Pan Am Board Game Review


Air carrier Pan Am went bust in 1991, but its blue and white logo remains iconic enough to adorn t-shirts, bags and, now, a game box. With it, you and your fellow players can watch the meteoric rise and collapse of Pan Am while you try to run your own airlines in its wake.

You might think that charting the history of an airline wouldn’t make for a very interesting game, but Pan Am pulls out all the stops to offer an engaging, exciting experience with broad appeal. For those who choose to look, it even offers a cautionary subtext about the lure of predatory capitalism.

Box and What’s Inside

From that classic logo on the box and downward, Pan Am is dedicated to re-creating the seventies on your tabletop. From the fonts to the rulebook to the miniature travel posters on the Destination cards, it’s all unified with a smart, minimalist aesthetic. Younger players might not recognize it but they can still appreciate the graphic design chops on display.

The board folds out into a world map, criss-crossed with airline routes. Each player color gets a fleet of soft plastic planes in four different sizes and there’s a tray to keep them in during play. Most of the cards are a little on the small side, but sturdy. It’s an impressive package given the box size and price point.

Rules and How to Play

Pan Am contains a solitary, but difficult, concept: that of landing rights. Your aim is to buy planes and use them to secure those routes on the board, which then turn a profit. To claim a route you have to have a plane of the right size and landing rights in the city at each end. That means either building an airport, or owning or discarding one or more Destination cards, depending on the city and region of the card.

Once you’ve understood how to gain landing rights, learning the rest of the game is a breeze. Most of the action happens in the engineer phase. On your turn, you take one of your stock of engineer pieces and place it on an action you’d like to undertake. That could be building an airport or an airplane, collecting either a destination or special power “Directive” card, or putting a plane down to claim a route.

Pan Am pulls out all the stops to offer an engaging, exciting experience with broad appeal.

Most of these actions are mini-auctions. Next to each destination, for example, there’s a track from zero to six in increments of two. Where you place your engineer indicates how much you’re willing to pay to take the action. If you’re outbidding someone, they get their engineer back to place elsewhere on their next turn: maybe to outbid you, in turn. 

From the start this offers a fantastic fusion of strategy and player interaction. Go in too low and you’ll get outbid. Go in too high and you risk going bankrupt or leaving yourself short in the bids for other actions this turn. And as well as running after your own objectives, you can make spoiling bids to annoy other players, forcing them to spend more to achieve their aims. It’s a fantastic boiler pot of tension that never stops simmering until the last turn.

At the same time, it’s never so unforgiving as to put players out of contention. There are four destination cards on offer each turn which have the potential to be secured with a bid of zero, so you’ll always get something. There’s only one track for airports, though, and each of the four airplane types, and bids cost more. Competition here can be deliciously intense, but there are always crumbs somewhere for the losers to hoover up.

Once all the bids are settled and the actions taken, you can claim income, one per airport and per length of route you own. Your new wealth can be split between saving for next turn’s bids or buying Pan Am stock: it’s having the most of these stocks that wins you the game. The stock purchase price fluctuates according to that turn’s event card. As well as a historic event, such as the Great Depression, which costs each player some income, it sets or changes the stock price. Shrewd gambles on whether it’ll go up or down thus become part of the strategy.

It’s a fantastic boiler pot of tension that never stops simmering until the last turn.

But there’s another route to profit which is the game’s crowning glory: being bought out by Pan Am itself. The event card also shows how many times to roll a custom six-sided dice that shows how many and which routes Pan Am expands along. All expansion starts from its Miami base and creeps around the globe as the game goes on. Routes they take are closed to player purchase. But if they expand onto one you already own, you lose the ongoing profit but get a handsome payoff instead.

Routes of potential interest to Pan Am are marked on the board, so it’s up to you whether to go for route income, fish for a buyout or mix the two. With the actual expansion down to a dice, however, you can never be sure which way it will roll. This is typical of Pan Am’s brilliant balance of strategy and luck. Everyone feels like they’re in it right up until the death at the end of seven turns, a sense heightened by the fact that stock cards are hidden. 

Where to Buy

Pan Am is available for the MSRP of $34.99, but you can find it on sale below.

It’s astonishing how many bits and pieces of much heavier economic games Pan Am manages to lift with its accessible wings. It’s got worker placement, a basic stock market, buyouts, profits and auctions in a few, paltry pages of clear, well-explained rules. Yet, weirdly, this is where the game’s single shortcoming begins. It plays like something that might challenge a heavy gamer. But fans of deeper fare may find the randomness of the dice and variable power levels of the special Directive cards, frustrating.

Similarly, while this is a game accessible enough for family play, it rewards players who stay sharp and play the numbers well. You’ve got to be on top of how much you can risk in bids or in shares, and ensure you’ve got enough left to fund your activities next round. For some players, that’s going to feel more like hard work than fun. For most, though, Pan Am’s simple rules and satisfying strategy should make it soar.



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