I’m not the kind of guy who feels an overwhelming need to see a movie on its opening night, purchase an album the day its been released, or watch the sixth season of the Sopranos now rather than wait for the DVD. Even so, I went to my local game store and picked up a copy of Ticket To Ride the first day it became available. The advanced buzz on TtR said it was the best light strategy game to come down the pike in long time, and my first few playings seem to confirm this reputation.
The board shows a stylized map of the United States and Canada. Cities are scattered throughout the nations and a series of dashed lines connect the burgs into a web of routes. These routes are of one of eight colors and consist of 1-6 “dashes” (actually, small rectangular boxes). There is also a deck containing cards of nine suits: the eight route colors found on the board, and a ninth “Wild” suit. Players start with four of these cards and a pile of small, plastic trains.
Players strive to establish railroad lines between cities. To do so, a player may use his turn to either draw cards or claim a route. In the latter case, the person plays a set of cards of the same color and in same quantity as the dashed lines in the route he wishes to claim. The route between St. Louis and Pittsburg, for example, consists of five green dashed line; to claim it, a player would have to discard a set of five green cards. When a player establishes a route he places his trains onto the dashes to denote ownership.
Players earn points for every route they establish, and can also score by completing “Tickets.” Tickets bear the names of two cities and a point value (e.g., “Dallas / New York: 11”) . At the end of the game, a player receives the points shown on a Ticket if he managed to establish a continuous string of routes between the two cities; if he was unable to make the connection, he loses the Ticket’s points. Most cities are connected to their neighbors by a single route a piece, although a few sets of cities are joined by double routes. This means that once a player has claimed the St. Louis to Pittsburg line, it becomes unavailable to everyone else. That’s bad news for the guy holding the “Dallas to New York” Ticket, as he will need to find another way to traverse that stretch of the Midwest.
So nabbing routes first is crucial. But you can either draw cards or claim a route on your turn — but not both — deciding to claim a route at the expense of increasing your hand is never easy. This is made all the more agonizing by the fact that you draw from a face-up pool of five cards, so on the same turn you might want to assume ownership of a particular route, a Blue card that you’re eager to acquire might be sitting there taunting you. You may also forego both the drawing of cards and the establishments of routes and use your turn to take more Tickets; the points on Tickets are vital to winning the game, but skipping an entire turn to gain more is never easy.
Ticket To Ride is easily the best family game I’ve played all year, the best in years, to be honest. The theme is fun, the play is exciting, and the rules can be explained in five minutes or less. At $35 it won’t be the cheapest game available on your local game store’s shelves, but the beautiful components justify the price. Furthermore, Ticket‘s accessibility and short playing time (about 45 minutes) ensure that it will hit the table more than enough times to get your money’s worth. All this makes for a game I heartily recommend, and that will be on the top of my Good Gifts Games list for 2004.