Review: Airlines Europe

I wanted to pick up a route economy game. Looking around, I saw one based on the expansion of airlines in Europe during the 30s and 40s and found the theme a bit different from your typical railroad expansion game. Airlines Europe is a 2-5 player game from Rio Grande Games. You are an investor seeking to help young airline companies blossom as they slowly expand their routes across Europe. Hopefully you’ll see your investment in certain companies come to fruition, picking up stocks and strengthening your portfolio in key airlines.

Players try to get as many points as possible. During the game, 3 scoring tiles are placed into a stock supply deck. When they will turn over is not known exactly. Instead players know about 1/3 and 2/3’s into the the stock deck a scoring opportunity will pop up, with the final scoring being randomly mixed in with the last 10 stock tiles of the deck.

As airlines are invested in, establishing new routes, they increase in value constantly moving up a victory point tracker. At set increments, they will be worth a certain amount of points. The player with the most stocks of a particular airline in their public portfolio earns the most points. If players have at least some stock in a company, they will earn some points, but it pays to own the majority of stock for a particular airline.

The game has a varying number of airlines which start in certain cities. Players have the option of taking one action during their turn. They can invest cash into expanding a route between cities for a certain airline. This in turn allows them to pick up a stock from a limited pile (or take one unseen draw from the deck). They can take accumulated stocks in their hand and place it into their portfolio as another action (which also allows you to get cash from the bank). In essence they publicly declare what airlines they are investing in. Instead, as an action they can get money from the bank (which they’ll turn around use for investing in airline routes). Or lastly, they can turn in stocks they possess to pick up stocks for a special airline that is rapidly expanding worldwide.

Picking routes becomes a tricky business. There is a limited number of routes between cities, planes of each airline, and their stocks too. Once you claim a route, you cannot get a similar airline on the same one. Additionally, you always buy the cheapest route. Once you establish a route, the value of that airline goes up in the point tracker. Picking up routes early allows you to expand an airline rather cheap. It also can force other airlines that want to expand, having to buy the same route at a more expensive price. So there is a chance you can cut off opponents (or limit their level of investment) by judicious establishment of routes.

Another key part of the games is setting up your portfolio. The stocks you have in hand are not used for scoring. You have to put those into play, showing all the other players what airlines are in your portfolio. This becomes a bit of a bluffing game. Building up an airline takes a lot of cash. Having other players help is ideal. However you want to be sure you have the majority of stock in a company. If players see they are a minority stockholder, they will get points for an airline, but not as much so they might decide to invest in other airlines. Or worse, they race for gaining more shares to snatch away the majority. This really becomes a large part of the game, deciding what airlines to invest in, what stocks to pick up, and when to publicly declare what airlines you are investing in.

This last bit is another huge part of the game. You only have 3 scoring opportunities. Further, only stocks that are in your public portfolio are used to determine scoring. Stocks hidden in your hand don’t count. As you have one one action for your turn, you have to decide when to ‘go public’ and when to keep that information hidden.

Maybe you want to string along an opponent and help them build an airline. Maybe you want to be sure no one else is getting stocks for an airline you are interested in. Once you add those stocks to your portfolio the word is out on your interests, but if you hold onto those stocks for too long, you might miss an opportunity to get victory points. It can be a challenging decision and is an immensely enjoyable part of the game.

The Good – This is a fun route building game. Although the routes and number of airlines are static, the initial stocks you hold and what are available in the stock market are random and limited. You really don’t know what airline to invest in until you see your hand. Additionally, there is a special airline where players gain their stock by exchanging ones they hold. This airline can be worth a lot of points at the end of the game. Making it a valid goal trying to gain a majority with this special airline. All of this makes for a variety of strategies, making each game a little different.

The components are very nice, with a colorful board, plenty of plastic airline markers, and thick tokens for the stocks and victory points. The rule book is well written with plenty of examples.

The Bad – The random stock assignment and market might put off some people. You are trying to make the best of what’s available and wanted key stocks might simply not come up when needed. So some players might be put off by the random distribution of the market. This is especially true for the scoring. You will not exactly know exactly when scoring will take place. Some might find this frustrating if they managed to miss out on a scoring opportunity, and it can be very difficult to make up for a missed scoring turn.

While the components are pretty nice, the game does have paper money. That isn’t a huge ding, but having tokens or other markers might have been better. Paper money always seems to get a lot more wear and tear through multiple plays.

The Verdict – Airlines Europe is an enjoyable game. It plays just the right amount of time (clocking in just a bit over an hour) and keeps everyone engaged throughout the game. The random stock assignment means you have to be flexible with your initial strategies. The hidden accumulation of stocks, along with the public declaration of your stock portfolio (and what companies you have a majority in), makes for a great bluffing game. Shrewd planning and investment of routes, coupled with grabbing up cheap routes and stocks to curtail an opponent’s expansion evokes that feeling you are an investor slowly helping expand airline service across Europe.

This really is a fun route economy game which veers away from your typical railroad theme. It also works very well as a family game too. There is a small twist to a 2 player game where discarded stocks are thrown into a dummy hand. This can shake up the shareholder leaders for certain airlines that adds some unknown factors to victory conditions for 2 players. All in all, it scales well with many players. I highly recommend Airlines Europe.

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