Aside from Settlers of Catan, it’s hard to think of a modern designer board game that is as successful as Ticket to Ride and its various incarnations. Fittingly given the theme, it’s an engine of success that has pulled a lot of people into the hobby. Choo choo.
Over three million copies of the game have been sold since 2004. It’s a figure that, of course, is dwarfed by the board-game war-crime that is Monopoly, which has likely sold around 35 million copies in the same time, but still exceptionally good for an industry in which a big hit is one that manages to shift half a million units. There’s a reason for that success though – it’s a fundamentally easy sell provided you can get people briefly interested in the idea of railroad management. But while it doesn’t have the same penetration as Rich Uncle Pennybags (ladies…), it is one of the most instantly recognisable names in tabletop gaming. It’s a pretty great ambassador for us to have.
Ticket to Ride comes in a multitude of different versions, each linked to geographical themes. Most versions introduce a few bespoke quirks that are unique, but the core of the game remains the same. You collect coloured cards, and you use those cards to buy routes on a board. You keep hold of a set of secret tickets that mark the routes you have to complete. At the end, everyone tots up the points they got for making routes, adds in the ticketed routes they completed, and subtracts the ones they didn’t. There’s a final boost for the player that got the longest route, and the player with the most points wins.
Many games are deep, and complex – requiring mastery of a set of complex rules and conditionals that apply at various stages throughout play. Ticket to Ride though is my favourite kind of game – deep, but simple. You can pick it up in minutes and be playing reasonably competently. And yet, it’s a very much a game of thoughtful planning – there are logistical considerations, card probabilities and long-term bumps in the road that you’ll need to work your way around. It lets people of varied skill levels play well together, without that discouraging end point when the scores are revealed up to reveal a hundred point disparity between veteran and novice. Even if you don’t know for sure what you’re doing in Ticket to Ride, you’ll still likely achieve a respectable score. It’s hard to fall too far off the rails.
We’re reviewing Ticket to Ride: Europe here. Mostly because that’s the one I actually have in physical form. The reason I have it though is because it’s the one I like the most – I’ll talk about the things that make it distinct from the base Ticket to Ride as we go along, but there are far more similarities than there are differences.
We begin with the board, which is something of a monster – you’ll need a fairly big table to play this. It’s a six-fold board that covers Western Europe, with an overlay of virgin train territories ready to exploit. That is to say, territories that have not yet felt the civilising hand of the grim economic engine at the heart of the industrial revolution, rather than specifically Virgin Trains. Do engines have hands? Can train routes be virgin? I guess not. Fittingly, this has been something of a train-wreck of a metaphor.
The routes on the board are marked out in various colours, and those are the card we’ll need to play in order to claim them. Some routes are grey – those can be claimed by playing the appropriate number of cards of any colour we have. Barcelona to Marseilles for example can be claimed by four cards of any colour. Paris to Pamplona on the other hand has two routes – we either need four green cards, or four blue cards. We could get Barcelona to Madrid for a mere two yellow cards, though. We’ve got plenty of options.
Before we start playing, we’re dealt a hand of four cards.
These will be of various colours, and may occasionally contain a delicious locomotive – a multicoloured card that matches any other card. Our joker, essentially. We’re also dealt four random tickets – one is a ‘long route’ which will score many points if we make it, and cost us an equal number if we don’t. The other three are short routes, which are less lucrative. Later on, we can choose to draw further short routes if we feel exceptionally lucky – they might be something we can put together at the last minute during the end game, or we might just draw a substantial penalty into our greedy hands. That’s capitalism for you.
The ticket with the blue background is my long route – Kobenhavn to Erzurum. The stations are marked on the cards, but it can still be pretty difficult to locate them on the board. We’ve got a nice cluster of short routes to consider. Two routes involve Zurich, and we can get to Brindisi via Zagrab. Our long route too looks like it could neatly incorporate the short routes. It’s not bad. Occasionally you draw an exceptionally punitive hand of routes, and spend the entire game in a kind of furtive proactive damage limitation. Our tickets are secret, you see – only we know what they are. Other players will be trying to work out where we’re going, but we can’t ever let them know. No-one must ever know what we are up to. They would never understand.
Looking at the hand we’ve been dealt, we decide to start off easy and claim a route – our three yellow cards aren’t critical for any feasible route between our various stations, so we just make a tentative fumble towards Kobenhavn. We play these three cards, and they go into the discard pile. We take three of our adorable little train tokens, and place them on the route. We’re playing black here:
We move our little score token along a bit. Everyone starts on one point, and a three car route is worth four points. So now we’re on five. LATER LOSERS.
