Ever wanted to run your own airline? An airline in a universe where scheduling computers and aviation engineers don’t exist, so you’re in charge of designing planes and booking flights mid-route? On a fifteen-second timer?
Yeah, me neither. But at least Now Boarding makes it better than it sounds.
The concept at the heart of Now Boarding is as whimsically silly as it is clever. You and your friends are managing an airline together, shuttling passengers back and forth across the country in exchange for cold hard cash and hoping to avoid earning any negative reviews that might shut you down for good. It’s a pick-up-and-deliver game, though with a few old-fashioned gamey wrenches thrown into your engines for good measure.
For one thing, routes. While any plane can travel along regular white dots, only certain planes can fly over special colored spaces. The route between Denver to L.A. to Miami, for example, is the sole domain of your orange plane, while the blue plane sticks to the corridor between Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas / Fort Worth. For another thing, weather — tailwinds propel planes forward, letting them skip over entire cross-sections of flyover states, while storms make routes take a bit of extra time. And, of course, there’s the fact that you’re constantly upgrading your plane with the cash you’ve earned from your passengers. You’re mid-flight? So what? Strap on an extra engine and you’ll finish this portion of the journey all the quicker.
Right up front, these details matter without really mattering, at least not in the sense that Now Boarding cares to explain them. Why are planes restricted to specific routes? Why do tailwinds work in both directions? How are you adding new seats when you’re lingering somewhere above the Dakotas? Why are you doing this whole thing on a fifteen-second or thirty-second timer? The answer is an enthusiastic shrug. Because it’s fun, the game seems to say, with a knowing wink.
Ah, yes, the timer. Let’s talk about that, because it’s the most interesting of Now Boarding’s ideas, but also the least essential.
In theory, each round only provides a small handful of seconds for all those planes to move around, picking up and dropping off passengers, and sometimes coordinating layovers for those who can’t be borne to their destination by a single leg. At first — and for the first game only — this is a mad panic, with everyone scrabbling over the too-small map and its too-small icons, jostling planes and mistaking which passengers are waiting at which airport. It’s reminiscent of some of the finest real-time games: information is obscure, errors are made as every pilot converges on the wrong locations, and the whole thing turns into a real laugh.
Except this isn’t Now Boarding’s goal in the slightest. While you’re compelled to rush between passengers before they grow too grumpy and leave a negative review on RateMyJet.com, the game is entirely willing to let you plan out everything in advance. With each new round, anyone who hasn’t been picked up by a plane gets a little hotter under the collar, new passengers finally make it through security, and then you’re allowed to plan the upcoming turn.
This is the instant death of what Now Boarding might have been. Cue two minutes of prepping all your moves in advance — every customer picked up or dropped off, every cabin’s capacity evaluated, and every pip of air flight accounted for like a miser’s lucky pennies. Then, and only then, will that timer be flipped over and everybody’s moves actualized on the board.
But by letting you plan ahead, the timed phase is relegated to a perfunctory miming of the moves you’ve already engineered in advance. It’s a bit of a shame, especially considering what the game might have been if it hadn’t backed away from the precipice of letting its players make silly mistakes because of the clock. For all they matter, you may as well forget those two sand-timers even exist.
Not that this sends the flight plunging into the Atlantic. There’s still some joy to be gleaned in arranging a smart layover, swapping passengers between players, and slapping a new engine on the back of your plane. The puzzle at this game’s heart isn’t a difficult one, but it tickles many of the right nooks in our pattern-hungry brains. Best of all are the optional VIP cards, like a minor who can’t fly alone, a crying baby who slowly enrages its fellow passengers, and a captured fugitive who requires two seats lest he go all Passenger 57 on your butt. These add a much-needed dash of unpredictability, though they never quite replace the potential of its halfhearted real-time element.
In the end, wrapping up an hour with Now Boarding is much like disembarking a short flight sans turbulence or vomiting infants: pleasant, but also largely unremarkable.
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