First Impression: Aeroplanes

Aeroplanes: Aviation Ascendant
Martin Wallace, Mayfair Games
3-5 players, 120 minutes

High Concept:  Majorities/Route-building game set in the beginnings of the aviation industry in Europe, between the world wars.

Brief Description:  The map shows cities in Europe, Africa, and Asia, with each city having two or three building sites.  The cities are connected by different colored routes.

The game consists of three eras.  Each era begins with the players receiving a set amount of income and with passenger tokens being revealed.  The players then take turns performing actions.  After the end of the era is triggered, VPs are assigned.

In each round of the game, each player takes one action, starting with the lead player.  Then, a die is rolled to determine the lead player for the next round and the process repeats.  The major actions available to the players are:

  • Buy an airplane type, which adds one or two airports to the player’s supply, as well as providing capacity for claiming passengers.
  • Build one or more airports.  Airports must be built in cities adjacent to one of the player’s other airports (occasionally, a city two routes away can be used).  In African and Asian cities, dice must be rolled to determine if the build is successful.  Money can be spent to make up the shortfall on a dice roll; if this isn’t done, the player’s turn ends.  A roll can force the player to take engine failure tokens; if enough tokens are accumulated, the airport is lost and the turn ends.  In the later stages of the game, players can replace opponents’ airports with their own.
  • Claim a passenger token.  In order to take a token, the player must have airports in the passenger’s origin and destination cities, as well as sufficient unused capacity in one of their airplane types (each token shows 1-3 passengers).  Some passenger tokens also award VPs to the claiming player.

At the end of each era, the players with the most airports on each of the three continents get VPs.  In addition, the players with the highest profit that era get VPs, where profit is equal to the total number of passengers claimed that era, minus the total unused capacity on the airplane types bought that era.  The biggest VP award comes from profits.  At the end of the third era, the passenger VPs are added to the total to determine the winner.

First Impressions:

Larry (one 3-player game) – Aeroplanes has some decent ideas–the profitability concept is different and the interconnectedness of the actions is nice.  But the title is completely overwhelmed by the huge amount of randomness in the gameplay.  The worst offender isn’t even triggered by the dice:  it comes from the passengers.  When the passenger tiles are revealed at the beginning of the third era, you might find a couple of high VP tiles that match the cities you’re in or you might find none.  In the first case, even if your opponents can keep you from claiming the tiles, they’ll have to expend precious resources and actions, while you’re free to do more productive activities.  This can obviously have a big effect and it decided my game.

Not that I’m that thrilled with the dice either.  The random start player is more annoying than anything else–it interrupts the flow of the game and I see no reason why it was considered necessary–but it, too, could easily determine the outcome.  Rolling well during airport placement means that you’ll have more money for future actions–a big advantage.  And rolling engine failures is a double whammy, as those die faces count as a zero towards your airport roll.  There’s an awful lot of luck here and in my game, at least, it didn’t come close to evening out (I was the main beneficiary of it, BTW).

Other than the randomness, I have two big problems with the game.  The first is that it can take a while to figure out a good move during the game; you need to study multiple areas of the board, as well as your opponents’ positions (the poor physical design doesn’t make this process any easier).  But many turns are quite fast.  So you’re left with the unhappy choice of either bringing the game to a halt, or making suboptimal plays.  That always makes me feel rushed and uncomfortable while playing.

The other issue is that none of us found the gameplay that enjoyable.  There’s plenty of decisions to be made, but they didn’t feel all that clever or engaging.  Some of that may have to do with the realization that a bad set of rolls could undo just about any strategy.  And I’m not saying that a good game couldn’t be made out of some of these ideas.  But the game in the box didn’t come close to satisfying us enough to put up with the rampant randomness or to expend the effort of coming up with house rules to fix some shortcomings.  Instead, it just left us waiting for the thing to end.  I may give Aeroplanes a second chance, but right now, I’d have to say this is a title that just doesn’t fly.

Dan Blum – I liked the game somewhat more than Larry did, but I still had some of the same issues with it. The die-rolling for airport placement did not bother me too much, as there are two different advantage tiles that you can use to deal with a bad die roll after the fact (and a small shortfall can easily be paid for). However, I agree with him that the random passenger availability is a big problem. Another issue was that the end game was extremely anticlimactic, as there is no point in buying additional planes unless you can significantly improve your airport position in one or more regions by doing so (given how much a late-purchased plane will hurt your profitability). In our game there was no benefit for anyone in doing this; in some games there will be, of course, but note that the design requires that nine actions are taken at the end for no purpose except to improve tiebreaker position or to force the end (unless players take subsidies earlier in stage 3).

I’d be willing to play it once more, since we got some fine points of the rules incorrect. This actually raises another issue, which is that the rules are very poorly written. I think all the rules are actually there, but some are there only by implication, and some require interpreting sentences which make no sense as written.

Greg Schloesser – I generally get excited about Wallace’s designs, as many of them have become personal favorites.  I thoroughly enjoy others in his transportation series, especially Steam and Automobile.  So, I had high expectations for Aeroplanes.  Unfortunately, while there are some interesting ideas and concepts, the game falls short in many areas.

