The plane’s altitude is dropping. The wings are tilted close to disaster. The landing gear is still raised. We’re speeding towards the ground too quickly. Our only hope? A good cuppa.
This is Sky Team, an upcoming co-op board game due to release next year. At this year’s Essen Spiel, publisher Scorpion Masque gave us a first look at its thrilling and tricky plane-landing challenge.
Sky Team is a two-player-only co-op, in which the pair of players take on the role of the pilot and co-pilot of a plane coming in to land. Each round sees the plane’s altitude drop as it approaches the airport - giving players a limited number of rounds to get it ready to land.
As it turns out, jumbo jets aren’t the easiest thing to fly, with a panel of controls sat between the two players. The players will need to maintain their speed - slow enough to land safely, fast enough to avoid stalling - open flaps, drop the landing gear and keep the plane level.
Operating the plane's controls is surprisingly easy, but landing isn't as simple as it seems.
Luckily, operating the controls in Sky Team is surprisingly easy - players roll a pool of dice, before assigning each die to a spot matching their colour. Each player has a similar but slightly different set of controls; the co-pilot can repeatedly radio the airport tower to help clear the airways by removing tiny planes from upcoming spaces on the approach track, while only the pilot can prepare and operate the brakes necessary to slow down on the final touchdown.
Operating the controls might be easier than expected, but - shock - landing the plane isn’t as simple as it seems. The players can’t see each other’s dice (they’re hidden behind screens) or communicate after they’ve rolled, so must respond to the dice their partner places to try and manage the cockpit together.
The push-and-pull tension as both players try to prepare for landing leads to a suitably tense air. Both players must contribute dice to the plane’s speed and roll controls every turn, but placing numbers too far apart can lead to the plane suddenly tilting towards disaster as the difference in results tips its wings, while too much speed - calculated from adding two dice together - can end up with the plane crashing into occupied airspace. Too little speed, though, and you risk hitting the ground before you get to the runway.
If it sounds like a lot, it is - but not when it comes to rules.
If it sounds like a lot, it is - but not when it comes to rules. Sky Team manages to find a very sweet spot in quickly feeling intuitive as dice are placed. It soon becomes second nature to understand how each of your dice will affect the plane’s state, keeping the tension on where you place the dice rather than what they’ll do.
Like any dice game, luck plays a role. One too many turns with fives and sixes and we found ourselves speeding close to a crash as we struggled to wrestle the numbers down. Sky Team does provide opportunity for some control over your results, with a single-game chance to re-roll multiple dice. Another amusing - if slightly concerning - option is to spend a spare die to brew some coffee and perk up your pilots, allowing either player to modify a die result up or down by one.
As the plane reaches denser airspace - needing multiple radio calls and smaller die results to try and clear the way - and the window to maintain the right speed closes, Sky Team manages to feel like the palm-sweating climax of a blockbuster movie, as the plane draws closer and closer to touching down in one piece (or… not). Sully, eat your heart out.
Sky Team manages to feel like the palm-sweating climax of a blockbuster movie.
Helping the gripping atmosphere is the clear enthusiasm of designer Luc Rémond, who consulted former Concorde pilots to help Sky Team feel convincing. In the prototype we played, a clear dial sat in the centre of the control panel, recreating the altitude indicators seen in real-life planes. The dial was rotated to represent the plane’s tilting wings, while individual switches were flicked over as we operated the controls, adding to the light simulationist feel of our turbulent landing.
Our preview game saw us recover from an early close call - needing a lot of emergency coffee to help clear the way of planes - before running into disaster close to the final landing at Montreal, colliding with an errant plane we couldn’t radio in time.
Lasting just 20 minutes, it was the perfect length for a burst of high-tension dice rolling - and something that immediately invited a second attempt to pull off the tricky landing. The challenge of dealing with random dice results was tough, but Sky Team’s difficulty felt deliciously balanced - not easy to win, but not unfairly tilted towards failure.
Our short demo left me hungry to play more, and excited to take on the full game’s dozen distinct airport challenges - which introduce the extra challenge of managing remaining fuel levels and other unique modules.
With a theme I have never seen before in board games - the specific mastery of landing a plane - and gameplay that felt excitingly thrilling and stressful in equal measure, Sky Team could wind up being something very special when it touches down next year.