Pan Am Review

The games made by Prospero Hall/Funko have a distinct visual style. I’m not an expert on art or graphic design, but they look cleaner and more professional than pretty much any other board game. That’s not to say other games don’t look clean or professional (plenty do!), but there’s an extra layer of something in a Funko game. I don’t know if I like it. 

Take Pan Am, for example. It’s a great looking game, with sensible components and an attractive map (with an odd projection to boot). But I also find it utterly forgettable, visually. It simply is, like a hotel room painting. Is it too good? Not bold enough? Regardless, my critique extends to the game itself, which is imminently competent but soft around the edges. It’s a game desperately afraid of doing something wrong.

The best part of Pan Am is that it uses the same worker placement system as Dominant Species, where everyone places all of their workers before each action resolves in a predictable order. Some actions are bid upon—if you are willing to pay more than the person already there their pawn’s returned to them to be put towards another purpose. Others are more about taking a priority spot in line. This system works so well because by compacting placement decisions into one temporal space the passive aggressive interplay is more easily teased out. All of the actions for the current round sit before you in a state of uncertainty, but slowly, as people claim actions, the timeline collapses into a more determinate state. At its best (again I refer to Dominant Species), it’s a fencing match, each move its own jab, parry, riposte. In Pan Am you’ll certainly encounter situations where you’ll be able to predict and thwart the plans of an opponent, but those opportunities are sprinkled in; a garnish, rather than the main element of the dish.

You’re going to be claiming airline routes in Pan Am, though you’re not necessarily going to be developing routes yourself. That is, lining up connections back to back, like you might do in Ticket to Ride or any other number of similar games, is irrelevant. Each connection between two cities is its own isolated thing. Sort of.

See, in the game you’re not playing as Pan Am, but as the regional airlines that sprung up all over the globe for passenger air travel in the early days of flight. Pan Am itself is a simple AI that slowly expands out of Miami as the game progresses. Each round an event card is revealed, and, among other things, it tells you how aggressively Pan Am will expand. Players know the three paths the global conglomerate could take, but the specifics each time are handled by a roll of the die.

If your route is taken by Pan Am you get a handsome pay out. This is not a game about trying to survive as a struggling regional airline. It’s a game about deliberately getting bought out by an unstoppable force. Each route you own gives you some income each round, but that income is only a net positive compared to being bought in the first two of the game’s seven rounds. This is my second favorite aspect of Pan Am, as route valuation changes dramatically throughout the game. The first couple of rounds you’d love to get some routes to hold onto. After that you want to start getting bought out as much as possible. Except everyone has that same idea, so there’s often a race to the bottom to grab those routes close to Miami lest you get stuck with nothing in the corporation’s path. As the game goes on it’s more and more important that your routes get purchased or they’re netting you almost nothing. But if people are competing over specific areas they’re necessarily sacrificing elsewhere in the action round, by bidding specific planes and route cards higher. 

Complicating matters further is the fact that the winner isn’t the person with the most money at the end, but the person with the most Pan Am stock. The stock price starts low but, influenced by the aforementioned event cards, typically creeps up as the game goes on. So even though you take a monetary net loss if your route gets bought out early, you might not be at a loss in terms of victory points.

All of these elements—bidding, stock prices, route-purchasing—could blend together into something truly nail-biting and cutthroat, but the Prospero Hall designers decided to soften it. For example, event cards are mostly a small goodie for everyone, except for the couple that can provide a significant swing in favor of either the “hold routes” or “sell routes” strategies. Compare this to, again, Dominant Species, which has much more impactful event cards. But those cards are face up at the beginning of each round, and part of your calculus involves figuring out if you want to control them or prioritize other actions. In Pan Am something simply happens.

Purchasing new airplanes should be a place of intense competition, but outside of the two rounds where a new, bigger place unlocks, I find there’s rarely any jockeying at all. When Pan Am buys your route you get your plane back, further incentivizing getting bought out early over a buy and hold strategy. 

Most critically, there are so few opportunities to really screw someone over. Pan Am wants to be the kind of game where deft planning can result in some truly brutal maneuvers, but it doesn’t have the conviction to allow that to happen. Every time another player has blocked my plans the next best option wasn’t that much worse than my first choice. Ironically, tighter constraints would open up more varied strategic approaches, as holding onto liquidity in order to establish board dominance over players who prioritized stock purchases would become more viable. I honestly tried to execute this strategy, but every time I ran the numbers it never made sense.

Pan Am has so many good ideas in it that it feels like a missed opportunity. Part of Funko’s strategy as a game publisher is to market to both hobbyists and the mass market, so I understand why they’d want to make a game like this more approachable. And have no doubt, Pan Am is a better game than nearly everything you’ll see alongside it on the shelves at Target. But buried in its design are the marks of something truly special, not quite realized.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Score: 6.5/10

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