Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Boardgames, Friends, and Sideways

First...Jody and I really like the movie Sideways. It's funny, the characters are realistic, and the cinematography is beautiful when it needs to be. Don't take this to mean that the cinematography is anywhere near as beautiful as Floyd Crosby's in High Noon because that would be insanity.

How does this fit into things? Jody and I were visiting friends last weekend for Dinner, Poker, and a game of Ticket to Ride. During dinner there was some drinking of wine including a Cab-Franc, "You know I usually find Cab-Franc's to be difficult." After dinner there was, at least by me, too much drinking of wine. I know, I know, as a fan of Aristotle I should have practiced moderation, but as the Athenian Stranger points out in "The Laws" sometimes us overly stuffy people need wine to keep us humble. This is because we act ridiculously and cannot pronounce "strategy" when mildly intoxicated.

As anyone who has played poker "among friends" knows, too much wine doesn't matter because no one cares who wins in a friendly and moneyless game of poker. But is such the case in a deceptively complex "strategy train game?"

The quick answer is yes, but the long answer is not if you want to win.

On to the review of the game...

Ticket to Ride is a "strategy train game" designed by Alan R. Moon and distributed by Days of Wonder games and can be described briefly as "The Cross-Country Train Adventure Game!" You can take a look at the components here. Days of Wonder provides the following overview of the theme of the game on their website:

October 2, 1900 - 28 years to the day that noted London eccentric, Phileas Fogg accepted and then won a £20,000 bet that he could travel "Around the World in 80 Days". Now at the dawn of the century it was time for a new "impossible journey". Some old friends have gathered to celebrate Fogg's impetuous and lucrative gamble - and to propose a new wager of their own.

The stakes: $1 Million in a winner-takes-all competition. The objective: to see which of them can travel by rail to the most cities in North America - in just 7 days. The journey begins immediately...

Ticket to Ride is a cross-country train adventure where players collect cards of various types of train cars that enable them to claim railway routes connecting cities throughout North America.

From this description we can already see one distinction between Ticket to Ride and other games in the "Train Game" genre. Chiefly, this is a game about traveling on trains and not building railways and shipping goods from one location to another. The game play is deceptively simple, claim routes connecting cities by playing color matched cards. Each such connection earns a certain number of points. Players are also dealt "destination" tickets, players keep these secret, which provide bonus points at the end of the game if the "destinations" have been connected by that player. Days of Wonder describes, briefly, gameplay as follows:

The object of the game is to score the highest number of total points. Points can be scored by:

Claiming a Route between two cities on the map;
Successfully completing a Continuous Path of routes between two cities listed on your Destination Ticket(s);
Or by completing the Longest Continuous Path of routes.
Points are lost if you do not successfully complete the route given on your Destination Ticket(s).

Game Turn
In Ticket to Ride, there are three possible actions a player can take during the game turn - Drawing Train Car Cards; Claiming a Route between two cities on the board; or drawing additional Destination Tickets that will earn extra points if completed by the end of the game.

Describing the basic game play is truly that simple, but which action you take and when affects gameplay significantly. Do you draw more Destination Tickets, making your job of claiming connected routes more difficult, but with possible dividends at the end of the game? Do you horde "train cards" in order to claim the "longer" routes between cities, say from San Francisco to Salt Lake, or do you claim more small ones? Longer routes give more points, but if you can string together many small routes it might be easier to complete your destinations or get the longest continuous route, both of which provide extra points at the end of the game. Do you base you goals on your destinations, or risk losing points by not completing all your destination? Complete the long destinations and forfeit the short ones? As you can see there are a significant number of decisions to be made in this game.

But what is best about this game, and separates it from other train games, is that the basic rules are easy to understand and the game is quick to play. Most train games, like Eurorails, combine building and resource gathering in a different way than Ticket to Ride. In most games you claim routes in order to ship product. Shipping product gets you money. Money lets you buy more routes, which in turn lets you ship more product. As you can see, once a player begins to become successful in a standard train game victory is inevitable, that is not true in Ticket to Ride largely because of the "destination tickets." Since no one knows what your destinations are, and since they are worth a bonus (or provide a penalty) at the end of the game, the person who appears to be in last place may actually win the game.

Before it seems that I am praising Ticket to Ride while disparaging other "train games," let me say the following. Train games in general are some of the best strategy games on the market. If you haven't played one do so now and you will discover a new type of gaming. Most boardgames are of two types. The "track" board game which includes Monopoly, Sorry, and Candyland. As you can see track boardgames cover a wide array of styles, but what focuses them is the central feature of the game...the track. The second kind of game is the "strategy" game which includes favorites like Chess, Risk, and Stratego. These games primarily focus on the simulation of a type of conflict, usually war or global domination. By the basic descriptions, and examples, you can see that the categorization is slightly oversimplified, after all Monopoly is technically both a track and a strategy game, but it is sufficient for our needs at the present. Train games are a type of strategy game, players are competing or "battling" for resources, but victory doesn't require the elimination of opponents. In other words, the goal of train games isn't to destroy your foes and be the last standing. Rather it is to be the most successful at your task. As such train games are a wonderful family game, particularly for families who don't wish to simulate destroying each other. Not that I am opposed to "war games," in fact I enjoy them thoroughly, but there are far fewer "bad losers" in the aftermath of train games.

Besides, when you find a magical game like Ticket to Ride you want to share it with everyone. Here is an example of play from last weekend...

Jody: Okay. Now that we have dealt out the destination tickets and train cards you can discard one destination ticket.

Me: Thasss part...of the shhhtragety, this game is berry shhhtratigic.

Friend One: So this can make the difference later on?

Jody: Right, if you don't complete a destination you lose the number of points printed on the card.

Me: Shhhtrategy. Blay the game shhhtratigically.

Jody: Yes dear. whispers Isn't he cute when he's drunk?

By the way, I still came in second.

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