John Lennon said that the ticket of Ticket to Ride was actually a card that granted 1960s Hamburg prostitutes a clean bill of health. Thankfully, Alan R. Moon’s board game, which shares a name with the Beatles song, takes Paul McCartney’s more literal interpretation as its inspiration. In other words, it’s definitely about trains. And thank goodness: Ticket to Ride is supposed to be a family game.
Ticket to Ride sees you and your friends play acquaintances of Phileas Fogg. Having won a $20,000 bet to fly around the world in eighty days, Fogg is looking for a new challenge: he’s offering $1million to the player who can travel by rail to the most American cities. Understandably, you really want $1million. Sadly, you’re not going to get $1million, real or otherwise. Ticket to Ride’s not really about the story or the money or the theme; if anything, it’s just an excuse to spend an afternoon with the family and put plastic trains on a map. This, it turns out, is a lot more fun than it sounds.
At its most basic, Ticket to Ride sees you draw coloured cards and claim routes on the map. You do this by playing a number of cards that are equal in colour and number to a route. The length of each route denotes how many points it’s worth, from a paltry one point to a massive 15:
Once you’ve claim a route you get to put your trains along its length, blocking it forever. Then you move your little score tracker around the edge of the board and get to feel a misplaced sense of winning. Misplaced because there’s a bit more to Ticket to Ride than just playing cards, putting down trains and moving your score tracker. Not much more, but enough to make things a bit interesting and strategic.
At the beginning of the game, each player gets a set of little plastic trains which they will immediately and compulsively arrange in complex patterns on the table. This might give you a shocking and brief insight into the psychological makeup of your family and friends. It’s like springing a surprise Rorschach test on your dearly beloveds. A Rorschach test made from trains. And while most people will arrange their trains in little lines of varying columns and rows (meaning that these people are healthy and normal and well-balanced), some people will leave their trains in a disorganised pile and not even arrange them in a pattern. What’s wrong with these people?? you’ll wonder. Why don’t they want to play with the trains? Some people will have more fun spelling words with their trains than they will playing the game. Some of these people will spell “Hello”, which is fine, but some of them are very immature:
Obviously you should not trust these people, especially if you’re playing Ticket to Ride with your eight-year-old nephew.
Next, each player is dealt a starting hand of four tickets from the ticket deck. The rest of the deck is put next to the board, and five more tickets are dealt face up next to the deck. Players take turns to do one of three actions. Trading in cards of the same colour and length of a route to claim that route is an action. Picking up cards — either from the face-up cards next to the deck or blind from the top of the deck — is an action. Your third option is to pick up route cards.
Route cards are what add a bit of flavour and direction to Ticket to Ride. Without them there’s not much of a game; but with them things start to get tactical, especially with four or five players. As might be expected, route cards denote a particular route from one city to another. You might have Duluth to El Paso, or New York to Los Angeles. Some of these routes are really long, and because they’re really long they’re worth a lot of points. If you’re not from the USA and you’re not familiar with the geography, you’ll also get to spend a lot of time squinting alternatively at your route cards and at the wrong part of the map, muttering “Where the f&$k is Duluth?”.
Take a deep breath and remember you’re playing board games with an eight-year-old.
If you complete a route you claim the points on the bottom of the card at the end of the game. But here’s the flavour that route cards add: the value of any incomplete route is deducted from your score at the end of the game. And so, as the board starts to fill with trains, games of Ticket to Ride can become quite tense. You’re frantically trying to collect the colour of card you need to join a long route and finish one of your route cards while hoping that somebody doesn’t nip in and steal it and force you to complete your route card through some torturous detour or else blocks the route entirely — meaning you can’t complete it at all. And if that happens you’ve not only wasted effort and time trying to finish your route, all you’re going to get for it is negative points.
You’re dealt three route card at the beginning of each game. You have to keep at least two, but you can keep all three if you’re feeling fruity. Maybe you want to concentrate on shorter routes and easier points. But what if somebody else takes New York to Los Angeles? That’s a potential 22 points. That’s HUGE. It’s more than two of your paltry routes. So maybe it’s better to keep all three? But then what if the board fills up and you can’t complete them?
And because Ticket to Ride’s route cards are secret — you don’t announce a route when you complete it — you never know how well other players are doing. The only clue that somebody has finished or is close to finishing routes is when a player foregoes a turn to pick up more route cards. All of this is fantastic; even though you keep track of scores through the game, nobody really has any idea who’s winning. That person labouring 20 points behind? Maybe they’ve got a couple of big routes in hand. Maybe the person who’s winning is about to lose a huge amount of points because he forgot to finish his routes. Maybe his routes just aren’t worth very much.
And then one player runs out of trains and the game ends. At this point everybody gets one more turn to frantically claim a final route — any route — even if it’s a paltry one point route. And then you come to Ticket to Ride’s end game, in which players reveal and score their routes. Somebody counts the trains on the board and then re-counts the train on the board because he lost track of all the trains — there are so many trains — and eventually one player gets 10 points because she has the longest unbroken chain. At the end of all this, the player who was labouring behind for the entire game is suddenly 30 points ahead and nobody knows what just happened.
That’s Ticket to Ride. It’s very simple. It’s got a bit of strategy — the sort of strategy that anyone can pick up quickly. Putting trains on a map is strangely satisfying. If you don’t like America, you can buy any number of tweaked versions of Ticket to Ride, all of which you can play independent of the original. There’s a European version. There’s a version for kids. I haven’t played the Great Britain version, but I imagine that routes are cancelled the moment you claim them, everyone has to share the same route so it all gets really cramped, routes cost five times the number of cards they should, and nobody wins.
The best thing about Ticket to Ride is that it has a ratio of strategy to luck that allows anyone to win. First time players can win. Younger members of your family can win. Ticket to Ride avoids uncomfortable situations in which experienced players walk over inexperienced players. In fact, the only problem with Ticket to Ride is that two player games leave too much space to play. You’re not cramped together, fretting over your route cards — there’s too much map for you to be really worried. But even this doesn’t matter all that much: you’re still spending a pleasant time with a family member or friend and putting down trains.
So a hearty recommendation from Shady Baron, especially with three to five players, and especially as an excuse to spend time together as a family. Not for nothing is Ticket to Ride one of the best-selling board games of all time.
Number of players: 2-5
Playing time: 30-60 minutes
Designer: Alan R. Moon
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Appropriate soundtrack: Wabash Cannonball by Johnny Cash