My starting hand waits face down before me. I let it wait. I sip some tea, and distribute a starting pile of money to each player. The game is on from the moment I’ve looked at those eight cards. I want a few more seconds of unpolluted anticipation before then. From the off, there are decisions in Airlines Europe to be savoured, so I enjoy letting my hunger build.
I take my cards – they tell me which airlines I am invested in. I have three shares in the green airline, FF Flys, among them. Nobody else need know that yet – though it’ll weigh upon me like an unrevealed infatuation: a secret I’ll be bursting to send astray. Each player must show two of his or her starting cards. For now, I’m not even going to show one of the FF shares. I select a blue and a purple share to reveal – in Rio Grande and Luck Hans airways: these shares are rather numerous (whereas FF has nine shares total in the deck, Rio Grande has 15). It’s a cagey choice: a single share in a large airline means little in the long term.
My neighbour to the left has put down an orange share, and one in FF. The player opposite, blue and grey. My neighbour to the right, a purple and a black. I think I’m pleased at what I see, but I’m not sure. Mostly I’m reminded why I wanted to pause before play started: the dynamics of this game, as ever, will be fluid and nuanced: it’s an exciting, but challenging story to track. With just two cards each exposed, I already see all my fellow players to be partners and rivals at once. I know too, that they’re thinking the same of me. Is my purple share a lie or a promise?
Many other stock games explore the same dichotomy: the fellow player as both help and hindrance. However, through its use of hidden information – in the form of unrevealed cards – Airlines Europe adds a layer of doubt to the dynamic. If say, my right neighbour develops the purple company we are both invested in, this probably means she has more shares in the company up her sleeve. But how many? Is her stake likely to be too great for me to challenge her to be the largest shareholder?
The hidden information is a large part of what makes Airlines Europe more approachable than most other share-holding themed games. You can read other players’ actions for clues, but there’s a limit to this – and thus, that great absolver, luck, does have significant involvement in the game. But, nevertheless, deducing one’s best course of action based on incomplete information is a sophisticated, valuable and enjoyable process to explore.
Additionally, Airlines Europe stays pretty light and brisk because each player may perform only one action per turn. Four types of action are possible, of which two predominate. Firstly, a player may reveal shares from his or her hand, receiving two million euros per share exposed. Alternatively, the player may add a route or two to the network of any company (if two routes are to be built, these can be in one or two companies) – spending his or her own money to do so, but increasing the value of that company by the amount spent. Each time a player performs the latter action, he or she may also take a share – choosing from five face up possibilities, or taking an unseen card from the top of the draw deck. The value of drawing blind is not to be underestimated. Having secrets is valuable in this game.
The choice to reveal shares as an action is not only a means of raising money. It is necessary to have a share on display for it to score points. There are three scoring rounds during the game: roughly a quarter of the way through, just past the halfway point, and at the end. On each occasion, the player with the largest shareholding in a company receives victory points: the amount of which determined by the value of the company (for instance, if a company is worth betweeen 22 and 27 million euros, the player receives six points, if it is worth betweeen 39 and 43 million, 9 points). A smaller holding in a company can still yield points: for instance a company valued between seven and 10 million euros will give 2 points to its second largest shareholder and 1 point to the third. The fourth and fifth might be rewarded in a larger company.
Through this, the desire to let a secret slip is amplified. If I hold off showing my shares in FF Flys, or at least some of them, my neighbour can cheaply collect a reward which could be mine. If it happens, it’s hard to sit through. But often there can be reward in waiting: my neighbour might grow to believe he possesses the most FF shares, and start to develop the company. At least, he might spend a round or two thinking he’s in control: another card or two revealed – either by other players, or from the draw deck – and one’s feeling of power can dissipate as swiftly as it formed.
Two additional actions are also possible, though less common. One is simply to take eight million euros from the bank. Finally a player can trade regular shares – either from his or hand, or from those revealed – for shares in a special airline, Air Abacus. This airline does not build routes: it’s value for each scoring round is fixed. And is high: it is highly unlikely, though possible, that a regular airline will match the 16 points Air Abacus gives to its number one shareholder.
When and what to trade for Air Abacus is a test. While valuable, its shares are not necessarily overvalued: not only must regular shares be traded for Air Abacus (and a player can gain a maximum of two Air Abacus shares in a turn), but making the exchange means foregoing another possible action. It’s a sign of a game developed through years of work by an expert hand (Airlines Europe reworks, and refines a system employed in Alan R. Moon’s earlier games Airlines and Union Pacific, from 1990 and 1999 respectively).
What all this adds up to is a deft, subtle game – as much about the control of information as about the control of companies. It’s the kind of game where downtime isn’t really downtime, because there’s relevant to you to be read into every decision your opponents make. It’s an absolutely tremendous advert for the nuanced game a simple rule-set can generate. I’d caution against the two-player variant (the glorious fluidity of relations cannot be reproduced in one-on-one play). But, otherwise, you’ll struggle to find a more satisfying, accomplished example of what a modern board game can be.
Airlines Europe was released in 2011 by Abacusspiele, was designed by Alan R. Moon, and is for 2-5 players.