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Review: Airlines Europe

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The golden age of commercial flying. Ten companies vie for control of the European airways, claiming licenses to fly between the metropolises of the continent. And behind it all is the ubiquitous Air Abacus, a company that flies everywhere and rewards its investors handsomely.

You? It doesn’t matter much to you who comes out on top, as long as you have piles of shares in your portfolio.

Enter the world of Airlines: Europe, the tense game of stock manipulation and route building in the skies.

How It Works

Airlines: Europe is a route-building and stocks game for two to five players. Players invest in and expand various airline companies on the board and collect stocks in those airlines to receive points during the three scoring rounds. The player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.

At the start of the game, each player receives a hand of eight random shares of stock, choosing two that will be played face up in the player’s portfolio. Three scoring cards are placed in the share deck, five shares are laid out next to the share deck, and company markers are placed on the board and score track. Each player receives points based on their starting position and play begins.

A player must perform one of four actions each turn:

  • Expand airline(s) and draw a share of stock
  • Play shares of stock from hand to portfolio, receiving money for each share played
  • Discard 1 or 3 shares of stock to add 1 or 2 shares of Air Abacus to hand
  • Take $8m

Players may expand any airlines (regardless of whether they have that company’s stock in their portfolios), and expanded airlines increase in value along the score track. The drawn share may come from the five face-up cards or the face-down share deck (similar to Ticket to Ride). Playing shares into the portfolio ensures that players have a chance of scoring points in the scoring round and also supplies a player with money. Air Abacus isn’t represented on the board, but it is guaranteed a good payout in each of the three scoring rounds (it flies everywhere). Taking the $8m ensures that players will have the money necessary to expand airlines.

The game set up for five players.

Each airline is represented in the share deck with a number of shares ranging from 7 to 16. That number also determines the number of times a company can expand. For the smaller companies, a bonus is available if that airline can connect to a city on the other side of the board, immediately sending the stock prices soaring.

When a scoring card is revealed from the share deck, each player takes a free share of stock into their hand from the face-up line, and points are awarded to whoever has the most (and second most and so on) shares of stock in their portfolio for each company, including Air Abacus. The game ends after the third scoring round, and the player with the most points is the winner.

Up in the Air or Still on the Tarmac?

Airlines: Europe is a reworking of two of Alan Moon’s earlier games, Airlines and Union Pacific. But more than this, it blends aspects of two of my favorite games–the fast-paced route-building of Ticket to Ride and the high-tension stocks game of Acquire–into a streamlined package that brings a great gameplay experience to casual and hobby gamers alike.

The insert. No joke, I turned the box over right before I took this picture, and everything stayed where it was.

Airlines: Europe, first of all, is a gorgeous game in one of the best packages I’ve seen. The individual airplanes used to claim routes are molded plastic and look great on the board, the cards are on great stock and easy to shuffle, and the player aids are sturdy cardboard and very helpful. The rulebook is laid out well and well written; I was able to understand and explain the game very quickly. But the game’s insert is where Airlines: Europe really shines. This game could be a bear to set up, with little piles of planes for each company and digging out point chits during the scoring rounds, but the insert makes the setup time almost zero, and the box/insert is designed to remain on the table with the game. There are only three things in the game that need to be set up: the bonus route cards for the small airlines, the scoring markers, and the share deck. What’s also great about the insert is that even if the game is jostled or turned upside down, all of the parts remain in their containers. The only downsides in the components are the paper money and the cheaper plastic company markers. But these two things are easily overlooked given how good the rest of the game looks.

Airlines: Europe strikes a good balance between casual and meatier games. The rules are very easy to explain–players can do only one thing on their turns from among four options, two of which give  stock and two of which give money–but the possibilities that these four choices open up offer lots of room for clever play. The rules of the game are no more complex than Ticket to Ride (by the same designer), but the information that players must judge and sift puts this game just a bit further down the path from the casual gamer. Which is no matter to me: I think the game has a longer shelf life and is more interesting because of it. And even though the game is harder to grasp, all the groups I’ve introduced it to have enjoyed it. (They are also groups that enjoy Ticket to Ride.)

The player aids and bonus markers.

One of the things that keeps Airlines: Europe manageable and exciting is its pacing. Similar to Ticket to Ride, players may do only one thing on their turns, and usually that one thing is done quickly. Thus the game shouldn’t bog down too much, though with the frequent changes in game state, players may need a moment to reanalyze the board before they take their turns.

Perhaps my favorite part of Airlines: Europe is the subtlety of it. Players are rewarded for holding majorities in various companies, but their stock only counts if it’s in their portfolios (not their hands). However, if players put stock into their portfolios too soon, they will likely have to expand the airline (and increase its value) themselves; if players wait to put stock in their portfolios, there’s a chance they will miss the scoring rounds, which are the only times when players score points. The tension of this one decision makes the game tense each play, but there’s even more to it. Each company has a number on its stock, representing the number of shares in the deck and the number of planes the company has to expand. Players can see at a glance how many shares of the stock are on the table (in their own and other players’ portfolios), but they must guess how many shares are in the deck, other players’ hands, and the discard pile. When players take shares of Air Abacus, they may discard shares from their hands or their portfolios, but discards are turned in face-down. Aside from shares discarded from portfolios, players must guess which shares other players are tossing away.

