Air Baron

Published by Avalon Hill
Designed by Evan Davies
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
with valuable help from Mike Schloth

about 90-120 mins
2-6 players

I don't know what you think, but for a company that was moribund it seems Avalon Hill has been putting out better games than most of the live companies. I think I would exclude Global Survival and Geronimo from the list, but generally it has been a decent crop in recent months. This is a good thing, and let's hope it continues. Air Baron is the latest release that came out of nowhere and tempted almost everyone who had enjoyed Rail Baron at some stage of their gaming life. It now sits on my shelf, played several times, criticised by many, battered but largely unbowed. It is my job to step forward and describe what I can of this game which has a rather Germanic feel, some interesting ideas, impressive business flavour, good tactical elements but a nasty gremlin or two in the luck and finance departments.

The first point to make is that Air Baron bears very little relationship to Rail Baron. It is a business game in which you are trying to gain market share through routes, but that's about it as far as comparison goes. This will disappoint many who were expecting a sequel, but not me really as I think the earlier game has had its day. What I'd hoped for, in a recent quiet (and optimistic) moment, was a completely new game with original systems and some German design elements. And, spookily, that was exactly what I got. I am not familiar with Evan Davies' earlier work (if any), but he has achieved some interesting design here, at least in parts. If I knew where the game were being pitched by AH, I could go as far as to say he has done a near-perfect job overall, but as it is, assuming the game is adult stroke hobby targeted, then I think he let the luck overrun the skill rather too much. Some more checks and balances should have been installed, and while we can add them, the what-might-have-been is already starting discussions around the hobby. I think, and hope, we have not seen the last of Mr Davies.

The game puts you in the chair of an airline company, looking to build up from lowly beginnings with a single airport, to control of a large slice of the North American airline market. You begin owning nothing, but with money in the bank you can quickly buy a 'spoke' airport location - one of the many small airports on the map which feed into twelve 'hubs'. The hubs in turn are connected to other hubs, and to international routes. As an example, Miami is a small hub which is fed by Tampa, Orlando and West Palm Beach and has overseas links to Nassau and Panama. Each of these locations has a corresponding chit, on which more later, which is replaced by one of your colour when purchased to designate your holdings on the map.

Each spoke can earn from $1m to $9m depending on its location (Boston is far more valuable than, say, Little Rock) and ownership of the hub, by virtue of dominance (over 50% of the spokes) or control (100%) can earn you between $5m and $28m. Most hubs also have international connections, some of which can be serviced by Concorde, which cost a lot to buy but pay between $5m and $40m. As well as potential income, each hub also confers market share - the measure, with cash on hand, that wins the game. Again with Miami as an example, dominance will get you 30 points of market share, control will get you 60. With four players, you need 320 points to win but even if you own the share points, that doesn't mean you can't lose them.

This is because the game works in two gears: i) normal, gentle competition, where players buy up neutral airports and slowly spread their empire, earning money and co-existing happily and ii) fare wars, where someone cuts prices to the bone, and tries to take you and everyone else out by hostile takeovers. This is also a much more productive way of acquiring spoke airports, especially early in the game. Instead of one purchase per turn, you are unlimited apart from the whim of the dice. And needless to say, sometimes the airports you want will be owned which means a fight with another player. There are two catches with fare wars: firstly you don't earn income and secondly you have to pay to try and take over a rival spoke, win or lose. So the trade off is rapid expansion with risk, versus slower acquisition without it.

Takeovers work by the aggressor selecting a target airport, paying his stake (normal for neutral targets, double for owned) and rolling 2d6. He adds in modifiers, such as neighbouring hubs, and must roll more than the defender who also enjoys modifiers, but often not as many. As long as he keeps winning, and paying the money up front, this acquisitive phase can continue without restriction. It costs you dearly in cash and foregone income, but if it goes well (and I have already seen one player win nine dice contests on the trot) then you will have expanded your empire quickly and possibly to winning effect. At the very least you may have made enugh damaging raids to hamstring your opponents. Whichever 'gear' you are in, the game plays quickly to conclusion in less than two hours and, as each turn is chit driven, is suitably unpredictable.

