascinating one. Perhaps more numerous dividends would go a little way to solving it but my gut feeling is that it is workable as it stands.
Airlines lives up to, or even exceeds, the production standards set by Dicke Kartoffeln. The map is a spectacular affair, rendered in natural tones with a satellite projection, overlaid with the route network. The cards are also top quality, though I suspect a little more information could have been included with some thought. The counters are wood, what else, and the rules are nicely produced though I understand they have a few small errors in the German. My main gripe, and it is surely one that slipped through late in production, is that two neighbouring East Coast airlines use red and orange counters which are so close in shade, it is difficult to tell which is which. If you play in a poor light, a close check is required. Additionally, the lines used to denote the different airline routes are quite tough to differentiate. These quibbles aside, this is a superb production.
Airlines has a fairly simple system but there is plenty of decision making at all times. One is constantly weighing up whether it is best to lay shares, build a network spur or open another company and all the time the shortage of the right build cards can be crippling. As a system, I think it hangs together well. It incorporates shares, building and money (all the ingredients of the usually epic- length business games) yet manages to reduce the housekeeping to a minimum. There is no money to fiddle with, the exact value and potential of companies can be seen at a glance, shares have no price but, through scarcity, their value is clear and the build system works cleverly to loosely simulate licence delays and the inability to do exactly as you would like. Because of this latter restriction, the game unfolds quite unpredictably. In the first game, a small airline never appeared at all, only to become the largest and most heavily contested in the next.
Airlines may not be to everyone's taste and I am conscious of my strong liking for these semi-abstract business games in the Acquire and Shark mould. But tack on a interesting theme and a network system that hangs together pretty well, and you have a neat, cleanly designed game that will offer quite a challenge to game groups and older families. Airlines' big asset is that it takes just 60-80 minutes to play which is refreshingly quick, even with five players. This is very much a game that is modern in feel and will, I'm sure, offer repeated play value. It seems to play well enough with three or four, for two it is a little sterile.
Airlines costs DM 50 and is likely to cost around £20 or more when the imports arrive. My view is that is well worth it and makes an ideal longer fill-in or short convention game. It will certainly appeal to games groups and those who enjoy Acquire level games. I have to say I liked it and could see that it would reward study and analysis of the crucial build cards. The best signs were that most of the games I have played have been completely different and very close - in one case six points covered the top five players. This was one of the highlights of the Essen releases for me and I hope Alan manages to get more similar games onto the market in the future.
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