Pan Am is a game designed by Prospero Hall around the theme of aviation (as the title would suggest). In the game, you play as budding airlines hoping to buy stock from Pan Am before their takeover of the skies. The game starts during the 1920s and finishes in the 1970s during Pan Am’s peak. There are a number of events that can happen during the game that impact Pan Am’s stock price and expansion of routes including computerisation and development of new planes. It’s quite a kitschy and unique theme that provides a fun little world to inhabit for a few hours. The aim of the game is to have the most stock in Pan Am by the end of the seven rounds.
There are various ways to earn money to gain stock but these all revolve around building your airline. Income is one of the main ways to reliably get money and you increase your income through gaining routes and airports. Routes will get you the most additional income but in order to gain a route you need the landing rights of the places your route goes between. For example, in order to gain the route between New York and Gander, you’d need the landing rights for both (as well as an appropriately sized plane to claim the route). Landing rights can be gained from destination cards or airports. You also have the option to discard destinations to acquire the landing rights you need. Whilst the game can seem a bit overwhelming to begin with, once you see how the components interconnect, it’s fun to think how you can capitalise on the resources you have. Pan Am also guides you through the phases and has a clear order to how things are resolved which helps early on.
The game is played in four phases: Event, Engineer, Resolution and Pan Am. During the Event phase, the event for the round is revealed, for example The Great Depression which leads to all players losing money at the beginning of the round. It also determines the stock price (ranging from $3-$11 per share) and how many times Pan Am will expand at the end of the round (indicated by the number of dice on the card). The events can have a significant impact on the direction of the game and the best strategies to use, particularly event cards that can do things like doubling your income at the end of the round. Other event cards may allow you to sell a plane, gain a route for free or give you a directive card. The event cards provide a dynamic aspect to the game which provides some flavour, replayability and encourages different strategies to succeed.
The Engineer phase is where you begin to place your workers. Depending on the number of players, the number of engineers changes. For example, a two player game, each person has five engineers to signify five actions each player can take. The engineers have a nice rounded cog base. There are five different places players can place their engineers (labelled A-E): Airports (A), Destinations (B) , Planes (C), Routes (D) and Directives (E). There are limited spots for all of these actions and that’s where one of the competitive elements comes in. The bidding track in Pan Am is one of the best components as it’s very clear when you lose a bid and then you take your engineer back and put it on a new action. In every round only one person can claim an airport, a specific destination (of which there are four) and a specific type of plane (there are also four, the bigger the size, the longer route it can claim). Multiple people can claim routes and gain directives but the people with the leftmost engineers go first. After round 1, any players who have engineers beside Directives (E) will gain Priority Access in the next round and those players will be able to place their Engineers first.
Next is the Resolution phase, where you resolve the actions of your engineers, working from A to E.
- Airports (A) allow you to claim a destination and increase your income by one.
- Destinations (B) allow you to bid on a destination and if you win the bid you gain the landing rights (which you need to claim routes). The bid for destinations starts at $0 and caps at $6.
- With Planes (C), when you win the bid, you add the plane to your fleet. The four types of plane are Trimotors (1), Clippers (2), Cruisers (3) and Jets (4). Cruisers are only available from round 3 and jets are only available from round 6. The numbers beside the plane indicate the length of route they can claim. The size of the plane must be equivalent or larger than the route it needs to claim. For example a Cruiser (3) can claim a route of 2.
- Routes (D) allows you to claim a route on the map. As previously stated in order to do this you need the landing rights of both destinations (or discard other location cards) and an appropriately sized plane that is taken from your fleet and onto the map. This is another one of the competitive elements of the game as only one person can claim a specific route (and Pan Am also claims routes).
- Directives (E) are cards that give bonuses during different phases of the round (which is indicated on the card in red writing). These are kind of like Development cards in Settlers of Catan and can include free stock, a cheaper plane, the ability to reset the destination cards and free routes. The Directive cards give nice advantages but you’re unlikely to win from them alone (similarly to Development cards in Catan), which I think is a good thing.
It’s satisfying to see your airline grow over the rounds through the different actions. It’s important to place your first engineers in places that are the most beneficial to you, as a crucial route could be claimed by another player if you don’t prioritise it. There isn’t much incentive to connect your routes as you don’t gain any bonuses for this, but I think the game provides different goals and strategies that make your routes more interesting. It’ll take a few plays of the game to become accustomed to the map and how the different regions of the world connect (roughly divided into Europe, North America, South America, Pacific and Asia). The planes are cute too, I’ve definitely learnt some new types of planes.
Finally you go into the Pan Am phase, where Pan Am begins its expansion and seeks to gain a monopoly over the airways. Starting from Miami, Pan Am will begin to take over routes based on the expansion die, which indicates which routes it’ll expand along (for example the European route). This is indicated by handy diamond shaped Pan Am tiles. If you happen to own a route Pan Am is expanding across they’ll buy it off you for a tidy profit. This will decrease your income, so there is a lot of strategy around when to sell your routes and when to buy routes that Pan Am are likely to overtake. If the Pan Am symbol is rolled on the dice, every player will have the option to sell a route to Pan Am, who’ll own the route for the rest of the game. Once Pan Am is done expanding, all players will gain the money from their income and have the choice to buy Pan Am stock. These phases repeat until the end of round 7, when the game ends and the person with the most Pan Am stock wins.
My only reference point for Pan Am is the film Catch Me If You Can, but if anything it helped with setting the world and contextualising the retro graphics. Pan Am has a loose similarity with Ticket to Ride as claiming routes is one of the key actions in the game.
However there is more complexity in Pan Am which I prefer. The aim to have the most stock rather than the most money provides interesting decisions throughout the game as you have the option to buy stock at the end of every round. But you don’t know when the stock prices will decrease or increase. The dynamism of stock prices creates tension with each flip of the event card. Similar to what I imagine actual stock markets are like, you have to take risks to be rewarded (or possibly penalised).
The game also utilises worker placement so each player knows what actions they’ll be taking in the Resolution phase, which I think leads to better gameplay as everyone is able to use their engineers at the same time and immediately see the impact of their actions. It also creates a competitive element to the game as you bid for the limited resources and have to assess whether paying more for a resource is worth it. You are also penalised for reckless bidding as you have to sell stock at a loss if you don’t have enough money (and this is the only time you can or would want to sell stock early).
As someone who likes different economic ideas in games, I appreciate the depth it provides to Pan Am, competing for stocks rather than just money. But that doesn’t mean it’s not satisfying to sell a route to Pan Am. I appreciate how players have to make decisions about the best times to expand, sell or stick with what they have in order to win. There’s good player interaction with the bidding and the scope of the game makes it feel more grand as you go through the decades and build your airline. I’m looking forward to playing this one again.