Larry Levy: First Impressions of Pan Am

Pan Am

  • Designer: Prospero Hall (Lead Designer – Peter Lee)
  • Publisher: Funko Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 12+
  • Time: 60-90 minutes
  • Times Played: 1

I recently got to play my first face-to-face game in 5 months.  If you had asked me at the beginning of my COVID lockdown which game would reintroduce me into the Land of the Living, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have guessed it would be a Funko Game title.  These are popular designs, but many of them are thematic games featuring large-headed minis of celebrities and that’s not exactly my gaming sweet spot.  But Pan Am is very much a Euro, it has an attractive theme, the early ratings are good, and it is both affordable and easily accessible (under $30 at both Target stores and Target.com).  So I decided to give it a shot.

When I was researching the game on BGG, I was also able to investigate the enigma of the mysterious Prospero Hall.  It turns out that Funko has a group of in-house designers and all of them collaborate on each of their games.  To emphasize this team effort, their designs are all attributed to the fictional Prospero Hall.  However, each game also has a lead designer and it’s no secret who they are, as those are the people who are answering questions about their game on the Geek (and who are readily identifying themselves there as lead designer).  The lead designer on Pan Am is Peter Lee, an experienced designer who previously worked at Wizards of the Coast.  His titles include Lords of Waterdeep, Tyrants of the Underdark, Legend of Drizzt, and Horrified.  So it’s reasonable to assume that Pan Am is Lee’s baby, while acknowledging that other Funko designers also had a hand in the final product.

So what has Mr. Lee & Co. wrought?  In Pan Am, the players own small airlines during the early days of commercial aviation (the game runs from the 1920’s to the 1960’s).  Their goal is to claim routes between the major cities of the world, which generate profits.  At the same time, aviation pioneer Pan Am is aggressively expanding by snapping up such routes, including those of the players.  However, we players rarely mind such poaching, as Pan Am is willing to pay a pretty penny for those routes.  In fact, we’re so impressed by the company that we grab shares of Pan Am stock every chance we get.  At the end of the game, the player with the most shares of stock wins.

The game board shows a map of the world, with about 40 cities highlighted.  The world is divided into five regions:  North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Pacific.  The map also shows potential routes between pairs of cities, with each route including a number (from 1 to 4) that corresponds to its length.  Longer routes are more profitable, but harder to claim.  There are two decks of cards.  Destination cards each show one of the cities; Directive cards each have a useful ability.  Each player has units in their color, including Engineers (the “workers” in the game), Airports, and Planes in four sizes (again, rated from 1 to 4).  The players each begin the game with two Destination cards (these are always placed face up in front of the player), one Directive card (which are kept face down until used), a number of Engineers based on the player count (5 with two players, 4 with three players, and 3 with four players—these numbers won’t change over the course of the game), three of their smaller Planes, and some money.

The heart of the game is claiming routes, so let’s spend a little time seeing how that works.  In order for a player to claim a specific route, they must have Landing Rights at both of the cities at the endpoint of the route, as well as an available Plane with a value at least as large as the length of the route.  There are four ways to get Landing Rights at a city:

  • Have one of your Airports placed in that city on the board;
  • Own a Destination card corresponding to that city;
  • Discard a Destination card from the same Region as the city;
  • Discard two Destination cards that match each other’s Region, but which are from a different Region than the city.

If one of the first two methods are used, nothing is used up and the Airport or Destination card is available to be used to claim future routes.  Destination cards aren’t easy to obtain, so the last method, in particular, can be expensive.

A game of Pan Am consists of 7 rounds, with each round having four phases.  Here’s how a round plays out.

Event Phase – There is a group of Event cards provided, which includes four cards for each of the game’s seven rounds.  During setup, one card for each round is randomly and secretly chosen and a 7-card deck is formed.  That round’s card is revealed in this phase.  Each card has three portions.  First, its event is carried out—some are bad, most are good, but all of them apply to all players.  The second portion affects the share price of Pan Am stock.  Each card either raises the price by a dollar, lowers the price by a dollar, or resets the price to a fixed value.  The third area has to do with the expansion of Pan Am and I’ll discuss that in a bit.

