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Christopher Lawrence
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Although I consider myself more of a “wargamer,” Air Baron is one of those games that I find myself returning to time and time again out of the pure fun of play despite the lack of guns, tanks or Elves. Designed by Evan Davis and principally developed by friend and former co-worker/mentor Ben Knight, it’s a nice mix of money-making and luck combined with good strategy and deal-making play. As a result, it’s a game that is easy for people to grasp and one I frequently use to introduce new people to boardgaming.

Each player represents the president of a major commercial US airline (all fictitious names here, so don’t look for JetBlue) competing for a dominant share of the airline business. By buying up control of popular destinations, airlines gain revenue and greater market share, eventually leading to a majority control of the air business and victory.

In the traditional (and somewhat bothersome) Avalon Hill fashion, Air Baron is divided into a Basic and Advanced version, the latter really amounting to optional rules. As with most games, you’re just as well off reading through the whole eight pages and playing the “full” game from the word go. As mentioned, the rulebook is only eight pages, and considering one of those is the cover and a couple more are sequence of play references and the like, you’re only talking about five pages of rules. That makes it a pretty easy matter to explain the rules to new players (even those new to boardgaming/wargaming) and get people playing quickly.

The game board is a map of the United States with a number of “hubs” and “spokes” marked a various points on the map. Hubs represent major US airports (e.g. LAX or Dallas-Fort Worth), while connected spokes are smaller regional airports. Additionally there are a few international spokes (e.g. London, Tokyo) that largely act as high-value regional spokes. Each location has a corresponding profit marker placed on it during set up. Whenever a spoke is purchased by a player, its marker goes in a cup to be mingled with the hub markers, other purchased spokes, and some random events.

Turn order is randomized each round, so it’s possible to have back to back turns, or find yourself in a lull having gone first in one round and then waiting to go last in the next. The sequence of play is pretty quick, however, especially since players are limited in the amount of actions they make take each turn. Typically, a player will draw two profit markers, then either buy an uncontrolled airport spoke or attempt a takeover of a controlled spoke from a rival. Play then moves on to the next player.

The profit markers are the primary means of generating revenue. During their turn, each player draws two markers, these in turn paying off players who control those locations. While spokes (the regional airports) only pay off the person who owns it, when a hub is drawn, everyone who owns a connecting spoke receives money, while a player who has dominance there (controls over half the connected airport spokes) gets even more cash.

The game is more than buying airports and waiting for them to pay off, however. Tired of your buddy controlling the lucrative Las Vegas market? Take it from him! Instead of buying an open spoke during their turn, a player can attempt to take over one controlled by another player. This requires putting up cash equal to twice the value of the airport, then beating the owner’s die roll. The location of the various hubs and spokes functions much like terrain advantages in traditional wargames. Having a controlling share of an adjacent hub gives you an advantage to maintaining or wresting control of a spoke from a rival. Clever acquisition of key airports and their hubs can bring a significant advantage in the latter stages of the game, as such bonuses mount up quickly.

Still not like the odds? Then it’s time to go into Fare Wars.

Fare Wars represents your company slashing prices to draw consumers to your airline, and is a means of getting a nice bonus to your rolls to take over spokes. Just as importantly, it allows you to keep buying (or attempting to buy) spokes, rather than stopping at the normal limit of one per turn. In Fare Wars, as long as you roll well and have lots of cash on hand to fund your takeover bids, you can keep on going. There’s just one problem with going into Fare Wars – while you’re in, you get no revenue from any markers drawn.

The decision whether or not to enter Fare Wars is a significant one in the game. As the choice is made at the beginning of each turn (and thus before you draw the profit markers) you’re assured of missing revenue in your own turn. Combined with the randomized turn order for each round, going into Fare Wars can be a very risky proposition. Can you risk going into Fare Wars early in the round, knowing you’ll have no cash flow but able to gobble up lots of choice spokes? Or maybe you should wait until you go last in the round and hope to dart into Fare Wars this turn, then out early next round so you’ll still make some money next turn?