Play then moves on to the next player. They don’t have a hand that has much meat in it, so they decide instead to take a train from the common supply. At the start of the game, five cards are played face up – any player can choose to spend their turn taking two of these trains.
Looking at the supply, there are two orange trains – that’s enough to make a decent hand, so our green player grabs those and then deals out two new cards to replace the ones just taken.
There aren’t any hand-limits in Ticket to Ride, so it does encourage a fair bit of hoarding. There will likely be long periods of the game where all that players are doing is drawing cards until they find what they want. Desirable colours can be dealt and collected quicker than anyone might like – depending on the state of the board, you may find a lot of competition over the supply.
Having grabbed those, our green player now has a hand of six cards. Four of those are orange – they can be used to grab tasty four-car routes, each of which scores seven points. Since they drew from the supply though their turn is over – they’ll need to wait until the next turn to execute on their plans.
Our third player, Red, grabs the locomotive of off the supply. If you take a locomotive, it’s the only card you can take that turn, and you can’t take it if you’ve already taken a card. But, it’s a wild card so it’s useful to have a few available to you. More than that, it’s mandatory for certain special routes. As with the green player, Red’s turn completes and it comes back to us.
None of the cards in the supply are of particular interest to us, so we choose instead to draw a random card from the deck. This can be done instead of taking any of the face-up cards. This is a risk, of course, but it also has the potential for a blind draw of two locomotives in a row – rare, but intensely satisfying when it happens. That draw ends up giving us a couple of random colours, but that’s okay – what we don’t need now we may well need later.
To begin with, routes accumulate gradually. Green plays four orange cards to claim the route from London to Edinburgh:
On our turn, we decide we want to cross the Channel:
The little train symbol there means that we *need* to play a locomotive to claim this route – if we don’t have one, we can’t build our ferry. If do have one, we get to claim the route as our own in the normal way:
Red clearly needs access from London to Edinburgh, because they then play a hand that lets them claim the adjacent route. Every move you make in Ticket to Ride reveals some information about where your priorities lie – Red clearly needs to be able to get access to London, because if they didn’t they wouldn’t feel the need to play such a relatively expensive route. That suggests that Green, Black *and* Red are all likely to be competing for routes later in the game since they all need to incorporate the same station on their long routes. Probably! But who knows? It’s a game of hidden information – perhaps it’s a short route for red, so they’re just kicking the tyres a bit. Perhaps it’s a feint for green – maybe they just wanted seven easy points. You can never tell from just one play, so you need to watch everyone like a hawk if you want to protect your future investments. Work out where they’re going, so you can go there first.
Later on, we makes it to Zurich:
And we find ourselves facing a new notation on the board – train routes with shaded ends. These are tunnels, and they are particular to Ticket to Ride Europe. These have a ‘push your luck’ mechanic to go with them – it takes two cards to claim these particular tunnels. Once we make the attempt to claim we draw three cards from the face-down card pile. If any match the colour of cards we’re using to claim the route, it costs an *extra* card from our hand for each match. And yes, locomotives count as a match. This route then costs between two and five cards, and we don’t know how many until we signal our intention to claim it and draw the three from the deck.
If we don’t have enough cards after the push your luck draw, we fail to claim the route and our turn is over. We do at least get to you keep our cards, but we have tipped our hand – everyone knows we want that tunnel now. Whether we want to go through the potentially short but risky tunnel routes, or the longer but guaranteed detours, is part of what players need to plan out in advance. It’s also worth having a rough route plan in mind from the start, so that when faced with something like this:
You don’t suddenly grind to a halt because you’ve now got to build up between eight and eleven cards to complete that leviathan monster. On the other hand, it scores twenty one points if you can make it! It’s a long route ticket by its very lonesome. Even if you don’t *need* it, that can be tempting if you’ve accumulated a hand of colours that you have no strategic need to play.
Players also get three stations in Ticket to Ride: Europe. These stations can be used to make another player’s route count as one of yours for the purposes of connecting destinations. Let’s say for example that Green needed to make the London to Dieppe link that Red and Black have occupied. Green can choose to play cards in exchange for placing a station, and then ‘boop’ that route is counted as connected. It won’t count for the longest railway, but if you’re trying to complete a ticket on a highly contested route it can be invaluable. It only works for one route though, and you get points at the end for every station you don’t use – they’re a precious resource to be protected until absolutely necessary.
