SdJ Re-Reviews #26 – Zug um Zug (a.k.a Ticket to Ride)

  • Designer:  Alan R. Moon
  • Publisher:  Days of Wonder
  • Players:  2 – 5
  • Ages:  8 and Up
  • Time:  30 – 60 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 50 (And even more on the iOS app…)

TTR

Ticket to Ride: Alan Moon gets another win…

Alan Moon continued to release games on a regular basis after his 1998 Elfenland win, and for the next several years, he would be a favorite of the Spiel des Jahres jury.  He received a nomination in 1999 for Union Pacific and another in 2001 for Das Amulet, which he designed with Aaron Weissblum.  Moon and Weissblum were frequent collaborators during these years, and in addition to their nomination, they received  SdJ recommendations for San Marco (in 2001), Capitol (in 2001), and Oasis (in 2004).  Had they not been up against a game as popular as Carcassonne in 2001, Moon and Weissblum were strong contenders to have won the Spiel des Jahres that year.  

Ticket to Ride — which is now undoubtedly Moon’s most famous game — came to him in early 2003.  He was out for a walk near his home in Massachusetts, thinking about a complicated railroad prototype he had played the night before.  The playtest had gone poorly, and Moon was thinking of how to improve it.  And suddenly he had the inspiration for Ticket to Ride.  He started walking faster and faster because he wanted to get home to make the prototype.

Moon started work on the game that day, and by the time the first prototype was completed, he had at least 90% of the final game.  Moon has said he may have changed some the routes and some of the tickets, but Ticket to Ride as we know it was largely present in that first prototype.  

He started to show the game to publishers a few months later.  Two publishers never followed up with him, but while he was at the 2003 World Boardgaming Championship, he ran into Eric Hautemont from Days of Wonder.  Moon, Hautemont, and a couple of players got about two-thirds of the way through the game when one of them had to leave.  Moon started cleaning off the board, much to the disappointment of Hautemont, who was greatly enjoying the game.  Nonetheless, Hautemont took the prototype with him, getting the chance to play it for a few days.  (For a telling of Hautemont’s thoughts on the prototype, look at 37:30 or so in this YouTube video of him speaking at Google.)  

Days of Wonder called Moon about ten days later to say they’d publish the game.  After giving the game the famous Days of Wonder touch (including their signature artwork and quality components), they published it in early 2004.  They were a relatively new operation at the time, having released their first game only a couple of years earlier, in 2002.  When Ticket to Ride was named as a nominee, Days of Wonder spent $40,000 on molds to make the trains for the game, an investment Hautemont said may not have paid off had Ticket to Ride not won the SdJ.  

Of course, the investment did pay off.  Ticket to Ride won the 2004 Spiel des Jahres, with the jury praising how easy the game is to teach.  The game ranked sixth in Deutscher Spiele Preis voting that year, also garnering a nomination for the International Gamers Awards.  

Shortly after Ticket to Ride was published, Days of Wonder released it in digital form.  Hautemont’s theory was that people disliked learning to play board games, and that releasing digital copies of games would teach people to play games and then drive sales of physical copies.  The gamble paid off, and sales went up 30% after the online version was released.  They spiked again after the iOS application was released years later.  

To date, Ticket to Ride has sold over 4 million physical and digital copies, with sales in 2013 alone being over 450,000 units.  At the time of the Asmodee and Days of Wonder merger in 2014, Ticket to Ride products represented over 70% of Days of Wonder’s sales.  Ticket to Ride Europe — a sequel using a different map — is successful in its own right, having won the 2005 International Gamers Award.  There are three other standalone games in the series: Ticket to Ride Märklin (a more advanced version of the base game using a German map), Zug um Zug Deutschland (a mass market edition for the German market), and Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries.  There are several expansions, including five “map packs” that are quite popular: Team Asia & Legendary Asia, India & Switzerland, Africa, Nederland, and United Kingdom & Pennsylvania.  