Players tend to start quietly, as cash is short initially. They also tend to try and buy up entire hubs so that they gain from the control bonuses and future strategic benefits. There then tends to be a phase of fare wars, where players quickly build up wider control with accrued cash, and then it may settle down again as the hubs are gradually filled, before the end game where players are pushing for the win. This can be achieved by waiting for the income to roll in, or going after another's market share. After six games, I have not yet worked out what the winning strategies are, mainly because there are several and each appears to work in different circumstances. It would seem at first that you should go for the bigger valued hubs, such as LAX, Dallas and JFK, but I have not yet seen anyone win pursuing this strategy, not least because they cost a fortune to acquire and you hardly ever get a clear run at them. Another approach is to go for the midsized hubs but to keep them together, perhaps in the middle of the board - I won this way in game three and five, but got badly cut up in game six. And then in one game someone else won by an envelopment technique, buying three hubs around the edges and squeezing in. So, suffice to say there are a few options to be investigated here.

The next level of play is defending your empire and also making takeovers easier. Defence is facilitated in two ways: strategically by making sure your hubs are located close to each other (there are connecting lines that indicate defence and offence modifiers) and tactically by buying overseas routes, buying Jumbo jets (which can also improve income) and ensuring your opponent is isolated. Offensively, it is also good to have spare Jumbo capacity to bring into play, so that you can tempt the passengers away to your airline, and, again, by ensuring your hubs are well placed. We are only just starting to explore this area, so you can expect to find more than this in the tactical department. It was a couple of games before anyone bought an overseas route, but now they are popular, and the same applies to Jumbos.

The basic game goes no further than this, but the advanced game, that we quickly moved onto, has a range of events that can change the financial shape of the game substantially. These include strikes, where you either settle or you do not, in which case you do not collect profits until your next turn and you may not take an action. As time goes on, you pay more or the strike escalates. Nasty. There are also fuel cost hikes, crashes, recessions, special jumbo income and local competitors.

As you can see, this is an interesting and quite believable business system. The game has plenty of flavour and some neatly constructed models for most of the events, empire building strategies and tactical mechanisms. It is a real treat as you scan the board for all the little airports, deciding which you might buy, and even though the board is a coarsely grained abstraction, you get a real feel for owning and running an air empire. It lacks only the little jet icons flying around that Air Tycoon on the PC might offer. Despite its simple structure, the game is actually surprisingly interesting in play, as rivals gradually build and encroach on first your plans and then your airports and all the time you are watching that market share tick up (or drop down), checking your potential income streams and planning the next hub raid. The key decision, although almost a non-decision at times, is whether to go into fare wars, and trying to guess whether the others will follow, or what their defensive strategy will be.

All this is fine, but the beeg problem with the game is the luck factor. At least five gamers of my acquaintance have already banned it for this reason, while the other half (including me) have been willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. What is doubly interesting is that we have another case of Cataan Syndrome, almost to the letter, but while I have long since abandoned that game, I am willing to stick around with this one. Well, at least for a while. Why? Because it exhibits a mutant strain of the Cataan virus which, subjectively, seems a little fairer, and which is much more easily rationalised. Uncannily though, just like Siedler, sometimes the symptoms are evident, and at others they hide away for entire games.Whatever, there is a fine line between okay luck and too much luck, and everyone has a different threshold level which can also vary between types of games. So while Siedler, for me, unashamedly careers through the random armco and plummets earthwards, Air Baron teeters on the brink like the coach in The Italian Job, begging us to pull it back to retrieve the gold.