There is an unusual amount of luck involved for a Wallace design.  Rolling for placing airports is the most glaring.  This is a critical key to success and to have it largely dependent upon the fate of dice rolls is problematic.  Yes, this can be somewhat mitigated by the use of advantage tiles and money, but the dice can still be cruel.  Passengers appear randomly, which can cause situations wherein valuable passengers cannot be transported, particularly early in the game.  Later in the game it is possible to have an abundance of low-valued passengers, forcing players to have considerable amounts of unused capacity.  The extremely random method of determining player turn order is the most troublesome luck-related aspect.  Fortunately, it is also the most fixable.

I do have other problems with the game.  As mentioned, there is no defense against having an airport bumped from a city in future eras.  This can irreparably harm a player.  The game is also lengthy – too lengthy for the fun derived.  Our games have all lasted three hours, which is an hour beyond the maximum time listed on the box.  Eras can drag on-and-on, often with little to do on many turns.  Many turns are fast and without much action or excitement.  I have always begun the game enjoying myself, but my interest wanes rapidly after the first hour.  Sadly, for me, Aeroplanes fails to deliver the usual excitement, challenge and fun that most Wallace games provide.

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2 Responses to First Impression: Aeroplanes

  1. Ravindra P says:

    Wow, no love! I’ve only played the game 5 times so far, but even that puts me at #3 on BGG for most number of plays! Still, that is not a huge number; but I am looking forward to playing this more. So I’ll address several of the critiques above, and maybe make a few other points as well:
    – When my game log database crashed, I stopped tracking details like length of game play. However, I don’t recall that any of my games felt like it was dragging, and they certainly did not take 3 hours! It sounds like either Greg’s group had really bad luck somehow, or overly analytical players (relative to the weight of this game).
    – A lot is made (some here, more on BGG) about the roll-for-turn-order thing. Yes, if you set yourself up to need to be before player so-and-so, having the die roll go against you could be painful. But many people I’ve played with love that mechanic/sm! I wouldn’t say that I’m crazy about it myself, but it’s not a big deal: as long as someone (me) is keeping an eye on things, the game moves right along. And the long-range-planners simply need to plan on leaving themselves options in case the turn order doesn’t go their way.
    – Yes, there’s a lot of randomness in the game from the dice and the tiles. You know that going in, of course! The passenger stuff is more important, as you said — any particular game will only reveal a subset of the pool of tiles, and you can most definitely mitigate the luck of the risk rolls (with advantage tiles and cash). I’m not sure, though, that it matters as much as I thought at first. People need to prepare for the end of the game, and they do that by bulding capacity during Era 2. Which means that only a (relatively) few passengers will actually be delivered in Era 2, so only a few new ones will appear in Era 3.
    – Unlike most of you, my games did not seem to drag. In fact, there was generally some tension as you watched to see if you’d get to buy the plany you wanted, or place the airport tiles or picked up the passengers you were hoping for. That was especially true when people took subsidies early … was the Era going to end before you got to do what you wanted? And even if a particular player had little to do, the game moved along: they simply took a subsidy and the next player got to do their thing!
    – No defense against having your airports built over? Not directly, no. But you could build over theirs first, or buy the higher stage planes/airports and build those in contentious areas. Or abandon those areas (typically Europe) and go establish your presence in other areas (Africa, Asia).
    – Poor board design? Well, maybe. It sure would be nice if there were an easy way to see how many airports each player had in each continent at all times. The lack of this display is not like other area-majority games, and I can’t think of a nice Eclipse-player-board-like way of displaying this information without adding another step … but hopefully someone will come up with something on BGG!
    – On the rules: I guess it’s a matter of opinion, but to me this ruleset seemed to be pretty clear. Certainly when compared to those old Wallace rulesets! But then again, I was taught the game before I ever read the rules, so it’s hard to be objective about it.
    – This game is most definitely not for people looking for a heavy, analytical Wallace design — this is no Brass or Age of Steam. I think it’s aimed more at the advanced beginner … a game to bridge the gap between Mayfair’s lighter offerings and heavier gamer stuff. It’s got dice like Settlers, but introduces pick-up-and-delivery, network-building, area majorities, cash flow, etc. Kennerspiel weight, maybe? I’m not suggesting this as a KSdJ game, but it seems aimed at that audience.

    If you like the basic game idea but find it’s not strategic enough for you, it seems you might try some easy “fixes”:
    – make turn order more predictable by passing a start player marker to the left
    – lay out future passengers for each city in lines radiating outward so you know who’s coming, and when (ish, since resupply depends on delivery); sort of like an Age of Steam goods tile board
    – get rid of risk rolls. Instead, make every “die” worth 3.5 and make people pay cash to make up any shortfalls. To preserve the engine failure stuff, you could hand out half an engine failure per risk roll: just use the engine failure tiles, face down (next time, flip a previous tile face up)

    Wow, all this talk … I’m already looking forward to my next play!

  2. Dan Blum says:

    My game didn’t take nearly 3 hours, either – more like 2. But that’s still much too long for me, for a game with this much randomness. I can play Brass in 2 hours, so why would I play this instead?

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