- Designer: Joe Huber
- Publisher: Rio Grande Games
- Players: 2-4
- Age: 14+
- Time: 45 min
- Times played: 4, with review copy provided by RGG
Says RGG: “The year is 1979, and the U.S. government has just deregulated the airline industry, opening it to competition in terms of fares, routes, and the airline companies themselves. You represent a new airline that’s trying to set up business in the U.S., but you have an entire country open to you, so where will you set up shop and how can you profit more than the other newcomers to ensure that you survive?”
Joe Huber (disclaimer – he is an author here on the Opinionated Gamers, though he had no influence over this review) has always had board games that interest me. They often focus on a few simple elements and make a compelling game from them. One example would be his recent release, Caravan, which we reviewed last year. In Blue Skies, players act as the head of an airline; trying to succeed by correctly predicting where the demand for air travel will be. And, of course, because Joe is involved, Cleveland plays a role in the game… [Just an aside, but – yes, my involvement _did_ influence the inclusion of Cleveland. But only a little; it would have been hard not to include it, and still to spread the airports chosen well across the US. – Joe]
In Blue Skies, the game board presents players with thirty airports in thirty cities. Each airport has four gates, with you using 2-4 gates depending on the number of players. The airports are grouped into a number of regions, and it is important to note that a few airports (JFK, ORD, DFW, LAX) are part of multiple regions. To set up, draw 5 airport demand cards from the deck to seed airports with passengers. Each of these airports will get a grey neutral local airline at the leftmost gate. Whenever you place passengers on the board, draw from a bag that initially contains 100 red cubes and 25 green cubes; for each airport, continue drawing until you draw a red cube, then redistribute passengers at the open gates of that airport as evenly as possible. Ownership of a gate is shown by a marker (player color or grey neutral) above it. Then draw 3 cards per player and add passengers to those airports – though you do NOT place a neutral gate marker for this second round of setup.
Each player gets an airline board which has a player aid on the right and an income track on the left. Players start with three demand cards in hand (these cards have the name of an airport on them), and they take turns choosing two gates with a purchase price of at most 6; the cost for the gate is printed on the associated space on the board. It is also possible to buy-out one of the grey neutral airlines by paying the “Buyout” cost listed on the airport’s space on the board. Players adjust their income from 0, with their income being set to equal the number of passengers now waiting at their gates, then the game begins. At all times in the game, as the number of occupied gates changes at an airport, the passengers at that airport are distributed as evenly as possible, with extras going from left to right.
To start a round, each player in turn may buy new gates at airports of their choice, spending at most 6 points and adding any unspent points to their score. You can buy out a local airline, set up gates in new cities, or purchase multiple gates in the same airport to try to dominate that area.
Each player in turn then plays a demand card from their hand, drawing passengers from the bag to place one or more passengers at that location. (We found it much easier just to designate one person to be the passenger person, rather than pass the bag around the table…) Once per game in this phase, players can also opt to take a special action where they add passengers to any one airport of their choice and then discard any cards they like and draw back up to 3. Flip your scoring marker over to show that you have used this special action. If you do not do this during the game, you will get 3 bonus VP at the end.
Then demand cards equal to the number of players are drawn, and passengers are added to those airports as well. The game board lists the number of cards for each airport, so you somewhat know the odds of where passengers might arrive. Players also have a bit of inside information and control as they always hold three cards in their hand.
Players adjust their income to account for the opening of new gates, the redistribution of existing passengers, and the arrival of new passengers, then they add their income to their score. If a player now has at least 100 points or has placed their twentieth and final gate, the game ends immediately; otherwise, you add a local airline gate to each airport with passengers but no open gates, pass the first player marker, then start a new round.
As you play, there is one episode of government assistance – this happens whenever one airline reaches at least 30 VPs. All airlines who are not in the lead (or tied for the lead) calculate how many points they currently stand behind the leaders. For every 3VP behind they are, they get to add a different airport to add passengers to. This goes clockwise around the table from the current first player. Then, all players have the chance to discard any demand cards and redraw to three.
At game’s end, score the seven regions of the United States based on the player’s dominance of those regions. Each airport has a scoring value, e.g., ORD is worth 4, and each gate you have in Chicago is worth 4 for determining dominance in both the Midwest region and the Central region. If you have the most dominance in the Central region, you score 13 points, whereas second place is worth only 6 points. Then, any player who did not take their special one time action gets a 3VP bonus. Whoever has the most points wins. There is no tiebreaker
My thoughts on the game
Blue Skies is a deceivingly simple game. There aren’t many rules, and you might think that there isn’t much to the game – but there is a lot to think about. You have to be both reactive to the board situation as well as making some long term plans based on the cards you have in your hand or the possible distribution of cards left in the deck. The theme might be airports, but it’s a clever stock market game in disguise. Your airports represent the stocks, and as gates get added to the airports (i.e. more shares are issued), the revenues/profits are split between them. I know that the designer is a big fan of 18xx games as well as Acquire (as I have played both with him), and I wonder how much of that experience has shaped the development of this game. [Both certainly had an influence – it would be hard for them not to have one – but Acquire’s was less direct. The concept for Blue Skies came about when I went to return to working on an 18xx-derived design, and realized that there was a different direction I could go with some of the concepts. – Joe]
You keep track of your income on your player board, constantly adjusting it each turn, and at the end of each round, you add your current income to your total on the separate scoreboard. It works pretty well, and it gets rid of the need for any money or score tokens, but I would recommend that all players try to check on everyone else in the first game as it’s easy to miss a passenger being moved into your gate when someone else plays a card. Once everyone is familiar with the game, this system does help things move along quickly.
