Playing Air Empire, a board game released in 1961 by Avalon Hill, is like walking back in time for an educational, yet entertaining history lesson. Playable by 2 to 4 players, each player assumes control of one of the four major airlines at the beginning of the 1960s: American Airlines, Trans World Airline, United Airlines, and Eastern Air Lines.
That last airline was one I had actually never heard of. Apparently, Eastern Air Lines used to be one of the biggest airlines during most of the 20th century. Run by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a World War I fighter ace and Medal of Honor recipient, Eastern Air Lines “had a near monopoly on air travel between New York and Florida from the 1930s until the 1950s and dominated the market for decades afterward.” according to Wikipedia, though it has been defunct since 1991. I didn’t fly in my first plane until the mid 1990s on a Delta airlines flight. Delta isn’t represented in the game; they didn’t really become a big-time airline until well into the 1960s.
While writing this first impressions review I got so absorbed in reading about Rickenbacker’s adventurous life, from winning 26 aerial victories in World War I, his secret mission to the Soviet Union during World War II, to all his near death experiences where the press reported he had died multiple times throughout his inspiring and exciting life. I want to read his autobiography now. Look him up, you’ll be glad you did.
When I was getting pumped up to play Air Empire I was telling my wife I was looking forward to “flying the friendly skies.” That slogan is nowhere to be found in this game since United Airlines did not institute that slogan until 1965. Their slogan in 1961 was “The Main Line Airway.” I can see why they changed it.
It’s unusual to write a first impressions review for a board game. Most board games have a single set of rules that you follow and a set amount of time to play through the game. Air Empire has two rule booklets and three sets of gameplay. Booklet A contains the rules for the basic game. Booklet B contains further details about rules in booklet A and additional optional rules of play that add complexity to the basic game. On the back of booklet B are instructions for the Air Empire Tournament Game which adds additional rules designed to make the game more cut-throat and eliminate the players. In tournament play taxes and revenue fluctuations are added as well as forcing the player to turn in old planes and purchase new ones to maintain their airline fleet.
Booklet A directs players to start with it. The instructions are written such that players read a piece of the instructions out loud, then play that piece of the game, then continue reading the instructions, play the next piece and so on. Because we started with the basic game and the basic game is all we had time for during our game night, I’ll have to fully review the tournament game another time. There are some games that offer players kid gloves to get them eased into the game on the off chance they are not very experienced gamers – a “basic” game that is more like a tutorial. This game is not one of them. If we had started with the tournament game, it would have been brutal. My opponent and I kept running out of money and going bankrupt during the game. We made agreements at several points to rewind the game and try again when we had made a game-ending grave mistake.
Each player assumes control of the airline designated by the logo on the side of the game board that is closest to them. The basic game occurs over a period of three in-game years divided into quarters. Therefore there are 12 rounds of play. The object of the basic game is to be the player with the most liquid cash at the end of those three years. Assets do not count toward this cash total.
There are 18 route cards that correspond to the 18 airport destinations on the game board. Each quarter all of the players bid on which class of service and how much they are willing to invest in each route. At the beginning of the game out of all the players, a “Senior President” is chosen. In the case of a tie in the game, the Senior President wins the tie in all bids. Each quarter, the position of Senior President moves to the next player around the table in a clockwise fashion. I’ve found using a dealer poker chip works well for this. In setting up the game, the route cards are shuffled and placed face down on the designated space on the game board. Each player receives a score sheet to keep track of the statistics for their airline.
Each route card contains a city, a list of cities adjacent to it, the flight costs associated with providing service in that city at each class level, and the revenue received from operating flights in that city at that class level. In a two player game, only classes A and B may be bid on. For three or four player games, a player may bid for any class level.
At the beginning of each quarter, the route card on the top of the deck is flipped over to reveal the new route. All players then covertly write the name of the city in an open Route Application slot on their airline score sheet. They select which class they are bidding for and the amount they bid to invest in that route. Their bid must be the same or higher than the flight cost amount listed on the route card.
