Review: Ticket to Ride16 May 2016 6
Review: Ticket to Ride
Released 12 May 2011
I have often said of my wife, who met me long before I was fit company: it's not that she meets my standard of beauty, rather, she helped define the standard by which I judge beautiful things. I first played a digital version of Ticket to Ride on the Xbox 360, before iPads existed and only a year after the iPhone was first introduced. TtR helped create my desire for board games on a larger-format iPhone-like device, and shaped my expectations for what that experience could be like. While Pocket Tactics has never had a review before simply because we weren't in business when the game was released, it has now reached a mature state, with a wide array of expansions available for purchase on the now-universal app. I've written myself into a corner in which the natural flow of the paragraph would lead me to compare how well it has aged to how well my wife has, and I'm thinking I should have started this paragraph differently. Because Ticket to Ride is still really good, even if it doesn't fare well in that comparison! [Good save. - ed.]
At its heart, Ticket to Ride is a graph theory game. There's a map with nodes (cities) linked by tracks which you can claim. Travel time doesn't matter, all you're trying to do is score points by claiming tracks (with long tracks giving a better victory point return than short ones) and completing missions (tickets) which task you with connecting two cities, however roundabout the route. You claim a track by playing cards which match the number and color of the rectangles which compose it, and your turn consists of either drawing two of those cards, claiming a track, or drawing new tickets. This is common to all of the versions of TtR, and they all involve thinking about the spatial task of selecting routes, evaluating the difficulty of claiming them based on what you know of the interests of other players and the cards available to choose, and timing your switch from investing in more cards and tickets to claiming routes before time runs out. Because you can only claim a limited number of rectangles--once anyone is down to two or fewer, the game's over, and any uncompleted tickets count against you.
What makes TtR so interesting to play is that there are a wide variety of expansions which replace the original map, tickets, and/or some of the rules, so you get a chance to explore how the different pieces of the game interlock and how that affects things like the timing and spatial elements. In each version, you can pull cards either from five face-up cards, or off the top of the deck. In the original USA map, some of the cards are wild, which is extremely helpful in smoothing out the randomness of which colors are available, but this comes at the cost that taking them when face-up uses up both of your draws for the turn. Therefore, it's more efficient overall if you can draw as many cards as possible from the top of the deck, because some of these will be wild cards at half their usual cost. But that means that these cards which were intended to give you tools to limit the randomness also have the effect of increasing it, by forcing you to rely as much as possible on blind draws rather than the more strategic draws of face-up cards. This second, randomness-increasing effect is exactly the sort of thing I would never have noticed, but for the fact that some of the later expansions limit the value of the wild cards. This tends to push people to draw face-up cards more often and claim routes earlier, but by doing so, they also tip their intentions, so the game becomes more interactive sooner.
One of the features of the original game I often found irritating was the existence of a small number of routes which had the potential to be very valuable and easy to claim--Houston to New Orleans would sometimes be claimed on the first turn, simply because it was relatively costly to go around. So if you found yourself playing with friends and saw someone do that, you would know whom to sacrifice first in the case of a zombie apocalypse. TtR Europe fixes this by letting you use other people's routes, which perhaps suits the theme of a continent with a more socialist political bent. I have seen the natural sciences described as peering into the mind of God; playing a number of expansions in sequence tends to reveal the minds behind the game similarly, showing you which problems they thought were worth addressing, and how they could adapt the existing gameplay to better suit various players.
Even if you don't particularly enjoy the insight into game design provided by the many expansions, the many options mean you're likely to be able to find one which eases any frustrations you have with the game. Even better, because it's a massive tabletop hit (often found at Target) with a long history of bringing new players into boardgaming, finding human opponents is far easier than for most of the games which serve the Pocket Tactics niche. I find the three levels of AI adequate to provide me with a challenge, but the possibility of bluffing someone into trying to block you on a route you don't intend to take is much more satisfying if you know there will be actual suffering as a result. Hey, I try not to play too cutthroat, but luring someone who does into a blunder is delicious. Because it's now a universal app (for a long time, there were separate versions for iPhones and iPads), you can pick up online games on either device. While the phone interface is reasonable, I definitely prefer playing on the iPad.
A game doesn't get wide appeal with complicated rules, so Ticket to Ride isn't going to give quite the tactical crunch you might want from your favorite meal of a game. But it plays in less than ten minutes and manages to include a variety of delicate balancing problems: tactical vs. strategic, producing points vs. disrupting others, securing valued routes vs. obscuring your true goals, and seeking the rewards of many or difficult missions vs. avoiding costly failures. A game which offers all that, and which you can comfortably play with children or your relatives who are such shallow thinkers that they support the political party you oppose--that has a place in the collections of many Pocket Tactics readers.