Some games are so unique that they were ahead of their time—and suffered because of it! That was the fate of Astron, Parker Brothers' unusual game of an airplane race around the world.
Astron came in a big box to hold six metal airplanes (the same pieces used in Wide World, a game that would appear 2 years later), Astron cards which controlled movement, Airport cards which score points, Hazard cards which deduct points and, the most amazing feature of all, a movable playing board!
The gimmick to the game is the playing board. The board, representing an aerial view of the world is enclosed in a rectangular box with a plastic window so that a portion of the "world" (10 spaces wide by 12 spaces long) can be seen. Subtitled, "The Game That Moves As You Play", this is truly truth in advertising. This "board" is mounted on rollers and, as the planes move through the air, the rollers can move so that the playing area moves too!
2 to 6 players place their planes on one of the starting areas (marked 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6). The dealer shuffles the Astron cards and deals five of them to each player. The Hazard and Airport cards are shuffled separately and placed in two face down piles. Then, play begins.
The first player plays one of his Astron cards. The Astron cards control the movement of the planes and the map! For example, a card may say "Move Plane 3 back" or "Move Plane 4 Sideways" or "Move Plane 2 back, Move Map Forward Two Spaces". In all cases, the plane moves first and then, if so directed, the map. Now, the player draws another Astron card to replenish his hand, ending his turn, and play passes to the next player.
Planes must move in accordance with the orders on the cards played. No plane may land on a space already occupied by a plane or exit off the side of the map. If a player does not have a card that is playable, that player loses his turn and must discard an Astron card and draw another.
On the map, there are 11 Airports, numbered from 1 to 11. There are also 21 Hazard spaces (marked Tornadoes, High Winds etc.) Should a plane land on any of these spaces (whether on his own turn or because of the movement of the map), the player draws a card: an Airport card or a Hazards card (depending upon which space his plane is on). These cards are only drawn at the end of a turn. So, if a player moves off a space because of the movement of the map, no card is drawn! Airport cards award points to the lucky player. Hazard cards result in points being lost!
Play continues, and the map continues to move, until the words "Game Over" appear at the edge of the playing area. The player on turn completes his turn and then, all points collected are tallied. The player with the highest net score wins!
Astron was a brilliant idea. Players had choices as to which cards to play to maneuver their planes to Airports and around Hazards. Yet, they could also affect their opponents by shifting the map underneath them so that they end up in "Hazard-ous" situations. The game relied upon skillful play of your drawn cards. No dice! (Something unique for this time in game design.) So why did it fail? A couple of reasons.
First off, the game's quality production was expensive. The heart of the game, the map on rollers, must have cost a relative fortune in its time. Today, when games go for upwards of $30 and $40 (and more) a shot, Astron seems inexpensive but back in 1955 most games went for only a few dollars! Relatively speaking, the cost of manufacturing the rolling board, although original and creative and striking, was certainly not a cost-effective measure. Also, the marketing magnates believed that the very name, Astron, gave potential customers the inaccurate impression that the game was about space or spaceships. (I would think that in the 1950s UFO era, that would have been a good thing but...) So, in 1958, Parker reissued the game and changed its name to Sky Lanes. A rather non-descript name that did nothing to boost sales. As a result, Astron (and its alter-ego, Sky Lanes) disappeared from the Parker Brothers line. A fine game that deserved a better fate.
- Herb Levy