Players are directors as well as shareholders of their respective shipping companies. During the course of the game, they need to run a profitable business signing contracts with customers from different regions, and shipping goods between the eastern and western ends of the Panama Canal. What determines the final victory is personal wealth though, not company coffers. So while managing your shipping company, you need to constantly remember to grab opportunities to make yourself rich. You get to buy shares, which hopefully will pay dividends and will be worth more at game end. There are a few other actions in the game which contribute to your personal wealth.
Your company's holdings and your personal holdings need to be kept separate. The company's money is kept on the company clipboard. Your personal wealth is off the clipboard.
The game only has three rounds, which seems very few, but I found it to be just right. At the start of a round, a bunch of dice are rolled to determine the actions that will be available in the current round. Every time a player's turn comes, he picks one die and does the corresponding action. The dice will dwindle and once they are all gone, the round ends.
This is the action dice table, which shows how many dice remain for the round, and what actions each die represents. The left half are for ship movement, and right half for signing contracts and loading cargo onto ships (and trains).
Generally there are only two types of action - load cargo and move ships. If you choose to load cargo, you may sign a contract before you load. A contract is an agreement with a customer to deliver a certain number of containers of specific values. A contract comes with dice (representing containers of goods) which you can load onto your own ships or other people's ships. One important restriction is within the same turn you may only load at most one container per ship. What this means is you often need to load containers onto others' ships, and thus use their ships to help you deliver containers. Also ships cannot start moving if not enough goods are on board, so in the case of your own ships, you also often want others to load their goods onto your ships. This is what makes Panamax interesting - you are competing, but you cannot avoid collaborating with your competitors.
The other action is to move ships. For one action die you usually get a number of moves, and you must use them all. Some moves are specific for moving through locks, some are specific for moving through waterways. Sometimes you are forced to help someone else because you are not allowed to forfeit moves. One interesting mechanism here is the push mechanism, which is best illustrated by the photo below:
The easiest way to imagine the push mechanism in Panamax is this: push pencils.
When a chain of adjacent locks are all full of ships, if a ship (or a fleet) enters this chain of locks from one end, it will push all the ships along the chain, effectively giving them all one free move, until they exit the chain into a lake or the open sea. This is a very important mechanism because this saves many actions. You want to use this to deliver your goods efficiently. You also want to use this to force others to help you. If your ship is blocking the start of a chain of locks, others coming after you will be forced to push you ahead. You get a free ride, at least till the next lake.
The Panama Canal has two lakes and three stretches of locks.
The size of each water lock is 4 units. Ship sizes vary from 1 to 4. So two or more small to medium sized ships can form groups and fit into the same lock together.
Your company makes money when goods are delivered, i.e. the containers of your colour reach the other end of the canal. At the end of every round, your company needs to pay dividends to all shareholders. If it is unable to pay dividends, the share value will drop, which is bad news for all shareholders, since share value is one of the measures of personal wealth at game end. The company needs to pay maintenance fees for all containers on the board depending on where they are. Some spaces charge a higher fee than others. If for the round you have not delivered enough containers, and there are some still sitting in the warehouse space, that's a very expensive fee of $5 per container. Every round your company is under pressure to do enough business to avoid such exorbitant fees. Ideally you want to deliver all goods before the end of the round, but that's not easy to do. So the next best you can do is to make sure your containers stop at spots with lower fees. If your company runs out of money, you as director have to pay on behalf of the company. I guess these are not sendirian berhad (private and limited liability) companies. If you run out of money too, then you have to take a loan to finance the company. We didn't get into such a situation during our game. I suspect if it comes to this, you can pretty much forget about winning, unless everyone is doing just as poorly as you are.
Dice in player colours don't need to be rolled. They are only used to represent cargo values.
It may seem that containers are what matter the most, and ships don't matter. That is not true. When your ship completes a trip, you gain a reward, regardless of whose cargo was delivered. This reward can be in the form of personal wealth gained, or a professional card. Some professional cards give you additional ship movements. Some even give bonus points at game end if you meet certain criteria.
I played with Ivan, Jeff and Damien. Both Ivan and I had read the rules and we taught the game to the others. All four of us were new to the game. Four players is the maximum player number, and I think it is probably the best way to play.
What stood out most to me was how interdependent the players are. You want to work with your competitors. You don't want to be left out. Going alone is disastrous. You want to create incentive for others to help you. You want to create situations where your opponents are forced to help you. You lure your opponents into win-win situations. Yet once the usefulness of your partner in a particular transaction ends, you should not hesitate to dump him and go for your own selfish gains. He would (at least he should) do the same.
My company's clipboard. The moment you load all containers from a contract card onto ships (or trains), you are considered to have fulfilled the contract, even though you have not yet completed the delivery. You won't get paid yet. That's done upon delivery. For fulfilling a contract, you receive a round token (black bordered) representing the nationality of your customer (European Union, Eastern USA, Western USA or China). You place this round token on your company clipboard, and some spaces will grant you benefits, e.g. allowing you to buy one share, or perform extra movements. When you "deliver" a passenger via a cruise ship, you also gain a round token (the red bordered one). This can be placed onto your company clipboard to gain a permanent ability, e.g. more choices when selecting contracts, loading an extra container.
There is some share buying in Panamax, but don't expect anything like to the stock market manipulation in 18XX games. The shares and dividends are just a small part of Panamax. In fact you can't sell shares at all. Every company can issue at most 5 shares. Starting the game with one share of your company means your fate is quite closely tied to your company. Doing well in the game is mainly about running your company competently. You can buy shares of your opponent's companies. It'll increase their share values, and also increase their burdens because they need to pay more dividend. Hopefully you make the right choice and get a good return on investment.
Some of the special ships in the game, not owned by any particular player company. There are special rules around how they work.
I like Panamax a lot. It is a breath of fresh air. If you ask me what game it is like, I can't say at all; and that's precisely what I like about it. It's an economic game. It is of medium-to-high complexity. There are quite many small rules details, and the rulebook can be confusing, but once I understood the overall structure, I realised that everything I did in the game was just about two things: (1) loading goods, or (2) moving ships. I like that the players are a tight ecosystem, heavily depending on one another and yet still competing to come out on top. There are opportunities to hurt your opponents, but I think it is more worthwhile to spend effort on collaboration with different combinations of partners than to spend effort on damaging a single opponent. Well, unless you play a 2P game, which is a zero-sum game.
Some of the mechanisms are gamey. The push pencil thing is comical, but it works as a game mechanism. There is some luck factor, e.g. in what contracts come up and also what financial advisor card you draw, but there are ways to mitigate luck and to plan ahead. Most information in the game is open, the only exception being the financial advisors (a type of card used for end-game scoring). Sometimes it feels like you have too much to digest and analyse on your turn. However ultimately it is just about loading goods and delivering them. Your basic actions are straight-forward.