Ticket to Ride is one of the bestselling “designer” board games of all time. Alan Moon has given us a fairly straightforward set collection game with a light theme (“trains,” obviously) that won about a billion awards and a place in the hearts of many gamers. But does it deserve a place on your shelf?
How It Plays
The board of Ticket to Ride features a map of the United States with a number of cities marked on the map and connected by segmented lines of various colors. The goal of the game is to score the most points by connecting cities shown on “destination tickets” each player receives at the beginning of the game. The farther apart the cities are, the more points they’re worth. If you complete all your tickets (or get stuck with a dead end), you can draw more tickets during the game.
Each turn, players may perform one and only one action. They can either draw new destination tickets (offering more chances for points), draw train cards, or place trains. Train cards are simply cards featuring one of five possible colors (or locomotive [wild]cards, which feature all the colors). Trains are placed by discarding cards in sets of all the same color, at which point the discarding player may place a set of their plastic trains on a track between two cities that matches the color of their card.
Points are scored for each train you play, based on the length of the track (from one to six segments). In addition, you score points for your destination tickets at the end of the game, provided you can draw a complete line with your trains on tracks between the two cities, no matter how convoluted the line is. But be warned: if you fail to complete a destination ticket, you lose the points shown on the card instead of gaining them.
The winner is the player with the most points at the end of the game.
I generally like my games full of flavor, and that is one thing that Ticket to Ride doesn’t really have. However, the execution of this game is too brilliant to ignore. It is perhaps the quintessential “gateway” game with enough interest to keep gamers coming back.
Two things make this a great gateway game: simplicity and familiarity. Simplicity is key; there just aren’t that many rules to worry about, so new players (and those brand-new to gaming) don’t get overwhelmed with all manner of do-thises and don’t-do-thats. The rules make sense, and the theme (light as it is) helps connect concepts, so it’s not too abstract.
Familiarity is key, too. I grew up playing games like Rummikub, Rummy-Z, and all varieties of rummy-style games. Heck, even “Go Fish” falls into the category. It’s all about collecting cards of the same color. Everyone knows how to do that already. In all these games, you collect cards (or tiles) until you have a certain number of the same color (or otherwise clearly laid-out set), then you can lay them down. Ticket to Ride uses this exact concept, meaning the jump into the rest of the rules isn’t that far.
A key point here is that TTR uses these concepts, but expands them into some of the core elements of the hobby gaming world. Instead of the blind luck of most classic American games (including those rummy variations), TTR gives you choices. Not complicated ones, but it just gives you an array of cards to choose from instead of forcing you to take whatever happens to be on top of the deck into your hand.
Then the destination tickets give each player a sense of direction. Sets could be completely arbitrary; but instead, players are assigned individual goals. If I know I need to get from Seattle to New York, I can look at the board to determine which sets I need to collect, making the decision process easier.
The map is another important element; even if another player blocks one path, that doesn’t eliminate you from the game. There are a huge number of paths you could take to reach your goal, forcing you to readjust when someone unexpectedly blocks your intended route. This brings you right into the concepts of strategic hobby gaming but without dragging you forcibly into something you’re totally unprepared for. In some cases, the alternate path may actually result in more points than the original.
And yet, TTR leaves in just enough luck in the game to prevent more experienced players from dominating the field. Players feel like they have choices, they have control over what happens to them the whole game; as a result, everyone has fun, and everyone has a decent chance of winning. It would be dangerously easy for a newbie to give up on a game because they felt like they could never win; even if “winning” isn’t everything, it’s still nice to go in knowing you have a chance.
All these things add up to an excellent experience that starts with something familiar and opens up the door to a new level of board gaming, but it does it gently enough so as to not overwhelm new players. This is the definition of a good gateway game. But TTR completes the package with a fine-tuned system with a little luck and a whole lot of freedom to explore your own strategies. There’s tension and excitement as you head for the home stretch of your best ticket, no one gets eliminated, and the one-action turns keep the game moving and everyone engaged.
Let’s just say, the success of this game is well deserved.
Ticket to Ride is one of the best games I’ve played, and it certainly is the best gateway game I’ve played. Here’s why.
It’s so sleek. The rules eliminate fat wherever it might be found. In some cases, this is in the story of the game (so…why am I on trains again?), but what it lacks in narrative it makes up for in compelling gameplay. As @Futurewolfie mentioned, each turn allows each player only one action. It’s turn-based, but even the most ADD-addled brain can wait between turns without playing around on a smartphone. And because each turn is quick with one decision between three options, it makes players feel a sense of progress. A player is doing something—working toward something—every single turn. The rules make almost intuitive sense, such is the brilliance of this game.
Ticket to Ride is also a great game because of its scope. I said it’s the best gateway game I’ve played, but unlike some other gateways that have fallen out of I-want-to-play-this-now favor (e.g., Settlers of Catan and even Carcassonne), I really do want to play this game. Again. Now. The reason is because the game is different depending on who you play with. When I play with friends who have never played before, I can take it easy on them. When I play with my wife (who, through her frequent plays of the iPod app, can now be classified a “rail baron”), I have to ratchet the competition up a notch. This might mean snatching a track I don’t want to prevent her from getting where she needs, or using precious wild cards to complete sets just to make sure I claim the tracks I need. It is a game simple enough for hobby newbies (or even those who have no interest in boards and bits); it is a game compelling enough that I (and my other gaming friends) still want to play.
And the last point about Ticket to Ride: it is beautiful. It’s not only well-designed from a mechanics perspective (which is almost commonplace in the hobby gaming world); it is well-designed from a design point of view (something that is all too rare). It is easy to tell at a glance where the cities on your destination tickets are (something perhaps more necessary in foreign TTR maps), and players who are color blind have symbols to tell them track colors, too. The board is gorgeous, the components are top-notch (as players have come to expect from Days of Wonder), and it’s the kind of game that people see on a shelf and want to play (unlike, say, El Grande).
The game is fun with two, three, four, or five players, but my favorite number is probably four. Five is fun, but more chaotic. I can’t recommend Ticket to Ride highly enough. Yes, it is a staple in the hobby, but with good reason. It is simply one of the best-designed games out there…and not only that, it’s fun!