Review Of Pan Am: The Board Game

Filed Under: Aviation, Misc.

It’s rare and wonderful when two of my favorite things are combined. Examples that come to mind are cookie dough and ice cream, Timothée Chalamet and Laura Dern (Little Women), and puppies and Canada (see, e.g., Labrador Retrievers).

So I was very excited when my love of board games and my passion for aviation combined in Pan Am: The Game, available at Target. I had high hopes, and for the most part, they were met. More than anything, though, I wanted something that would help recreate the joy of travel, since so many of us are stuck at home these days.

Anyone who’s spoken with me for more than a few seconds knows that I’m a board game geek. I’ve been to the world’s largest board game convention (in Essen, Germany) twice. Ben generally makes fun of this hobby (because his love of 90 Day Fiancé is *so* much cooler), while Tiffany totally gets it.

About The Game

The mechanism of Pan Am: The Game is called “worker placement.” Other examples of this type of game include Agricola and Russian Railroads, both of which I love. In worker placement games, each player has a limited number of “workers” (in Pan Am’s case, Engineers) and assigns them to certain tasks in each round. How you assign your workers affects the efficiency with which you generate profit, which in this game is used to purchase stock.

The game is themed around the early days of aviation, from Pan Am’s founding through the late 1960s. (Incidentally, Juan Trippe was 28 years old when he founded the airline. I just turned 36 and I can barely microwave a Lean Cuisine.)

Snazzy box

Pan Am: The Game accommodates two to four players, and is recommended for gamers 12 and older. The box says it takes 60 minutes to play, but I found that as a first-timer it took significantly longer. More on that later.

Pan Am: Back of the box

In the game, players own small (fictitious) airlines that compete against Pan Am. In short, you buy planes, claim routes, and sell the routes to Pan Am. These actions generate income, which you use to purchase Pan Am stock. The player who owns the most stock at the end of the game is the winner.

Pan Am: Open box with rule book

The artwork — on the box, cards, and board — is awesome. It definitely sets the scene for the nostalgic tone of the game. Especially notable are the Destination cards.

Pan Am: The Game Destination cards

The game pieces are cool too. There are four different aircraft types: Ford Trimotors, Boeing 314 Clippers, Boeing 377 Stratocruisers, and Boeing 707 jets. They’re made of plastic, but still fun.

Game pieces and cards

The instruction book is 16 pages long, which can be a little daunting at first. There are also some videos online that will take you through the rules, though I found that I still needed to read the book in order to understand what was going on.

Game Play

The last person to fly on a plane is supposed to go first. (At this point, I could barely remember my last plane trip — all I know is that it was in the Before Times.)

Pan Am: The game board

The game is divided into seven rounds, each of which has four phases. Essentially, in each round players take turns placing their Engineers until there are none left to place. You can assign Engineers to do things like acquire an airplane, claim a route, purchase an airport, or buy a Destination card (which you need in order to claim routes).

To claim a route, you must have a plane that can fly that route (the Ford Trimotor, for example, can’t be assigned to a long-haul flight) and the rights to land at airports on either end of the route (you can either buy an airport or use a Destination card for this).

Once we got the hang of it, the game proceeded pretty smoothly. I only played with one other person (thanks, COVID-19), and I suspect that the dynamics would change dramatically with more players, as there would be much more competition for routes and Engineer slots.

Pan Am game board with pieces

There were a few times when the rules seemed ambiguous. One example involves Directive cards. You can place an Engineer to acquire a Directive card, which gives you a special ability. Can this ability be reused, or do you only get to use it once?

Despite this, and despite it taking probably a little longer than usual to learn the rules and understand the game dynamics, I had a fun time. Overall I would say it took about 40 minutes to learn the rules and 75 minutes to play the game.

Considering that I would’ve probably otherwise occupied myself by devouring yet another pint of Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked and/or watching a few Golden Girls episodes I’ve already seen six thousand times, I consider this time well spent.

My favorite types of board games revolve around the concept of optimizing resources and outmaneuvering opponents — and this game certainly fits the bill.