Even if you don’t need the route as such, it can be useful to use stations to just free up your options – it’s easy to get penned in when the game has more players, and you can alleviate some of that claustrophobia with a strategic station. It might not contribute directly to scoring, but it means you have more options available for when things go wrong later. It builds in some welcome elasticity in logistics.
Play continues in this way until one player is down to their last two or fewer train cars, at which point there is one last turn and then scoring commences. That can be achingly frustrating if you’re SO CLOSE to your destination but can’t quite eke out the necessary cards at the end.
Look at it! You are three grey cars away from either earning 21 points at the end, or losing them. Nooooo! But it’s not just the number of cards that can be a problem. Sometimes you need just one turn than you have available to get everything meshing:
To hook up Erzurum, black needs to make the route from Svastopol to Sochi, and then hook a station over Green’s Sochi to Erzurum route to make use of it for their own purposes. But that’s two turns worth of moves, and you only have one left. If you pay attention to what everyone else is doing, you won’t get caught out – but all it takes is someone to play a surprise monster route and suddenly everyone is frantically scrabbling for what few points remain available to claim.
Ticket to Ride is a great game, but it’s also a game that is very different at its various player counts. With two players it’s almost like collaborative map-building – you can both beaver away happily at your own routes, with little need for head to head competition. Cards are plentiful, and while you’ll probably butt heads at one destination or another you’ll rarely find yourself blocked as a result of the other player actions. It’s quite relaxing, for the most part – you can play it cut-throat, but you won’t have to.
With three players, things become a little more heated – it’s harder to pick up the cards you want from the supply because you’ve got two people competing over desirable colours rather than one. The routes you need will be eaten up more actively. You’ll find yourself blocked, either as a result of another player strategically undermining your plans, or just as a natural consequence of diminishing resources. You need to show your elbows a little more to nudge other robber barons out of your way.
At four and five, it becomes a game of knives. Cards and routes disappear quickly, and players turn on each other out of sheer necessity. You can’t just focus on your own rail empire, you need to work out how you’re going to stop the other empires from getting in your way. Station play becomes critical, and you need to develop multiple redundant strategies for how you’re going to complete your tickets. More, you need to be flexible enough to alter those plans on the fly without giving too much intelligence away to other players. It’s still a fun and light game, but it develops an edge.
This is where the various different versions of Ticket to Ride tend to differ. The USA map for example is more tightly competitive, because there are fewer redundancies in the network, and there aren’t any stations. You can more easily cut off your opponents because there aren’t as many big strategic hubs, and the diversions are often brutally long. If someone needs Los Angeles to Las Vegas for example, and you grab that route, they’re looking at a twelve or fourteen car reroute. That’s the difference between winning and losing. Imagine you need to link up Dallas and Houston and you’ve been beaten there by the players before you. That’s easy to do because that route only costs a single card of any colour. If that happens then I hope you enjoy the American countryside because you’re going to be spending a lot of time staring at is as you build your replacement lines.
Europe is a lot less constrained in that respect – stations offer you a way out of being boxed in, even if they come at the cost of points at the end and potentially your claim to the longest route. The map is also denser with hubs, and adjacency is more viable due to how it connects up these hubs. It’s a gentler game, even at five players. But it’s also a richer game because of the additional push your luck elements, and the opportunity costs that come along with building ferries. You’ve also got more viable strategies – the Eastern board is full of lucrative, low competition routes – but they don’t hook so well into the tickets that you draw at the start. But you can really clean up there and take the hit later if you want. You’ve got more tools to manage other players, and more ways to win.
But at the same time, you’ve also got a board that gives you fewer opportunities to tactically constrain your competitors. Stations mean that you can’t win through domination of the board, or by locking off cheap but logistically valuable routes. You’re forced to co-exist with other players because you can’t muscle them out – that’s either a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you want out of your game play. You can force people to re-route in Europe, but the costs are rarely as significant as they are in the base game. The nature of the short tickets encourages route redundancy, and there’s almost always a way to get around the problem even if you’ve run out of stations.
My own preference is for the Europe game – I think it’s more interesting from a logistical perspective, and offers more opportunities for meaningful planning. I think all the extra nuance of tunnels, stations and ferries adds a lot over what is a correspondingly more bland experience in the base game. But if you want Ticket to Ride with a bit more bite, the base game is where it’s at. In either case, we recommend it – it’s a fun, fast-paced game that scales in interesting ways at all player levels. Riding the rails has rarely ever been so much fun.
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