Ticket to Fly
Look, it isn’t that I don’t have the utmost faith in Seattle design collective Prospero Hall. I do. It’s just that their best games, titles like Horrified and Jaws, have been pitch-perfect distillations of licensed topics. Even How to Rob a Bank had its cartoony heist vibe going for it. Pan Am, on other hand? Since the airline’s bankruptcy in 1991, who’s passing out that license? I suppose there’s a solid probability that the answer is Disney. But why now? Is 2020 the year the Pan Am image needed a boost? Or has someone at the collective been holding onto their sweet Pan Am idea for decades?
Never mind. There are two main takeaways from this one. First, Pan Am is a graceful blend of worker placement, bidding, and stock hoarding. And second, it’s very nearly a commentary on the zombie-like nature of twentieth-century capitalism.
Pan Am is about Pan Am. No duh. But Pan Am’s twist arrives right up front: you aren’t playing as Pan Am. Neither are your friends. Instead, the Pan Am of Pan Am is a force of nature, no more predictable or placable than a passing hurricane. That wind is always behind you, driving your actions, informing your purchases, threatening to sweep you away. The player companies are bestowed feathery titles like Grand Olympian Air and Premier Inter-Global. Were those the names of historical airlines? It doesn’t matter. By the end of the game, none of them are likely to exist. Unless you count living within the roiling belly of Pan Am as “existence.”
Appropriately, Pan Am is a family game.
The game’s procedure trots through four workhorse phases, each highlighting the yeoman’s work of Prospero Hall more firmly than the last. In a way, each phase also functions as a distortion of the previous phase, like aligning mismatched lenses until the view has been so warped that it resembles something entirely different from its original image.
First comes that most recognizable fallback of board games, the event phase. A card is drawn, tracing the rise of air travel from the lean 1920s through the booming 1960s. There’s a sense of familiarity, even nostalgia, as the march of history strikes predictable beats. Early on, events like the Great Depression or Radio Communication unveil setbacks or new opportunities. The arrival of WWII undoubtedly brings transformation, whether it’s Wartime Research spurring upgrades to airlines’ aging fleets, Conscription selling outdated trimotors to the military for far more than their sticker value, or the economic trill of America’s postwar high. Although there are dips, for the most part the advent of the Jet Age means prosperity for all.
(Meanwhile, like a low rumble from the bushes, Pan Am’s stock price fluctuates. Up a little, down a little, leaping to printed values. Take note of this. It’s good to sniff the air before approaching the watering hole.)
The second and third phases take history and put it through its paces. First, everyone assigns engineers to spaces around the board. There are five in total, spots for building airports and planes, for claiming landing rights, for directing air traffic, for drawing directive cards that break the rules. Some of these function as bids, letting one airline steal the landing rights for a particular destination or pay a premium to be the first with a cruiser or jet in its fleet. Others are first-come first-serve, as with establishing routes.
The reason behind most of your actions is to establish routes. These are how you generate income, with longer routes proving more lucrative than short hops. Each route needs three things: open airways — it wouldn’t do to have planes smashing into each other — a plane that can fly far enough to not crash before it reaches the runway, and landing rights at both the origin and destination.
There are a few ways to claim these landing rights. The simplest method is to own an airport, which grants both a trickle of income and landing rights in its host city forever. The next is to purchase a landing rights card; holding Miami, for example, will let you land there, and the card sticks around in your company so you can use it to build additional routes later. Cue the bidding wars. Particular cities yield more connections than others, so it’s natural to find yourself bidding higher for landing rights in New York than in Bermuda.
But here’s the big question: with only four landing rights up for auction each round, don’t they become scarce? And isn’t it possible that some cities won’t appear at all? Yes and yes. This is where Pan Am gets exciting. Rather than using a card for its exact city, you can discard it to count as any city on its continent. Just like that, your worthless Bermuda card becomes San Francisco. Moreover, you can discard any two cards to become any city in the entire world. All at once, Nome and Gander disappear from your hand to become a critical hub in Paris. Did you know there are cities named Nome and Gander? Okay smarty pants, but way more people have heard of Paris. Of course, this isn’t as efficient as using a single precise city for its own landing rights, especially since you get to keep it. But clever purchases can bypass this problem. Why pay six money tokens for Paris when you can grab both Nome and Gander for free? Even better, you can often use a city for its landing rights until no further routes emerge from it, and then spend it to land somewhere else. Use your resources until they’re entirely wrung out.
(From out of sight, an invisible hand reaches for your throat. There is capitalism and then there is Capitalism. The creature stirs.)
(It is here.)
The fourth phase is the carpet pull, the moment when all the work you’ve done is revealed as secondary to the expansion of Pan Am. With the roll of a die, your rival expands across the globe. Starting in Miami, Pan Am routes south, east, and west, gobbling up routes far faster than any player-driven company can manage. What’s more, if you’re sitting on a route they want? You sell. No, you don’t have a choice.
(The goal was never competition.)
Not that you’d need a choice. Sitting on a short route will yield one income per turn. With seven rounds in the game, you can do the math. Pan Am will pay five money tokens for that same route. That’s not as much as you would make stretched across the entire game, but that’s money you’ll be investing in new planes, landing rights, airports. That’s worth far more than seven dollars in the long run. Never mind that you’re sacrificing your own market share, or that your company will soon become vestigial to the airlines industry. That’s cash now, baby.
(Market self-regulation? Ha!)
What’s the purpose of cash? Stocks. Pan Am stocks. In practice, Pan Am isn’t much of a stock management game, since your portfolio is expressly limited to the big guy. Your own company doesn’t bother to issue stock, so there’s none of the bidding in rival companies that’s common to the genre. If anything, the game’s stocks function much like a variable-cost victory points. As the fourth phase concludes, everybody is given the option to buy shares. This forces you onto a tightrope between spending too little and not having enough of a share in Pan Am at the end of the game, or spending too much and not being able to grow your own airline in order to afford additional stocks. It’s a fantastic trade-off, and has rippling consequences as some players take advantage of price drops only to find themselves skint when it comes time to pony up for all the stuff needed to operate an airline.
(Beasts of blood and bone are limited by natural lifespans and the volume of mass they can squeeze through their gut. Creatures of bits and bytes bear no limit to their appetite. All are subsumed. The communion is encompassing. The food chain will carry only one.)
This approach to victory recontextualizes everything about Pan Am. It’s easy to build a lucrative airline; far harder to do that and worm your way into Pan Am’s fortunes at the same time. This added layer of consideration tightens the game’s focus even as it cinches your own company’s belt by a few notches. It might not provide the wildest approach to stock management, but it does create a number of bottlenecks: between players as they attempt to outbid one another, between airlines as they jostle for routes, and between your long-term and short-term needs as you examine the contents of your wallet. It’s corporate competition that casts you as willing prey on the food chain, eager to sell out your own company to buy into the biggest dog’s good graces.
Not that its slyness is necessary to appreciate how smooth of a flight it provides. All in all, Pan Am is yet another superb effort from Prospero Hall, masterfully blending a handful of systems into a coherent experience from start to finish. Long may they continue designing unusually clever games. And long may Pan Am’s monopoly thrive.
(Until 1991, anyway.)
A complimentary copy was provided.