Engineer Phase – During this phase, the players assign their Engineers to action areas on the board.  This is done one Engineer at a time, in player order.  There are five different types of actions that can be taken, each in its own area.  There are one or more tracks in each area and you reserve an action by placing one of your Engineers on a space on a track.

There are two types of tracks:  Bidding Tracks and Work Sites.  Bidding Tracks have dollar values on each of their spaces.  When you place an Engineer at a Bidding Track which has an opponent’s Engineer on it, you must place yours on a higher valued space (in essence, outbidding them).  The opponent’s Engineer is then returned to them, to be place later during the phase.  There is no such competition at Work Sites; instead, you just place your Engineer on the first available space.  Multiple Engineers can be at the same Work Site track.

The first three areas use Bidding Tracks.  These include an area with a track allowing the high bidder to place an Airport on any unoccupied city space; an area with four tracks, each with a Destination card (chosen randomly), where the high bidder gets to add that Destination card into their hand; and an area with one track for each of the four types of Planes, where the high bidder gets to add one of their Planes of that type to their pool of available Planes.  The last two areas use Work Sites.  The first one allows the players placed there to claim routes and the second one lets the players there draw a Directive card.

The Engineer Phase continues until each player has placed all of their Engineers.

Resolution Phase – This is when the Engineers placed in the previous phase carry out their actions.  Airports are placed, Destination cards added, and Planes acquired.  On the Routes track, the first player in line claims a single route, by showing that they have Landing Rights at two adjacent cities and then by taking a Plane from their pool that has a level at least as large as the route’s length and placing it on the route.  The route must have been unclaimed and the player keeps that route for the rest of the game (unless it is sold to Pan Am).  The player then increases their income by the length of the route.  Then, the next player with an Engineer in the area claims a route, and so on.  Because of the rules for Landing Rights, it’s entirely possible for more than one player to be able to claim the same route, so the order in which the players have placed their Engineers here can be important.

Pan Am Phase – This consists of three steps.  First, Pan Am (a non-player airline controlled by the game) expands.  Pan Am always begins in Miami (there’s a variant provided where it begins Rome) and there are three separate route paths it can expand on.  There’s a die where each face contains one or two of these paths.  Remember that each event card has a third area?  Well, it shows how many times this die is rolled (it’ll be 1 to 3 times) and Pan Am claims the next available route along each path that shows up on these rolls.  If the route is claimed by a player, they must sell, but the money the bank gives them for it is sufficiently large that this is almost always a welcome development.  They do have to reduce their income by the length of the route, but they also are able to reclaim the Plane that reserved the route, so they’re free to reuse it starting next round.

In the second step, the players receive their income from the bank.  Finally, they can buy as many shares of Pan Am stock as they wish, based on the current share price of the stock.  The share price can bounce around a bit, but it tends to rise over the course of the game, so the tension here is wanting to buy as many shares as possible at a lower price, while still maintaining enough funds to conduct your actions next round.

That’s pretty much the game.  The Directive cards give some nice benefits.  Each card indicates exactly when it can be played (this is a nice touch, removing any possible confusion about how these can be played) and the owning player can play them at any appropriate time.  20% of the cards let the player claim one share of stock at the end of the game, which is reason enough to keep drawing these cards right up to the very last round.

After 7 rounds, the game ends.  The player with the most shares of Pan Am stock wins.  If there’s a tie, the tied player with the most cash on hand is the winner.

My only game of this was with 2 players.  Because of the way the worker placement mechanics work (for most of the actions, it’s essentially a series of extended auctions), I suspect the sweet spot for this might be with 3, since there will be more contention for the tracks (with 4, I wonder how tough it would be to get things done with only three Engineers, although others on the Geek report that it works well with that number).  Still, we both enjoyed our 2-player game and I’d be happy to play it again with that number.

Figuring out how to employ your Engineers leads to some nice decision making.  Airports, Destination cards, and additional Planes all have their uses.  The rules for using cards to obtain Landing Rights encourages you to maintain a steady supply, as they’re quite flexible.  The fact that there’s multiple ways of using these cards adds to the fun.  At the heart of all these decisions is whether you should use your cash to win crucial bids or keep it for buying stock that turn, since the stock price is likely to rise in future turns.

