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Reviews - Ticket to Ride: The Card Game
 
by Lee Valentine


TTR Card Game boxTicket to Ride: The Card Game
Published by Days of Wonder
Designed by Alan Moon
$25.00

This game is featured in our OgreCave Christmas Gift Guide 2008.

I recently had the opportunity to play Ticket to Ride: The Card Game from Days of Wonder, a game for 2 to 4 players, ages 8 to adult. Alan Moon designed both the Ticket to Ride board games and the new card game. Surprisingly, while some of the rules and themes of the card game will make the game easier to learn for players who already know how to play any of the board games in the Ticket to Ride (TTR) series, the similarity largely ends there.

Comparison to the board games
The TTR board games focus on completing specific routes from one point to another on a map, fighting for the resources to complete those routes, and trying to lock other players out of routes altogether. The colorful maps and train tokens used in the board game help to evoke the feel that you are actually laying down track to gain a monopoly over a specific route.

The card game, by contrast, is really an abstract game with a train theme pasted lightly on, that merely leverages some of the card acquisition mechanics of the TTR board game series. TTR: The Card Game feels like a cross between Rummy and the card acquisition mechanics from the TTR board game. The absence of a map board will be the first thing that makes TTR board game players realize that the card game is a different animal.

Game Objective
In the card game, the goal is to collect a variety of colored "Train cards" which are cashed in during the end game to complete Destination Tickets, which have values that grant victory points to the player who completes them. Each Ticket has two cities listed on it (the end points of the train route) and also has 1-5 colored circles on it. Each one of those circles is filled with one of the eight basic colors of Trains in the card game. No more than two circles on any given Ticket card will be filled with the same color. Tickets with fewer colored circles are worth fewer victory points at the end of the game and vice versa. For example, the New York to Chicago Ticket has a single blue circle on it and is worth five points, while the Seattle to Miami Ticket requires five circles in four colors and is worth a whopping 22 points.

Normal Train cards come in eight different colors. Locomotives are another type of card in the Train deck which count as wild cards that can substitute for any other color of Train to complete a Ticket. Thus, just as they are in the board games, Locomotives are a powerful tool to help reach the game's ultimate objective of completing tickets.

Game appearance & Component quality
TTR: The Card Game includes a rulebook and 148 different cards. There are 6 Big Cities Bonus cards, 46 Destination Tickets, and 96 Train cards.

The game is printed in full color on a decent grade of stock. The cards are a little thinner than I'd like, but are good overall quality. The game comes in a sturdy, attractive, full-color box containing a plastic insert which keeps the card types separated so that they are always ready for your next game.

The game features some very nice graphic design. Each color of train has a color-specific piece of train car art on it. The train card art is framed by an illustration of a brass frame with a gear motif. The top corners of the train cards feature circles of representative color with a light outline of a clock behind them to let you verify the color of the train card. As a practical matter, these colored circles are used to help you keep track of the colors in your hand when you fan the cards. For each colored circle on the train card, on the other side of the card there is a small, color-specific icon, to help colorblind gamers enjoy the game. For players familiar with Magic: the Gathering, these icons look much like over-sized mana symbols.

TTR Card Game cardsTicket cards are nice looking, and convey a lot of information. Each Ticket has two cities listed on it (the two end points for that route). There are six "Big Cities" in the game, and if the destination is a Big City then that city is listed in a city-specific color that is associated with the color on the Big City bonus card for that city. For example, Miami has a red font (and red colored circles) on its bonus card, and so every ticket listing Miami as a potential destination lists the word "Miami" in a red font. Non-Big City destinations are printed in a dark sepia tone.

Each Ticket also has a number of colored clock faces (as found on the Train cars), showing the number and color of each Train that must be "cashed in" during scoring to complete that ticket. Again, the colorblind symbols are used on the Ticket cards as well. Of course, each Ticket card includes a value representing the points earned for completing the ticket. Finally (and this part is not mentioned in the rules), there is a sepia-colored photo of a station, passenger, track, train car, or locomotive in the background of each ticket. You can determine the approximate value range (but not the actual value) of a Ticket by looking at the photo, making these an interesting, but not highly useful, touch.

Big City bonus cards are less ornate. They feature a colored circular clock on two corners of the face, the bonus value of the card in a large font, the name of the city, and a color coded picture in the background, with the latter presumably representing the city in question.

