Although Air Bucks isn't a perfect simulation of the airline
industry, it comes about as close as you would ever want a game
to venture. It was developed by Impressions
, the British software house responsible for Caesar
and Lords of the Realm
, and suffers from the so-called "spreadsheet syndrome" that characterized many early Impressions games. Despite an overabundance of numbers, the game is still remarkably engrossing because of the level of detail put into it.
The game begins in 1946 with up to four players (human or computer), each of which have one Douglas DC-3, $100,000 in cash, and the rights to land at the same airport (Miami by default, although this can be changed). From there, the players can buy more planes, invest in more destinations, and tinker with their services to make as much money as they can.
The planes are introduced in historical order. At the outset, for instance, you can only buy DC-3's and DC-4's: as the game goes on, you can upgrade to turboprops, jets, widebody jets, and even the Concorde (assuming you can make it financially sustainable). There are a few factual boners: a DC-10, for instance, has a higher capacity and range than a 747, and the 727 is made almost totally obsolete by the Trident a year after it comes out. In general, though, the models are solid.
The player can set maintenance rates, which increase operating costs but make planes less likely to break down (which takes them out of service for a month). Planes can also be refitted, with varying proportions devoted to first class, coach, and cargo space.
The routes are a bit more aggravating. To expand your network, you send a negotiator out to other airports. For the first airport, it takes one month and about $20,000 to secure landing rights, at which point you can set up a route and start making money. Each subsequent airport takes an additional month to negotiate, and you can't start negotiations on more than one airport in a month... so once you get to the midgame, it can easily take two years to get a new airport for your network.
Each airport starts the game with a size. In the original version, there are three airport sizes: "small," "medium," and "large." Small and medium airports don't generate first class passengers, and their load factors tend to be lower than large airports, but large airports are more expensive to negotiate landing rights to. Version 1.2 upgraded this model significantly: airports now have a quantitative size value ranging from 1 to 100, and this value could fluctuate based on how much traffic they received. A small airport, for example, can become a large airport by the midgame if it is being used as a stopover for many big-city flights.
The most annoying part of the airport model, and the part that adds the most challenge to the game, is that each airport can only be used by two airlines. Once two airlines have purchased landing rights, the airport is closed to further speculation. As you might expect, this means that all the desirable cities are swallowed up by the midgame, so any network expansion past that point is generally limited to smaller cities.
Periodically, random airports will be shut down for a one-month period because of strikes or inclement weather.
The business model
Once your planes start flying, you have to set ticket prices. This is where the spreadsheet syndrome kicks in, and where the game turns into a cycle of adjustment followed by cost-benefit analysis. The game allows you to check the income and expenses on each of your routes as you set ticket prices, so maximizing income is largely a matter of fiddling with the numbers until the profit won't go any higher.
The game also lets the player set wage rates as a function of profit. If the company begins making oodles of money, the employees will want more compensation, and passenger service will suffer until they get it (resulting in fewer passengers). Likewise, the player can also invest in advertising and in-flight amenities, which boost load factors at increased expense.
While the passenger model is based on city size, cargo is based on "jobs," which accrue in the various airports at different rates. It is possible to fit aircraft in an all-cargo configuration and then charter them around to the various airports with a surplus of jobs, but this takes a ridiculous amount of effort and planning.
There are also historical models for inflation and fuel prices, so that the economy visibly fluctuates throughout the game. In the 1970's, for example, fuel prices soar, and by the 1980's, a DC-3 costs fifteen times what it cost in 1946. These factors, coupled with end-of-the-year "headlines" that show world events at the time, help to increase the perceived historical realism of the game.
In addition, there are limited financing options available. An airline can take out a bank loan, which has to be repaid with interest (also a historical value). There is also a very limited stock market model, where an airline can sell its shares on the open market. (Another airline can then buy these shares and call for a merger.)
Impressions released Air Bucks in 1992. The franchise has been owned by Sierra On-Line since 1996, but Air Bucks hasn't been actively sold for a couple of years now: if you want it, you basically have to download it from an abandonware site like Home of the Underdogs.