From time to time, Heavy Cardboard wishes to augment our podcasting with a written review and even an occasional video. We're excited about heavy games and we want to take advantage of several forms of communication! There's a lot more to discuss in Panamax than we can cover here. We're not going to teach the game or review all details of the game play here. Our recent podcast offers a lot more discussion. What we wanted to do in this review is give an indication of why the game appeals to us in the hope that you may find similar appeal and explore the game more. Today, we want to write about Panamax, a new release from Stronghold Games. We were really excited about this game for a long time and were anxious to acquire a copy. Between reading the rules and watching the early videos, we got pretty jazzed up about what we thought we saw. A heavy game with some cool looking mechanics and an economic element. Look, we're nerds, and this is the sort of stuff that gets into our heads. So, hey, when can we get this game?!?!?
Well, a friend of Heavy Cardboard was an attendee at Gen Con and we asked him to stand in line for us and acquire one of only 120 copies that would be available. Thank you Brian! You did it! The result of your kindness was us being able to play three four-player sessions of the game to build our analysis. Man, I recall how thrilled we were that first night to get into it! So, did it live up to the hype we built up in our own minds?
The Design Team Another thing that had us expecting a good game was the design team: Gil d’Orey, Nuno Sentiero and Paulo Soledade. Two thirds of that team designed Madeira, which is a big hit with Heavy Cardboard and a leader in the clubhouse for Heavy Cardboard's 2013 Heavy Game of the Year award. By the way guys, get busy on Nippon. If you need some play testers here in the United States, consider us willing victims! Sign us up!
Scalability Panamax plays two to four players. In the experience of our three four-player games, it takes about 2.5 to 3 hours to play. None of us are prone to AP, but we do play thoughtfully, still, there were times that AP did present itself. We think this game is best with four players. We're basing that on the type of play the game creates. The more players the better. The first night we opened the box, we played a partial game with three players just to learn the ropes. That was still pretty darn good. We have not played two-players, so we can only suggest that the player interaction (the good stuff) will be lacking and lessen the experience of playing Panamax.
Strength of the Game Panamax has to be one of the finest examples of player interaction in a competitive Euro game that we've played. This is not multi-player solitaire at all! Each player controls a company that owns some ships that move cargo back and forth through the canal and every detail of that creates player interaction!
When you buy cargo, you are allowed to load that cargo onto any ships that are available to accept cargo. Even another player's ships! In fact, you should feel encouraged to load your cargo onto other players ships and ships that already or will contain the cargo of other players. This is because of a couple reasons.
First of all the game has immense pressure to "ship cargo". Shipping cargo is how your company earns income and you cannot successfully ship enough cargo just with your own ships. When two or more players share some combination of cargo and ship, those players have an incentive to get that ship through the canal: money. Oh, but it is so much deeper than just the money earned from delivering the cargo. As much as you want your company to earn money you may have investments into other companies that makes you want those companies earn enough money to be able to pay dividends. Dividend money, regardless of the source, represents important victory points and the means for you to make more investments. When companies cannot pay dividends the share price falters. So this web of investments and shipping can get really fun.
The mechanic that makes it all work together is the movement mechanic. When you take a movement action (instead of a cargo action) you will get 1 to 3 points of "waterway movement" and 1 to 3 points of "lock movement". The exact amount of points you get is determined by an action selection mechanic. So, you must make due with the choices available to you - although your company can pay money for different choices. The trick is that you must spend each and every point of movement you acquire. You can move any ship, naturally, you want to move ships that carry your cargo, and especially if those ships are also under your ownership. But once that is done you may have remaining points to spend and will end up spending them to move the ships and cargoes of other players. If that wasn't enough, this is what makes things especially awesome: pushing ships ahead of you.
You see, ships come in sizes 1 to 4. A lock on the canal can hold 4 points of ship sizes. So, when a lock ahead of you is occupied by ships and you wish to (or must) move into that lock, and the ship(s) you're moving won't fit into the lock with those already there, those ships will get to move ahead into the next lock for free. This can cause a chain reaction if that lock too is occupied. Your movement could sometimes result in causing a ship two locks ahead to complete the voyage and earn money for owners. Awesome! A key manipulation of this is to spend your movement to stage your cargo and ships in the locks so that others will push them forward in pursuit of their own business goals! This is why it is important to load your cargo onto other players ships and ships that already or will contain the cargo of other players...when another player helps themselves, they will be helping you too.
This interaction is really just amazing. We're really enjoying it.
This does make the decisions you make each turn pretty tactical. If you're fourth in the play order, you cannot plan too far ahead as you don't know exactly where the ships will be or what contracts will be available when your turn comes up. However, this is not a hindrance to your strategic goals. Your strategic goals are universally the same: make company money, collect dividends and make sound investments. In addition, you'll have one or two strategic Financial Advisor cards that you will be trying to maximize end game points on throughout the game.
Area for Improvement At this time, the only complaint we have with the game is pretty minor: the Money. The money tokens provided with the game are the biggest area of improvement that is recognized by Heavy Cardboard. They're like silver and brass colored tiddlywinks. Given that the other 99% of the game is gorgeously produced this was a bit of a let down. We use poker chips just to avoid using this money. We understand that there is likely complex pricing algorithms that production companies use to make sure they can continue to bring us great game experiences. Maybe we're in the minority, but, we would have gladly paid a bit more for better money components. Hey! Maybe the "collector's edition" will have that, eh?
Recommendation & Rating We Heavy Cardboard guys rate games on a scale of 1 to 4. There is no middle of the road, no cop out, you're either a fan or not. 1: Not a good game. We never want to play this game again. 2: Fair game, typical of what gets published these days. I won't recommend we play it and I would pass on the opportunity to play a better game. 3: Excellent game. We want to play this game more, we may even buy it. Recommended. 4: Amazing game. Buy it and play it often. A staple of our game collection.
With regards to Panamax, we both give the game a 4 rating with no hesitation whatsoever. If you like a heavier Euro that excels at player interaction, this is a must for your collection.