Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ticket to Ride review

The premise of Ticket to Ride is certainly an excellent, exciting one. A group of friends make a wager about who can visit the most cities in the United States by train over the course of seven days. They were inspired by Around the World in 80 Days. In actuality the game has very little to do with this premise, it’s really just about laying down tracks of trains all over the board. But it’s a great game. Seriously. Three to five players can get mixed up in it. Like most of the games from Days of Wonder it is easy to grasp the basic rules, but continues to grow in strategy with multiple plays.

The board is a map of the United States with cities listed all over it. There are routes that connect cities to one another, in most cases these routes are colored but in some instances they are a devoid of color shade of grey. Each player keeps a hand of train cards, essentially colored trains that match the colors on the board. In order to connect a route the player must put down the appropriate number of the correctly colored cards. For example the route running from San Francisco to Los Angeles requires either three yellow or three purple cards. If a player puts down either of those they can then place their trains along that route. (Note: there is no correlation between the color of a player’s trains and the color of a route.) The grey routes can be claimed by any colored cards, as long as they match.

The board is very nice, if somewhat bland. It does what it is supposed to do. It’s high quality and seems durable and also doubles as the scorekeeper with the ring of numbers moving along the edge of the board. My only real complaint is that Philadelphia is once again left off of a game board. Just like with Pandemic it suffers from being squeezed in between New York and Washington DC. Duluth? Really? No Philadelphia, but Duluth? The train pieces are very generic little plastic things. They do the job and not a thing else. I can live with them.

The object of the game is to accumulate the most points by constructing railroad routes all around the country and also by fulfilling the routes listed on the destination tickets that each player receives. The longer the route the more they are worth, not just in total but also on a per train ratio. A route of two trains is worth two points, so each train is worth a single point. A six train route (the largest) is worth 15 points, meaning each train is worth two a half points. Players only have a finite number of trains to use over the course of the game, everyone starts with 45, so one of the keys to victory is maximizing the value of each train with longer routes. Over the length of the game it catches up to the player who has built a series of short routes, they are just not going to have enough points at the end. Sometimes it’s necessary to get the shorter routes for the sake of a destination ticket, but too many of them will drag down your score.

The destination tickets are a tricky bunch, but sort of the key to Ticket to Ride. At the beginning of the game each player is dealt three of the tickets, they have to keep two but may keep all three if they are feeling daring. On each card are listed two cities, for example New York and Miami. There is also a number on each card which is the point bonus at the end of the game if those two cities have been connected by a route. However, if those cities have not been connected then the same amount of points is deducted from the end of game total. Some of the routes are relatively simple and only worth a few points, such as New Orleans to Chicago. Other longer routes are worth much more, Miami to Seattle being a good example. Over the course of the game a player can also choose, as an action, to get more destination tickets. They take three cards but must keep one, though they can keep up to three if they want to. So why are they so tricky? Well, if you choose to keep a card you are sort of locked into pursuing that route for the game. If it is a high point route and you don’t get it, your future as a railroad baron is not looking so hot. In the beginning it is tough to decide what to keep and what to ditch, the temptation to keep all three is always there but it’s tough to complete depending on what they are. I would not recommend trying to complete more than one 20+ point destination. Once a card is chosen you can not get rid of it, and all cards are kept hidden until the end of the game.

Gameplay is pretty straightforward, it was one of those games that I felt I understood after having read the rules through once and not even played it. Also nice is that there is very little interpretation that goes into the game. I’m not sure that a single question has come up in the half dozen times that we have played it that was not answered immediately with a quick look to the rule book. Ticket to Ride also plays pretty quickly, a usual game clocks in at around an hour making it a great weeknight game. One problem is that on each player’s turn they are really only doing one thing, so most of the time a turn comes and goes very quickly and all that has happened is that you have picked up a couple of new cards to go into your hand. At first this was odd to me, but after some time I just realized that it is the nature of the game and have embraced the fast paced style of gallivanting across the country on trains.

At first the game seems to naturally lend itself to playing defense against the other players, blocking a route that they are taking makes perfect sense. Or does it? With only 45 trains to use for building routes the trains are actually a rather limited commodity, and oftentimes it is tough to get the right color to build the path that you want. To go out of your way to mess up another player may be as damaging to you as it is to them. It is sort of a pyrrhic victory that no one comes away happy from. It is also not in the best interest of a player to break up their trains from one another. There is a ten point bonus to the player who has the most connected trains at the end of the game, a ten point bonus that often means the difference between winning and losing.

One gripe I do have with the game is the size of the cards.  The train cards wind up being shuffled several times over the course of the game and they are very small.  The result is that they frequently get shuffled poorly since they are hard to hold.  The second and third time around in the deck usually produces runs on colors that were discarded together.  Since they were discarded together and poorly shuffled they usually pop back up in the same order.  Oh look, five white trains in a row.  What an odd thing to happen.  It takes the randomness out of it and somewhat cheapens the experience.  The cards should be larger. 

I don’t have any kids, but if I did I think I would play Ticket to Ride with them. I suppose that there is something beneficial about learning geography and looking at a map, but really it’s just because it would be an excuse to play this game more. It’s fun, you can pour a ton of strategy into it if you would, and you can also play by the seat of your pants and see where it takes you.

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