Ticket to Ride
A classic that needs expansions
Originally published on Board Game Geek.
In my review of Carcassonne, I wrote:
Another game that matches that profile is Ticket to Ride. In many ways, the games are quite similar. Both feature two explicit mechanics (drawing train cards and claiming a route) with implied mechanics that make the game more interesting for experienced players. Because destination cards are only scored at the end of the game, there's also a similar dynamic to Carcassone's farms. Taking the risk of drawing destination cards can be very rewarding.
And yet, I find Ticket to Ride far less appealing than Carcassonne. It starts with the theme. Carcassonne encourages players to build a medieval countryside. It's by no means a simulation, but it does stick close to that concept from art-style to scoring. Ticket to Ride represents itself as "definitely NOT your Father's train game!" The conceit is players are booking tickets across the map to complete a Phileas Fogg-type wager. It's a wonderful idea! But as soon as you finish reading the introduction the theme vanishes in a puff of (locomotive) smoke. It's much easier to imagine the game as railroad companies competing over right-of-ways between cities. You know: a train game.
A lot of Eurogames have only a light dusting of theme and that's fine if they provide satisfying gameplay in exchange. The most common action in Ticket to Ride is collecting train cards. It's sorta interesting to watch other players pick the face-up cards in hopes that the color you need isn't taken or will be the replacement. Far too often none of the players (especially in head-to-head games) care about the exposed cards, so it's "two off the top" turn after turn. Resource collection is easily the least interesting part of the game yet it's also the bit where the most time is spent.
On the other hand, I do rather like the destination card system and building out routes. The little train cars are pleasing to place on the map. (But why aren't they shaped differently per color like they are on the train cards?) Watching other players claim routes and hoping they don't interfere with your plans can be tense. Deciding whether you need to build before someone else does almost redeems train card collecting mechanic. Once one player starts putting down train cars, that often opens the floodgates. It makes for interesting tension and a division between the opening and middle sections of the game.
The other difficult decision is whether to draw more destinations and which ones to keep. Inexperienced players tend not to grasp how beneficial it can be to draw new destinations before, sometimes well before, completing the destinations in hand. Yes there's a risk of drawing unplayable cards. That risk is countered by substantial reward for getting easy points when the destination is near your existing cities. Near the end of the game, if you have a really long route such as NY to LA, you might even find new destinations are already completed. When players start drawing destinations, that marks the beginning of the endgame.
Player interaction is almost purely confrontational. Whether on purpose or just as a part of building the most direct route, it's not uncommon to block other player's paths. Compare that to Carcassonne where sometimes your best move extends another player's road or completes their cloister. Ticket to Ride depends on players blocking each other to build suspense. (This is another spot the theme breaks down. Why can't two players claim the same route? Are these trains perpetually overbooked?)
I find Ticket to Ride slightly less attractive to new players because of the confrontation. It's also harder to play competitively with people who haven't learned the cards. After my first few games, I started to sense what destination cards other players were going for. If everyone had that knowledge, I suspect it would make the decisions more interesting: block them before they can block you. With less experienced players that feels cruel.
Fortunately, there's a way to avoid the problem. I always play with the 1910 expansion. That way there are so many destination cards you can't guess where people are headed quite so easily. (The expansion also includes larger cards, which are smoother to handle.) Other expansions, such as India, Switzerland and Nordic Countries, solve the problem by changing the map and providing new rules. They still rely on the basic collection mechanic. But ferry and tunnel routes make wild cards more useful and thereby add more intrigue when they are turned up.
As a train game, I don't find much to recommend Ticket to Ride over, say, Eurorails. Yes the crayon train games take a lot longer, but that time is better spent in my estimation. As a Euro, I think there are better choices, including Carcassonne. The base Ticket to Ride game works best when all players are evenly matched and similarly competitive. Expansions fix the problem (at least temporarily) by eliminating the advantage of memorizing cards. But that also removes the most interesting strategy.
I have deeply divided feelings about this game. It's clearly a classic and I see why people love it. But I think it would benefit from a different resource gathering mechanic and more dedication to the theme. Having a large library of expansions gives the game new life, but the ones I've played don't quite fix the problems I have. Because of the way routes get blocked, competition feels somewhat mean-spirited. And yet the conflict over routes is the one thing that keeps this from being multiplayer solitaire. For me, Ticket to Ride falls short, but I'll play it if that's what other people really want to do.