Ticket to Ride: A four-sided game review

Ticket to RideTicket to Ride is a hugely popular family strategy board game for two to five players, retailing for around £30 – although most people outside the hobby still haven’t heard of it. It has sold more than three million copies since 2004 and spawned a string of expansions, as well as a popular browser, Apple and Android app.

Often given the ‘king of the gateway games’ tag, it’s a fabulous tool to show non-gamers how great the hobby is today. But there’s also enough fun in Alan R Moon’s simple design to keep many regular gamers (including myself) coming back for more.

Games should last less than an hour and the game works well with any number, although experienced players tend to prefer different maps (bought separately) at certain player counts.

In Ticket to Ride, players collect sets of coloured train cards and use them to claim routes between cites on a large map of North America. While you’ll score victory points for these connections, each player also has a set of their own secret destination cards to complete. So when placing your routes, you can be blocking your opponents in the process – deliberately or not! And unfinished route cards will lose you points at the end of the game.

Alongside the nice game board and cards (they’re small, 68x44mm, but larger ones are available – and there’s no real text) each player gets 45 plastic train cars in their colour; these make the board look great once the game gets going. There’s also some wooden score markers, plus a well laid out and simple to understand four-page rulebook. The rules say eight years and up, which seems about right.


Yellow plays three pink cards to complete this three-train route between Helena and Salt Lake city

Yellow plays three pink cards to complete this three-train route between Helena and Salt Lake city

Ticket to Ride is a very simple game to teach. Each player does one action on their turn: picks up destination cards (a rare action choice); picks up train cards, or uses those train cards to lay some of their plastic trains to complete a single route between two cities.

Turns are quick so players get to see lots happen in a short space of time, which should help clarify any rules issues. If you’re teaching to non-gamers, be sure not to say “this is so easy” and then really rattle through things; intelligent people with low confidence can immediately glaze over in fear they’ll be the stupid one and not hear a word you say!

Take things slowly, give examples, and run through a couple of sample moves that show each of the available options.

While Ticket to Ride is very simple, there’s plenty of room for some very different strategies – all of which can pay off on their day. Everyone will be familiar with Rummy-style set collection, but it’s the route-building spacial element that makes it sing. Do you play routes early, showing your hand, or try and hoard cards to lay a bunch of routes at once? The former can invite others to guess your routes and block you; the latter is a game of chicken, where you may not be quick enough to claim the routes you need.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

Yellow completes the 'Sault St Marie to Oklahoma City' route card; they'll keep it secret and score 9 points at the end of the game

Yellow completes the ‘Sault St Marie to Oklahoma City’ route card; they’ll keep it secret and score 9 points at the end of the game

  • The writer: I have two distinct groups of friends; full-time/regular gamers who either don’t mind/dislike Ticket to Ride; and occasional/non-gamers who really, really like it. The ideas are simple to grasp and fit the theme, while the luck of the draw and hidden goals work well to balance the skill level and keep people guessing until the end, while still being able to socialise. I’m closing in on 100 plays and know a number of households that now have copies thanks to us teaching the game over a bottle or four of wine. And long may that continue.
  • The thinker: For an experienced gamer who likes to work the old grey matter, Ticket to Ride is at best a wine and nibbles game. While too long to be considered a filler, it’s a perfectly pleasant way to pass time while chatting in pleasant company. However, even then, I would try and sneak something slightly more challenging onto the table; perhaps Stone Age, or Fresco.
  • The trasher: The only way this can be fun is by getting ruthless – and getting in and out fast. Identify the potential choke points for your routes, get in their early, then tidy up the loose ends. There’s also a bonus for longest route, so once you’ve nailed your routes its an easy way to get your trains down fast without wasting turns picking up new destination cards. Let’s face it; the quicker it ends, the quicker we get something more ‘in your face’ onto the table!
  • The dabbler: Ticket to Ride will always be one of my absolute favourites. Old friends can play nasty, new ones can play softly softly, while everyone has a chance of winning even in their first game. The rules are plain and simple, turns are quick, and the board position is easy to assess when it gets to your turn – so you can have a good chat between times! While a bit nerdy the train theme is done in a very Victorian/cartoony fashion, so shouldn’t put already sceptical people off too much – while it’s bright and colourful, so also good for the younger crowd.

