Monday, January 31, 2011

Riding the Train

To keep up the streak, here is another Monday board game review.

I first played Ticket to Ride (the original, U.S.-map version) a few years ago. I liked it, but for whatever reason, I forgot about it. (It might have been the severe beating I took the first time I played.) Then for my birthday, my sister bought me Ticket to Ride: Europe, which, as I mentioned before, has started a gaming renaissance with me. In fact, the first weekend I had it, Abby and I played seven times, and it has been a frequent guest at our dining room table since.

The premise of the game is thin, and while normally I try to get players into the theme of whatever game we're playing (in this case, a bet to see who can reach the most cities in Europe), the mechanics and the game itself are so much more engrossing than the theme that I normally leave it out. Doing so, in my opinion, removes nothing from the strengths of the game.

What I like about Ticket to Ride is its simplicity. Each player can do one--and only one--action on his turn. This typically eliminates "analysis paralysis" that bogs down other, more strategy heavy games. That's not to say that Ticket to Ride lacks strategy; rather, because each player can only do one thing on his turn, because the game situation is changing frequently, and because each player always has more that he can do, it will normally seem evident to the player what he should do on his turn by the time play reaches him.

Each player gets a stock of 45 trains in his color, as well as a score marker (score is kept on a track that runs on the border of the board), four train cards in various colors, and a set number of destination tickets, which feature two cities shown on the map, some of which he must keep (though he may keep all of these tickets). The Europe version also includes three train stations. The goal of the game is to end with the most points. Points are scored through claiming train routes (the lines that connect cities), connecting the destinations shown on the destination tickets (unfinished routes count as negative points), and having the longest continuous train segment (akin to the longest road, for those of you who have played Settlers of Catan).

As I mentioned, a player may take only one action per turn. There are three actions available to take in Ticket to Ride: 1) draw train cards, 2) claim a train route, 3) draw destination tickets. (In the Europe version there is a fourth action, play a train station.) Train routes connect cities on the map and run from one segment to eight segments long. Most of these routes are color coded, and in order to claim a route, a player must discard a set of cards corresponding to the color and length of the route he wants to claim. (For example, if the route is red and three segments long, he would have to discard three red cards.) Once a route is claimed, no one else may use that line. There is an exception to this: If you are playing with four or five players, some of the routes between cities have two tracks side by side. In this case, if a player claims one side, someone else may claim the other side. But once both sides are claimed, no one else may use that track. In a two- or three-player game, once one side is claimed, the route is closed to the other player(s). So claiming key routes early and often is important. But claiming routes also clues your opponents in to where you're headed with your destination tickets, giving them a chance to claim routes in your path (either to be a jerk or because they need routes in that area too).

Well, how do you get cards to claim routes? By drawing them, of course! You start with a hand of four, and one action you can take is drawing cards. There are always five face-up cards to choose from, which are replenished from the draw deck if one is chosen. Players may also draw from the deck if none of the five showing suit their fancy. Players draw two cards if they decide to use drawing cards as their action and may take a combination of face-up cards and cards from the deck. (The exception is if a player draws a face-up wild card, which can act as any color; then only one card may be drawn.) Since much of the game is drawing cards, play moves quickly.

Another action players can take is drawing destination tickets. As I mentioned, these count as positive points if the player connects the destinations; they count negative if the player fails to do so. Destination tickets are a gamble, but they are usually a gamble that pays off. If a player chooses to draw destination tickets, he draws three and must keep at least one. (This can be a huge problem if the cities shown on the cards are nowhere near your train line.)

Ticket to Ride: Europe adds a fourth action: playing a station. Each player starts the game with three stations. The first costs one card, the second a set of two, and the third a set of three. A station can be played in any city on the map, but there can only be one station per city. A station allows the player who played it to use one track going into or out of that city that is not his own. Many times, however, it is wiser not to use a station and plot a new course to where you're going; unused stations are worth four points at the end of the game.

That's the game, basically. Players are trying to create a train line that will reach the destinations on their tickets. They do this by playing sets of cards in different colors and by trying to gauge where their opponents are going. The game ends when one player's train supply is empty. The rules recommend keeping score as you play (with destination tickets revealed at the end of the game), but I find it easier to tally the score after play is completed.

So, why do I think Ticket to Ride is so fun, since it's basically Rummy on a board? Well, first of all, Rummy is fun. Second, this is a well-designed game. Not only are the pieces high quality and the board beautifully illustrated, the mechanics of the game are seamless. I can usually explain the game in about five to ten minutes, and even newbies have confidence in their plays well before the first game is over. As I mentioned, only being allowed to perform one action per turn keeps things moving at a good pace, so there is very little downtime between turns. After a few minutes of playing, the game feels intuitive.

I also like that there are different paths to victory. Completing the most destination tickets is not a sure sign of victory, neither is getting the longest train card (a ten-point bonus), nor is claiming the longest routes. Players have to balance these three and guess what their opponents are doing to be effective.

If you look into Ticket to Ride, you may notice that there are many different versions of this game available (the differences mostly being the map on the board). There's the original version, which features a U.S. map, a Europe version, a Germany-only version, a Switzerland map, and "Nordic Countries," in addition to several expansions, variations, etc. There's even a monster/alien expansion coming out soon. First, the number of expansions and spin-offs should clue you in that this is a game worth playing. (If that doesn't, consider the Spiel des Jahres logo, a usually telltale sign that a game is worth it.) But second, you may be asking, Which version should I try?

There are many who would recommend the U.S. version, and since I've only played it once, I can't really knock it. It's also the version most readily available. All I can say is that the Europe version holds a place in my heart, and I highly recommend it. It's been said that it's easier than the U.S. version (a just criticism, possibly remedied by removing the stations), but I like the exotic flavor of it. I live in the United States; I dream of traveling in Europe. In that sense, the European locale captures my attention much better than the original. There are also a few additional rules in the Europe version (like tunnels and ferries), which don't add much complexity but greatly increase the excitement.

The downside of the Europe version is the shortchanging of long-route destination tickets. Only six come packaged with the game, which makes it easy to guess where your opponents are headed after a few plays. (Each player, at the beginning of the game, has the option of choosing a long route, which is worth more points but is harder to complete. These routes have a different-colored back, so it's obvious if a player keeps a long route, and thus is easy to guess where they're going.) However, this hurdle is easily surmounted by the Europe 1912 expansion, $15 well spent. It adds eight or so additional long routes, as well as several variants. (One of which is super fun--every destination ticket includes one of eight "big cities" in Europe, so reaching those cities is a scramble.)

Ticket to Ride is great for as few as two players or as many as five, and it should be suitable to play with older children (eight or so). It's worth a try, though you might want to cordon off an afternoon your first time through--one game might not be enough.

1 comment:

  1. I would also add that the Europe version is a lot more balanced, assigning every player a mandatory "long" destination. The America version tends to be unbalanced -- whomever picks up the long east-west 18~20 point tickets tends to win.