Now Boarding

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It’s the golden age of the skies! Air travel is cheap and plentiful, and airlines are competing to provide the most attractive tickets to prospective travellers. Despite this, air travel is relatively new, and as such the various companies involved in the industry need to work together in order to show a good face to all travellers and provide the best service possible, even if it means working together. Of course, getting people where they need to go quickly is the number one priority. If one company drops the ball and too many people complain, the whole industry could collapse!

2-5 Players| 45 Minutes| Designed by Tim Fowers

Now Boarding is one of the recent publications from Fowers Games (previous titles include Paperback, and Burgle Bros), a small company run by Tim Fowers. The company has a unique approach to publication, self publishing their games and making them primarily available via their web store to cut down on overheads. For this reason I have had a bit of trouble getting my hands on Fowers’ games in Australia, but recently they seem to have made their way into distribution and have showed up at my local game stores. Having played a Kicksterter copy of Now Boarding at a local meetup, I was keen to pick this up when I saw it.

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U.S.A. flight map (with important landmarks included)

How does it work?

Now Boarding is a cooperative pick-up and deliver game where players are tasked with delivering passengers to their destinations in a timely manner. The game is collectively won when the players successfully deliver all passengers over three rounds of increasing difficulty. The game is lost if 3 or more complaints are made against the airlines, which happens when travellers are left waiting for too long at an airport.

The game is played over a series of rounds in which players plan and then execute actions. During the planning stage of each round, the players look at what passengers they have waiting at airports and discuss who will pickup which passengers and which routes they will take to deliver them. In the beginning of the game, each player can carry one passenger, and move three spaces on the board. Over the course of the game, players can upgrade their aircraft to have more seats, higher speed, and to fly on more routes.

Once the players are satisfied they have planned out the round, a timer is flipped and players have a mere 15/30 seconds to execute their actions! New passengers are added to airports face down and only flipped once this timer is turned, so you don’t know where they are going until the action phase, and only have a short time to make decisions on how to handle them (if at all).

Players move through rounds of the game picking up and dropping off passengers, co-ordinating multi leg flights (I’ll take this lady to Denver if you pick her up and take her the rest of the way to LAX) and trying to keep on top of passenger demand. Each round a passenger is waiting in an airport, they accumulate an anger cube, and if they reach 4, they make a complaint. 3 complaints, and it’s game over. If players manage to deliver all the passengers before the game ends and have 2 or less complaints, they win!

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Passengers all show prominently where they want to go and how much they are willing to pay.

What do I think?

I’ve played the game 5 or so times with various player counts. Depending on the number of people you play with the game difficulty is scaled and different things may or may not be available (the map also changes for 2/3 or 4/5 players).

The Good Stuff

  • The artwork style, design, and theming of the game is superb. Artist Ryan Goldsberry has done a fantastic job of drawing on the retro ‘Jetsons’ vibe to make a vibrant and nostalgic looking game. The graphic design fits in well with this theme and still clearly expresses all information that players need to see.
  • Now Boarding has a good solution to co-op analysis paralysis and dominant player issues. The system of hiding information from players and then not allowing enough time for it to be digested by one person or discussed by the team is a fantastic mechanic. It forces on the spot decisions (and these are often non-optimal!)
  • The ramp up is well done. The game starts off slow and simple so players can get used to the mechanics and then increases in difficulty to something that forces players to start planning. It then finally moves into a chaotic speed where players will be barely keeping their heads above water.
  • The upgrade system is fun and works really well. You can see at a glance what each player’s plane can do.
  • The routes system (there are some exclusive routes on the map limited to specific players) further enhances the co-op feel, as it requires players to share passengers and co-ordinate turns.
  • The whole package is super compact. It fits in a modest box but it’s quite a big game.
  • There is a very good feeling of solving ‘the puzzle’ as a team and working out how to route and fly everyone’s planes in order to pull off each turn. When a turn is over and you’ve cleaned up all the airports it feels very satisfying.
  • I’ve won and lost a roughly equal number of times and each game it’s been down to the last turn with us barely keeping up the whole game. To me that shows how well tuned the game is.

The Bad Stuff

  • Now Boarding can feel a bit same same after a few plays. Passengers are random but the map being more or less fixed means the game lacks some replayability.
  • After a few games with the same players you figure out ‘the system’ and despite the game still throwing you curveballs, it starts to feel less chaotic and seems easier. I liken this to the ‘Pandemic phenomenon’ which I mention often, as the mystery behind a games mechanics become familiar, ‘solving’ each turn eventually boils down to rote risk mitigation and probabilities.
  • Random is random, if your shuffle is unlucky the game can be next to impossible with too many people spawning at one airport and not enough time to deliver them all, especially if this happens early on before players have upgraded their planes.
  • Components can be a bit small and the board cramped. I know I said it’s great the game is compact but when you have 5+ hands all trying to move their stuff in 15 seconds it can be a bit ridiculous. Unfortunately scaling up the card size would have knock on effects that would result in a much bigger game and higher costs.
  • Despite the good systems for ensuring everyone gets to play, you can feel a bit like your fate is largely determined (i.e you NEED to go get this passenger or we lose!).
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Planes are modular. This passenger wants to go to JFK airport.

I really enjoy co-op games because I don’t really consider myself a competitive player and I enjoy the feeling of ‘beating the game’ along with my friends. I’ve played quite a few co-op games and I think Now Boarding implements co-op play in a way that leaves a good deal of agency to each player. Because turns are executed simultaneously it would be impractical even during planning for one player to map out everything that needs to happen. Players get to do their own thing mostly and rely on other players to link up with their plans. When you win the game it’s always super close and always very satisfying. If you are a fan of co-ops and you’re looking for something a little bit different, see if you can find a copy of Now Boarding to play!

 

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