A 10th Anniversary Edition of Ticket to Ride was released last year featuring new artwork and sculpted trains.  The map reportedly has more than 20 inside jokes.  

The Gameplay

As described in the rules, Ticket to Ride is a cross-country train adventure. Players compete to connect different cities by laying claim to railway routes on a map of North America.  Pictures below are from the 10th Anniversary Edition.

Map

Each player starts the game with four “train cards” (which are used to build routes on the board) and three “destination tickets” (which award points if the routes on them are completed).  Each player is free to return one of the destination tickets to the bottom of the stack.  Five train cards are flipped face up next to the board, and the most experienced traveler starts the game.

TrainCards

A player may take one of three actions on his turn

  1. Draw train cards.  A player may take any of the face up cards or take cards from the top of the deck.   If he draws a face up card, he immediately turns a replacement card face-up from the deck. He then draws his second card, either from the face up cards or from the top of the deck.  However, if a player takes a face up locomotive (i.e. a wild card), his turn ends immediately and he does not receive a second card.
  2. Claim a route.  The player may claim a route on the board by playing a set of Train Car cards that match the color and length of the route and then placing one of his colored trains on each space of this route. Grey routes may be claimed by playing cards of any color (though the color must match).  After claiming a route, the player records his score by moving his Scoring Marker the appropriate number of spaces along the Scoring Track on the board.  Routes give progressively more points the longer they are: a one train route earns one point, but a six train route earns fifteen points.  (Note: The double routes are not used in the two and three player game.)
  3. Draw destination tickets.  The player draws 3 Destination Tickets from the top of the deck. He must keep at least one of them, but he may keep two or all three if he chooses. Any returned cards are placed on the bottom of the deck.

DestinationTickets

The game ends when one player’s stock of colored plastic trains gets down to only 0,1 or 2 trains left at the end of his turn.  Each player, including that player, gets one final turn. The game then ends and players calculate their final scores.

There are three ways to earn points in the game: by claiming routes (as discussed above), by completing destination tickets, and by having the longest route.  Destination tickets, if completed, are worth the points on them.  However, destination tickets not completed lose that number of points.  The longest route is worth an extra ten points at the end of the game.  

The player with the most points wins the game.  

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

I fell in love with Ticket to Ride after my first play, and it currently sits as my second favorite game of all time.  I’ve used Ticket to Ride to introduce people to board games for years, and in many ways, it was my gateway game.  Sure, I first played games like Catan or Liar’s Dice, but Ticket to Ride was the game that kicked off my gaming obsession.  

Ticket to Ride is beautiful in its simplicity.  It is a game that virtually anyone can learn — there aren’t many rules, and the ones the game does have are intuitive — yet there is enough depth here for both non-gamers and gamers alike.  The game can be explained in just a few minutes, and new players seem to pick it up with ease.  It is a versatile game, one that fits in a variety of gaming situations, everything from a family game night to a tournament setting.  

To me, the joy of Ticket to Ride is in how tense the game is.  Every decision is critical, with players constantly balancing drawing cards with claiming routes.  My natural tendency is to accumulate cards, but I’m always worried that one of my opponents will suddenly take that one route I need to complete a destination ticket.  And completing destination tickets is itself often a tense will-I-or-won’t-I scramble at the end of the game.  

Even the choices with the choices can be challenging.  Should I play it safe and take the face-up cards, or should I take “one of the top,” hoping for either a wild or a color I need?  Should I claim the route I was planning to, or should I take the route my opponent clearly needs?  Will claiming this route telegraph my destination?  Should I draw new tickets this late in the game?  Should I go for longest train?  

This tension comes, in part, because there are multiple paths to victory.  You can aim for completing a fist full of destination tickets, or you can focus on building a few longer routes.  You can play offense, or you can play defense.  All offer viable paths to victory.  I have noticed that longer routes tend to be the better strategy on the U.S. map, but that might just be because players aren’t effectively blocking those pursuing the longer routes.  

