A High-Flying Review of Pan Am
Pan Am. The airline that changed the way we travel. They were the first to send commercial flights over both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, as well as the first to use computers for reservations. (At least, that’s what the rule book’s introduction says.)
Pan Am is a worker placement game in which you elbow your way into the industry to claim routes, increase your fleet, gain landing rights at various locations (through airports or destination cards), and buy and sell stocks in Pan Am, the airline that’s going to buy you all out anyway. You can out-bid your opponents to steal their action spaces for yourself, but in so doing you have to pay a higher price for the same action.
The difficulty is not too complex as to overwhelm even new players, but there is still a depth that can intrigue those gamers whose preferences fall on the weightier side as well.
While Pan American Airways is a pioneer in the commercial flight industry for a number of reasons, I was surprised it was enough of an influence to turn into a game. I’ll be honest, I didn’t have high hopes the first time Pan Am hit the table. I mean, it didn’t look too fancy, and I was skeptical that it would satisfy. Oh, how wrong I was!
I didn’t do so well on my first play, but I still enjoyed it, and that is the sign of a good game. (Not that I didn’t do well, but that I enjoyed it while not doing well.) I enjoy worker placement games to begin with and appreciated the “return to sender” mechanic, in which if a player’s worker is outbid, the outbid worker goes back to its player to be placed again.
It’s on the lighter side of mid-complexity, but I wouldn’t call it a game of “light” strategy. It’s also interesting because it’s based on Pan Am’s history, so aficionados of airplanes in the days of yore might appreciate some of the facts on the cards, which is a nice bonus. I myself enjoyed learning about the history, so there.
The game takes place over seven rounds, and each round the players place a worker (or “engineer,” officially) on a spot in one of the sections (A-E). When everyone is out of workers (or chooses not to place their remaining workers), each section of the board activates, starting with A and ending with E. The player must then remove their worker from their space (except for section D, which stays through to the next round, these workers being placed first, before all others) and then pay the cost (in money dollars) to take that action.
If you can’t afford it, you have to sell your shares (which you can buy at the end of each round) for $2 less than what the stock value is currently worth. If you still can’t afford it, then too bad. So it’s important to make sure you have the cash you need for your actions. But there’s another mechanic in the game that spices things up a bit, that I really like.
I call it the “return to sender” mechanic. If you have a worker on a space, another player can place their worker above yours on the track, claiming it for themselves. When this happens, your worker returns to you, allowing you to place it again, be it above the worker who just bumped you off (how dare they…) or somewhere else you can afford.
It’s a fun mechanic, because 1) you don’t get completely hosed by getting bumped (unless you really needed that space at that price), and 2) you can make your rivals pay more than they wanted if you know they need that particular action. It makes for some devious moves (if you’re into that), but it also punishes you as well if you force your way to the top of the track. Jolly good.
The gameplay has a good order of operations to it. Meaning, there are many times throughout the game where you’ll have a worker placed in section D (Routes) but you need something from A (Airports), B (Destinations), or C (Planes) in order to make your chosen route work. It can be a gamble, placing your worker on D before you have the requisite resources, but it can certainly pay off.
Overall, I like the gameplay. It’s easy enough to grasp but still provides a good amount of thoughts and strategy.
The theme of airplanes—commercial airlines, in particular—isn’t the most exciting theme I’ve ever played, but that doesn’t make the game any less interesting. In fact, I think the designers (who I wish were named, as opposed to the generic “Prospero Hall” placeholder) did a wonderful job turning this theme into an engaging game.
Because you start off with planes that can’t travel very far and then, as the game progresses, you can upgrade to more modern vessels, Pan Am is a working history of the aviation industry. It’s not a college course by any means, but it’s neat and interesting still the same.
The art style is overall basic, but it fits with the era of the theme. Likewise, the destination cards are illustrated in the same vein as ye auld luggage stickers of days long past. It’s a good look, those old illustrations and I like them, as they give a nice taste of what passengers might expect at the destination.
These are the things that stood out above the others:
- “Return to sender” worker placement
- Order of operations (in which some of your earlier placements will affect your later action spaces, which makes ensuring you have those early ones more important than normal)
- Fun planes
- Easy entry point into board games
Things to Consider
Consider playing it, maybe? Honestly, there’s not much to disparage about Pan Am. The game does play a tad differently at two players than at full player count, since things are more open. But, at the same time, you both get two additional engineers than you would with four players. So while things are a bit more open, it’s because you, personally, have more workers to place. But that’s not a negative thing at all.
Pan Am is an enjoyable game. It’s likely to be a favorite for some due to its easy access and provides a taste of heavier games. Others, however, will probably find it lacking their usual meat (I postulate that this group is smaller than the first). The folks in the middle—which will undoubtedly be a much larger group than the other two combined, will enjoy the game and be happy to play it when it’s suggested. That’s the category I’m in. It’s a good game—it really is—and one that I find (surprisingly, actually) calling back to me for another play.
Pan Am was my first game I had played from Funko Games. They are certainly onto something with Pan Am, and while I was at first skeptical of what their games might be like, I am now excited for—and enjoying—their other offerings.
What intrigues you most about Pan Am? Share with us in the comments!
About the Author
Benjamin hails from Canada but now lives in Kentucky with his wife and kids. He’s a certified copyeditor and a freelance writer and editor, covering everything from board game rule books to novels. An avid writer of science fiction and fantasy, it comes as no surprise that his favorite board games are those with rich, engaging themes. When he’s not writing or playing games, Benjamin loves to play ultimate Frisbee, watch and play rugby, and read the most epic fantasy books available. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminKocher and Instagram @Benjamin_Kocher. You can also read his board game inspired fiction (among other things) at BoardGameImmersion.com.