De mensen van Stronghold games vroegen ons dit spel in het Engels te reviewen, zodat deze ook op boardgamegeek kon komen.
“A man, a plan, a canal: Panamax” : With this slight variation on a famous palindrome it should be obvious that this game is all about the Panama canal, and more precisely the shipping industry that it facilitates.

You are the CEO of a shipping company that is in charge of maximum 4 ships of various size. Your task is to claim contracts for cargo and transfer it from one side of the canal to the other, but not necessarily with your own ships. These contracts are issued by specific nations (there are 4 of them) and can provide special rewards when completed. You will navigate the canal, occasionaly grouping with other ships in a lock or pushing other groups forward. Meanwhile, military ships patrol the canal and cruise ships provide an alternative way to transfer 'cargo'. You have to manage your cargo carefully, because after each round you will have to pay taxes dependent on its position. If you fail to pay, you get stuck with expensive loans. In addition, there are also stock holders eager for dividend payout. If you disappoint them, the stock value of you company will plummet.

However, the catch is that besides being CEO you are also playing as an individual taking up stakes in one or more shipping companies. This means that you should not only be looking out for your company but also for other companies that might bring you profit. Because at the end of the game it's your personal assets that determine the winner...

The game board depicts the east and west coast of Panama and the major lakes and locks that make up the canal. What struck me is that, as opposed to regular maps, east and west are switched (i.e. the right side is west). This was probably chosen to better accomodate the rest of the facilities on the board (action table, card and resources area) with the natural geography of the country. It's odd, but does not affect game play. A nice touch is that the backside of the board provides 4 mini maps with increasing details on the canal location. 

The manual seems adequate at first but when you start playing your first game, there will be instances when you want to look up some details and find them missing or unclear. Luckily there's an official FAQ and player aid available that addresses most issues that came up frequently in various forums. I strongly recommend downloading and reading them, it will definitely save you some major headaches.

The setup is extensive but well described. Most steps are easy to remember, only the starting position of the player's initial ships will require the occasional lookup (depends on playing order). Also note that there are some deviations depending on the number of players.

Besides the usual tokens and cards you'll notice that there are a lot of dice in the box, and by a lot I really mean A LOT: 9 in each player color and 16 neutral white. But fear not: dice rolling is limited. The player dice are only used as cargo, with the die value representing the cargo value according to the chosen contract. The neutral dice are rolled once at the beginning of each round and are used to populate the action table, which is actually the heart of the game. It consists of two major blocks, one for movement and and one for selecting contracts and loading cargo.
Since movement distinguishes between waterway moves and lock moves, the block for movement is organized as a 3x3 matrix, indicating all possible combinations of them (e.g. there's a square for 1 lock move + 1 waterway move, and also a square for 3 lock moves + 3 waterway moves). On that point it's interesting to note that the dice distribution mechanism seems to favour waterway moves over lock moves. The block for contracts and loading also makes up a 3x3 matrix, offering a choice between 3 contract cards and providing up to 3 loading actions. On top of that there are also 4 dice distributed on the top row to mark so called executive actions. They provide the most favourable movement/loading action for that column, but can alternatively be used to purchase stocks or increase the stock value of a company. However, these dice are only accessible when all other dice in that column have been removed.

When it's your turn, you have to pick a die from the action table (any column, but only lowest die allowed) and perform the associated action. This may be a tough choice depending on your situation, because of the additional rules that are involved.
For example, contracts are nation specific and cargo has to be loaded at a specific loading zone on one side of the canal. If no ships are available at that side at that moment, this may be a problem. But you can also use the backside of the contract which offers a less profitable cargo, but nation independent. The downside is that you can't launch a new ship that way, you can only add to an already loading ship. Another restriction is that you can only load 1 cargo on the same ship during your action. This means that you'll probably be spreading your cargo over multiple ships, even neutral ships and other player's ships. Also note that ships have a maxiumum overall cargo value and require a minimum value to depart. If you chose a movement action then all movement points have to be spent. So you may end up having to move other ships than your own, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Moving other ships can gain you money, or advance your cargo indirectly.

When a ship arrives at the other side of the canal, its cargo is payed out (die value) to the respective companies, and the ship's owner gets a bonus card depending on the ship size. These bonus cards can offer free movement actions, free loading actions or bonuses for final scoring. Or you can opt for hard cash instead.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg. There's a lot more going on in this game than I've discussed so far: military ships, cruise ships, nations & flag tokens, the rail table, grouping ships, paying taxes, company stock value and dividends, playing free actions, ... I leave it up to you to discover the fine details of this game.

The game lasts 3 rounds, after which the final scoring is determined based on your personal assets (your company's assets are NOT considered!). This includes the value of the stocks you purchased, awards, scores from bonus cards and reduced by any loans you had to take.

I've played the game twice so far: once with two players and once with four players. I have to say this was quite a different experience. In the two player game we mostly kept to ourselves: loading contracts on our own ships and moving them; buying stocks from our own company. Since there are less ships moving around, loading cargo had to be timed precisely and advancing through the canal was mostly done using 'private' groups with the aid of military ships. But perhaps this was also due to the fact that we started shipping at opposite sides of the canal. I can imagine that if we started on the same side there would have been much more interaction with grouping and loading cargo.
The four player game on the other hand was quite challenging. Lots of ships to load cargo on, lots of grouping options. With only 4 actions per player per round (as opposed to 6 with two players) you have to choose wisely when (and where) to load and when to move, in order to get your cargo across. You will also have to rely on other players to move/push your ships along, but this can backfire if you end up in areas with a higher tax rate than anticipated. The free actions become really crucial here, to give you that edge in a sticky situation. Buying stocks is also a lot more intriguing here: shall I go for the company that will surely pay out dividend, or for a cheap broke company that I will boost later on? This will also affect your company strategy: i.e. if other players buy my stocks, do I deliberately take measures to prevent paying out dividend and lower my value?
All in all, the four player game was certainly more hectic but definitely more fun than the two player game. Having more options (and more dilemmas) to choose from is always a plus in my book.

A final observation is that it's really important to distinguish between your own money and your company's money. At first this may be a bit confusing, but the player aid describes the money flows to a player really well. After a while you should get a better feel for managing them separately for best result. Remember, it's YOUR money that counts for the victory...

My conclusion:
Panamax is a fun game with an interesting action selection mechanism that provides great variety. Tough decisions and good timing are essential, and it will take some plays to get to the bottom of it, but you'll have a great experience on the way.

This game was donated by Stronghold Games and can be played at Het Geel Pionneke from november on.
Panamax is for sale at with 10% discount for our members.


Aantal spelers : 2-4
Leeftijd : vanaf 12 jaar
Speelduur :  100 minuten


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