I have to say… Pan-Am: The Game is a geek’s delight! If you like aviation, travel or games with a retro/nostalgic feel, it’s definitely worth giving it a go. It’s a game for 2-4 players and plays through in about 45 minutes.
The game is all based around Pan-Am, the iconic airline from the golden age of aviation. However, the mechanic behind it is a quirky one; you might expect that, given the title, the objective is to actually run Pan-Am. In fact, each player runs their own, fictitious, start-up airline and the overall objective is to buy stock in the rapidly expanding behemoth that is Pan-Am, which effectively acts as a neutral player. The game ends after seven turns and the player with the most stock in Pan-Am wins.
The seven turns of the game are based on the chronology of airline development, so the first turn is set in the 1920s or 1930s, when Pan-Am is just a small airline starting up out of Miami; by the seventh, and final, turn, we are well into the jet age and Pan-Am is a huge global concern. There is some nice little historical detail on the turn cards, which helps to convey the sense of the particular era that turn represents. An even nicer historical detail lies in the four kinds of planes available in the game: trimotors, clippers, cruisers and jets. The latter two only become available later in the game, whilst the trimotors and clippers are available from the first turn, as would have been the case for an airline in the 20s and 30s. If, like me, you’re a bit (well, a lot) of an aviation geek, this is a really pleasing little detail!
Routes & Landing Rights
The main gameplay centres around creating routes for your airline, on which you can deploy your fleet of aircraft. There are four different ways to create routes, and this can feel a bit complex on the first couple of plays, but it soon becomes apparent how it works. Essentially, to create a route, you can place an airport in a particular destination, you can hold an appropriate destination card, or you can dispose of certain combinations of destination cards. Once you’ve created a route by holding ‘landing rights’ at the two cities at either end of it, you can pop your plane onto the route, and that then starts earning you income. The four different types of plane have different ranges, so some of the longer routes can’t be created until later in the game, when cruisers and, especially, jets become available.
Each turn, you have a number of different options: you can place an airport, buy destination cards, buy planes, bid for routes or collect a ‘Directive’ card. You do this by allocating ‘engineers’ – the precise number of which differ depending on how many players there are. This makes for a nice bit of head scratching a bit like the old conundrum about what came first, the tin or the tin opener… there’s no point in creating loads of routes if you don’t have the planes to put on them, and there’s no point in buying planes without the routes! This makes for some finely balanced decision making although in the later rounds, especially, it can be all too easy to create a grand strategy in your head and then confidently start to despatch your engineers… only to forget exactly why it was that you wanted to place an airport in Tokyo after all!
These are lovely. There are four sets of destination cards, colour coded to represent North America, South America, Asia Pacific and Europe, and they have a real nostalgic feel to them. They have clearly been inspired by those classic travel posters advertising a particular destination which seem to have been prevalent between the 1930s and the 1960s. Each card has a nice piece of artwork relevant to the destination and, whilst some of the destinations are fairly obvious candidates – New York, Rome, etc. – others are less so… Bathurst, anyone? (Apparently this is the old name for Banjul, in Gambia).
I have to mention this. The board is a map of the world, but it’s a map unlikely to be one that you’ve seen before. We’re all familiar with the Mercator projection world map, which makes Greenland seem about a billion times bigger than it actually is, but this world map is actually a projection from the perspective of looking down upon the North Pole. As a result, the landmasses look very unfamiliar and take some getting used to. Even if you’re good at geography, you’ll probably find yourself struggling to work out where particular destinations are, purely because of the unfamiliar nature of the projection. Depending on your point of view, that could either be an annoyance or an interesting quirk of the game.
It’s worth reminding yourself during the gameplay that the objective isn’t to create the most, or the longest, routes – it’s to accumulate stock in Pan-Am. The share value of the airline generally increases during the course of the game (although, as in real life, external events can send the share price down, too), so another decision which has to be taken is when to buy stock, and how much to buy. Do you buy early, when it’s cheap, but restrict how much you can invest into planes and routes for your own airline, or do you speculate on your own airline instead, in the hope of earning plenty of cash which you can later spend on more expensive Pan-Am stock? A clever twist of the game is that, as Pan-Am continues to expand, it can end up acquiring some of your routes in exchange for cash, and you can then use this to buy Pan-Am stock, or re-invest in your own airline.
This is an unusual and interesting game. It plays pretty quickly and is easily learnt, even if a few of the game rules can feel a little complex at the start. There’s some good interaction and competition between the players as they sometimes end up bidding for the same destinations, planes or airports. It does feel like a love letter to the golden age of aviation and to Pan-Am in particular but, if those are subjects that float your boat (or clipper), then that’s no bad thing.