I have heard gamers criticize Ticket to Ride for being too luck driven.  I always ignore such criticisms.  As a preliminary matter, I fail to see how a little luck is a bad thing.  But more importantly, my plays just don’t support their assertion.  I’ve hosted Ticket to Ride tournaments, and the most experienced players always win, although occasionally a new player will make the finals.  We track the statistics, and it is clear that experienced players have a significant advantage.  In the end, good Ticket to Ride players play differently than new players.  They’re more aggressive, and they have a better sense of when to claim routes and draw new tickets.

If I think there is one criticism that is fair, it is that lower player counts aren’t nearly as fun, at least to me.  I love the blocking that comes in four and five player games, and when given the chance, I’ll always pick the higher player count.  But if I need to play a two or three player game, I’ll just pull out the Switzerland map (which is one of my favorite maps).  

In the end, for me, Ticket to Ride is the king of gateway games, and the epitome of what the Spiel des Jahres should be.  It has simple, easily understood rules, yet there is strategic depth.  It is a game that can be enjoyed both with family and friends and with gamers.  And to top it all off, it is exceptionally well-produced: the base game is beautiful, and the 10th Anniversary Edition is simply stunning.  The game has a permanent spot on my shelf. 

So would the game win the Spiel des Jahres today?  I think so.  Last year, Tom Felber, chairman of the jury, was asked what his favorite games were.  He mentioned Ticket to Ride.  At one point in the talk, he specifically pointed out that Ticket to Ride beat out Ingenious, a game he said might have won in any other year.  I take that as a positive sign that Ticket to Ride would have success with today’s jury.  In fact, I take it as a sign that if the jury hosted a round robin of the 37 SdJ winners, there would a good chance that Ticket to Ride would come out on top.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: probably, for me, the best “family game” ever. The gateway game I use most to introduce new players to our hobby. Ticket to Ride is fantastic also to work in the school teaching kids strategy and tactics, problem-solving and interaction (you can read https://opinionatedgamers.com/2014/06/03/true-boardgames-in-schools/ for more details). I have used with success with hundreds of kids in schools. It is also a game that can be played by “pro” gamers with satisfaction.

Patrick Brennan: 100+ plays across all its forms. It may be just card set collecting, but the map tension turns it into a great gateway game, likeable by gamers and family alike. Simple rules, simple game play, plenty of bated breath angst as you hope people don’t claim your preferred track before you. Thumbs up.

Joe Huber (35 plays) – Actually, I’ve played the iOS implementation a lot, too, but I only count face-to-face plays.  As with Chris, I was immediately taken by the game, and it’s been one of my favorites since it first came out.  It’s one of my top 20 games, and my second favorite game among Spiel des Jahres winners.  Accessible, quick to play, and with enough depth to it to satisfy gamers, Ticket to Ride is a great game.

Matt Carlson:  Not one of my earliest games, but it was clearly one of the better games for boardgame newcomers.  It is a great game, but I personally favor games that have a bit more steam-roller aspect.  While the tension of TTR certainly increases as the game nears the end, one’s abilities do not grow in power.  The extra maps often have a bit “extra” added to the game so I appreciate playing them.  I think the game is best played with boards near the maximum (for the most tension), but that also leads to quite a bit of player blocking (which doesn’t always go over well when playing with my boys.)  I find the Asian team-map to be the most innovative in that I love playing in teams so that I can win or lose with a friend.  I have also played a bit of the iOS version., I’ve even played some online games (with friends, of course) which I typically do not do.  It was one of the best early iPad games and has aged well.

Brian: The point of the SdJ award is to find and recognize games that could and should do well with a larger and more general market. For me, Ticket to Ride is one of those games that transcends that threshold and really does deserve to be on every family game shelf. I’ve never gone wrong with recommending it and the only hesitation I’ve ever experienced when sitting down to play has been from that strong pull of the “Cult of the New”. This game deserves every bit of its great reputation.

