I pick titles for the Good Gift Games Guide based on three criteria: they have to be easy to learn, playable in under an hour, and fun on the first try. By these standards, Transamerica is practically the G4 posterchild.
The game board shows a map on the United States, covered a web of triangles. Many of the junctions where the lines cross contain cities, such as Seattle, Sante Fe, Dallas, and Miami. The cities are also color-coded, to indicate the region in which they reside: The West Coast, the Northern US, the Midwest, the Southern US, and the East Coast. And every city also has a corresponding card. Each player is given five of these cards — one of each color — before play begins. He is also given a marker, which he may place onto any junction on the board.
A player’s goal is to connect his five assigned cities by railroad. Railroad in the game is represented by dozens of small black “sticks,” which the players use their turns to place upon the board. A player may place a rail on any empty line, thereby connecting two junctions, so long as he can trace a route back from it to his start marker using previously build rail. The trick is that no one “owns” the rail they build — they are all in the common domain. So when a player connects his line to that of another player’s, he may then build off any junction connected to the extended network. After one player succeeds in connecting all five of his cities, the other players earn points based on how many more rails they would have needed to finish. Points are bad, and low score wins.
Transamerica is simplicity itself. On a turn, a player only has one decision to make: where to place their rail. Some have complained that the whole thing barely amounts to a game at all, and that a round is essentially a protracted method of revealing who got dealt the best set of city cards. That may be true, but like solitaire (which is also deterministic), Transamerica is unaccountably fun and addictive. Plus, an entire game can be played in 20 minutes, so it doesn’t wear out its welcome, simple though it may be.
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While we’re on the subject, here’s a boardgame tour of the United States.
- Manhattan: This was the second “German game” I ever bought (after Settlers), and was a mainstay of my game group until we’d all played it so much we couldn’t stomach another game. Players strive to build skyscrapers in New York, and have the ability to steal each other’s buildings. Only a smidge more complicated than Transamerica but with a lot more room for strategic play, it’s no surprise that Manhattan won the “Game of the Year” award in 1994.
- Streetcar: The New Orleans Trolley Game: Another of my earliest acquisitions, and one I still enjoy playing today. Players collaborate and compete to build trolley track in downtown New Orleans, connecting such landmarks as Longue Vue, The French Quarter, and Napoleon Library. Though the rules are simple, this game has a special reasoning element that some find a bit daunting — and others, like me, find fun and rewarding. Read my full review here.
- Mississippi Queen: Another “Game of the Year” winner, this one has players racing riverboats down Old Man Mississippi, stopping occasionally to take on a southern belle as a passenger. A race game at its heart, players must carefully monitor their speed lest they go crashing into a sandbar, and must keep an eye on their opponents who may attempt to bump them out of their way.
- Detroit / Cleveland Grand Prix: Wolfgang Kramer is known for his clever game designs, and this is one of his most inventive. Six cars race around a track; you own one of them. You move the cars by playing cards from your hand. Yes, I said “cars,” plural: the game is rigged so that it’s almost impossible to move your own vehicle without also advancing those of your opponents. Figuring out how to get your car in the lead — and keep your rivals at bay — makes for a fun little puzzle, and affords plenty of opportunity for sneaky tactical maneuvering.
- New England: Named “Best Game” by GAMES Magazine in 2004, new England finds the players building barns and planting fields, just after settling the New World. It’s a little more strategic than the others on this list, but is easy enough to learn to serve as a good bridge from the Transamericas to the more complicated fare — and is a fine game in its own right as well.
- Vegas Showdown: The newest game on this list, and one that I avoided for a while thinking it would be some variant on craps or poker. In fact it’s not a gambling game at all, but one of building casinos and trying to maximize profits. Players vie for slot machines, restaurants, and theaters, each trying to make their own establishments the most attractive to customers. I finally tried it, and now it’s one of my favs.
- Puerto Rico: Hailed as the greatest modern board game, an assessment with which I largely agree. You can read my my reviews of both Puerto Rico, and its sequel, San Juan.
Also, Transamerica is only one of many games that are set on map of the continental US. Ticket To Ride (full review here) is arguably the best family game in the last decade; Power Grid has players building power plants and supplying electricity to the cities of the nation; and giant creatures run amuck, battling the military and one another, in Monsters Menace America.