Friday, June 13, 2014

Ticket to Ride, by Alan R. Moon

It’s no secret that Days of Wonder is one of my favorite game publishers. They put out quality games like clockwork, typically elegant, re-playable, and beautiful to look at. Ticket to Ride is the epitome of what DoW creates – a game so simple a six year old could play it, but compelling enough that it’s the second-best selling hobby board game in the US, and one of a very small number of games that I see in every single game library I come across.

Ticket to Ride is for everyone. I love maps and numbers, and TTR has both – but if you love quick turns, little down time, and plenty of tension, well, it’s got those things too. It’s also beautiful – the board, the pieces, the cards, all become something wonderful when laid out on a table. This game feels important. Every time I pick up the box I’m surprised by how heavy it is, and every time I play it, I’m surprised again by how much I enjoy it, despite having played 500+ times before.

If you’re a board game enthusiast, odds are you already own TTR, or at least have played it enough times to have an opinion. If you don’t own it, or haven’t played it, put this on the top of your list. It’s among the three games I ALWAYS recommend to a person starting a new game collection, and I think it should be federally mandated that the app has to be on every iPad. If you’re not already convinced, read on!

In Ticket to Ride, players compete to connect cities across the US and Canada with railways. Throughout the game players will choose cities to connect, gather cards needs to connect them, and lay trains on the map. As players build their routes they score points for various activities, and the player with the most points at the end of play is the winner!

The connections between cities are the "routes"
Players score points by connecting cities specified on “Destination Tickets”, by laying their trains across the country, and by winning bonus points after play is finished. Each destination ticket depicts two cities and a number of points, which is typically also the minimum number of trains needed to connect the cities. At the end of the game, each player scores the printed points for each route card successfully completed – meaning the player has an unbroken line of trains of his or her color that connects to both cities. Players lose points for each route card not completed, so choosing carefully is important!

Points are also scored each time a player trade “Train Car” cards to lay trains down on the board, based on the length of the route between the two cities that are connected. At the end of the game, the player who has the “longest route” – a continuous line of trains on the map – scores bonus points.

At the start of the game, each player is dealt 4 random train cards, then the most experienced traveler takes the first turn (it’s in the rules!). Each turn the active player chooses one of three actions, then passes the turn:

Draw 2 “train cards” from the deck, or from the available face-up train cards, or 1 of each. If the player takes a face-up wild card, that counts as both draws for the turn.  

Place train cars on a route, which is a single connection between two cities. The player must play a number of train cards equal to the number of spaces in the route, and of the correct color (or wild cards). If the route is grey, any color train cards can be used, but they must be the same color (or wilds).

Take new destination tickets by drawing 3 tickets from the destination tickets deck, then keeping at least 1 of them and returning the rest to the bottom of the deck, unseen by other players.

Play progresses, turn by turn, until a player has 2 or fewer trains remaining, which signals the last round of the game. Each player (including the player who triggered the last round) gets one last turn, then scores are totaled.

Since each player starts with a random set of route cards, there’s some variance as to who pursues what connections in the beginning of the game. It tends to be, however, that the players who create cross-country East-to-West lines, then take routes that match those lines, are the ones who score the most points.

Destination Tickets
There’s a “solved” route that produces the most possible points in a game of Ticket to Ride (I credit my friend Jacob, one of the beta testers for the iOS app, for showing me this), and adhering to this route as closely as possible has gotten me quite a few victories against the AI in the iPad version of the game. Before you get up-in-arms about the idea of a “solved” game, don’t forget that it’s really hard to lay down the perfect set of connections against human players who can recognize what you’re doing.

The rules change in a subtle way depending on the number of players. Many of the routes on the map have two different colored spaces, and players can play on either of them at any time. In a 2-3 player game, though, only one of these routes can be occupied by a player, so in effect, the number of available routes into and out of many cities is cut in half. This adds a tremendous amount of tension to the game – so much so that I’ve gotten in shouting matches with close friends over what I thought was an errant train placed solely to block my plans.

In a 4-5 player game there are no such restrictions, and the game tends to be less intense as a result. With larger games, though, there are more players taking route cards, and scores tend to be lower, which makes claiming large routes (worth more points per train than shorter routes) occasionally more important than completing long destination tickets.

The game is incredibly well-balanced, though for new players it’s often challenging to understand the importance of completing longer routes, which are not only worth more points at the end of the game, but also tend to establish a thread from which strands can extend to connect intermittent cities as the player takes more route cards. For instance, I often look to connect Los Angeles to New York (21 points), because I know that Seattle to New York (22 points), LA to Chicago (16 points), Denver to Pittsburgh (11 points), and Portland to Nashville (17 points) can be easily built from that main route.

Playing trains scores points! 
In my experience, there are two types of tension in Ticket to Ride. The first, mentioned above, is the lack of space for trains – if a person has claimed a route you need, you have to “go the long way” or take negative points for the destination ticket you can’t complete. The second tension, often missed by new players until the end of their first game, is the pressure caused by the limited number of trains.

Each player has 45 plastic trains at their disposal, and once a player has two or fewer remaining, the game enters its final round. If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to get caught collecting train cards and destination tickets, waiting to spend a bunch of consecutive turns building your empire. This is a fine strategy, but if you wait too long, another player will play out their trains and end the game before you’re ready.

This tension is one of the best parts of Ticket to Ride, and representative of terrific game design. There is absolutely never a time during a game of TTR that I feel comfortable – I’m always paranoid that my opponent will claim a route I know I need or take the face-up train cards I’m waiting for. For a game that is essentially a bunch of players doing one of three things over and over again, TTR presents a fantastic amount of depth and drama.  

Ticket to Ride, like every other big-box game from Days of Wonder, has beautiful high-quality pieces and components. The game board is a full tri-fold map of the US (and some of Canada!) that’s something to behold. I’ve seen plenty of people get hooked on TTR just because of that map (myself included).

Choo Choo!
The trains are molded plastic in five different colors, and the cards are durable (linen), colorful, and easy to shuffle. Because they’re linen, they don’t require sleeving, which is nice because they’re also very small. The 1910 expansion provides a normal-sized replacement for all the cards in the game, but even without this the cards are nice. Small cards are nice, especially when playing with kids, because you end up with a lot of cards in your hand anyway, and smaller cards take up less table space when you’re keeping everything face-down in front of you.

Days of Wonder excels at “box control”, or the inserts that hold all the pieces and cards inside the box when you put it on your shelf. My copy of Ticket to Ride is beaten and tattered from many a Nerd Night, but everything fits just so inside the plastic inserts and I’ve never had a problem with things getting jumbled, mixed up, or damaged during transport.

Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan are the gold-standard of “crossover” games, or “gateway” games into the hobby board game industry. You’re just as likely to see TTR for sale at your local Target or Wal-Mart as you are at your Friendly Local Game Store, and they’ll likely be at exactly the same price. Now, I think you should do your FLGS a favor and pick it up at their shop, but the point remains – TTR is a game so popular that it’s available everywhere games are sold, and yet, it’s so good that it’s in the collection of every single “hardcore” tabletop game player I know. In short, it’s the Bo Jackson of games. Just play it.

Days of Wonder is responsible for one of the original board game apps on the iOS, Small World. The game is beautifully rendered on the iPad, and the tradition continues with Ticket to Ride. Though I believe the MSRP of $49.99 is great value, if you’re not convinced I implore you to spend less than $10 to get TTR on your iOS device, Android device, PC (Steam), or Xbox. Give it a try and you’ll be hooked, I guarantee it.

Bonus: watch me teach a friend how to play Ticket to Ride with his family: 

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. 

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