Dale Yu: First Impressions of PANAMAX



  • Designers: Gil D’Orey, Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro, Paulo Soledade
  • Publisher: Mesaboardgames / Stronghold Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 12+
  • Time: 90-120 min

Copy provided by Stronghold Games


[Note: Normally, I prefer to play a game at least three times prior to writing it for the blog. However, given the time pressure coming up to SPIEL ’14, I have written up my thoughts on a number of games based on only one or two plays in order to cover as many new games as possible prior to the show. I fully admit that it is often not possible to see the full breadth of a design in a single play, and thus I shall not give a final rating to any game at this stage with such a few number of plays…]


Panamax is a very complex game where players attempt to make the most money by managing cargo deliveries in, around and through the Panama Canal.  The game reminds me of the 18XX series because players have to manage both their own personal stuff as well as that of a company.  Furthermore, players can buy shares in the different companies, so oftentimes it will benefit them to take actions involving other player’s ships and goods.

The game is played over 3 rounds, each following the same pattern.  A round lasts until all the Action dice are used.  On your turn, you choose an available action die and then do the corresponding action.  When you choose an action, though, you must choose the lowest die in the column.  The reason for this is that the actions are more efficient as you move up the column.  Therefore, the players that choose earlier in the round may have a better range of possible actions but those actions will likely not be as efficient as those taken later in the round.


The board shows a map of the Panama Canal with the Gatun (Atlantic) locks at the bottom and the Miraflores (Pacific) locks near the top.  Each player gets a clipboard where all the assets of his company are kept.  He also has a personal fortune which is kept elsewhere on the table.  In setup, there are 16 dice which are rolled and then placed on the board to act as action dice.  Essentially, 1-3 rolls are placed on a movement table while 4-6 rolls are placed on a contract table.  You will find these action columns in the center of the board.


If you choose a contract die, you get a chance to take a contract card. The contracts are double sided, the front with a specific contract and the back with a generic contract.  If you take the specific contract, you can only load goods on specific ships – if you take the generic contract, you can load anywhere.  This action also allows you to move your goods out of the warehouse (dice in your color) and get them onto ships.  You are limited to one die per ship in this phase, and again the location of loading may be determined by the contracts.  Each ship has a minimum and maximum cargo rating.  As soon as the ship is within this range, even if all the dice spaces aren’t taken up, the ship may start moving thru the canal.

[There is another possibility that may allow you to place some goods on the railroad – and this is how turn order is determined for the next round.]


some contract cards

some contract cards

Movement can be a tricky thing, both in this game as in the real Panama canal.  There simply isn’t a lot of room!  If you choose a movement die, you can move a ship either in the waterways or in the locks of the Canal.  If you are in the canal, you can even use your movement to push along other ships.  There could be times when using a single movement action can move 4 or more ships!  If a ship manages to make it all the way to the end of the canal, the goods containers are sold and the companies that own the goods get paid $1 per pip on the goods die.  The ship owner will also get a bonus card, the type based on the size ship that made the transit.


You might get to take an executive action – these are special actions found at the very top of each column.  These actions can only be taken when there are no other dice available in the column. The big difference here is that you get to take a market action – this allows you to buy a share of any company and then increase its price by 1 OR you can increase the price of a company by 2.  (There is another way to buy shares, and that is thru a free action from a country chip).


But what if the dice are taken from the action you want to perform?  Well, that’s OK too (to a degree).  For a cost of $5, you are allowed to move a die from one column to another.  As an added bonus, you get to put the die on the highest available slot meaning that you    should get a pretty good action for your $5 cost.


In any event, the round continues until the dice are gone. Turn order is decided by the dice on the railroad train.  In addition, players that have a die on the train will get a country chip which will give them a free action as well.  Then, there is the dreaded taxation phase – companies have to pay fees on ships that are still in transit in the canal, dice they still have in the warehouse and uncompleted contract cards.  These fees come out of the treasury of the company – but if there isn’t enough, then the player who owns the company has to make up the difference.


Stock dividends are then paid out – from the treasuries of the companies, the amounts based on the stock chart on the board.  If there isn’t enough money to pay all the dividends, then no payments are made (and the stock price takes a penalty).  Finally, the player who owns the company with the highest value that was able to pay out dividends – gets an endgame bonus marker.