Key observations

Ticket to Ride pointsSome criticise the game for being chaotic and random; I presume they don’t like chaotic and random games. Others say it lacks interaction; I guess these people instead like more interactive games.

These aren’t criticisms of Ticket to Ride – they’re complaints made by someone who has played a game they didn’t like, as they have different tastes. However, the additional theme running through many negative comments (there are more such as “it’s boring”, “it’s OK” etc) tends to be that either people have come to the game late in their board game lives; or that they’ve moved onto more complex games.

That is certainly not a position I’m going to dispute, even if personally I don’t agree with it – and it’s notable that many of these negative comments preface them with the fact they’ve moved on to bigger and more complex things.

I’m not saying the game is perfect, or that everyone will like it. But I am saying that – for what it sets out to do – Ticket to Ride absolutely nails it. There’s a reason it has sold millions of copies, yet it isn’t clogging up the charity shop walls alongside Triv, Monopoly and Connect 4. Those who solely want to game ‘seriously’ need not apply; but I think there’s plenty of value here for most social gamers.

The standard cards versus the oversized '1910' cards

The standard cards versus the oversized ‘1910’ cards

I’ll briefly mention the ‘small cards’ issue again too. The original version has very small cards which some find fiddly. However, if you find this is an issue there’s an expansion called Ticket to Ride: USA 1910 that replaces all the cards with standard sized ones, while adding a few variant ideas to help liven up your experience. The expansion retails for around £10.

The expansion maps are also worth mentioning here. After a few plays the standard US map can start to feel a little open if you want to play cut-throat, especially with two or four players. But there are tighter maps, with some interesting additional rules, on the market. I may write about these another time, but feel free to ask comments below if you want some advise on them.


Ticket to Ride trainsI wanted to look at a game that was important to me for my 25th review, which tells you something about my opinion of Ticket to Ride.

It wasn’t the game that got me back into the hobby – that was actually a couple of abstract games, Ingenious and Blokus.

But it is the game I’ve used to successfully reintroduce people back into the board game hobby; and one I’ve played more than most other games I own.

I rate Ticket to Ride at 7.5, which may seem miserly, and does undervalue its place in my collection. I probably rate 50 games higher than it in terms of mechanisms etc, but the more telling fact is that if I could only keep 10 games it would be one of them – and it may even survive a cull down to five. I’ve found that it is simply the best at what I need it to do: make people think board and card games are a viable option for a night in; and there a few better feelings for a board game evangelist than that.

This month (May 2014) also sees the printing of a special 10th Anniversary Edition of the game with a bigger board, flashier cards and fantastic new plastic trains. It’s absolutely beautiful and will probably burn a £70 hole in my pocket, despite me having absolutely no need to own it at all; that’s how much this game has meant to me over the past five years.

Getting back into board and card games: helpful links

I’ve put a new ‘page’ up, where I’ll be linking a series of posts about how to get back into the board and card game hobby. I’ve posted it here.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be linking a group of posts to it, which I’ve listed by title below. I’m also adding a few links here now so that if you find this post before I’ve got round to writing the full article for each section, you’ve got a head start.

  • Where to buy (on and offline)
    Online, my first port of call tends to be Board Game Guru. I will also check Amazon, mainly for special offers, and The Works as it has had some fine games at crazy cheap prices of late (but also some tat – check reviews first!).
  • Websites (to play on)
    My absolute favourite is Yucata, a play-by-mail style site where you take your turns in as many games as it’s your turn in, then log off again (or you can stay online and try to play someone real time, if they hang around long enough). Boite Jeux does the same thing just as well, but with less games and a slightly less friendly interface. Both are FREE and I’m ‘hairyarsenal’ on both.
  • Websites (for research)
    There is one ahead of al others in terms of depth of content and that’s the not helpfully titled Board Game Geek. However, it’s ridiculously daunting for a new visitor and not very user friendly (there is  revamp of the site ongoing though – fingers crossed).
  • Podcasts
    There is a surprisingly large amount of good board game podcasts, but I think two stand out for newer gamers because they tend to talk a lot about simpler and popular/newer titles in an accessible way. These are The Dice Tower and The Spiel. Both are also on iTunes.
  • Smartphone, console and tablet apps
    Some of the bigger games that are great for getting people back into playing tabletop games have amazing online versions and apps. Whatever your console, phone or home computer you should be able to find Settles of CatanCarcassonne, or Ticket to Ride. All on on Xbox, Apple and Android devices for a small fee, while Catan and Carcassonne are both on BlackBerry too.
  • Video channels
    Definitely check out the new premium (but free) YouTube show TableTop, with Wil Wheaton. For individual game reviews, once again The Dice Tower is great has it seems to review the most games; but my favourite are the reviews of UvulaBob are my favourite, as they’re always genuinely funny.
  • A great game to start with per genre
    I won’t go here yet, although the three titles above under ‘Smartphone, console and tablet apps’ are a good starting point for the hobby in general: they’re really big sellers, have stood the test of time and I’d expect the majority of board gamers had one of these help them get back into the hobby.

