W. Eric Martin
As every game designer – and more than a few game players – knows, no game design is ever complete. You can always tweak the game board, the card texts, the costs, the use of special tokens, the value of bonuses, the winning condition, the end of game triggers, and so on to create a game that lies at some different point on the evolutionary scale of game design. The change will create two games that are related, perhaps even nearly identical, yet their genes differ in some way that will lead to different patterns of play as gamers take the designs out for a ride.
Thus, even when a game is published, the design isn't necessarily final. Instead it's only frozen in amber, then placed before the eyes and hands of gamers who chip away at the casing to get the goods inside. Such is the case with Alan R. Moon's Airlines, his first published board game in 1990 from then-newcomer German publisher Abacusspiele. Nearly a decade later, Moon revisited the design with Union Pacific, which kept the same core game – claiming transportation routes and taking and playing company shares – while adding and subtracting peripheral elements.
Now for 2011, Airlines has been reborn again as Airlines Europe. "It's sort of fun to work on an existing game and try to improve it," says Moon, who started work on what became Airlines Europe in 2007. "The design has been around so long and been through so many different versions. I'd do something, then change something else. The prototype went back and forth between a railroad and airline game a number of times."
Asked what's changed over the past two decades in the process of game design, Moon says, "The biggest difference is how much easier it is to do the physical things thanks to scanners and modern computers. I used not to do blind testing via mail, but that's also easier than it was years ago. As for the design process itself, I'm more methodical now. If I'm working on a brand new game, it's more open, but working on an existing game I have an approach as to how to do it – and it really is as much work as fun."
While the game core is once again largely untouched, many other details have been added, subtracted or square rooted in the process. Says Moon, "The basic dilemma of the game – get more stock by building routes or play more stock to earn more – hasn't changed, but the overall system has changed. You have more of a resource element where you have to manage money as well as cards."
To put that quote in context: In Airlines, a player could claim a route only by playing a flight card at least as valuable as the route he wanted to claim. Players could draw a new flight card each turn, but if you didn't have what you needed for a particular route, you had little choice but to play elsewhere or sit on your hands while waiting for another chance to draw the right flight card. In Union Pacific, track cards replaced the flight cards, with four types of track being laid from coast to coast in the U.S. Once again, though, if you failed to draw the track desired, you were stuck.
For Airlines Europe, the alternative currency systems of flight and track cards have been replaced by a more familiar system: cash. Players start with €8 million and as long as you have the cash, you can buy the route you want, giving you more freedom to build where you want. As always, buying a route puts a new share of stock in your hand, but in Airlines Europe players who lay down stock earn money immediately – €2 million per share – which fuels future route purchases.
A player can also just take €8 million as an action, but stockpiling loot for a string of future turns can be risky. If the bank ever runs out of funds, everyone with more than €8 million discards down to this amount. "If players play optimally, this probably won't happen," says Moon, "but it's one of those things where you have to take into account that type of play, someone who tries to take lots of money to break the system." Moon relates the tactic to players who hoard train cards in his Ticket to Ride – something that seems like a good idea, but is almost never a winning strategy.
In addition to adopting a more straightforward currency, Airlines Europe streamlines other design choices Moon had made in Airlines and Union Pacific. During a scoring, for example, players no longer have to count the number of tokens on the game board for each of the companies in play to determine the value of those companies. Instead, with each new route added to its network, a company's marker is moved along a share track that circles the game board. Now during a scoring, you merely consult the victory point distribution for the region where the marker is located and hand out the VP chits.
"I probably worked on this game even more than the evolution of Elfenroads and Elfenland," says Moon, referring to a self-published design that he later transformed into the 1998 Spiel des Jahres winner. "Even now, looking at the game there are a few things I could have gone either way about."
One of those "things" is the scoring card distribution, the set-up for which requires eight lines and a large graphic in the Abacusspiele rules. "I prefer totally random scoring," says Moon, with the scoring cards shuffled into the deck and having them come up any which way, "but I think most people prefer more structure." As a result, the current set-up gives gamers a good measure of predictability as to when scoring will occur. Another alternative Moon likes as a balance between predictable and random is a set-up in which the deck of share cards is divided into thirds, with one scoring card shuffled into each stack.
Which way is the correct way to play? If you're like most people, you'll read the rules for Airlines Europe and stick to what's written. Moon, on the other hand, has no problem with players adopting one of the alternatives above or any other scoring system. "Play the game the way that you want to play it."
As for the in-jokes with the airline names – Air Amigos, Days of Flying Wonders, Brooms Bewitched, and so on, all of which relate to game publishers that have published Moon designs or are run by friends of Moon – that's something that hasn't changed over the years. Says Moon, "In the original version of Airlines, I had takes on some of my friends. That was the same with Elfenland. For this, I thought it would be good to take off on game companies."
As for whether Airlines Europe is his final take on the game system, Moon says, "I've already seen comments from people saying they're looking forward to Airlines 2020." Time will tell...