If there is still game to be played, the completed goods dice are placed back in the warehouse and the action dice are re-rolled to seed the action table again…  If this is the end of the last round, you get to add up your money.  You total is:


  1. Money on hand
  2. Stocks, valued at current level on the stock chart
  3. Bonuses from your best two financial advisor cards (received from completed deliveries)
  4. End game bonuses for best company in each round


The player with the most money wins the game!


My thoughts thus far


First, let me start by saying that it is impossible to really grasp the game from a single play.  This game is extremely complex.  If you’re not used to the idea, it will take at least half a game to get used to the idea that you have your own stuff and you have stuff in the company that you own, but they are very separate things for the whole game.


Though I’m normally not a theme guy, this is an example of a game where the theme and gameplay are completely integrated.  The art is well done, though I’ll have to admit to needing to pull up a map of the actual canal to figure out how the canal really looks like!  The board can get really crowded and cluttered, there are a lot of dice, ships, and what not scattered on the board…  Production is top notch on the whole – the cards are thick with a nice finish, the punchboards are also thick and the chits are easily removed.  The coins are thin plastic discs like in the original Age of Steam, and that would be my only quibble with the components as they just don’t match the high quality of the rest of the contents of the box.

apparently, there's a map on the back of the board!

apparently, there’s a map on the back of the board!

The rules are well written.  When I first read them (without the game in front of me), it was admittedly a bit complicated and hard to follow.  However, once I had the gameboard set up in front of me, and i could hold the cards and push the ships around – everything was fine.  I’d guess that my initial confusion was due more to the overall complexity of the game and not due to the rules.  While we were playing, we were able to quickly find answers to our questions on gameplay.

I have been following this game for a few years now (it’s gone through some major overhauls in that time period), and the end product is a very polished game.  The mechanics all work well with each other.  I don’t know how well balanced the end game bonus cards are (the financial advisors), but they didn’t seem too bad in my only play.  To be honest, I had so many things that I was trying to work on in my initial play, I didn’t really focus too much on them.

Like many economic or 18xx games, I think the key here is figuring out how to work together with the other players WHILE you’re trying to do better than them.  You’d like to be able to cooperate with all your opponents, and if you can get just a slight edge over each of them, that will translate into a big advantage at the end of the game.

You’d also like to be able to get your opponents to do you work for you.  If you can read their intents correctly, and if you manage to block up vital chokepoints in the waterways, you might be able to convince everyone else to push you along to the end of the canal.


I would say that many introductory 4p games will come in the 2 to 3 hour range.  I’d hope that this would come down closer to the 90 minutes that the box suggests, but to be honest, I don’t know if it will.  The game has a lot of decisions that need to be made, and there is just a lot of thinking that needs to go on in order to play the game well.  Time needs to be spent on those decisions because this seems to be a very unforgiving game.  You do not get many opportunities to act (only 12 in a game), so any wasted turns mean that you’re out almost 10% of the game!


The game has a steep learning curve, and I still have much to figure out about this game.  If you’re the sort of gamer who likes 18xx, Age of Steam, Indonesia, etc. – Panamax will be right up your alley.  This is definitely not a game I would play with beginners; reserve this one for only the hard-core gamers that you play with.


Until your next appointment,

The Gaming Doctor


About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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3 Responses to Dale Yu: First Impressions of PANAMAX

  1. Thanks for the first impression look at PANAMAX! NIcely done.

    There is a lot of meat on dem bones, so Panamax will take a bit to fully grok. But I think it is actually quite approachable. With only 12 pages of rules, and a game system that flows very well, once you get the drift, you just get it.

    Stephen M. Buonocore
    Stronghold Games LLC

  2. Pingback: Dale Yu: First Impressions of PANAMAX | Jon Hare Fantasy

  3. Alan How says:

    I played a few weeks ago and liked it. I didn’t think it was too complex, but I enj the heavier end of the market. I have waited for Essen to get the Stronghold version, so please have plenty, Mr. Bono ore cause you should sell shed loads.

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