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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 11 of 21 Next

10. Ticket to Ride

Published by Days of Wonder

Type: Two to five player card-collecting, route constructing board game.

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Alan M. Moon

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: The board shows a map of a nation, with prominent cities marked and rail routes between them divided into colored train spaces. Players draw cards, either from the deck or from a bank of five face-up cards, to try to collect enough cards of a color to claim a route on the board of matching color. Claiming longer routes earns more points.

At the end of the game, players also get large point awards if they've managed to connect the cities listed on ticket cards they're holding, which are kept secret until the end of the game, but they lose points if they fail to complete the ticket.

Play Summary

Ticket to Ride comes in several editions, many with a different game board, different cities, different routes, different tickets, and slightly different rules. This article is written based on experience with the basic edition, U.S. map.

The board is marked with many cities, in geographically-accurate locations. They are connected by a web of routes, each sectioned off into car-shaped units. Every given route is marked in either one of ten colors, or in gray. Some routes are actually marked twice, side-by-side; in those cases, the twin routes are either of different colors, or are both gray. In a two- or three-player game only one side of such a twinned route can be claimed, but in four- or five-player games both can be claimed by different players.

The main goal of the game is to connect various cities on the board by placing car pieces on routes, claiming them and scoring points according to length. To claim a route, a player must spend matching cards. Longer routes score more points on an accelerating basis; a single three-car route is worth more points than three one-car routes.

Six-car routes, at 15 points, are especially valuable. Any open route may be claimed; they do not have to be built in sequence or connected, although doing so this may lessen the chance of your route being split up, which could prove harmful to your score.

At the beginning of the game, all the players are dealt three ticket cards, and each may (if he chooses) discard one of them. Each ticket names two cities to be connected, usually so far from each other that they can't be joined by a single route, and a score award for making it. To complete a ticket, a player must construct a contiguous chain of claimed routes that connects the two cities. Length doesn't matter, just that an unbroken path can be made.

Completed tickets are revealed and scored at the end of the game, which obscures standings until the end. Incomplete tickets lose the player as many points as their award would have been. Once a ticket is accepted by a player it cannot be discarded, so it is imperative both only to accept tickets you can finish, and to work hard towards completing them. The need to complete tickets keeps the game focused on route-making, as opposed to blocking.

A ten-point bonus is awarded at the end of the game to the player with the longest contiguous chain of cars, a small but significant bonus.

There are three kinds of actions possible on a player's turn, and only one of them can be performed on each:

  • The most common action is to draw two train car cards. Each card displays one of ten different colors, or may instead be a caboose, a rainbow-colored wild card. (Although each card depicts a different kind of train car, only the color is important in play.) At all times on the board there are five face-up cards on the board, and there is the face-down draw pile.

    A player may draw two from among either the face-up cards or the top of the face-down deck, in any combination. Face-up cards are immediately replaced with an turned-up drawn card. If a face-up card is wild, then a player choosing to draw it can only take that card on his turn. A face-up caboose cannot be chosen as a player's second draw.
  • Players draw cards because they will eventually allow them to claim routes, the second possible type of action. A player must pay cards of a color matching a complete route, although wilds can help by matching any color. Gray routes can be filled by any of the same color (or wild). A claimed route cannot be taken by another player; although the need to concentrate on tickets helps prevent the game from focusing on blocking, it does create a need to claim key routes before they get taken by opponents.
  • A player may, if he deems it wise, choose to draw three more ticket cards as his turn. He may then discard up to two of those tickets. Standard play is to complete the starting tickets first and only then to try for more, but one possible advanced strategy is to draw tickets repeatedly, hoping the points from those tickets drawn that are easy to tack on to a preexisting route system make up for points lost for incomplete routes.

Each player in the U.S. version begins with 45 train pieces. When any player gets down to two or fewer trains remaining, then every player, including that one, gets one more turn before final scoring begins.

Most player turns are spent drawing cards, at two per turn, and every car space filled costs one card to fill, so with his four starting cards at a minimum it takes a player twenty-one turns to cause the game to end, plus a few more for turns spent playing trains. A savvy player will make use of nearly all the cards he draws, and one possible strategy is to attempt to end the game before the other players can complete their tickets.

I have observed a tendency to spend the early game building up a huge hand of cards. More cards expand the number of moves possible, and at the beginning of the game deck draws, with their chance of low-cost wild cards, are very attractive. As routes are filled and the number of open routes between cities declines, fewer card types remain desirable.

With this tactic, often the first move a player makes is a high-scoring six-spacer. This tactic also helps to avoid pinning down a player's options to relying on certain routes to make his tickets, and helps to keep his plans obscure to his opponents.

What can we draw from this game?

Ticket to Ride is one of the less challenging of the German-style games described here. It is basically a card-collecting game, yet it still supports complex strategy. The question of the best way to go about making one's routes remains interesting even after much play, and the possibility of drawing more tickets, while increasing the influence of luck on the game, presents an interesting tactical choice.

Ticket to Ride is essentially about connecting points on a graph. All games are ultimately abstract simulations, although sometimes the thing simulated is itself abstract. Computer gaming has been going in two primary directions as of late: in action games, towards greater simulation of reality (or projected reality), and in casual and role-playing games, towards lip-service to realism while grafting on increasingly arbitrary rule systems.

In the first case this has produced first-person shooters with complicated physics systems, and in the second, quest adventures where the "fighting" is done with unusual mechanisms, such as a Tetris-like puzzle game.

The first goal is obviously a dead-end in the long run (where do we go after simulating reality is done well enough, or proves impossible to advance?), but the second could be seen as a sign of design decadence. Theoretically the act of playing Tetris, or a collectable card game, or Tower Defense, is no further removed from the physical act of combat as choosing options from a menu, but practically something is lost as game systems become ever more abstract.

The best German-style board games have a unique knack of marrying abstract play systems to a theme that somehow doesn't feel too far removed from the simulated activity. Ticket to Ride is good at this.

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