Leaving the station
At the start of the game, one Locomotive card is given to each player. Then the Train Deck (a deck containing only Train cards) is shuffled and players are dealt seven more random Train cards. Finally the Ticket Deck (a deck containing only Tickets) is shuffled, and each player is dealt 6 random Tickets. Each player must select and keep at least one of his starting Tickets and may keep up to the full six. The last bit of setup required is to deal out five Train cards individually from the top of the Train deck face up in a row next to that deck.

Game play travels around the table with each player taking a turn. During his turn, a player first takes all of his required start-of-turn actions (which I'll discuss later) and then he chooses one of the following actions to perform:

  • 1) play a combination of train cards to his "Railyard",
  • 2) draw new Train cards, or
  • 3) draw new Tickets

Playing combinations
Playing card combinations is a little tricky. There are two basic card combinations that are playable in the game. I'll call them a "flush" and a "rainbow" as mnemonic aids for the reader (though neither type of card play has a specific name in the actual rules). A flush requires you to play two or more Train cards of the same color. When playing a flush, at least one of those cards must not be a Locomotive. Further, to play a flush you may not have Train cards of that color already in play, and no other single player may have the same or more Train cards of that color already in play.

Playing a flush potentially allows you to engage in Train Robbing as follows. Provided that you met the criteria to play a flush to begin with, everyone else's face up Trains of that color are discarded immediately. Whether or not your flush play results in Train Robbing, your newly played cards go into play in an overlapping vertical column of cards in front of you with all the Locomotives included in the play on top of the others. The area containing your face up cards is called your "Railyard".

The requirement that all plays of Locomotives must be accompanied by non-Locomotive Trains may throw TTR board game players, but there is an obvious logic to it. As will be described below, the game's core mechanics revolve around keeping each distinct color of train separate from trains of other colors. Without a non-Locomotive Train to form the base of a given Railyard pile, it would be difficult to remember which color the Locomotive cards were assigned to.

A second card combination you can play to your Railyard on your turn is one I'll call a rainbow, where you play exactly three Train cards, each of a different color. Unlike a flush, when playing a rainbow you may not play any Locomotives as part of the combination. You cannot engage in Train Robbing when playing a rainbow, and so nobody (including you) can have any cards of the colors you just played already on the table. Cards from a rainbow play are put into your Railyard in an overlapping vertical column, just like you would for a flush play.

It is sometimes possible for individual players to have quite a few cards in play at any one time. Usually, however, between Train Robbing, and a mechanism which I'll discuss later called the "On the Track Stack", cards you play leave your Railyard at a very steady rate, which can, particularly in a two-player game, result in no cards in either player's Railyard during some points of the game.

Drawing Train Cards
The process of drawing Train cards will be familiar to TTR board game players. Players can draw up to two Train cards. You can draw either from the face down Train deck or the five face up cards next to the Train deck. If you take a face up Locomotive you do not get a second card (face down Locomotives from the Train deck do, however, allow a second pick). Each time you pick a face up Train card, another card from the top of the Train deck is flipped face up in its place. You could, for example, pick a face up black train from the five up cards next to the Train deck, wait to see what flips up next to replace it, and then draw from the top of the Train deck for your second Train pick.

Drawing Tickets
The last of these options, drawing new Tickets, is generally ignored early in the game as players already start with 1-6 Tickets in hand. That said, Ticket selection is really at the heart of the game's strategy, as any Ticket that is kept but not completed by the end of the game actually subtracts its value from that player's victory points. After pre-game setup the rules for Ticket drawing are changed, and each Ticket draw gets you four new tickets, of which you may keep any, all, or even none. The Tickets that aren't kept are reshuffled when the Ticket deck runs out.

You will likely want to spend as many turns as possible taking actions other than drawing Tickets, so there is a balance between keeping too many Tickets and keeping too few. There is also a tension between taking only tickets requiring you to collect one or two train cards and keeping those that require as many as five train cards to complete. It's nice to know that you won't have any cards subtracting from your score, but brave players are much more likely to score tickets worth 20 or more points than are overly cautious players.

The Railyard & On the Track Stack
Unlike Rummy, when you play a set of cards to the table into your Railyard you are not guaranteed that these cards will later score for you. Instead, Railyard cards represent an investment that may or may not actually pay off. At the start of each of your turns, before you take any other actions, you take the top card of every one of the face up colored Train piles in your Railyard and put it face down into a single growing pile called your "On the Track Stack". Only cards in your On the Track Stack can be used at the end of the game to complete your tickets, and they are not subject to Train Robbing like your Railyard cards are. While Locomotives are in your Railyard they are temporarily committed to a specific color pile, but when they arrive in your On the Track Stack they free themselves up to become wild cards again for the end of the game.