I like the take on worker placement here.  Placing an Engineer early on at a location, in order to claim it for the “optimal” price, is definitely worth doing.  But you’re not locking out your competitors when you do this and if they’re willing to up the ante a bit, they can outbid you.  So there’s still the interaction that WP features, without the lock-out aspect that many players find frustrating.  And yet, there’s still the scarcity of actions that make for a tight game:  only one Airport can be purchased per round, along with only one of each size of Plane.  Plus, there’s the mix of the two different kinds of tracks, which is employed smoothly and logically.  I usually avoid games that are just vanilla WP, as it’s been so overdone in gaming over the past 10 years, but this is a fresh approach that I thought was nicely implemented.

The goal of acquiring the most shares of stock may seem a little strange, but it does fit the theme (the game is called Pan Am, after all) and serves multiple functions over the course of the game.  Sucking cash out of the players’ hands reduces the advantage of an early leader.  And it gives the players a nice puzzle of how to balance share purchases and operating capital.  Essentially, it’s just a measure of your profits during the game, but it’s also an indication of how well you took advantage of the share prices.  I’m not sure I’m entirely sold on the random way that stock prices vary.  The investment choices are most meaningful when the prices rise slowly from round to round, so why not just have them go up by $1 each round?  The way it actually works does provide for some variety, but it might also prove to be unfair to the player who sinks a load of moolah into shares early on, only to see the stock price stubbornly stay low for most of the game (to cite just one example of potential unfairness).  The rest of the game is solid enough that I’m willing to give the designer the benefit of the doubt here, but it remains a small lingering concern for me.

Despite this being, mechanically, a Eurogame through and through, the theme is very well integrated into the workings of the title in a very non-Euro way.  True, there are no passengers depicted, but the requirements for claiming routes make logical sense, the way in which Pan Am expands is similar to how it historically operated, and the details of the events and the gradual introduction of the larger planes are all based on what happened in real life.  It definitely adds to the immersiveness of the game and makes the appealing theme even more enjoyable.

My main impression of the game is that it’s a well polished design.  There are lots of small touches which show that the designer knew what he was doing in order to create a tight and well balanced game.  It’s the sort of approach that makes me interested in checking out other Prospero Hall games, assuming that they start publishing Euro-ish titles like this one.

In my game, my opponent and I were following different strategies.  I focused strongly on selling to Pan Am, so my Airport and Destination card purchases were concentrated on those that allowed me to claim routes that were likely to be purchased by the titular corporation soon.  I also kept things lean and mean and usually had a low supply of leftover Planes and Destination cards at the end of each turn.  My opponent, on the other hand, decided to grab the longer, higher income routes.  So she went harder into the purchase of Planes than I did, particularly the larger ones, and bought more Destination cards as well.  The two strategies turned out to be very well matched, as at the end of the game, we both found ourselves with the same number of Pan Am shares and the exact same amount of cash!  However, at that point, I revealed a Directive card which awarded me a free share of stock, giving me the win.  Now, I had obtained that card a few rounds before and even if it had only netted me a $1 benefit, which was highly likely, it would have been enough to earn me the victory.  Still, it made for a somewhat peculiar, if very memorable, ending of the game.

And that leads me to my one caveat for the design.  Pan Am is not a game for everybody.  If you prefer titles where you can plan for all contingencies and map out your strategy well ahead of time, you might want to avoid this one.  It has a fairly high luck factor, including the Event cards, the way the Destination cards come out, which Directive cards you draw, and, perhaps most strongly, the way that Pan Am expands.  The good news is that this should give the game plenty of variety and make it nicely replayable.  And the fact is that I usually don’t care for games with a lot of randomness, but it didn’t really bother me at all, so that’s an indication that the luck here is manageable.  Still, it’s very much a feature of the game, so be aware of it before you buy or try.

