Board Game Review: Ticket to Ride

Board Game Review: Ticket to Ride

Published Date
May 27, 2019
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🛠️
Designed by Alan R. Moon
📊
My Number of Plays at Time of Review: 140
👥
2-5 Players
⏱️
30-60 Minutes

Ticket to Ride is a classic, family strategy game about claiming routes between cities in an effort to form connections between the cities on their destination tickets. Players will need to balance collecting new cards with locking in routes on the board, all while adapting to the actions of other players and deciding how much to push their luck with additional destinations. The player who can accumulate the most points from completed destinations and routes will be the winner!

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Gameplay Summary

At the beginning of the game, each player is dealt three destination cards, and they must choose at least two to keep. Each destination card specifies two cities on the map that need to be connected, and a point value for completing it. Players are also dealt a starting hand of four Train Car cards which each show one of the colors that matches some of the routes between cities on the board (or a “rainbow” locomotive, which is wild). On each player’s turn, they select one of three options:

  • Take Train Car Cards – Five colored Train Car cards are always available in a face-up row for players to add to their hand. With this action, the player can draw two of these Train Car cards into their hand, either from those that are face-up, or blindly from the top of the deck. If a wild card is chosen, the player does not take a second card. However, if they unknowingly drew a wild from the top of the deck, they lucked out and still get to pick another card!

  • Claim a Route – Rather than taking new Train Car cards, the player can play a set of cards from their hand to claim a route on the board. The set of cards must match the color and quantity of the route that is being claimed, with a set of any color being valid for gray routes. The player discards the cards from their hand, and places one of their trains on each of the spaces that forms the link between the two cities.

  • Draw Destination Cards – Lastly, a player can elect to take more destination cards, drawing three from deck and keeping at least one. This gives the player more opportunities to score points by completing routes, but they need to be careful as uncompleted destinations count negative towards the player’s final score.

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Play will continue around the table until a player claims a route that leaves them with two or fewer trains in their supply. At this point, all players are given one final turn and the game ends. Players will check each of their destination cards, scoring the points if their trains connect the two cities, or subtracting the points from their score if they did not connect them. Players also score points for every route they claimed throughout the game (with longer routes scoring proportionally more points), and a final 10 point award is given to the player whose routes form the longest continuous chain. The player with the most points is the winner!

What Is It Like to Play?

Ticket to Ride is an extremely accessible game; one that can be taught to new players in around five minutes. However, this low rules overhead does not translate to trivial decisions or a lack of depth. Every single decision that players make is weighed down with risk: can I keep collecting Train Car cards, or will someone claim an important route before I get the chance? Since all the Destination cards are secret, no one is quite sure of which routes are valuable or useless to the other players at the table. As the first routes are played, players intentions are slowly uncovered, but it is not uncommon for someone to claim a route that catches other players off guard, as it is nowhere near their other connections.

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However, playing conservatively is rarely the winning strategy in Ticket to Ride. You will likely need to take additional Destination cards at some point in the game if you want to compete, but when is the best time to acquire them? Do you take extra Destination cards long before you have completed your starting ones, gaining the advantage of being able to optimize how they can overlap, but introducing more ways that your plans could be ruined by the unexpected actions of the other players? Or do you focus on finishing your initial destinations, ensuring that you have a solid base before pushing your luck with more Destination cards? And is it better to risk taking additional Destination cards, or do you think you are in a position where you could push the end of the game by quickly playing the rest of your trains?

Ticket to Ride is a family-friendly game, there is no doubt about that. You can play it with grandparents and children alike, and all have a great time. But don’t let that gentle accessibility cause you to dismiss the game as simply a “gateway game” that is for beginners. If there is one thing that I’ve learned over my 140 games of Ticket to Ride, it is that there is a lot more room to be good at the game than people tend to acknowledge. And it is in that fact that the beauty of the game emerges: Ticket to Ride is a game that allows beginners and casual players to have fun meeting their goals without feeling like they are being outsmarted, while advanced players can strategically push their luck and put themselves in a position where they know that they earned their victory.