So how does the luck manifest itself? In three main areas: i) the chit draw system, ii) takeover rolls and iii) events and blind fate. The main driver of the game is the chit pot. This is where the chits are placed when you purchase a spoke airport or a foreign route. The chits for the hubs are present from the start, as is a chit that determines the rescheduling of the government contract - a form of steady income each turn that one player can control through simple bidding. Added to this growing pile are event chits which appear randomly through the game. So the pot starts with around ten or so chits, from which you each draw two each turn. This determines which hub, spoke or overseas connection will earn profits, regardless of who owns it. Lucky players rub their hands and take the money, while the losers sit glumly - especially those in fare wars who see their big income hubs pulled at the wrong time. Already we see the makings of a Cataanian system where, in the most extreme circumstances, you may never earn any money because your chits are never pulled. Okay, I concede that this is highly unlikely, but it does mean a bad run of luck, such as some of us invariably enjoy, will reduce your income compared to someone with a similar network but average or good luck. Why do they do this?

On the plus side, drawing of the profit chits moves the game along and keeps the suspense high - not dissimilar to waiting for the big 12 roll in Siedler (if it ever happens). The situation develops through the game until there are around 40 or more chits in the cup. Yes, I counted them. You may be interested in around ten of those, perhaps less, perhaps more, and of course in any given turn they may not appear. "No money, no honey", as our German friends say. Conversely, all those drawn may be yours and you will be rolling in it. If you are in Fare Wars, the lack of income means that you feel the pinch - another realistic design feature. The key here then is that income is tight initially, growing steadily, but always randomly allocated. In a game phase where there are no fare wars, then overall income does build up, albeit unevenly, simply because of the greater number of paying draws, but going into fare wars partially or completely shuts the income down to a trickle, as does recession. So entering fare wars is a timing decision, calculated to allow greater takeover options for you while living off your nest egg, hoping that the opponents will follow suit and that you aren't left in too long by the turn chits - you can only escape in your next turn.

One of the most common tactics I've seen so far is to build up a reasonable number of hubs and spokes, waiting for the income to roll in and building a warchest. When that warchest is big enough, and you feel your defences are sound against possible counter attack, you can go on an acquisitions blitz through fare wars. This is where luck raises its head again, albeit tempered by previous tactical play in the shape of modifiers. The problem is simply that if an offensive player rolls consistently well, or a defensive player rolls badly, then a lot of airports change hands in what amounts to a major coup. Such a successful outcome means you can soon get to the point where you own lots of the board. The corollary is that the others may be in a position where, with perhaps one or two airports, or a small hub, they are lucky to see another dollar. Nothing wrong with this, healthy competition and all that, but it is an over-powerful tactic and effectively eliminates rivals even though they have a solid business ticking over. Again, the takeover and profit mechanism may need a tweak, or perhaps a major overhaul.

However, the tactic is doubly powerful as it is entirely possible for the players on the receiving end to enter a negative cash flow situation - aggravated by taking out big loans which can see players struggling just to pay the interest. The point here is that players who enter this poverty trap, unwittingly of course, are effectively out of the game. It is difficult to watch for this, and exactly like Rails Through The Rockies, it is almost impossible to predict for luck and/or adverse events throwing you into negative cash flow. I think the only safeguard would be to retain a largish cash buffer - a difficult thing to do. The result is they can neither generate enough money to survive nor to finance several takeovers to hit back. And even if they can achieve the latter, the powerful players just seem to repossess soon after. So, to my mind, at best this is a flaw which means it is difficult to come back from behind, at worst a problem of the old elimination variety, and another example that the game has insufficient checks and balances. Interestingly, these are both problems that Siedler avoids.

Somewhere in the middle ground of all this is the Risk-like situation where a player goes into fare wars and takes a chunk, or just a small a section, of another's network. Even the loss of one key airport, strategically placed, can mean a big loss of market share - a nice feature. Next turn, the rival enters fare wars and hits back, ownership of the vital airports to-ing and fro-ing like Kamchatka. This is, I think, where the game might have intended fare wars to lead. A successful run of two, three or even five takeovers does not unbalance the game unduly and each side retains an interest, even if they are battered and a third parties are looking on with scavenging on their minds. And finally, there are the takeovers that I specialise in - the ones where you pay your hard earned money and then throw snake eyes.