Under the normal rules of play, players are never allowed to look through their On the Track Stacks at any time before the end of the game. This can make TTR: The Card Game an extreme memory challenge, forcing players to keep track of the number of Trains of each of eight colors plus Locomotive wild cards that you have successfully moved into your On the Track Stack. Without memorizing this information, you will always be uncertain which Tickets you will be able to complete during the end game.

Endgame & Scoring
The end of the game is triggered when the last card is drawn from the Train deck (regardless of whether there are face up Train cards next to it). At that point the current player finishes his turn, and then every player (including the current player) gets one last turn. Then scoring occurs.

During scoring, players go through the collection of Tickets that they have kept and assign Trains from their On the Track Stack to "pay for" the color requirements listed on each Ticket. Each Ticket completed in this fashion scores points for its holder, and each unpaid Ticket subtracts its value from its holder's total.

As the final computation for scoring, Big City Bonus totals are counted. To determine these, each player looks at the two cities written on each of their completed Tickets, and makes a running tally of how many of them feature a given city's name. At least one and sometimes both cities that are named are color-coded as "Big Cities". The Big Cities are named off one at a time, and the player with the most completed tickets featuring that city's name gets the Big City Bonus card for that city. In the case of a tie, the tying players all score the bonus associated with that city. Different Big Cities are worth different amounts of bonus points, ranging from 8 for Seattle up to 15 for New York City. The highest final score wins.

Days of Wonder estimates that the game will last about 30 minutes, but I found that the game can easily last twice that amount, particularly for the first couple of plays. Some of that additional time may be spent on verifying that you have sufficient cards in your On the Track Stack to pay for your Destination Tickets. This is particularly true if you have insufficient Train Cards to do so and need to make some decisions about what you are going to complete.

Differences in the Four-Player Game
The above information summarizes 2-3 player games. The four-player game is something like playing two consecutive rounds of the 2-3 player rules. At the end of the first round, players score completed Tickets as usual but no bonuses are awarded for Big Cities, and you also do not subtract for uncompleted Tickets, which players will have another opportunity to complete during the second round of play). All Train cards used to complete Tickets, plus all Train cards in all players' On the Track Stacks and Railyards are reshuffled into the Train deck and each player is dealt four new Train cards. Completed first round Tickets are set aside so as to not confuse them with Tickets which are, as of yet, incomplete. Only at the end of the second round of play are the remaining Tickets scored, and any bonuses for Big Cities and penalties for uncompleted Tickets are applied.

Rules Commentary
While many of the basic ideas of the rulebook were fairly clear, in some instances, the writing caused me some cognitive dissonance. For example, when referring to playing combinations of cards, the rulebook refers to "rows" and the illustrations appear to look more like piles or "columns". However, there were some specific areas of the rulebook that were exceedingly vague or left out of the rulebook altogether. This is not entirely surprising to me. Days of Wonder is one of my favorite game companies in the industry, but my experience with their card game Gang of Four is that they err on the side of brevity rather than to elect for a longer, clearer rulebook with exception handling.

As an example of a rules problem, it's not entirely clear from the rules that you cannot play a stack of all Locomotive cards and call it "blue". That bit of information I had to find in the Days of Wonder forums on their website, and even then the information seemed to be provided by other fans rather than DoW staff.

The endgame is also not addressed well at all. If everyone completes all their tickets then how the end game is handled is pretty moot. But as TTR is a game of extreme memorization, some players won't know whether they have completed their tickets. When you are forced to leave two tickets incomplete, for example, it's very useful to think about Big City bonus scoring, and thus it's useful to know how many tickets featuring a given city that your opponent will be completing. So is the endgame handled face up so that players can respond to each other or face down so that you have to guess what your opponents are up to? If it's face up, then the order of operations is important for decision making (such as, deciding to forego completing a Chicago ticket, which your opponent has a lot of, to instead complete a New York City ticket which he has relatively fewer of). If Ticket completion is handled "sight unseen" by your opponents, then players will need to have a quiet space to sit, pair off Trains and Tickets, and count up their scores.

This question arises most obviously in the four-player play (which has two scoring sequences, as the game is played in two parts). After players have decided which Tickets they will be completing, each player must end the first scoring phase with his completed Tickets paired with the corresponding Train cards. Since all the Trains used to complete their Tickets are instantly reshuffled into the Train deck, they cannot be used to verify Tickets from round one at the very end of the four-player game.