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FAQ

How is the game’s replay value?

Ticket to Ride is extremely replayable, simply because the Destinations will always be distributed differently and the development on the board will always require players to adapt. Certainly players could tire of the core mechanism of collecting cards to claim routes, but I have found that there are some interesting layers of advanced play in Ticket to Ride that can satisfy players who want more to chew on. Additionally, there are no shortage of expansion maps, which are a great way to inject some new life into the game.

How does it play at different player counts?

This will vary with the map that is being played, but I find that I most prefer playing at 3-5 players. Games with 2 players lack some of the tactical interest that is introduced by additional players, and while more players means a little more downtime between turns, the games of Ticket to Ride that I have enjoyed the most have been at the maximum player count with experienced players.

What games are similar?

Ticket to Ride is often grouped with games such as Catan and Carcassonne as being some of the classics for introducing new players into the hobby. Ethnos is a recent design that adds a twist to the Ticket to Ride set collection and applies it to a game of area control. Other games that hit that nice “easy to teach but enough to keep advanced players interested” niche might include 7 WondersKingdom Builder, and Azul.

How long is the setup time?

About as quick as it gets: open the board, give each player a bag of trains, shuffle both decks of cards, and deal three Destination cards to each player.

How difficult is it to teach new players?

I’ve emphasized this point already, but Ticket to Ride nails the “easy to teach gateway game” factor. When you open the rules to the game, you’ll notice there are no internal “pages” and much of it is pictures. This proves to be one of the games biggest strengths.

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Things to Like

Simple Rules

Not only are the rules to Ticket to Ride succinct and easy to teach, but they also are very intuitive. Unlike games where “victory points” are an abstracted concept with a series of arbitrary steps to acquire them, the goal in Ticket to Ride is immediately familiar and understood by new players: connect the two cities on my destination card. How that goal translates to actionable turns is also very intuitive. In order to connect the two cities, you will need to connect a series of routes between them. And in order to claim routes, you will need to collect Train Car cards of the matching colors. So not only are new players able to start playing quickly, but they are able to hit the ground running with a clear direction and ability to achieve small and satisfying “wins” on their first play.

Multiple Layers of Push Your Luck

In any game that has multiple actions to choose from on a turn, there is usually an opportunity cost to picking one over another. However, sometimes an action has no external influences, meaning that there is no time pressure to pick it before the other options. In Ticket to Ride, there is a nice tension where each of the three actions has a reason why you might want to do it sooner than later.

Taking Train Car cards is an obvious first choice, and doing it sooner lets you build up a hand of options without committing to anything on the board, which leaves your options open and keeps your intentions hidden from your opponents. However, since each route can only be claimed once (though some links have two routes), choosing to play your trains onto a route ensures that you don’t get blocked by other players. Collect Train Car cards for too long and you may have a lot of ammunition for playing routes, but end up needing to take major detours due to opponents’ presence on the board. Lastly, there is taking additional destination cards. Most new players will wait until they complete their initial destinations before taking more; why take on more risk if you haven’t locked in what you already have? But this overlooks the fact that knowing your future destinations can allow you to optimize your routes to include certain cities in your network, maximizing efficiency. But this also means you aren’t working towards actually claiming routes, and you can risk getting blocked in ways that make it very difficult to achieve your initial destinations, not to mention the new destinations you have acquired.

The beauty in this tension is that there is no “right” answer, and it allows everyone to play according to their own preferred playstyle. Some players may enjoy simply taking the conservative approach and finishing their initial destinations. Others will love the thrill of trying to “shoot the moon” in a sense, taking many destinations and setting themselves up to either score extremely high, or crash and burn spectacularly. I’ve seen both approaches be successful, and it is a big reason why Ticket to Ride is effective at providing an enjoyable experience to groups with diverse gaming tastes.

