"We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. " - Henry David Thoreau
I have a fascination with railroads in the gaming environment, which is a strange and unfortunate predeliction considering that once you've played Railroad Tycoon, you've pretty much exhausted what's available. There's something about the virtual equivalent of driving that last spike at Promotory Point that intrigues me on a fundamental level the same way that watching zombies eat brains, and amassing a vast army of Roman Praetorians to pit against the Barbarian horde attracts others. And it is because of this vague but nagging interest that I gave Ticket To Ride even a passing glance. As a PC reimagining of an award winning board game where players amass colored locomotives to play in turns between cities to create great long routes across the frontier (or all of Europe, or the intimidating Alps), a budget title with no shelf presence that is completely eclipsed by whatever cookie cutter remake larger publishers are shoveling this week, it is exactly the kind of game one could miss altogether. Were it not so neatly targeted toward my starving interests, I certainly might have never taken notice.
That, my friends, would have been an unspeakable shame. Deeply approachable, easily understandable, but all belying a depth of strategy and brinksmanship that can only come from simple and clever design, this game is one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had so far this year.
The charm of Ticket to Ride comes from its incredible simplicity of design and complexity of depth. It is, if I may employ a cliché, very easy to learn, but difficult to master. By the end of your first game, you will likely know all there is to know about the simple ruleset. The goal is classicly familiar, the player with the most points at the end of the game wins. You gather those points by playing cards, representing trains, of like color between cities. The larger the distance between the cities, the more identical cards you have to play. Long routes generate more points but are difficult to play; short routes offer fewer points but can be played quickly. Additionally, players get bonus points awarded for creating routes between determined destinations, and ending the game with the longest contiguous line of track.
Each turn players either draw color train cards to increase their deck, or play those cards to fill the route between cities. You can also sacrifice your turn to draw new destination cards where, should you establish that route, you get bonus points equal to the number on the card, or should you fail, you lose those points.
Despite these deceptively simple mechanics, the game is really a blend of bolstering your own deck and accumulating points while keeping your opponent from accumulating their own. Very quickly each turn becomes a crucial decision about whether to interfere with your opponents routes, draw the cards you need to establish your own, or play what you've got. Be too overt about the route you are trying to establish, and leave yourself open to being blocked, or hold back gathering strength leaving your rival time to build his own deck, points, and routes. The tension ramps quickly in the early game, and is maintained through the end.
A single game of Ticket to Ride can, in almost all cases, be completed in under a half-hour, which makes it a great distraction when time is short. It's also the sort of title that you can sit and play again and again, losing hours at a time to one great match after another. While the game provides a single player component that pits you against one to four computer opponents of average difficulty and no real strategic complexity, the active online community provides a far more interesting challenge.
The game is equal parts luck, strategy, and reading your opponent. There's an absurd joy that comes in knowing you've not only gained points by taking a crucial route, but have forced your opponent to detour through Salt Lake City if he wants to complete that Miami – Los Angeles connection you're sure he's got. But, unfortunately, that also exposes the inherent shortcoming of a computer based version of a board game, which is simply not being able to see that look of abject frustration in your best friend's eye when luck comes to your side of the table for a visit. Knowing you've ruined your opponent's strategy is one thing. Seeing it on their face is another.
Despite that, Ticket To Ride remains an excellent diversion, and a refreshing change of pace. While I certainly enjoy a graphical epic of blazing guns, marauding zombies, or massive armies bringing great futuristic weapons to bear as much as the next person, sometimes a game such as this one does a miraculous job of cleansing the virtual pallet. In the same way that a title like Geometry Wars can dominate a processing powerhouse like the Xbox 360, a mechanically simple, inexpensive, and approachable board-game port like this one, can be every bit as addicting as whatever blockbuster title is the flavor of the month.
With a remarkably short learning curve, a wealth of strategies, addicting gameplay, and an active online community, Ticket to Ride is a no-brainer for board game addicts, strategy gamers, and anyone willing to explore independent games.
This game is only available at http://www.daysofwonder.com.