Usability Concerns
In spite of the overall solid look of the game, I found a couple of graphic design choices that detracted from the usability of the game cards. First, the card backs use the same central image as the Locomotive wild card and fairly similar framing to other Train card faces (brass gear motifs, etc.). The back also features colored clocks in about the same shade as the purple train cards. There is no game name or branding on the backs at all, making the backs look very much like the faces.

This front/back similarity could be problematic for players, who might confuse card backs for purple trains. Since some cards in the game are kept face-up in the game area and some cards are kept face-down, this exacerbates the problem.

For me, it caused a different problem during game play. I never confused the backs for purple trains, but instead I tended to put cards into my On the Track Stack face up, as I was psychologically cued to "keep the trains showing" on already face-up cards by the similarity of the card backs to the faces.

Another minor problem I had was on Tickets - the color for the city of Chicago was not a stark enough difference for me from the non-Big City destinations, making the visual cue that Chicago is a "Big City" less obvious than it could have been. Other people might not have the same problem I had with this.

The third usability problem I had with the graphic design was the lack of relative color differences between the orange and yellow circles on the faces of Trains and Tickets. While I'm not colorblind, I occasionally felt the need to rely on those symbols to distinguish between yellow and orange cards, and my wife confused them in one instance when paying the completion costs for her Tickets at the end of the game.

The biggest problem I had with the game's graphic design involved the Tickets again. As previously noted, each ticket features a variety of colored circles showing you the number of Train Cards of each color that you need to "cash in" to complete the ticket. Unfortunately, a given color is not on the same place on the side of each Ticket. For example, Green could appear on the top of some tickets, or third from the top on other tickets. The result of this effect is that it is hard to quickly calculate your current Train collecting needs to fulfill all your tickets. Had each color been assigned a unique spot on the ticket (e.g., green is always second from the top) and if numbers were put inside a color where multiples of that color were required, then a player could easily spread his Tickets in his hand and count across to quickly calculate his Train needs. Now, using this suggestion would have left gaps on some cards and would have required smaller color circles, so I can understand why the graphical decisions were made. That said, I'm just not certain that I agree with the gameplay results of those choices, which made counting the necessary Ticket requirements a tedious process

Conclusions
People considering purchasing this game should be prepared for the type of game that they are getting into. When I've played the boardgame there has been a fair bit of table talk. The original games can get cutthroat, but are still a more lighthearted experience. The card game can be such an extreme memory challenge that table talk, and thus fun socialization, was minimized at our game table, giving the game the tense social vibe of high stakes poker or high level chess.

The game should also not be played by people who suffer from analysis paralysis, as a player who has collected insufficient Train cards to fulfill all of his tickets can have to compute a lot of variables concerning Big City bonuses and Ticket values to figure out which Tickets he should complete.

If you know that you are getting your hands on a pretty serious card game, Ticket to Ride: The Card Game is worth adding to your game collection. I like the fact that strategies can vary depending on the number of players. For example, with two players, it's possible only to train rob a single color out of a three-color train play. With four players, all of your cards in a three-color play can be train robbed before you collect them. Further, there will be more colors on the table in four player play, and so it becomes harder to play the exact colors that you want to play in a three-color combination.

In my experience, many games that support up to four players are rarely good as two-player games. This game thankfully does not have that problem, and the two-player game was quite satisfying.

I am a fan of games in the Rummy family, and novel game play mechanics make Ticket to Ride: The Card Game a proud new member to that family. I would be inclined to play it more frequently, particularly in two-player play, if the endgame scoring was faster. For that reason, if Days of Wonder produces a computerized version of this game, I'll be eager to try it. While the card game doesn't really evoke the spirit or the feel of the boardgame, it's a good game in its own right. Given its serious tone, Ticket to Ride: The Card Game is not as much pure fun to play as the boardgames in the TTR family, but I think its unique gameplay could make it a worthy addition to the game collections of old school card gamers.

For Retailers
Retailers will find this title easy to stock as the boxes are small and the price is workable. The game should have above average selling potential because of the "Ticket to Ride" moniker. That said, since gameplay is really so different than the TTR boardgames, you aren't likely to be able to sell a copy of this game to every one of the TTR boardgame players who frequents your stores. As always, the best way to convert players is to demo, and this game thankfully demos quickly, particularly for people who already know how to play the original Ticket to Ride board game.

 

Lee's ratings:

Overall Score: B+ (unique game with some rules holes that detract from the experience)
Rules Clarity: B
Gameplay: B+
Appearance: B+ (great appearance with some usability problems)

 

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