Many Interesting and Meaningful Tactical Decisions

The choice between taking Train Car cards, claiming a route, and taking more destination cards is not only interesting, but it is also a decision that you get to make many many times over the course of the game. With the speedy pace of play, your turn keeps coming up quickly, but each time there are subtle changes in the variables that inform your decision. Namely, there is a different set of five face-up Train Car cards available to choose from, and there are new routes that have been claimed on the board. But not only does the game consistently feed you interesting decisions, but they are also decisions that give players a lot of control over their success in the game. People tend to underestimate the level of skillful play that is possible in Ticket to Ride, but it is the players that can consistently optimize the effectiveness and efficiency of their actions that will win a disproportional amount of the time.

Randomized Goals Each Time You Play

Even if you are playing on the same map, each game you will be dealt a different set of starting destination cards to choose from, which will change your approach to the game. This helps to keep the game fresh as you are utilizing different portions of the map each time you play, and the routes blocked by your opponents will be different as well.

Extremely Fast Turns

No one likes waiting for their turn in a board game, and Ticket to Ride excels at keeping things moving. Even in a five player game, it is unlikely you will have to wait more than a minute between turns, and during that time you will have plenty to think about as you review your strategy and determine which action you are likely to take when your turn arrives.

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Things to Dislike

Nearly Completing a Goal is Still Fully Penalized

The “all or nothing” nature of destination cards in Ticket to Ride is elegant in its implementation, and is what drives the excitement of pushing your luck by taking more destination cards. That said, there is no denying that it is a very negative feeling to almost complete a big destination, and then get hit with a huge penalty that isn’t proportional to your progress towards that goal. With some of the longer destination cards, this could cause a 40+ point swing in a final score, which can make a player feel that they performed much worse than they actually did. It isn’t a big deal, especially since most players will realize that the score doesn’t fully capture how close they were, but with an accessible family game like Ticket to Ride, you’d hate to have a player have a bad experience that keeps them from playing again.

Luck of the Draw Can Cause Big End-Game Swings

There is definitely luck of the draw in Ticket to Ride (which is a good thing in a family strategy game), but the impact of this luck can be especially drastic when taking destination cards near the end of the game. Two players could decide to draw destination cards, and one could get three cards that don’t match up with their existing routes at all, and the other could get a massive destination that is perfect for them, or one that they happen to already have completed. This could end up directly determining the overall winner, which could certainly leave a sour taste in the mouths of some players.

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Expansions

Ticket to Ride has been out for 15 years now, and its success has led to a slew of expansions during that time. I only have experience with a small subset of these expansions, but to a newcomer I would offer the following advice.

Start by picking up either the original Ticket to Ride (USA map), or Ticket to Ride: Europe. The Europe map has a few additional mechanics, but I consider both equally good starting points (maybe just pick which region is more familiar, or interests you more). The main advantage of these two base games (besides that they are great as standalone games) is that they will be compatible with all of the map expansions. The only exception would be if you know you are only going to play with 2-3 players. In that case, you might consider Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries which is optimized for low player counts. However, if you think you’ll ever have more than 3 players, the flexibility of the other two base games is probably the better option (especially since there are map expansions that could provide you with a better low-player-count board).

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Once you have played the base game a few times and have determined that you like it, I would quickly follow it up with the purchase of either the USA 1910 Expansion (if you have the original Ticket to Ride base game) or the Europa 1912 Expansion (if you have Ticket to Ride: Europe). These expansions beef up the number of destination cards, which adds a lot of replay value into the game. Additionally, if you have the original Ticket to Ride, it upgrades the small Train Car cards to full-size cards, which is a must-have in my opinion. The Europa 1912 Expansion technically also comes with a “Warehouses and Depots” expansion, but I don’t think it is really worth using. Doesn’t hurt to have though, in case you want to mix things up a bit.

