After a double-dose of map goodness around last Christmas with the first two volumes of the Ticket to Ride Map Collection, the third has arrived nearly a year later. The Heart of Africa consists of a map of Africa, 48 Destination Tickets, and new Terrain cards, which we’ll discuss in-depth in a minute. The map has an MSRP of $25. Like the other volumes in the collection, you have to have the trains and cards from Ticket to Ride or Ticket to Ride: Europe to play.
When this volume was first announced, there was some outcry about the fact the board isn’t double-sided and that this is the first installment with only one map. The first thing to keep in mind is that although Asia had an introductory price of $30, its list price is now $35, while India/Switzerland is $30, and Africa is $25. The way I see it, you’re paying a $10 flat fee to get the game printed and out there into distribution channels, $10 per map, and $5 for extra components (Asia has the cardholders, while Africa has Terrain cards). In that context, all of the prices make sense to me, and I’m perfectly happy with the low price of this volume and the single map. In addition, Africa has the extra incentive that its Terrain mechanic is theoretically applicable to any map, like the Stations and Depots from Europe and Europa 1912.
The map itself is very pretty, although its focus on southern Africa means that the map as a whole doesn’t have that typical African shape. The map has a unique look because of the segregation of route colors: pink, blue, and green are clustered together, as are red, orange and yellow, with black, white, and grey making the third group. The colors are meant to be associated with terrain types – jungles, deserts, and mountains, respectively – so this is the first map where the colors of the route actually have a clear geographical implication. No one is going to argue that Ticket to Ride is a deeply thematic game, but I still think this concept goes a long way towards adding a bit more theme to the game, and the landscape artwork on the Terrain cards helps as well. In addition, the countries at the edges of the map (Sudan, Chad, Nigeria) have nicely colored illustrations to add a little bit more flavor.
Gameplay-wise, the map has a lot of 3-5 length single routes that seem to zig and zag around the board. Although it’s a “tall and skinny” map, the middle of the map is very web-like, unlike Nordic Countries which has three clear north-to-south “channels”. Maybe that isn’t the precise reason, but I found it much more challenging to plan out my optimal paths on this map than usual, and in one game I quickly found myself out of trains before I could connect everything properly. The map also only has double-routes along the edges with all single routes in the middle, which seems to be a separate design decision from the new Terrain concept. The rulebook recommends that you warn players about the difficult task ahead in five-player games. Even in our four-player game, some African hearts were crushed near Bangui. Also of note is that thanks to the Terrain color scheme, this is the first map with like-colored double routes.
The Terrain Cards
Let’s talk about the new Terrain card mechanic. There is now a separate pile of cards, with three different cards in it: Jungle, Mountain, and Desert cards (with the correspondence to train card colors as noted above). When drawing Train cards, you can choose from the Terrain card display as well (there are two face-up, or you can draw off the top). These cards are laid out in front of you. When you claim a route whose color matches a Terrain card you have, you can discard Terrain cards to double the points earned on your route. The caveats are that you have to discard two Terrain cards instead of one if the route has length 4 or more, and at the time when you discard Terrain cards you must be the majority leader for Terrain cards of that type (ties are okay). For example, I could discard one Jungle card on a 3-length blue route to make it four points instead of eight, but if anybody has more Jungle cards than I do, I’m blocked from doing so. The last rule is that you may use wild (locomotive) Train cards from your hand as Terrain cards when needed. The rulebook also insists that the double-scoring means that you need to score the route placement as you go (which we never do; we always recount at the end), but I object – we simply marked doubled routes with wooden cubes.
There’s a lot of nice things about this new mechanic. First, you could use it on any map, although the artwork on the cards is distinctly African. Second, the mechanic integrates very nicely with the basic game and isn’t too complicated, as opposed to things like Tunnels which seem like a natural thing to include but end up adding a lot of rules. Third, it encourages the new color-coding of the map terrain, which is thematic while also having a very interesting effect on the gameplay. It makes for some new tough decisions while picking Train cards, as well as changing the way you try and deduce other players’ intentions by the colors they choose. A problem with it, though, is that I always find it frustrating that the Train card tableau can become a pile of cards no one wants in a 2-player game, and that’s completely exacerbated by this new color scheme – and it was easy for the Terrain card pile to become stale as well. Even with four players, there were several times within a single game where the tableau become five of the same color, and we couldn’t adjust our strategies to take advantage of that even if we wanted to do so. I also found the rule about requiring a majority in the Terrain card type you wanted to use was awkward to explain and rarely relevant. Unless it has some deeper strategic purpose that I can’t see, I could even see leaving the rule out altogether.
The first thing I noticed about the tickets were the serious amount of high-value tickets, including a whopping 27-pointer! This, combined with the fact that you get to peruse four tickets at once, made me think that this would be another heavy “ticket diving” map, like Switzerland, Team Asia, or the 1910 Mega Game. So far, though, this strategy has failed miserably for me, and I’ve either run out of turns or trains while trying to do this. The web-like zone in the middle of the map means that there are really only the two long north/south channels on the edges (which is where the high-value tickets lie), and trying to complete tickets involving both channels is rather tough. It makes the map’s ticket deck feel akin to the original Ticket to Ride deck, where late ticket draws can be rather punishing, although there is the possibility for major reward from high-value tickets. The route-doubling means that there are even more scoring options to worry about while everyone else is laying track, so for me this is one of the toughest maps for making judgment calls on tickets. The final cherry on top of these difficult decisions is the 10-point Globetrotter bonus for completing the most tickets, tempting us to betray our better judgment. Of course, the more difficult a game, the more exciting it can be, so I’m really quite happy about the ticket design for this map.
The Whole Package
What I like most about this map is that when you put together the three things above – the routes on the map, the terrain cards, and the tickets – you get a very challenging map. In most of the other maps I have played, it’s easy to give a starting strategy. Switzerland: tickets, tickets, tickets. India: keep your connections as open-ended as possible and try to loop tickets. Legendary Asia: end the game quickly by dumping your trains with the mountains. With The Heart of Africa, I haven’t got a clue how to play well. My guess is that this is a more tactical map of reacting to what other players do, since theoretically you could play the whole game with no one doubling any routes. The fact that I have no clue what’s going on is what makes this map so exciting for me. Ticket to Ride has always been a nerve-wracking game (and that’s what I love about it), and now that you’re presented with more options than before, it reminds me of the same kind of gut-wrench I feel at the start of a game of Twilight Struggle, having no idea where to begin.
For newcomers to the Ticket to Ride series, I would still tell them to get the Map Collections in the order they’ve been released: Asia has the most overall content, and then India/Switzerland has the best options for 2-3 players. However, true enthusiasts of the game will still find a lot to like in Africa: a beautiful board with a new area of the world to explore, a challenging map that doesn’t feel like any other (which is something that’s becoming harder and harder to create), and an exciting new mechanic that can be applied to any map. The Heart of Africa is another great installment in the Ticket to Ride Map Collection.