A Retro Review of Now Boarding!

Now Boarding is a cooperative pick-up and deliver game for 2-5 players by Fowers Games. This game originally came out in 2018, and it has been sitting on my shelf unopened for 3 years now. I had originally bought the game to play with my friend Robert: he’s a big airline nerd who loves any game that has a map, especially with an airline theme! See below.

I love any cooperative game, so I thought this would be a hit with both of us! Unfortunately, it sat on my shelves for years, waiting for the appropriate time to be played! Luckily, this weekend (Nov. 21, 2021) turned out to be that time!

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I honestly didn’t expect to be writing this review this weekend, especially for an older game like this. Giving a review of an older game, especially with the retro art of Boarding Now (and most Tim Fowers games like Burgle Bros 2, see our review here) has inspired us to call reviews like this “Retro Reviews!”

Components

This is a smallish game (see Coke can and pencil above for scale).  It fits into a smaller box, but there’s quite a bit packed in there!  Honestly, upon packing up the game, it almost didn’t fit in the box!  

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You can see above, the art is very retro and cute, again, very reminiscent of many of the Tim Fowers games. All the cards and punchouts are easy to read, and the board is easy to see. All in all, the components look nice and consistent. You’ll also notice there are little sandtimers: one for 2-3 player game (15 seconds) and 4-5 Players game (30 seconds). This is a real-time game after all.

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The theme is pretty well-expressed in the components: each player takes control of a pilot and has a little plane with spaces for passengers (the blue windows), engines (the grey tiles), and special routes (the red tile). This is a game about picking up passengers and delivering them around the USA, with each player building up their plane as they go.

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Overall, the game looks consistent and easy to read.   I wish the board and airplanes were a little bit bigger (see below): during the real-time step of the game, the little airplanes can be hard to move around, but in general, all the components were nice and very usable.

Rulebook

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The rulebook reminds me of all Fowers game rule books (again see our review of Burgle Bros 2): that’s good and bad. It teaches the game, but I always feel I want just a few more pictures and few more “elaborations” of rules would have helped teached the game. For example, on the first page was a list of components: the components were’t labelled, so it was hard to correlate what was what.

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We had to use the “number” of components (most of the components have a different number of pieces) to figure out which were which: this is obviously not ideal. I mean we figured it all out, but again, a little more elaboration on the pieces OR another picture would have helped.

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But, we got through the rulebook pretty quickly and into the game. There were enough pictures depicting the resources (see above) and the font was readable.

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The rulebook even had a little bit of a sense of humor: it used the little graphics like you would find in the safety pamplet (see above). This made us all laugh.

The rule book was good enough, if not great. It was fine. There is supposedly a video showing play (the first thing you see when you open the box, see below), but we didn’t use that.

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Solo Play

So, this game breaks Saunders’ Law: it has no solo mode. The game changes a bunch of numbers (number of customers, number of weather cards, etc) depending on whether there are 2, 3, 4, or 5 players. The numbers feel like they scale fairly linearly, but at 2 players, most of the numbers scaled down to 1, which, when extrapolating, would go to 0, which doesn’t make sense. Would a solo player taking the role of two pilots make sense? Maybe? The problem is that this is a real-time game, so time is critical: we found it hard enough to get one pilot’s turn done in real-time, let alone handling two! If it were to work, the game would have to allow “extra” time for context-switching between characters.

A solo mode for Now Boarding might work. I didn’t feel particularly motivated to try this solo mode: this game feels best as a cooperative game where all pilots talk and move simultaneously on their turn.

Game Play

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This is a game about picking up passengers and delivering them their final destination: you can see the customer’s final destination in big red letters! However, you can’t move fast enough to get everyone delivered, so passengers get “angry” as they wait longer and longer: note the red cubes on some of the passengers! Every turn a passenger has to “wait” at a city without service, he gets an “anger” cube! At four “anger” cubes, he leaves the game and files a complaint. If you ever get three complaints, you lose the game! If you can survive to the end of the game (delivering in the morning, afternoon, and evening) without receiving three complaints, you win! (Whenever you pick up a passenger, all their anger cubes go away because they perceive that as progress … sometimes you pick up a passenger just for anger management purposes!)

