My regular gaming table recently brushed off Airships for the first time in a while. We had all liked it the last time it hit the table but it didn’t make it back on account of the old too-many-games-not-enough-time syndrome. And there is something about it that I like, although I am still trying to put my finger on exactly why.
It’s certainly not a game that made a big splash in the greater gaming scene. While it’s by Andreas Seyfarth, which is a name to inspire by, it’s no Puerto Rico. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why people seem less than impressed by it. Seyfarth’s small catalog of games sets a high standard with Puerto Rico, Thurn and Taxis and Manhattan. Airships isn’t bad but it pales in comparison to those games. If you’re expecting caviar, even the best meatloaf is going to seem subpar.
And, on paper, I wouldn’t think that it’s a game that would really stand out for me. When I read through the rules of Airships, it seemed like a light, fluffy game that had easy choices and a lot of luck involved. After all, most dice games have some kind of Yahtzee-style reroll mechanism and with Airships, you get one roll per turn.
However, while revisiting Airships, I found myself thinking that there was more going on in the game than looked at first. Maybe what I was really realizing was that I don’t understand dice as well as I should. Maybe I need to read Knizia’s Dice Games Properly Explained.
Without going over the rules in excruciating detail, you build up pools of white, red and black dice during the course of the game. Every color has a different range of numbers but they’re all six-sided. The numbers are also not evenly divided on every die so the odds of rolling a specific number on a specific die are not just one in six.
Every card has a number on it and a combination of dice that need to add up to at least that number. That’s the cost of getting the card. Cards will give you more dice, ways to manipulate dice or points. The board also has stages for constructing the Hindenburg, which follows the same rules.
Unlike almost any other game like this I’ve played (To Court the King or Kingsburg, for instance), you do not roll the dice and figure out what you want. You have to pick the card out first and then go for it. Between this and only getting one roll, Airship subtly breaks the unspoken expectations of a dice game, breaks them in a way that I would have thought increased the power of luck in the game.
However, when it got back on the table and we started playing it again after several months of forgetting it was in the closet, the game started to pull some new levers in my brain. While Airships isn’t super deep, it occurred to me that there was more going on than I had thought and the way the unusually pipped dice and the cards interact leads to some surprisingly informed choices.
What I noticed was that the cards has been priced so tightly that even getting a +1 to a roll made a big difference. Seyfarth is well known for refining and play-testing a game to within an inch of its life and when I started paying attention, I realized that he had made sure that even getting a little bit of an edge, like the +1 you get from the wooden airship token, would make a big difference.
Most of the advantages that the cards give you in your roll tend to be relatively subtle ones, with the arguable exception of the ones that flat out give you more dice to roll. You also only have six slots you can fill with cards and you can’t double up on a type. You have to choose your tools carefully and you also will never get all the tools you want. I have a feeling that if we play the game enough to get to know the cards well, the game will feel a lot less random.
In general, I have come to believe that Airships is a game where you can figure out the odds almost exactly and you can make small but meaningful improvements to those odds. There aren’t any huge, game breaking abilities in the game, just a series of small, quiet decisions that will hopefully all add up by the end of the game.
When all is said and done, Airships is still a pretty light game. It's definitely the lightest game that I've played by Seyfarth. However, there's more than just rolling dice and hoping for the best. Airships uses dice in some interesting ways that only come apparent when you start looking at the way the custum dice are pipped. It stands out on its own and isn't just another yahtzee clone.