Sunday, April 18, 2010

East Coast? West Coast? Which is the best coast?

We have been playing a lot of Ticket to Ride lately, it’s really a great game. However, a clear strategy has begun to emerge to me as to how the game should be played. Unlike some games (Puerto Rico and Starfarers of Catan come to mind right away) in which there are multiple winning strategies, Ticket to Ride seems to greatly favor a certain approach. And by this I mean to dominate the Western part of the board and take advantage of the long routes out that way. In our games whoever controls the West Coast usually rides their trains to victory.

So what it is that makes that part of the board so much more valuable that it practically guarantees victory? Well, I think that there are a couple of things going on here. For one it is perfectly feasible to also branch off into the Midwest and pick up some routes out that way. You can branch off from the West. Denver and Duluth, in particular, are excellent cities to go into because they have so many outlets to the rest of the board. This is especially nice towards the end of the game when you may be tempted to try and pick up another Destination ticket, those cities give you a lot of options. However, the West Coast is just loaded with points waiting to be had for the patient train operator. As a proud Philadelphian it kills me to say this, but the East Coast is far inferior to the West. Ugh.

Like just about every board game ever made, the efficiency of actions is paramount to victory. Games come to an end so it is essential to make every move that you take count as much as it can. In Ticket to Ride each player has a total of 45 trains that they can lay down over the course of the game, the longer a single route is the more each train winds up being worth. Obviously, the thing to do here is to place as many long routes as possible to maximize the value of your trains. Looking at the board it is very apparent that the West Coast has the majority of the big (5 or 6 train) routes. Let’s break it down and see just how big of a discrepancy it is. Roughly dividing the board into three sections (west, central, and east) and making some approximations yields this: East has five such routes, the Central has five, and the West seven (Note: this could be interpreted as nine as well. Portland to San Fran and San Fran to Salt Lake City are both five train routes, but they are double routes. So there are actually nine such routes, but a player can’t double up so there are really seven available to them.) It doesn’t seem like such a huge discrepancy, but if you look a little deeper it’s obvious that not only is the West possessing of the majority of big routes, but the East is loaded with small routes. The kind that really devalue one’s trains in the long run. Plus the West boasts four routes of six trains, while the East has only two.

Not only are the long routes more point efficient, they are also much more turn efficient. As an example take two players. Both players have spent the last 4 turns taking in cards and are ready to place some routes. Player A lays down a route from Phoenix to Denver (5 trains), Player B then places two trains between New York and Boston. Player A resumes picking up trains for his collection the following turn, while Player B spends the next two turns extending his route to Washington and Montreal. It has taken him three turns to place six trains (for six points), while his opponent has spent the same amount of turns and received ten points and also spent the last two rounds putting four more cards into his hand. There really is not much of a comparison.

The problem with all of this is that due to the luck of draw a player may wind up with Destination tickets that run through the East, thereby forcing them into that section of the world. That’s a problem, though it can be dealt with. Since you have to keep two tickets in the beginning of the game the best thing to do is look for some horizontal moving ones and try to get the trains out West. If that it not possible keep the lowest valued ones and hope that they do not hurt you much in the end. After that spend a couple of turns picking up Destination tickets and try to get some better routes.

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