Sawbuck Gamer is our daily review of a free or cheap ($10 or less) game.
The shrinky-dink airline tycoon game Pocket Planes puts players in control of a nascent air travel company. But it’s really a spreadsheet game that sports cute 8-bit-style varnish. Through inventory screens, a map, plane data readouts and even shots of planes in transit, it offers a pretty dense airline simulation. (Dense for a cell phone game, at least.) Players buy, upgrade, and even scrap planes; open and develop airports in new cities across the globe; and manage itineraries for thousands of little digital travelers.
There’s a minor learning curve, as the game gives few hints about how best to manage layovers and route through multiple cities for maximum profit. Pocket Planes presents a lot of data, which leads to the desire for more. Why isn’t there a better visualization of what plane upgrades are best to buy, or what passenger management pattern will earn the most money?
The number-crunching is slow at first, as the game’s dual currencies—gold and “bux”—are initially in short supply. Thanks to the “freemium” model that developer NimbleBit employed in its previous success story, Tiny Tower, you can purchase bux with real-world cash. There’s no real need to pay, although the trade-off for free play is time. You want planes to traverse the globe? Gotta put in the hours, captain.
After a few hours, Pocket Planes feels like the fever dream of an unsophisticated capitalist. Resisting the urge to increase your gold and bux stashes proves difficult. Doing so means answering an insistent call to expand, expand, EXPAND! There’s an inexorable march of profit, with no end in sight, and “more” is the only thing to be “won.” The game doesn’t factor in competition, so the world is just waiting to be mapped out by the one and only airline that has the perseverance to keep planes in the air day after day after day…