The focus is on game mechanisms - what makes a game exciting and why. How did the board game designer make his game fun? Components and theme are secondary. The play's the thing.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Ticket to Ride

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I completed the last of my four-part "Games Theory 101" series in March 2004. In that series, which I have linked to and will gradually be republishing here, I identified four qualities that contribute to a game's excitement and richness.

Ticket To Ride, by Alan Moon, came out within a couple of months of that last article. I was immediately very impressed with it. The game seemed to dispense with obviously clever mechanisms often found in Eurogames, and just deliver a lot of fun. It started tense and got to be more so as the game wore on. It forced you to plan, to readapt, to take painful calculated risks. And yet, it was so simple, that people apologized when they taught it. "Well, there's not really much to the game. I hope you weren't expecting something for gamers. Here is all you need to know..."

When I compared "Ticket to Ride" to the four qualities identified in Games Theory 101, I was delighted to realize that Ticket to Ride had them all. Moreover, Ticket to Ride proved to have a strong and wide appeal. It quickly became a very well regarded game in gamers' circles, getting high ratings and frequent plays recorded on Boardgame Geek, and then went on to win the Spiele des Jahres. It was as though a hypothesis had been proven through a real life experiment.

Not only is the game so effective, it has simple rules and a straightforward and breezy gameplay. Ticket to Ride seems to me to distill the essentials of a good game into the most uncomplicated presentation.

What makes it so good? How does it do that so elegantly?

Alan Moon put tremendous excitement into a connection game by giving it several bombs - all or nothing scoring opportunities. The most important, of course, is the use of "tickets" which put high stakes on being able to connect to a specified pair of cities - especially the big tickets which have the cities on far sides of the board. The prospect of gaining or losing 20 points has a wonderful way of focusing the mind.

To my mind, this feature is an innovation in Ticket to Ride. Typically, connection games have fallen at either ends of a spectrum. On the one hand there is the pure connection game like Hex, Twixt, or Punct, in which the entire game rests on making a connection. These have typically been pure abstracts. On the other hand are games of incremental connections such as Magna Grecia, Through the Desert and La Strada, in which players have a series of skirmishes over gaining a few victory points each. In all such games that I can think of, players are usually trying to get to any of several specified points on the board - the more the better. Usually, you're not trying to connect two specific places, although these games have you build a network off of an existing line, so this happens as a matter of course.

The tickets - especially the big tickets - in "Ticket to Ride" elevate the big payoff to a strategic level. This applies especially to "Ticket to Ride - Europe" where a player typically is going for exactly one long ticket. Players have many different goals, but that big ticket colors everything you plan and execute. Players must also plan for their short tickets based on how they connect into the large ticket, and a lot of the fun in the game comes from the interaction between the big ticket and the smaller ones. While there may be many viable ways to make your big ticket, needing to get the small tickets as well creates many more conflicting alternatives for the player. Best of all, the player also needs to not only consider how to make the small tickets, but whether to. Once the going gets rough - which finger do you decide to cut off?

The nature of a connection game naturally opens up lots of possibilities to players, because in any situation there are many ways to successfully make a connection. This may help to explain why railroad games, generally, are so popular. Part of the challenge in making a connection game exciting is using its open-ended nature to make the system nervous. By this, I mean, setting it up so that a player's plans can get sufficiently messed up to force him to substantially change them to adapt to the situation. In Ticket to Ride, it definitely works that way. Someone gets to a critical link before you do, and you're off slapping your head, working out an alternative where you can still make your connection, and still tie your other routes together, and still make a good use of the cards in your hand. I hate it when it happens to me, but the fact is, I love the challenge.

A critical balancing act that was achieved in the game system and its maps is the level of granularity that is offered. In a highly granular hex-type map, such as the ones that appear in the Eurorails series of games, and in the original edition of Funkenschlag, if an opponent takes your link it typically only requires a small adjustment. Conversely, had there only been one or two ways to make a given connection, it would have sacrificed the excitement of requiring a player to be flexible. Either you can make it, or you can't, or the alternative solution is self evident. When an obstacle gets throuwn your way in Ticket to Ride, in comparison, it opens up a wide new set of decisions for the player - which is the best new way to go, how urgently to lay track that you need, how to create new fall-back positions should any of those plans get mucked up, and which, if any, of your tickets now need to be painfully abandoned.

The "Expedition/Terra-X/Wildlife Adventure" seriesof games by Wolfgang Kramer also deals with this issue excellently. In this series of games, the board is a series of world locations, interconnected with lines. Each player extends the last end of an expedition (like a track), trying to bring it to his own scoring cities. The critical design element in the board is the fact that when an expedition goes off in a given direction, it is often difficult to get it back to where it had just been. Had the board basically been just a hex grid, the game would have entirely lost its flavor. But in fact the board is loaded with blind alleys and express lanes that can drive the head of an expedition to places that make returning a challenge. Once an opponent takes an expedition which you hoped to direct to Northern Asia down on a southern turn, you've suddenly got a lot of thinking to do.