If you found a particular game or resource helped get you back into the hobby, I’d love to hear about it.

A guide to gateway games: Great ways to get back into card and board games (Top 5, part 2)

Below you’ll find the conclusion to my top five gateway board and card games, which includes my top two choices as well as several near misses that almost made the list.

It was pointed out to me that I may be using a few terms that are unfamiliar if you’ve not played many board and card games before – which must be particularly annoying if you’re looking to get into the hobby (sorry). If so, let me know what they are and I’ll put them together in a future glossary post (and answer any questions).

For now though, here are some more great board games that you should have no problem playing straight out of the box, even if your only previous experience is of basics such as Monopoly or Connect 4. They’re also a whole lot better, with a lot more fun on offer for everyone involved.

I should also note here that both my number one and two picks below are now available on iOS for your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch (they’re really good implementations too).Carcassonneis also available on Android. Playing in person is way better, but these apps can be a good, cheap way to try the games out before taking the plunge and getting them in their ‘proper’ format.

2) Carcassonne

In second spot is this classic tile laying game. I actually saw Carcassonne in Waterstones over Christmas, which was great news, although it seems to have disappeared again now (someone needs to tell them that, just like puppies, games aren’t just for Christmas!).

The game consists of a big pile of cardboard tiles (which are about two-inch square) and several sets of small wooden people (called ‘meeples’) in various colours, one for each player (the game plays equally well with two to five players). There is also a small board that acts purely as a scoring track.

Once each player has chosen a colour and taken their meeples, you stack all the tiles face down in piles away from the centre of the table. The starting tile is then placed in the middle of the table and the game begins.

Each tile has a combination of mediaeval roads, farmland, cloisters and castles that will be placed together to form a large map out from that starting tile, a bit like a jigsaw. Each player takes it in turns to flip over and then places a tile (as long as the sides match – road to road, farmland to farmland etc), before deciding whether to place one of their meeples on top of it to try and earn some points (the highest total score once all tiles have been placed wins).

Some meeples will stay on their tile throughout the game, scoring at the end, while others will be returned to you on the completion of a road, cloister or castle their tile was part of. As you have a finite number of meeples, managing them can be tricky. And as you gain experience, you’ll find cunning ways to gain points from castles, farms and roads other players thought they were going to keep to themselves.

Carcassonneplays in under an hour, has very quick turns and everything is out in the open. It works particularly well for new players as you’ve literally nothing to hide – you turn over a tile on your turn and anyone can chip in with ideas about where you should place it (or, once you start to get more cunning, where you can stick it!). New players will just enjoy learning the game, while more experienced players find a deep level of strategy keeps them coming back for more. It looks gorgeous too, while coming in at a great price point (less than £20).

As one of the most popular board games around (well, that isn’t routinely in WHSmith and ToysRus anyway),Carcassonne also comes in all kinds of different styles and there are various bits you can add later if you like it. There are also several variants, but I would certainly advise the standard set as a great starting point to any games collection.

1) Ticket to Ride

For me though, as for many others, Ticket to Ride is the classic gateway game. It just edges out Carcassonne as although I’ve had both games for a long time now, and really enjoy both, it is more often than not Ticket to Ride that hits the table.

The game features a large board showing a map of America with cities connected via coloured tracks; there are also bags of plastic trains and a whole bunch of cards. During the game, players will score points for completing the coloured tracks between the cities and by completing route cards they keep hidden from the other players; the player who ends with the most points wins.