If two or more players bid for a particular class, the highest bid for that class wins the route at that class. If there is a tie, if the Senior President was involved, the Senior President wins the bid. Otherwise, the player sitting closest to the Senior President in the clockwise direction wins the bid. When a bid is won, the winning player fills in the revenue and profit blanks on the Route Application and places the appropriate number of planes from their fleet at the new route’s city on the game board. The exact breakdown of what planes are required for each bid amount are listed on the game board under the “Flight Costs Table” heading.
Air Empires is very unforgiving for players who don’t plan ahead. If you win a bid, but you don’t have the right number and type of planes to support your bid amount, you automatically lose the bid and the next highest bidding player wins the route at that class instead. There are two types of planes: propeller and super jet planes. In one round I attempted to hurt my opponent by bidding high in class A for the Baltimore-Washington route at a price of $18,000. For $18,000 I needed 4 propeller planes and 2 super jets. I think I had 3 super jets at that point in the game, but I needed more propeller planes. If I had bid $17,000 or $19,000 I would have had an adequate number of planes to service the route. But because I frivolously bid $18,000, I lost the bid and the round as a result.
Any player who loses a bid in a class does not get to open a route that quarter. There are many perks for fighting for and winning bids in class A, however. For every two class A bids a player wins they may, if they choose, “borrow” $5,000 from the bank. This bank loan gets recorded on their score sheet on the round it was received, they receive the cash from the bank, and they are never required to pay it back. As the rules state, “Interest would be too small to effect play of the game, so this step has been eliminated.” Sounds like a cheap bonus granted to the current winner to me. Another bonus granted to class A route holders occurs when a player holds two adjacent class A routes. When this happens, a player receives a 20% increase to the profit generated from the new route. Each route card indicates which other cities are adjacent to it. It is possible, given a player has the planes necessary to support it, to bid so high no immediate profit is made from winning the bid. This can be used as a strategy to keep another player from getting a class A route, or to obtain a strategic class A route that can be used later.
After the winners of each class on the current route have been determined, players fill out their score sheets with their profits added to their current gross profit. Filling out the score sheet is kind of like filling out a tax form. Imagining that I was an actual president of a commercial airline, I enjoyed seeing my profits written down on paper and doing the math there. Others might consider this to be more work than game play though. This is a large component of the game, so keep that in mind if you consider obtaining a copy of Air Empire.
After recording profits, the player must decide how many new planes they would like to purchase. Propeller planes cost $2,500 each while super jets cost $7,000 each. There are a finite number of super jets and propeller planes. There are fewer super jets than there are propeller planes. It is a workable tactic to buy up all the super jets to make it more difficult for opponents to bid on the higher class routes. After recording the total purchase price of all planes, the player then calculates the total maintenance and overhaul cost of their fleet. Each propeller plane costs $200 per quarter while each super jet costs $500 per quarter to maintain. Gross Profits – (New Plane Cost + Maintenance Costs) equals net profit received from the bank. If this number is negative, the player owes the bank money.
Just like running an actual business, it’s really easy to plan poorly and wind up dirt poor or bankrupt. I found it helpful to use a calculator each round for planning out my next round. While calculating my scores for the current round I also came up with a shortcut to make figuring out the number of planes I would purchase easier by combining the cost of the plane with its maintenance cost. So when purchasing a propeller jet I calculated it at a cost of $2,700 and super jets at $7,500.
Once all players have made good with the bank by receiving their net profit or paying their outstanding balance, the next route card is turned over and the next quarter of play begins. It is important to keep track of when the game will end. When the game is over planes may not be turned in for cash, so it is wise not to purchase too many planes in the final quarters.
Air Empire is a moderately complex game of extreme strategy and skill. As I noted before, a great deal of math and planning goes into excelling at this game. Even more interesting is the bidding process though. Each bid I made with my opponent was akin to playing a hand of Poker, trying to determine the opponent’s next move and whether they would bluff or not. Air Empire is rich in these chance game mechanics while not actually being a game of chance. Based on these mechanics, I find this game to be absolutely fascinating. I concede it is not for everyone, but if you consider yourself to be a serious board game player and love strategy or betting games, I would highly recommend you give Air Empire a try.