Greg S:  A masterpiece, particularly for family gaming and introducing folks to “Euro-gaming”.  The rules are easy to teach and learn, and there is not an overload of decisions to be made.  Still, there are enough decisions that skill will usually prevail, but everyone still feels they are being competitive.  I am thrilled to see the widespread distribution and enthusiasm for this game.  It is no wonder we have seen dozens of expansions.  I expect this train will continue to roll!

Dan Blum: Ticket to Ride is another game (like Alhambra) that I wasn’t taken with at first, but once I understood the dynamics of the game a bit better I enjoyed it. Also like Alhambra it’s a favorite of my non-hardcode-gaming friends so I have played it a lot. I’ve also played it a lot with my family.

One thing I particularly like about it is that the different sets really do play differently – Europe feels different from the US game, Switzerland is different from Nordic Countries despite both being 2-3 player boards, etc. I have all the sets except Deutschland and the brand-new UK/Pennsylvania pair, plus the good small expansions. (Alvin & Dexter is fine but I think hurts the flow of the game, and I didn’t care for the dice expansion.)

Larry:  More than 10 years after its release, I think it’s safe to say that Ticket to Ride is still the greatest gateway game ever created.  For that alone, it will always have a place in my collection.  That said, the base game is a little too straightforward for my tastes.  I still enjoy playing it, but it’s never a title I’d suggest with experienced gamers around.  I also think the ticket design in the original game is flawed, as the East-West tickets seem considerably easier to fulfill than the North-South ones, since the former are usually made up of longer routes.  I don’t see where the 1910 expansion corrects that problem.  The issue seems to have been resolved in the later games, but it’s unfortunate that it lingers in the most accessible of the designs (particularly to Americans).

The good news is that most of the spinoffs of Ticket to Ride do hit my sweetspot for middleweight gaming.  Marklin is fiddly, but plays very well with 4 or 5.  Switzerland and Nordic Countries have great tight maps for 2 or 3.  Team Asia is an excellent partnership challenge.  I think Moon has done a terrific job with all of these expansions and I can’t wait to try out his latest one (UK/Pennsylvania)!

Erik Arneson (100+ plays): Brilliant in design and execution. I’ve loved every edition, though my favorites are the U.S./Canada, Nordic Countries, and Team Asia. The only thing that could be better is to play on a map of Pennsylvania (a rectangular state with great railroad history)… and that will be remedied soon!

Mark Jackson (100+ plays): When he designed TtR, Alan Moon mashed up a card-drafting mechanic along with some rummy-ish set collection and then let all of that play out on a map of the United States. Coupled with the gorgeous Days of Wonder production, the game won a well-deserved Spiel des Jahres. (BTW, my 100+ plays does not include another 300+ plays on the iOS app.)

Dale Yu (~50ish plays with base, who knows how many with expansions) – This has been a big hit for me because of the approachability of the original – that makes it a great gateway game – as well as the variety of the different expansions that help keep it fresh when it does come back to the table for the more serious gamers.  

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris W., Andrea “Liga” Ligabue, Patrick Brennan., Joe H., Eric, Brian, Greg S., Dan Blum, Erik Arneson, Mark Jackson, Dale Y
  • I like it. Craig V.,  Matt C., Larry
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…
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2 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #26 – Zug um Zug (a.k.a Ticket to Ride)

  1. I just discovered TtR this year and it’s probably my #2 game of 2015. The one comment I found interesting is that you prefer 4 and 5 player games to 2 and 3 player games. I find with 2 (and even 3), intentional blocking can make sense. With 4 and 5, it would seem to me that blocking is mostly unintentional. That bugs me because it takes away one of the nasty things I love about TtR and replaces it with a bit more luck (e.g., two people begin with a hand of tickets that is going to lead to them blocking each other). That said, I’d almost never turn down a game of TtR regardless of the player count.

  2. Pingback: Ticket to Ride: A Great Training Game | Roll With It Reviews

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