There additional chrome in the Advanced game amounts to random events added to the profit marker cup to liven things up, but surprisingly these only add more color and danger but don’t really complicate the game. They are phased into the game randomly one at a time as players gain larger total market share, at a pinch allowing you to ‘learn as you go’ if/when one of them happens to be drawn.

I give high marks to this game for its replayability, the ease it can be taught, and the high fun factor. I’ve read some complaints about luck playing such a large part of the game, but I honestly don’t see victory in Air Baron being any more or less luck-dependent than most boardgames out there. At the very least, the luck element in the drawing of the profit markers is very inclusive, since it involves all of the players at the same time. It makes for some great “yeah!” and “argh!” yelling from everyone at the table - always a good sign in my opinion.

I juggle a group of players with a wide range of gaming experience, from grognards like me to the inevitable gaming newbie, and Air Baron remains a title that’s always popular with newcomers and old hats alike.
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Bob Shurig
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Great review. Air Baron has long been one of my favorite games, as it has a lot going for it. I may try it with my non-gaming friends, as it is well-themed (and not an abstraction)- it does take awhile to play, however. Bottom line is that Air Baron is a game that should come to the table more often than it does in gaming circles.
 
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Christopher Lawrence
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You're right about the playing time. It's a bit longer than your normal fare for non-gamers, so it's important to warn them ahead of time that this may go for a bit. Then again, I've seen Trivial Pursuit games go on for hours. :/

Thanks for your comments!
 
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Ben Fellow
United States
Arlington
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Re: Air Baron (it's all luck and can never end)
Game has huge amount of luck, and if everyone is equally lucky can go on forever.... Game only will end if one person can get lucky and take over everything he/she needs or a player sits back (saves money) and hopes their pieces are drawn while just protecting and not expanding beyond 2 or 3 hubs. Luck plays a much larger part in this game then strategy, you can strategize all you want but if you're unlucky you will lose, and works both ways.
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Christopher Lawrence
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namssa wrote:
and if everyone is equally lucky can go on forever...


If everyone is equally lucky, makes equally correct decisions, etc, you might theoretically have some sort of stalemate, like many, many boardgames. Of course, I've never played in a lab-controlled environment with equally matched players making the perfect decision each time with equal luck, but YMMV.
 
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Sky Sternberg
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We found the luck factor to be way too high in this game. What good is strategy if it only functions minorly at best. This one only made it to the table once.snore
 
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Cisco Serret
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Austin
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Luck isn't that big in this game. In one game group I was in that frequently played this game, this one guy would win about 60% of the time - in 5 and 6 player games, and we played many games. He was very good at it. Another guy started getting very good at it, and started winning more often.

Poor/new/sloppy players - come in last or at the bottom every time.

Professional players - can usually come in 1st or 2nd every time. Its all about managing risk.
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Max Jamelli
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One of the things that can be done about time is setting a time limit. Nothing says you can't decide at the start to play for 60 minutes and award the game to the player with the highest market share.

I've played a few games of Air Baron like this where players had a short amount of time to play but still wanted to play so we did it this way. It creates a different strategy, especially when you've only got 5 minutes on the clock and every player is really only going to get 1 or 2 more turns.
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Pete Gelman
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Quote:
“yeah!” and “argh!”


I'm a big fan of “yeah!” and “argh!” games!

Good review.
 
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Tom Lehmann
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The apparent chaos is actually something that can be managed much more than you might think after your first few plays, provided you are playing the advanced rules which adds loans. These provide a lot of catch-up.

Typical 4-5 player game length is 90 minutes; with 6, it can sometimes take 2-3 hours.

One of the best 90 minute 5-player games around, IMO.
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Anthony Simons
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A few bad draws at the start can cause setbacks; but like Tom said that is what loans are for.

Players who find the chaos can't be mitigated are usually not thinking about it and rely on those dice rolls. And chance doesn't keep the game going indefinitely, opposition does. A truly competitive game can drag a bit more than one where a clear winner emerges fairly quickly. Nothing wrong with that, but I can see how some might dislike it.

The game is usually made or broken by one player going into fare wars and making a significant series of takeovers - usually with the right level of support.
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