This is the first in my periodic looks at boardgames through the eyes of how they work with my family, and how I feel they might work with others. First up I'm hitting a softball as I get this up to speed--with a review and look at Ticket to Ride: Europe. You already know Barnsey's not a fan, but here's my take.
Yakkety Yak And All That
Right off the bat, I'm going to say that I'm eschewing my usual review format for this review. I plan on covering these family games from a more conversational, organic perspective, which involves a little more...and a little less...than rattling off the usual bullet points. I think it's important to use a different tone and set of criteria when looking at games this way, as the needs and topics of such a review are very different.
Everyone knows the Ticket to Ride series. The original was a Spiel des Jahres winner in 2004, and by last count had sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In an industry where 5,000 sold is a blockbuster, it's clear that Ticket to Ride is in a stratosphere all its own in terms of success. For the uninitiated (or those who try to pretend they are), it's a game about collecting sets of cards, establishing routes of trains by playing them, all in an effort to complete secret routes that will nab you points at game's end.
Basically, I've always felt that the original Ticket to Ride was the perfect family game, but one that's a step above a lot of the mass market family fare. There are only a handful of rules; on your turn you either take a couple of cards, claim a route by playing cards, or draw extra destination tickets. It takes very little time to explain and get the entire family ready to play. The bits are awesome, with tons of little plastic trains, a nicely mounted map, and linen-finish cards that handle abuse pretty well. It's the typical Days of Wonder lavish production that we're all pretty much used to by now--simply put, these guys know how to wow you with their production values.
For younger kids, it's true that the distraction of the plastic trains, plus the need to understand how and when to complete routes and when to sit back and collect cards can make it more difficult to engage and keep the attention of the youngest of gamers. I'll play it with my 10-year old, but my 7 year old boy needs coaching, and for the youngest ones, just ain't happening. However, I think that's a great age range. It's still more complex than a lot of games the hypothetical Aunt Edna is going to have been exposed to, so they won't feel it's too "kiddy", yet the rules are simple enough that you can get that 9-10 year old playing in more than just a mechanical fashion.
Yeah, I know, this was quite a few words just to say, "The base game works great for my family." I told you guys...I tend to ramble.
Ticket to Ride: Part Duex
The Europe edition of Ticket to Ride is essentially the sequel to the original, and it's been referred to as the "gamer's version" of Ticket to Ride. The basic gameplay stays the same, but now on a European map. There were two main concepts added to the game in the terms of ferries and tunnels. Ferries simply meant that you must use a certain number of "wildcards" to claim them, and tunnels had a card-flipping mechanism where it might cost you more cards than you bargained for to claim the route.
There was a third element added in the train stations. These little plastic buildings allow you to spend cards to place them in a town, and you can then use one part of an opponent's route from that city to help you claim a route at the end of the game. They're definitely handy to put into play, but here's the kicker--if you can hang on to them and not use them, you get a four point bonus for each unused station at game's end.
And boy howdy, is that usually tough to get by without using at least one, if not two or all three. The map is much, much tighter than the USA map, and the routes more often vivisect one another. This means that you're going to see choice routes between cities gobbled up sooner rather than later, and once you're blocked you're going to need one of those stations to bail you out. I could play US edition of Ticket to Ride 10 times and only be blocked a couple of times in any meaningful fashion, but while playing Ticket to Ride there was easily more than one occasion where I was simply shut out and much, much more quickly than I anticipated possible...forcing me to reach for one of those stations to help me.
There were cosmetic changes, although the production quality is much the same (read: excellent). A big plus were the larger size cards included with this edition. I didn't mind the smaller cards as much, but especially for a family audience, the change to the bigger cards is a welcome plus.
How Does it Fare? Get it? Fare? ...Please, Kill Me Now
My initial impression before getting this to the table with the family was that it might be a bridge too far. That the additional complexities and strategy considerations might put it just out of reach of that casual audience. However, I'm pleased to report that while it took some time to explain stuff like ferries and tunnels, everyone took to the game very well.