One thing I plan to make my future opponents aware of when I teach the game are the Round 7 events.  These are particularly dramatic (for example, one of them has Pan Am buying all of the players’ routes!).  Peter Lee has explained that they’re there to make the “claim lots of routes” strategy competitive with the “claim routes in front of Pan Am” strategy, as well as to encourage players to buy Planes and cards during the last few rounds.  This makes perfect sense to me and represents another nice design touch.  However, making players aware of the wild things that can happen during the game’s last round is probably a good idea, lest they be caught unawares.

The components are quite nice.  The map resembles a polar projection of the world, which works well and makes for a stylish presentation.  I wish they had done a better job distinguishing the colors of the cities and routes, but there are also icons for each region, so that not only alleviates the issue, but makes the map color-blind friendly as well.  The cards and stock shares are sturdy and nicely coated.  The differently sized plastic minis for the planes are appealing and they thought to put a number of stripes on each wing to show the planes’ range—a very nice and useful touch.  The money is cardboard disks and while they have no heft factor, they do work well and are surely preferable to paper money.  There are removable plastic trays which serve to contain the piles of money and route markers during the game.  The insert actually works very well and lets you store the cards without additional bagging.  And the whole thing comes in a reasonably small box with a minimum amount of air in it.  All in all, it’s an attractive and well thought out presentation.

So there you have it.  Pan Am is a solid, entertaining, well themed, affordable, and reasonably innovative middleweight.  It should make a pretty good crossover game, as there’s enough meat there to satisfy the more seasoned gamer, while not being so intense as to scare off more casual players.  There are multiple strategies, some thought is required to play it well, and it appears to be eminently replayable.  The listed duration of 60 minutes might be a bit on the short side, at least for first-time players, but games should clock in at no more than 90 minutes, so it certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome.  And it’s all bound in a quite attractive package.  My first foray into the Funkoverse proved to be surprisingly enjoyable, so if your tastes are similar to mine, you shouldn’t wait to experience the game about The World’s Most Experienced Airline.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Joe Huber (1 play):  As with Larry, this is one (of a few) games I had the chance to play in person recently.  And, as with Larry, I was pleased by the production of the game, which is well done.  And I even enjoyed the game well enough.  But at the same time I have a number of concerns.

First – the explanation for the seventh turn events – doesn’t quite hold water with me.  Buying non-Pan Am routes is made viable by – a 1 in 4 chance they’ll be bought out on the final turn?  I’m all for supporting multiple paths in a game – I believe it’s a key element to replayability – but there’s something misguided about a plan that depends upon the right random event showing up.  Now, many (but not all) of the events provide some advantage to having built up a network of routes, but still – it’s resolution luck, something which I know typically bothers Larry; I can only conclude that five months without gaming has softened him, somehow.

And second, the auctions are – not nearly so interesting as they could be.  In Amun-Re, the auctions are interesting because everyone will get something, and the difference in what you get makes for interesting bidding.  In Pan Am, bidding was either minimal – I don’t think we ever saw more than two bids on a location card, and rarely even that many – or goes straight to the maximum.  A first round airport for $9 when it adds $7 in income and provides strong options for route-building is a fairly clear choice; late in the game, airports were barely worthwhile, and there was no competition for them.

While not a major concern, the layout of the board takes some getting used to; even at the end of the game, it was still a challenge to find some of the cities quickly.  And the directive cards are not particularly well balanced; there is often a big difference in the value of the cards, not to mention their timeliness.

In sum, although these concerns are sufficient that I wouldn’t agree with Larry’s observation that it’s a “well polished design”, it’s still a fine game.  A little long for what it does, not an ideal story arc, and a few quibbles, but pleasant enough.  I hope to play it at least once more, to be sure of where it really falls for me, but I will be surprised if I’m still playing the game next year. 

Alan H (1 play):  I had heard positive things about the game so through a combination of car rides, local post office in California and international post I obtained a game, though my cost was considerably more than Larry’s. I enjoyed the game and the presentation but like Joe the auctions were not meaty, so were ok but were more functional than exciting. I’m looking forward to getting this to a wider audience.

And a question to those who might know better: what is London not in the routes for Pan Am?