The long term outcome of the takeover battles is often that one player gets a fair way, or a long way, ahead. Depending on the severity of the fare wars, the other players may be able to struggle back or it may be that they are so far behind that they never can get enough money or modifiers from their small networks to restore balance. And all the time the big guys are defending their turf with more and more purchases, so the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is a shame, since it is such an obvious problem. I cannot believe this 'all out' tactic, or the income imbalance, was not spotted in playtesting and that someone, somewhere, wasn't on the end of a major coup. The thought that they all sat there like gentlemen buying the odd spoke each turn just doesn't ring true, but then again at least one group I have heard of have never yet gone into fare wars! I can partly see why (costly, risky) but the gains (multiple captures, chance to win quickly, necessary for takeovers) seem to outweigh the downside risk.

Another manifestation of the luck is that, in that way chit draws have, one player can draw, say, three crashes. These are bad enough on their own, but if you suffer two or more you will do well to survive as a company, at least without heavy debts. Again, perhaps it can be argued that this a realistic outcome. The same applies to strike hit companies, and everyone when the fuel price goes through the roof or recession bites. Once again, it is the old story of whether you are willing to undergo such bad luck in the spirit of running an airline company (ask Mr Lauda about crashes) or whether for a game of this type the luck element, and I suspect more importantly subsequent elimination due to blind fate, is what you want. I would say, on the basis of the games I've played, the event luck is just on the right side of okay, but in a freak run, such as a player experienced in the second game, it is heavy handed and potentially lethal.

Like Siedler, the game asks to be modified so that it works a little better financially and kills off some of the luck element which for me varies between okay and way too heavy. I would need to play a couple more times before I was sure of what changes needed to be made, but I would say almost certainly there should be a restriction on the number of takeovers you can make in one turn - say five or six? There might also be some way of allowing for some regular income each turn, apart from the government contract, which would level the playing field in that at least you would have some income - in this case £1m, or even $_m per turn is hugely better than $0m. The question here is whether the chit draws represent profit, or income. I suspect it is the former and it will be some players' fates to make very little profit. As for the events, this will come down to personal taste in which case my view is that they are a little heavy and could be profitably toned down.

Production is not up to the usual AH standard - the cover art is the worst since Merchant of Venus and is compounded by amateur typography and a mustard box. The net result looks cheap and grotty. We also have a new, squarish box size that is a pain to store, though in contrast the map is hard mounted and rather well done. It also seems to be showing the first signs of a split personality - an American strategy game with counters, or a German game with nice bits. AH were so confused, we got both. The hardcore wargame converts can use little cardboard markers, while we get to use the plastic planes. Otherwise it is the usual fare - diecut counters, AH money, the traditional catalogue and an exemplary rule book.

I am left a little bemused by this game, feeling that there are plenty of interesting play options and that the flavour and theming are well above average. Sadly though, because of the considerable drawbacks mentioned, it has alienated a number of people. Accordingly, I am going to find it difficult to play it much more, at least in its unaltered form - I believe though it is salvageable, and could well be made into a winner. But there are those who believe a game that doesn't work should be consigned to the dustbin, simply because there are so many more deserving cases to play. I usually disagree with this view, more so in this case where I am sure something can be done, and that Air Baron will rise again. But to roll out the reviewer's number one cliche, the game should work when you buy it.

Air Baron is a curate's egg - good where it is good, but where it doesn't work, it pongs a bit. I can fully understand those who say they will never play it again, and but for my newly found tolerance I could have joined them. It needs substantial work on some of the problems, which it could be argued are down to the designer and AH's developers, but there are enough positive aspects to keep it alive and it may be that a considered piece in The General will put much of this to rights. Despite the drawbacks, Air Baron does have an indefinable something that makes you want to play it, and enjoy it. Whether I can recommend it to you though depends on your attitude to the luck elements I have described. I can offer no real conclusion beyond advising that you proceed with caution, or that you play someone else's copy. It is £27 to find out if you can handle the luck and the financial flaws, so it must be your call.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell