Skyliners is a cute family game with two sets of rules, one of which, the “introductory” game, might work very well for parents looking to play a more grown-up title with kids who aren’t yet ready for the Ticket to Rides of the world; the other set of rules, however, puts the game somewhere in the middle of family-friendly titles and strategy games without a clear target audience.
In Skyliners, two to four players sit around a square board that fits in the bottom box, with a plastic insert and cardboard overlay that present a 5×5 city, with a park located at the center spot and the other 24 spots available for building. Players try to build specific skylines from their own perspectives, so what you see isn’t what any other player sees—but the only one that matters to your own score is your specific view. You can see any building that is taller than the ones in front of it, and can’t see anything beyond the tallest building in a row. Each player has sixteen floor pieces, two roof pieces (a roof stops anyone else from adding to that building), and one neutral park space. In both sets of rules, players score for the buildings and parks they can see, with an added bonus if the tallest building is in the quadrant of the board that player drew at random at the start of the game.
The introductory game is quite simple and easy for most kids, even elementary school-aged ones, to grasp. After a few neutral building floors go on the board for the initial setup, players go in clockwise order, placing two pieces on the board on each turn, until all pieces are placed. The only restriction is that you can’t place two pieces on the same building in one turn. At game-end, each player scores by row: Player 1 scores row A (the leftmost row going away from him, so if you want to be pedantic you might call them columns but we’re not going to be pedantic now are we?), then Player 2 scores row A, which will be perpendicular to Player 1, and then Player 3 and so on. After skylines are scored—one point per building you can see—players can place antennas on buildings they can see that don’t have antennas already, scoring again for those. There’s a decided advantage to going first in the introductory game, making it only suitable for a tutorial or for playing with someone you’d like to help win.
The advanced game introduces the planning element that wipes out the first player’s advantage, but at the same time requires a level of foresight that would make it unsuitable at least for kids under eight, and maybe even for older kids. Each player gets five cards, one for each row, with four possible outcomes on the four edges of the card: one building, two buildings, three buildings, and a side for four or five buildings. At some point during the game, each player must “plan” his/her skylines by placing the planning cards face-down in the special planning office, which kind of looks like a big chair but has a foldable cardboard piece that, when flipped, will only display one edge of each card. If you planned correctly and the edge you played matches your actual number of buildings seen in that row, you get that many points; if not, you get zero, regardless of whether your plan was too high or too low.
You can, if you choose, screw one of your opponents in a few ways in this game, by adding to a building to screw up his skyline or by dropping a roof on something she’s trying to make taller. Given the short number of turns in the game, however, I don’t think any player can afford more than two such moves in an entire game, and should probably save them for situations where they might block a four- or five-point skyline … and even then, it only works if the player has already played that planning card and edge.
The advanced rules left me ambivalent on the game; the concept is cute, but certain aspects didn’t play well, like having to play all planning cards before the first player runs out of building pieces, or having to give up a placement action to play a card. It also requires that kind of ability to think way ahead that’s reserved for complex strategy games or classics like chess, but with a much higher element of luck than we expect from games that expect and reward long-range planning. That makes Skyliners a better bet if you want to play the introductory game with little ones and don’t care if you win, rather than one to break out with the adults or older kids and play for keeps.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.