The rules changes are of course trivial for heavy gamers like you and me. The tunnels are going to be the toughest thing to explain. The tunnels mean you play the number of cards as normal, but then you flip three off the top of the deck, and if any of them match the color you played to claim the route, you have to cough up the extra cards. If you can't, you don't get to claim the route and have to put your original cards back in hand, losing your turn. This turned out to be the change that was the most fun, as more than once it created a nice bit of tension as the cards were flipped. Sometimes you can risk playing cards and hoping to get lucky, and it's that same little thrill that's created when kids toss the dice. It's that delicious moment where matters are out of your hands, and now you get to see if fate is kind to you. It's not a feeling I'm ever going to tire of, no matter how many times luck bites me on the ass...I'll still keep coming back for more.
Still, all in all I was wrong about the additions creating problems. In fact, I think the opposite effect happened, as for them the base game now looks a little vanilla. My 10-year old said he'd rather play on a US map because he had a chance of finding the cities easier, and I think that might be the other part that takes some adjustment for American-centric gamers. But he liked the extra rules and complexity, even if the strategic implications of certain plays based on those few extra wrinkles takes some time for him to wrap his brain around.
Our sixteen year-old flat out said he liked the extra rules, pretty much lining up my expectations on that one. For folks who are not strictly boardgamers, it feels good to latch on to the additional complexity, but finding that spot where they're not overwhelmed by them
What's In It For Me?
And now a few comments from the perspective of 'regular' gamers, the folks who typically read this website. First up, I was really impressed with the improvements in TtR: Europe. Like I said, Ticket to Ride is pretty much the embodiment of a perfect family game, but it definitely had its problems if you approached it with any serious strategy.
One of the complaints about the original was that people would hoard cards, especially wild cards, and then unleash them all on a bunch of long routes, claiming tons of points irrespective of whatever routes they were supposed to be playing. This was pretty busted and hugely against the spirit of how the game was meant to be played. Since the average F:ATtie won't suffer fools gladly, this just means that you don't play with people like that--i.e. Fun Murderers or Math Professors. But what if you have a family member you'd like to include that has some of those tendencies? The ferries do a great job at helping curtail the long routes. Because wild cards are needed to claim them, it funnels those cards towards those routes instead of being dumped on long routes with no purpose except for big points.
The tighter routes makes for more competition, and you're going to find a whole lot more opportunities for blocking and other general nastiness. It's just that right level of "mean" play that isn't going to send a younger player sprinting off crying, but mean enough that you're going to have to stay engaged with the game, claiming stuff before you're ready so it doesn't happen to you, and watching other routes carefully for your chance to put in a timely block. And the reward for blocking is a tangible one this time; in Ticket to Ride, the benefits of blocking weren't immediately trasnparent and therefore you didn't make the effort. But now, those little buildings your opponent has are worth bonus points if unused at game's end, so you want to play in such a way that forces other people to use theirs.
I like the fact that the game divides long and short route tickets, as that was another common complaint. Personally, I didn't mind having them all in one deck originally. If you got a lot of short routes, you could nail those down quickly, then focus on either drawing tickets that suited you, or just claiming long routes or looking for blocking opportunities. Still, it's hard to argue that you could get boned by not pulling a large city, and that's not going to happen here. Everyone is guaranteed to get a long city amongst their starting tickets. This has the added side benefit of ensuring that people are working at cross purposes across the map which, you guessed it, creates more opportunities for route stealing and blocking.
There's also the cool element of the tunnels, adding a nice little extra element of random frosting that I think is just fun. I like little extra kicks of randomness. They're just a nice touch. I don't know that it adds as much strategically other than making certain routes more risky, and forcing you to take those risks. But I like them, and everyone else did too.
Look, I know we can talk all day about theme, and how poorly Ticket to Ride might represent its described theme (seriously, it makes zero sense when you try and break it down...are these train riders teleporting? How are the getting from city to city like this?) The bottom line is, this is a great game to introduce to your family. It's miles above the typical family fare, it has some nasty strategy elements that you can enjoy so you're not suffering through the entire game, and honestly, even taken for its own merits is a pretty good game to boot no matter who is sitting at the table.
It's up to you based on this article to decide which to go with. If you think that your audience can handle the few extra rules, go for Europe. If you think the basic game or presence of the US map is going to make a difference, definitely go with that. Either way, I don't think you can go wrong.