Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#9: Ticket to Ride Online - Cheap Train Fare

I hope you're ready for some steamy train action, because this time I'll be talking about Ticket to Ride. I picked it up as part of an indie game bundle on Steam during the recent summer sale.

Typically, Ticket to Ride is played as a board game. It's a relatively well known board game to boot, particularly among those who have advanced beyond the occasional game of Settlers of Catan and hunger for even more European-style board game fare. It's no Monopoly or Risk though as far as infamy goes, so if you live in the USA and haven't heard of Ticket to Ride before, I can't really blame you.

If I saw that portly guy with the mutton chops and the purple tux at any point in history, I'd consider my day a success. You have to have serious #trainswag to pull that off.
In two sentences, the game consists of collecting quantities of different color "train cards" so that you can place a train linking two cities on a track of the corresponding color and length with the ultimate goal of completing your "tickets". Tickets are cards that task you with connecting two cities and give bonus points if completed, but subtract the same number of points from your final score if you fail to connect those two cities.

The people throughout the menus (such as the fellow on the left here) are all terribly voice acted, so much so that the first thing I did was go into options and look for a way to shut them up. Aside from that, the interface is basic but effective at getting you into the game quickly.

You can play the game online or against AI, and at least for someone of my competence the AI seems adequately difficult (which is to say, I played two games solo and went 50/50). For online, there's matchmaking or custom game lobbies for 2-5 players, so whatever floats your boat is available to you.

Initially the game can appear overwhelming, but it actually takes all of two or three minutes to learn. Unsurprisingly, the claim "A minute to learn, a lifetime to master!" features prominently on their Steam store page.
Let's take the above screencap of one of my games online. This is basically the entire game, so I'll go clockwise around the screen, starting in the top left, describing what we see. 

We've got a back/leave the game button, mute sound button (which you'll want to do, because the background music is beyond terrible), and a help button that can succinctly explain anything you need to know to play. After using it to check how exactly the game ends and the rules for the two-lane tracks, I pretty much figured out the rest of the game on my first try.

Anyway, next, we've got the little profiles for your opponents. You can see how many train pieces they have left, how many cards are in their hand up to a point (after 8 it just says 8+, which is a big chunk of the time), and how many tickets they've picked so far (I'll address that in a moment).

On the right side, we've got the the different cards you can draw on your turn. You may use your turn to draw 2 train cards total, each from either the top of the deck or one of the five that have been flipped face up in play. If you choose a wild card from in play, it uses both of your draws. When you choose one of the revealed ones, it will be replaced by the top card of the deck immediately. If you draw from the top of the deck, your card is essentially random, but you have a chance of getting a wild card for the price of only one card draw. 

Alternatively, you can draw three tickets from the ticket deck and choose to keep a minimum of one of them. You will probably not do this too many times per game if at all; as I mentioned earlier, each incomplete ticket deducts points from your final score.

The bottom right shows how many tickets you've kept so far, and how many you've completed. The bottom-middle is your hand, showing the various colors and quantities of train cards you currently have. While, for example, four yellow train cards could be used to place a train route that is yellow and containing four or fewer train spaces, it is also important to note that any color train cards can be used to place a route that is grey colored. These are opportunities to screw your opponents over if their intended goal is too obvious by clogging their train routes with your own trains and forcing them to build around.

Bottom left shows how many cards are in your hand and how many train pieces you have left, as well as a large and pointless picture of "you". 

Finally, going back up the left side, we've got a chat log (I almost never saw this used at any time, I guess the online board game crowd is a silent lot) and a chart explaining how many points you earn for placing routes of different sizes. While you don't get many points for placing routes that consist of 1, 2, or 3 train pieces, you get a veritable jackpot for 6 pieces and above.

I am the green kid this time. I didn't end up winning this game, but it was close. My opponents clogged several of my planned routes and left me with a meandering mess of a train system that missed several tickets and made me lose tons of points.
The game ends when any player reaches 2 to 0 remaining train game pieces. All players then have a chance to play one more turn. This can result in a viable strategy being "end the game as soon as possible" because the person who ends the game will logically have the most trains on the board and therefore a point advantage. It also makes sense to just place trains as soon as possible to end the game if you don't think you have enough time to complete another ticket, in order to deprive other players of the chance to earn more points. Plus, if you can put them in a long chain, the person who controls the longest continuous train route gets a bonus 10 points!

The results screen for that previous screenshot's game. It was close primarily because my opponents screwed with eachother's plans as much as my own, but red pulled ahead for the win with the longest train route bonus at the end.

Some observations from my 12-to-15 games of Ticket to Ride:

  • Grabbing lots of tickets in an attempt to tie together a bunch of east coast cities seems high-risk, low reward. Simply grabbing lots of train cards and building the long routes on the west coast seems to generate the same amount of points before even adding in ticket bonuses, yet that plan also seems safer.
  • Always grab from the top of the train deck unless you urgently need a specific color and it's available in play at that moment. By grabbing from the top of the deck, you can accumulate wild cards to fill in any holes in your train color assortment anyway.
  • Don't underestimate how badly you can screw someone over by simply placing a 2 or 3 train piece route in the way of their goal. You might waste a turn and a few trains, but they will waste several turns and several more trains than you did trying to go around it.
  • Sometimes, you just get lucky or unlucky. It's a board game. There's a strong element of luck on purpose. The bright side is that the game does a fairly good job of not letting you feel like your fate is being controlled by anything random.
  • As someone who has played a decent number of board games, playing it online with automated shuffling, hand sorting, illuminated route goals, and other small conveniences probably cuts the playtime of this game in half, if not more. I rarely take longer than 15-20 minutes to complete a game of Ticket to Ride online, with no setup or putting it back away into the box.
The bad news of course is that in order to play with friends, they will need to fork over $10 each to buy it at full price. It doesn't stop there; in order to play any map aside from the USA, you'll need to fork over a few more bucks. There are four additional maps listed on the Steam Store, with a cumulative cost of $15. 

There are numerous pros and cons to investing in a board game's online version instead of the physical version, but I think I will save the subject of video game adaptations of board games and card games for another blog entry entirely. Hopefully you'll see it go up soon.

As always, thank you for reading, and may your trains always run on time without a fascist dictator taking control of your country.

Thanks for reading. Please comment and follow/share/bookmark/staple/lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well. . . If you suggest a game and I own it, I will most likely play it for the next entry.