Your Guide to Ticket to Ride, Part 1: USA, 1910

Ticket to Ride has become an international phenomenon since its Spiel des Jahres win in 2004, so much so that I recently was happy to discover a few copies at the local Barnes & Noble. Mainstream market penetration is no easy feat in a country dominated by thousands of themed reprints of Monopoly and Clue. There’s no denying that Ticket to Ride is a fantastic game worthy of its success, but you probably already knew that. Maybe what you don’t know is the best way(s) to acquire and play the game, now that it’s become quite a production with four stand-alone board games, a card game, and five expansions for the board games (and a sixth on the way).

Rather than post a regular review for each one, I intend to make this a multi-part series where I give you a survey of what I like and don’t like about each entry in the series. For this article, we’ll cover Ticket to Ride and USA 1910.

Ticket to Ride

I realized as I was writing this that I was quite often assuming a bit of familiarity with the rules to Ticket to Ride. Fortunately, they’re quite simple, so you can read them here. The point of the game is to complete destination tickets (goal cards) that have two cities listed by making a line of trains from one city to the other on the map shown to the right. To claim a route, you discard a set of train cards of the same color, and place your trains on the route, which now no one else can use. On your turn, you must choose between claiming a route, drawing more cards to use to claim routes, and drawing more goal cards with which you can score a lot of extra points (although you do also get points for claiming routes). The game ends one round after someone runs out of trains, and you lose points for each of your incomplete goal cards. I’m skipping a lot, but that’s the gist of it – the rest is in the link above.

Though maybe not the highest-praised entry to the series, the original Ticket to Ride is what started the phenomenon, and it is certainly still the most popular entry. I had heard enough buzz to buy the game on a whim without any knowledge of the other versions. Even now, I would have still started with this one, for two reasons. First, as an American, this geography is much easier to grasp than any other map, which makes the game much easier to play. Not only is the geography easier, but since all of the maps have the names in the native language of the city, this is the only map with English-only names of the cities. The second, maybe more important reason, is that this map is much simpler than any other. It seems any time a company bugs a designer to continue to expand a hit game series, it’s mandatory that the later editions have more bells and whistles. I’ve played my share of must-have expansions that either fix or improve a game, but Ticket to Ride has very little that needs fixing. That isn’t to say that I’m absolutely sure there are no good ways to improve the game (as we’ll see below), but it already gives a high level of enjoyment with very, very simple and clean rules. I really don’t think I own an easier game to explain, other than maybe the 10 Days series (also by Alan Moon – go figure).

Ticket to Ride is simple and enjoyable, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The base game has two minor flaws that result in the game only having a few super-effective strategies. The first problem is the board.  More than any other, this map is chock full of six-length routes, which aren’t that hard to accomplish and are worth more than most of the tickets! It’s quite possible to score well just by doing your initial tickets and completing a long, continuous line of 15-point “sixers”.  To do well by completely ignoring a facet of the game seems to undermine the design of the game. The second problem, which compounds the first, is that almost all of the high-powered tickets are closely related, and they all run east-to-west – exactly in the same locations as those super-awesome six-length routes. Any kind of north-south scheme isn’t likely going to get you anywhere, and thus the base game could become a little stale after a while. By the time such issues become clear, though, you’ll have already gotten much more than your money’s worth out of this classic.

Pros: Simple and elegant, familiar US geography

Cons: Imbalance among routes and tickets

I want to make one other comment for beginners learning the game: If you want to avoid frustration during your initial rounds of play and explore the game a bit before getting competitive, I suggest playing with double routes in 2-3 player games until you get the hang of it. My wife and I started this way, and now we have no problem with the tight play of no double routes, but that’s because we now know which routes are important. Going into the other maps blind and playing by the correct rules from the outset was needlessly frustrating.

USA 1910

Ticket to Ride 1910As I mentioned above, there are some imbalances with the gameplay in the original Ticket to Ride, and this expansion was a clever, simple way to fix the problem. The expansion doesn’t alter the gameplay at all – it’s just more tickets, a bonus card, and ways to combine tickets. The new “Globetrotter” bonus card gives 15 points to the player who completed the most tickets, making short, quick runs a viable strategy against a long east-west continuous route. Furthermore, many of the new “1910” tickets include tougher connections, especially on some of the long routes, hitting some cities completely ignored in the original game (Washington and Las Vegas, for example).  Las Vegas in particular becomes an important city with only two ways to connect.

While the “1910” variant uses an entirely new ticket deck, there is also a “Big Cities” variant using some old, some new, all of which connect to at least one of the following cities: Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, Houston, Dallas, New York, and Chicago. I enjoy this variant quite a bit, because different parts of the map become more contested, and it’s much easier for beginners to predict the strategies of others without memorizing the ticket deck, since they can guess at least one of your goal cities. The last variant is simply to mix all of the tickets together and deal out more at the beginning. I’m not as intrigued with this version, since it’s much harder to reward yourself for building in a certain region, and it’s too easy to find arbitrary piles of 20-point tickets in one peek, all of which you can keep. Having both bonus cards in play does allow for more options, though.

Apart from fixing the gameplay in the simplest way possible, the expansion also comes with a regular-size replacement deck for all of the original destination ticket and train car cards. It’s a nice touch, but it makes me realize that six years have passed since the original game was published, which means that by now this entire expansion should be included with the base game. If they bothered to print the base game cards at a reasonable size, all that’s really in this expansion is about 40 cards, and that’s not worth $14-$20. While I think the original game absolutely needs this expansion, I can’t help be a bit bitter about the unnecessary expense.

Pros: Bigger cards, balances gameplay, more gameplay options

Cons: Should be included in the base game, it’s basically just 40 cards

Although it’s maybe not as intriguing as its successors, the simple elegance of the original Ticket to Ride is what makes it so appealing – it has a lot of fun without a lot of rules. Once you’ve mastered that level of skill, the 1910 expansion keeps the game interesting without making it any more complicated, something expansions very rarely do. If you’re new to the series, I strongly suggest you start here, especially if you’re most familiar with American geography. Even if you’ve already started with another entry in the series, you still owe it to yourself to play the original – you may find its simplicity even more engaging than the other versions, and it’s much easier for people to learn and enjoy. I’m confident this title will be a classic for many more years.

Next time we’ll cover Ticket to Ride: Europe and its expansion Europa 1912.

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