Craig M. (2 plays):  Not much to add beyond what is already said. I’d love to see the auctions be a little more meaningful, but overall the game is a net positive for me. I think it could have spent a little more time in development to tighten a few things up, but I’m happy to play this again. If the game clocks under 70 minutes (which it should) its a lot of fun. Over that and the game starts to drag.  

Lorna:  I found the theme quite interesting, as I can vaguely remember the airlines. The game I think fits its niche in the gateway games fold. I’ve only played with 2 a few times but didn’t find the overall gameplay that interesting. It might be a bit more interesting with more players? I did like the way they incorporated the airline’s history into the events. Perhaps they could make an expansion where the players are trying to prevent Pan Am’s eventual bankruptcy as a gamers game.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

I love it!

I like it.  Larry, Alan H, Craig M., Lorna (vacillating between I like it and Neutral)

Neutral. Joe H.

Not for me… 

This entry was posted in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Larry Levy: First Impressions of Pan Am

  1. James says:

    Pan-Am looks good and has an interesting theme, but it seems to have more rules and less depth than a cube rails game like Irish Gauge? And probably something equally complex rules-wise like Bus?

  2. huzonfirst says:

    James, cube rail games are known for their stripped down rule sets–most of their complexity comes from the inter-personal interactions. So yes, I think it’s fair to say that Pan Am has a few more rules than those type of games. But Pan Am is by no means a difficult game to learn or teach. The rules for claiming routes are the only involved part of the game and they are clearly and prominently outlined in the rulebook (the rulebook, in general, is quite good). The rest is quite straightforward, particularly for gamers with a bit of experience. I certainly feel that it’s an easier game to learn and play than Splotter’s Bus, which has some mind-bending aspects (like time travel!).

    As for the depth of Pan Am, that’s impossible for me to judge after just one game. It’s a middleweight, so the bar is set a bit lower than it would be for a heavier game (like Bus). But I still found it engaging and the decision-making enjoyable, even with just 2 players. I’m not a big fan of cube rail games, so I’m probably not the right person to ask about that comparison, but based on their reputation with folks who do enjoy them, it wouldn’t surprise me if Pan Am didn’t quite stack up to the better examples of those designs depthwise. But at this stage, that’s pure speculation on my part.

    • James says:

      Thanks for the detailed response Larry! Yes, cube rail games are very interactive, which gives them their depth but also means lots of euro players don’t like them. I would actually see Bus as medium-weight in terms of complexity rather than heavy, it’s the lightest Splotter and while it’s probably more difficult to play than Pan-Am (being a Splotter after all), I think it would be accessible to a similarly inexperienced audience as you’d teach Pan-Am too – they just might not play very well! (I’ve taught quite a few gaming newbies both Bus and Irish Gauge now)

      Honestly though, I think we sometimes get carried away by discussions of a game’s depth (I am especially guilty of this!) when most gamers will buy a title and play it 5-10 times before moving onto the next hotness, so things like theming, artwork and components are probably more important and Pan-Am succeeds on those fronts (with a dash of nostalgia for good measure).

      So I’m sure Pan-Am, being a Funkoverse game, will sell much more than either of the Captstone cube rail titles or Bus, and get way more play, and it being more interesting for us gamers than their co-op titles is probably something we should be happy with!

  3. Alex Andrasik says:

    I’d have loved to see photos of the game in progress, or just any photos at all. Especially interested in how the map deals with the fact that the game pretends that the entire continent of Africa doesn’t exist.

    • EddieB says:

      Tangier is on the African Continent. Pan Am’s expansion was more Pacific, and South America in the beginning. So I assume that’s why the whole African Continent is not represented.

      I got this game as I’m an AvGeek from way back. The board and component graphics are first rate.The airplanes are well done and look like their real life counterparts. As an aviation aficionado I am mesmerized by how cool the game looks and its airline vibe when in play. As noted in the review, there are lots of decisions you can make. Four Event cards for each round make for 16,384 unique combinations of Events. That in and of itself should ensure some nice re-playability.

      I’ve only played with two players, but can imagine with 3 or 4, you’d have a more competitive game because of scare resources and less Engineers.

      I don’t know how they came up with the Pan Am theme, but IMHO the designers should be honored in public.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s