So you have the base game and 1910/1912 expansion and are still itching for more Ticket to Ride? Time to take a look at one of the map collections. At the time of writing this, there are six different map collections that are available:

I only have experience with two of these sets: Volume 2: India & Switzerland and Volume 5: United Kingdom & Pennsylvania. I found both to be very enjoyable and I would sum up my thoughts as follows.

India & Switzerland adds a great 2-4 player map with India, which has a neat new “looping” mechanism where players can score bonus points for completing the same destination card in multiple ways. Find a way to make a large loop that connects all of your destinations along the way, and you could score big from the looping bonus. The Switzerland map is for 2-3 players, and provides a tighter game at that lower player count with a focus on completing lots of destination cards. If you don’t find yourself playing with 5 players very often, I think this set is a great choice.

United Kingdom & Pennsylvania is what I’d describe as more of a “gamer’s” expansion to Ticket to Ride. Both maps introduce mechanics that add another layer onto the gameplay that are a breath of fresh air to veterans of the game, or those that just want a little more strategy. The Pennsylvania map adds the collection of stock, where each route on the board specifies which railroad companies are associated with it. Whenever you complete a route, you pick one of the associated companies to gain stock in. At the end of the game, each company pays out points according to which players have the most stock in that company. This means that each time you claim a route, you not only are considering how it will help connect your destinations, but also which stock it will allow you to collect. The United Kingdom map is even more exotic, severely limiting players’ options on where they can play and the lengths of routes they can claim, but then allowing them to collect technology cards throughout the game that open up those options and even provide special abilities. Really a great map for mixing things up with an experienced group. If you have played a lot of Ticket to Ride and really want strong variety among your map options, then this is the set to get.

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As for the other map collections, your best bet is simply to do some research and watch/read reviews to get a feel for which might be a good fit. In addition, there are several other Ticket to Ride variants that exist, but if you have already gotten through the base game and a map collection or two, I think you have more than enough experience in the Ticket to Ride ecosystem to find your own way towards the expansion content that is right for you.

Game Design Perspective

Which is a more impressive design, a heavy and complex Eurogame with tons of moving parts, or a game like Ticket to Ride that has simple rules, a short play time, and is accessible enough to play with just about anybody? It is easy to dismiss simpler, gateway games as being easier to design, but I think designing a “hit” in this realm is extremely difficult. With so few rules, there is nothing for your design to hide behind, no mountains of content to make up for shortcomings in the core system. The ratio of rules to depth of gameplay is often a metric for measuring “elegance,” and in that regard I feel Ticket to Ride is a very elegant design.

Consider the design process for a board game. When something isn’t quite right or needs to be tweaked, the typical approach is to add rules or mechanics. In general, it is much easier to solve a problem in the design by adding rather than removing. So when a designer is targeting a game as simple as Ticket to Ride, the challenge becomes this: when you playtest the game, and it isn’t quite right, what do you do? Adding rules and mechanics works directly against the elegance that you are aiming for, but changing anything from the small set of existing rules is likely going to change the entire identity of the game. Iterating on the idea may not mean small tweaks, but rather reinventing the game entirely in a way that keeps the simplicity but has a chance of nailing the fun factor that was missing from a previous iteration.

I think understanding the challenge that is inherent with designing these types of games is crucial for giving Ticket to Ride the respect that it is due. Designer Alan R. Moon managed to uncover something special, and set a new bar for quality in family strategy games. And whether you enjoy Ticket to Ride or not, I think every designer has to appreciate it as something to strive towards.

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Bottom Line

Most board gamers have played Ticket to Ride, and even many non-gamers have at least heard of it. Despite thousands of games being created in the 15 years since its release, I am still hard-pressed to name a better introductory family strategy game. But don’t be fooled, Ticket to Ride‘s appeal is not limited to those new to the hobby, and experienced gamers can still have a great time with it; after my 140 plays, I know I still do.

Enjoy my review and wanting to pick up Ticket to Ride? Consider buying through my Amazon affiliate link and I will get a small kickback on your purchase.