As you deliver passengers to their city, you get to keep them! (Well, you get to keep the money from their plane ticket). The guy from LAX (above) is worth $4! The great thing is that as the game goes on, you can turn in your money for upgrades! More seats! Faster plane! More routes! As you play and deliver more and more, you can make your plane better and better … which you need to, because the evening shift gets rough!

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The game is essentially broken into two alternating phases: planning and execution. During the planning phase, players take their time to discuss what to do. The execution phase is real-time—you turn the timer over and all pilots simultaneously (that’s right, simultaneously) execute their individual plans! The execution phase is frantic as you fly, pick-up and deliver passengers!! There are a few unexpected things that can happen during the execution phase (new passenger information emerges: the MIA passenger (see above) reveals where she goes), so you have to keep a level head and execute your possibly updated plan!

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The game alternates between the planning and execution modes as the game progresses from the morning to the afternoon to the evening. If the pilots can deliver enough of the passengers without too many complaints, the players win!

Real-Time

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So, this game is real-time mostly to avoid analysis paralysis! As we played, we talked a lot about how to execute our plans: we spent way too much time do analysis, but it was still fun. If we had been allowed to “adjust” our plans when the new passengers revealed their new destinations, then I am certain the game would have completely bogged down. The real-time aspect forces the gameplay to move along.

I normally don’t like real-time games that much. In competitive games, any rules that you miss or misread in realtime can cause resentment, or fights, or accusations of cheating. At least in cooperative games, everyone is in the game together! If there’s a problem in the real-time phase, it’s easy to say “Hey can we stop the clock real quick and figure out this rule?” That’s easy to do in a cooperative game, but a lot harder in a competitive game, especially in a competitive crowd.

Having said that, this game is a “soft” real-time game: there’s only one small part of the game that’s real-time (the execution). Other games, like Space Alert (which we talk about here in our Top 10 Cooperative Space-Themed Games) spend much more time in the actual real-time part of the game: we’ll call those “hard” real-time games. In Boarding Now, the real-time piece is only there to keep the game moving.

The real-time “mostly” works: it does it’s job. But, we found that 15 seconds was a little too short in a 3-player game: many times, the smallness of the board or airplanes or cards actually got in the way of playing a few times. Luckily, the fix is pretty simple: just give yourself a little more time. We tended to give ourselves just a few more seconds after the timer ran out.

Are we cheating by adding just a little more time? Strictly speaking, yes! My friends and I chatted for some time about this: we’d rather stay in the spirit of the game and enjoy ourselves rather than be slaves to a harsh rule that makes us not want to play the game! The object of the game is to have fun with my friends! If a minor rules modification (add a little more time) makes us keep the game rather than toss it, I’d say that’s ok. If you recognize the purpose of the real-time is to keep the game moving, then we are staying in the spirit of the game. Besides, we’d argue that the extra time was needed to overcome the slightly too small board and pieces.

Conclusion

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At the end of the day, it was worth the wait of 3 years to play with Robert! Robert (left) and Jeff (right) are both big airline nerds and had fun playing this. They both want to play again! The game also has a nice upgrade path during play: it’s fun to upgrade the plane (making it faster or bigger) as you play! And you pretty much have to upgrade, or you won’t be able to handle the rush of passengers in the evening!

The airline nerds (Robert and Jeff) liked this game. As a cooperative games person, I enjoyed this game. Overall, this was a fun experience.

Even if you don’t like real-time games too much, if the theme or cooperative play entices you, give Now Boarding a try! The real-time is just a small part of the game designed to keep it moving: it’s not a central game mechanism.

This is a fun cooperative game which really encourages collaboration and discussion.

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