Bottom Line

Is Pan Am: The Game a substitute for getting on a plane and feeling the tingle of anticipation as the engines spool up for takeoff? No. Did I feel like an airline CEO? No. (As far as I know, there is no board game yet in existence that captures the feeling of gleefully observing your passengers’ reactions as you implement baggage fees, tell them their basic economy fare entitles them to board only in Group 27 — right after registered sex offenders and Shia LaBeouf, and cut their legroom so much that even unusually tall toddlers are uncomfortable unless they pay for the exit row. But I digress.)

I found the ambiguities in the rules a little frustrating, but overall I did like this game. I would go so far as to say it’s probably the best aviation-themed board game on the market. If Monopoly is the most sophisticated board game you’ve ever played, I would probably steer clear of this one for now. But if you have the patience to learn the rules, enjoy the aviation theme, and are drawn to games with more complexity, I would recommend Pan Am.

Now, if I could get Timothée Chalamet and Laura Dern to play it with me, that would be truly amazing.

  1. Looks good! I grew up playing the old-school game Rail Baron with my dad. Similar idea as the Pan-Am game but instead it’s the old railroads that traversed the USA. Worth checking out if you’re into these types of games!

  2. Looks interesting. My favorite travel type game is take off which had players travel all the way around the world starting in Hawaii. The game is huge, takes hours to play and is a ton of fun. You can usually find the classic version still on ebay for a fair price.

  3. Sounds fun. I’ll buy it, today! Instead of Half-Baked, though, I’ll be downing The Tonight Dough. It soothes the soul and kills the diet, like nothing else 😉

  4. If you haven’t played it, I suggest Airlines Europe. Great game about buying routes and stock in airlines.

  5. Love the graphics and *feel* of the entire game! Thanks for ignoring Ben and providing this write up! :-0)

  6. We’ve been playing this since the day it came out and absolutely loving it! Highly recommend. We’re into Catan, Ticket To Ride, Trekking, and those sorts of games so this matches the genre with a beautiful avgeek layer thrown on top.

  7. Did you ever play Aerobiz on SuperNintendo? You named your airline, a hub, bought planes, routes and set up tourist attractions

  8. I played a 2 player game of this, and felt having to bid for routes (step D) was superfluous if you already had rights and aircraft. Our game took a long time, with a few days break in between, because we found it so complex. Will probably simplify the rules next time to speed things up. Good game, but detailed.

  9. Are you going to write about the new Flight Simulator? It’s like the biggest thing in aviation since the Wright brothers…

  10. I have it and we’ve played it. My 6 year old was able to make sense of things with a modest amount of help.

    The game play overall is ok but there are a few cards that can really change the outcome of the game.

    Overall it’s simpler and more beautiful than Jet Set, but Jet Set is a much better actual game. Unfortunately Jet Set is fairly difficult to find, but if you can you should order Jet Set and its expansions for a better game experience.

  11. Nothing to do with playing the game, mine is still boxed up, but how was the condition of your box…??? It took me 3 Targets to find one in good condition…Scratches, bent corners, gashes, the packaging really took a beating…

  12. Andrew,

    Thank you for providing this write-up. I hadn’t heard of the game but, after reading this set about to find an available unit. It was initially sold out at Target but, it came back in stock, got it yesterday, interestingly it was on sale.

    Wife and I donned Cathay and JAL first class pajamas and played over Champagne. I fun way to add more to the flight nostalgia.

  13. Great review. One comment as a long time airliner geek. The Clipper appears to be a Douglas DC-3. The publisher didn’t want to have to purchase rights to use the real names of all the planes and hence the Clipper moniker, in addition to “Cruiser” and “Jet” (indeed Pan Am referred to all later planes as Clippers).

    This is my first Euro type game coming from playing advanced historical wargames since the 70s. Pan Am captures the flavor and glamor of the early days of aviation. Allowing those who love airlines to enjoy the quality airliner pieces, the wonderfully great graphics of world routes and destinations. I find that when the board is set up and in play I can’t help but be mesmerized by how cool it all is. But it also is a clever all around game that can also be enjoyed by non airline aficionados.

    If you are really determined to learn it and clear up any rules ambiguities, check out Pan Am forums section. The designers and experienced players are very active there in answering questions and such. Also download the latest rules as well. There are a few clarifications that the printed rules don’t have.

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