The ten stock companies, with Air Abacus in the center.

And this Air Abacus decision presents another point of tension in an already tense game. Air Abacus scores as a top-tier airline the whole game through. Gaining stock in Air Abacus is clearly a good thing, but players have to judge if getting stock is worth it. After all, Air Abacus is costly–not only does it cost shares from other companies, but it also costs a turn to convert stock, which is precious indeed. Furthermore, because Air Abacus is so valuable, it’s something that all players will want to cash in on. As soon as one player gets shares, the race is on for other players to catch up or at least get in. Air Abacus provides another way to score points, and I liken it to the military strategy in 7 Wonders: it’s best if you can own just enough shares to maintain a lead…but wars escalate quickly.

In both playing stock and acquiring Air Abacus (and, really, every other facet of this game), players are faced with tough decisions that require sacrifices. The best way to get money is to play shares of stock into your portfolio (then you accomplish something and get money), but you must be careful in how you play shares: you can play either two shares total or as many shares as you want of one company, each share played netting $2m. Players will want to play both broad and deep–and will want to beat the scoring round card–so they must carefully weigh which shares to play. Similarly, it’s often better to expand airlines twice on a turn if you can, but you draw only one share of stock whether you expand once or twice. Where are your resources best used? You can trade for Air Abacus one share for one or three shares for two: either way it costs you a turn, but how much stock are you willing or able to burn? These efficiency decisions are not always clear-cut, and the looming opportunity of scoring rounds is always present.

Scoring rounds are always looming, keeping the game TENSE.

Airlines: Europe is also very interactive. Players have to watch what the other players are doing to gauge which shares they should acquire, which airlines they should expand, and how many shares of Air Abacus they need to beat out their competitors. One of the cool aspects of this game is that any player can pay to expand any airline, regardless of their stock ownership. Why would you want to invest in an airline you won’t get a payout from? Each airline has a limited number of planes to work with. Some of the smaller airlines achieve a bonus if they reach a target city. By wasting airplanes on the periphery, you can limit the number of points paid to an opponent. Of course, on the other hand, one of the effective strategies in the game is to piggyback on others’ big investments and ride their coattails to achieving points. It’s best, obviously, to have a majority in an airline. But having several easily gained minorities can be a lucrative proposition.

I love the molded-plastic airplane pieces. These are used to claim routes.

In the introduction I likened this game both to Ticket to Ride and to Acquire. The Ticket to Ride parts are easy to see: having a five-card stock draw option, claiming routes, one action per turn. The Acquire parts are also easy to see: a gatewayish stock game with publicly traded companies where any player can impact the outcome regardless of shares owned. What Airlines: Europe does is brilliantly meld these games together into a coherent and compelling whole. One of the most persistent gripes I hear about Acquire is that it is so unforgiving. This gripe is not unfounded, as I’ve played many games with new players who had zero money for most of the game. (Heck, I’ve been that new player more than once.) Airlines always gives the option to take money from the bank when stores are low. Even though it’s a huge bummer to do this, new and old players must resort to the easy money option every once in a while. I don’t hear many gripes about Ticket to Ride in my groups, but the main one I hear elsewhere is that it either is too simple or can be too non-interactive, depending on the group. Airlines: Europe cannot be played in “multiplayer solitaire” mode, as Ticket to Ride can be. And while it retains the rules simplicity of Ticket to Ride, there is much more opportunity for clever play because of the depth and interconnected nature of choices.

These are the worst components in the game, but they’re not that bad.

I’ve said a good deal in favor of Airlines: Europe, and for good reason: I love the game. But I’m sure not everyone will. Those who don’t like stock games may not like this one either (though, as I mentioned, it is more forgiving than Acquire). The game’s theme works well (and gives nods to the game companies that have published Alan Moon’s games), but it’s not a theme likely to excite those who like typical American-style fare. The game clocks in at just over 60 minutes, meaning it won’t work as a typical lunch game (though I suspect that with the right players, you could get this below an hour). And some players may succumb to analysis paralysis given the number of possibilities on the board; there really aren’t any easy decisions in this game because every decision is a sacrifice.

But I had to struggle to come up with negatives here, the game is that good (if you enjoy this sort of thing). Alan Moon has created another masterpiece, one that combines simplicity and elegance with depth and tension. If you like stock games at all, and maybe even if you don’t, you need to check out Airlines: Europe.

Summary

  • Rating 9.5
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 9
    Your Rating:
Summary

Pros

  • Simple rules and options keep players' focus on their decisions
  • Game flows well
  • High interactivity and tension combined with great depth
  • Components knock it out of the park

Cons:

  • Wealth of possibilities can cause analysis paralysis
  • While rules are simple, strategy can be hard to comprehend in first play
9.5 Excellent

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Great review! Couldn’t agree more. I love Ticket to Ride and hate Acquire, but this one strikes a great balance that I really enjoy. My only beef with the game is that the orange and red planes are sometimes hard to distinguish.

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