Each player takes a set of plastic carriages in one colour, four random coloured carriage cards from the top of the draw pile and three route cards. They then choose which route cards to keep or discard (you must keep one, but can keep two or three if you like) before beginning the game.

Turns are simple; you either draw a couple of cards (there are five face up for you to choose from, or you can take blind from the draw pile) or place you plastic carriages on the map to claim whole routes between cities. Alternatively, if you’re feeling brave, you can draw more route cards.

A route can be between two cities quite close together, or on complete opposite sides of the map. The further you have to go, the more points you’ll get for completing that route before the game ends; but then again, if you don’t complete a route, you’ll instead be docked that number of points. There is also a bonus for the player who makes the longest unbroken route around the map.

To claim a track between two cities, you need to have collected the same amount of coloured carriage cards as there are tracks on the board; so you’re collecting sets, rummy style, to complete this objective.

The tricksy part is that other people are bound to want to go across some of the same areas as you, which can play havoc with your plans as once someone has claimed a route, it’s gone (although some cities have two tracks running between them, each of which can be taken by a separate player). And, of course, if you telegraph your plans, someone might just block you to spite you…

Ticket to Ride plays in under two hours and everyone will ‘get it’ by about the middle of their first play (if not sooner). It will set you back around £30, but the components are top quality and its well worth the investment. The original version plays best with four or five, although other maps (Switzerland, for example, which you can add for just over £20) play really well with two or three players (there is also now a six-player pairs map available).

Again, turns are fast and there is a certain element of ‘screw you’ – which is even better when you’re usually doing it by accident! There’s a bit of thinking between turns, but as your hopes can easily be dashed by the time it gets back to you, you’re normally better spending the time getting another drink, smack talking etc.

Close, but no cigar…

There are a few games that nearly made the list that I’ll briefly mention here, as they’re all a little different from the others and may suit particular tastes:

Settlers of Catan: This would actually be many people’s favourite gateway game, but it’s not on my list because it has fallen flat with my main group. The game heavily involves negotiation between players – if that’s something you think will work with your group, then this is a cracking game that is easy to learn and fun to play. If not, avoid; if people aren’t going to trade, it will drag for ages and you’ll wonder where the last three hours went.

Revolution: This simple game combines blind bidding with area control. Each player bids secretly on a board split into 16 sections; sections give influence in areas of the city; victory points; actions, and/or tokens to bid with in the next round. When everyone is ready, reveal the bids – the winner in each of the 16 section gets to do it. Once all the areas of the game board are fully influenced, the person with the most of their counters in each area gets bonus points and the game ends.

Ra: Auction and bidding games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you think it might be the genre for you I can’t recommend Ra highly enough. There are agonising decisions to make as the pile of booty gets bigger the more tiles are drawn from a bag; when will you call ‘Ra!’ to start the bidding on the tiles available? Too soon and you may be stuck with rubbish; too late and you may hand someone else a great set of tiles.

Thebes: If you love randomness, this is a really fun board game. As an Indiana Jones type, you’ll be scooting around Europe collecting knowledge from cities before heading off on digs to collect loot from ancient sites. When you get their, you’ll get more picks from the bag of that site the more knowledge you have – but there’s plenty of blank tiles to drive you nuts. Really good fun, but not one for deep strategists!

Ingenious and Blokus: These are games you may well have seen in the likes of John Lewis and WHSmith. Both are fantastic abstract games with clever rules and lovely tactile pieces. They are games I’m glad to have in my collection and that I’d recommend to anyone, but as gateway games abstract games don’t tend to fair so well – a good theme seems to trump nice coloured chunks every time. However, if you think abstract will work better than trains or archaeology, try these!

So there you have it – a top five blog post that went on for two blogs and ended up listing 15 board and card games. Hey, at least you can’t say you don’t get value for money here.

Even now, I’m reading back and wanting to add bits here and there – it’s so hard to do these games justice in a few paragraphs. That said, if you want more information on any of these games, feel free to drop me a line or comment below. Alternatively, head to Board Game Geek where you’ll find more information than you’ll know what to do with.

Also, if you have your own recommendations, please add them below. I could always do with a few more games….