Like many economic games, Blue Skies is one of small incremental gains. Most of your plays will only increase your income by one or two (and oftentimes raising that of at least one opponent). Over time, these gains will compound, so though it feels like a small gain, it could become huge in the future as you will add your income each round to your total. I assume that this is the reason for the one-time governmental assistance round (when someone first scores 30) – because without a correction, a player who might have a moderate income advantage would compound this over the next few turns to become a runaway leader. [There was, initially, too strong a tendency for an advantage in early passengers to be enough to build an unassailable lead. It’s still _better_ to have an early lead, but it can be more easily overcome – and there are more choices to make in the early game between building your score and building for the regional bonuses. – Joe] The game ramps up quickly at the end as people will have incomes in the 20-30 range meaning that the endgame trigger (someone scoring >100 pts) can sometimes be a surprise. I like the timing and pace of the game, but in at least one of my games, I had an opponent comment that it felt like “nothing much” was ever happening in the game.
The art design is… functional. The board is pretty crowded with the 30 airports, and while there is an outline of the US in the background, you honestly can’t see it with the six columns of five airports taking up about 85% of the area of the board. I will be the first to say that it’s a spartan looking board, but man, with all of the gates, markers and cubes, I’m not sure that you’d be able to easily see all the parts of the game if the art wasn’t so simple. The layout gets most airports close to their general location in the country, and the color coding on the left of the airport block helps you visualize the region(s) to which the airport belongs.
Blue Skies is a solid economic/stock game. If you already like this genre, this will be a good fit for you. It doesn’t do much new though, so it’s not going to jump out and sell you on the genre either. Thus far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by it, and it is currently vying for a place in my one Kallax cube space allotted to this sort of game – interesting enough, going up against another Opinionated Gamers designed game, Aviation Tycoon…
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Dan Blum (6 online plays, plus some of prototypes): Blue Skies is a solid middleweight Euro. It’s definitely a bit dry, but it’s short enough that I think that won’t bother too many people. Getting the length right on this sort of game is tricky and I have seen plenty of games not manage it – Blue Skies tends to end just as you run out of ways to significantly improve your position, or a little before that, which is what you want.
I guess I should mention (since Dale neglected to) that you can play the game on Board Game Arena, and it’s a nice implementation; the rearranged board is too large to comfortably view all at once (unless you have a very large monitor), but the game implements a number of different views which help a lot. E.g. you can see just the cities with open gates that cost 3, or the cities you have cards for, or the cities in the Pacific region – the latter also shows you everyone’s current totals for the majority scoring, which is very helpful. (Let’s see if Dale remembers to add the screenshots I made.)
Larry (1 online play): This is an interesting economic game where you’re trying to balance between points earned during the game (from passengers) and end-game points (from gaining the majorities in regions). There’s no issue with runaway leaders, since each player has the same amount to buy gates with each turn. I enjoyed my one game, but this might be the rare instance where I think I might prefer the online version to the physical one. It looks like it would be really hard to keep track of the region rankings on the physical game board, but the version on BGA does most of that for you with a single mouse click.
Craig M. (3 plays): There needs to be more games about airlines which made 2020 a good year given the release of Blue Skies as well as Pan Am. My three plays of Blue Skies have been very enjoyable. The game hums along at a pretty fast pace, though gets bogged down towards the final turns as players calculate the majorities. The online implementation is fantastic and really helps speed the game along with the ability to adjust the views from regions to gate sizes to just the cards in your hand.
Dale’s assessment of the art design as functional is accurate and I agree that the spartan board presents a lot of information that would be hard to show in any other way. My largest gripe with the game is the rudimentary clip art graphics for the company logos which invoke a middle school graphic design class aesthetic. UGH! I realize real corporate logos were probably impossible to use, but this represents a true missed opportunity. Given the thematic ties to the late 70s and early 80s I expected to see more theme come through in the art design. Kudos to a good font choice for the gate headers on the board and cards. Pan Am got the art design right and catches your eye on the shelf where Blue Skies dropped that ball which is too bad because Blue Skies is a better game.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Dale Y, John P, Mark J, Craig M., Dan Blum, Larry, Lorna
- Not for me…