The tickets and the style of board layout do many things for Ticket to Ride. As mentioned above, they provide the all-or-nothing confrontations that add tension. They also give players stratetic objectives which help to give the game a story arc - a sense of beginning, middle and end, which makes playing the game a complete and varied experience. The board layout provides the nervous system which keeps the players on their toes, always adadpting to the game's changing situation.

Yet in this simple game in a genre, train connections, which has been explored so thoroughly, Alan Moon adds two more innovations which really define the game and help to provide the tension and agonizing decisions. One is the decision to enable players to play anywhere on the board, rather than just off the end of existing lines. The other is the requirement that players collect sets of like-colored cards in order to be able to place track, rather than having it placed one step at a time.

Up until Ticket to Ride, train games almost always had players extend track of existing lines. Union Pacific, Santa Fe, Railway Rivals, Transamerica, and the Empire Builder/Eurorails series all work that way, as do non-train network games such as Expedition and Power Grid. Age of Steam allows players to build out from any city - like Ticket to Ride - but in practice the need to create a network that grows during the course of the game means that in Age of Steam players create isolated links only infrequently. The 18xx system began with isolated track in 1829, but abandoned that system in later games of the series.

There is another distinction that needs to be made - games in which players or companies own track segments - such as Union Pacific and Eurorails, and those in which track is collectively owned and used - such as 18xx, Transamerica, and Streetcar.

Ticket to Ride is most like Twixt, Hex, and other abstract connection games in that players can - and do - play disconnected lines, which they uniquely control, all over the board and connect them up later. It's not realistic, but it puts much more player interaction into the game. You can never rest assured that you can reach your goal before another player. Any critical junction can be stolen with little or no warning. As we've discussed, that jeopardy goes hand-in-glove with the fact that such an intervention doesn't destroy a player, but rather presents him with new challenges - admittedly uncomfortable ones.

The other innovation in Ticket to Ride is the fact that players must collect sets of cards of a common color, and play them as a set, in order to be able to lay track. Requiring players to play sets of a card together is hardly innovative - but to my knowledge it is unique among track laying games. This rule has two effects. First, it creates a scoring bomb - because it encourages players to attempt to collect large sets in a single color in order to benefit from the big scores attained by laying five and six cards down in a single shot. Additionally, it adds to the anxiety in the agonizing decision of when to draw cards and when to play them. Without this feature, Ticket to Ride would begin to resemble too closely the abstract connection games it shares a bloodline with, and would lose some of its more freewheeling Eurogame style.

Consider how much Ticket to Ride would play like an abstact game without the colored cards, generally, and if every connection between cities required a single move. Now every choice is based strictly on the connections it helps you make or block. Players find choke points and take those. They next identify those connections which offer multiple ways to connect between their previous plays and their goal cities - to help create an defendable plan for the final connections. Such a game might be engaging, but it would be purely strategic, and by lacking uncertainty it would give up much agony in uncertainty of the decision making. It would start to look more like Twixt or Go or possibly Through the Desert. These are all excellent games, but Ticket to Ride has its own unique qualities, and the game would lose its special character if they were sacrificed.

Here's a quote from the game's designer, Alan Moon:
“The rules are simple enough to write on a train ticket – each turn you either draw more cards, claim a route or get additional Destination Tickets. The tension comes from being forced to balance greed – adding more cards to your hand; and fear – losing a critical route to a competitor.”

This difficult choice of either drawing cards or playing them comes right out of "Union Pacific". In each case, the player is desperately trying to collect cards which act as critical assets, and often can't afford to pass up an opportunity to take the cards he needs. On the other hand, in both games, drawing cards means that you don't play any cards in that turn - and every turn you delay playing cards puts you in jeopardy. In Union Pacific, the jeopardy is that a scoring card will turn up; in Ticket to Ride it it is that you will lose a critical route to a competitor. In both games, the effect creates deliciously agonizing decisions for the players.

The mechanism works better in Ticket to Ride because the ticking time bomb that the player is up against is his opponent rather than the luck of the cards. When the scoring card makes a premature appearance in Union Pacific, you curse your luck. When an opponent snags a route from you in Ticket to Ride, it's all part of the game's tactics (although you probably curse your opponent as well.)

But it is that need to collect cards in sets of three, four, and more that helps build this tension, and I think it was a key touch that Alan Moon added to the game. Had the board been made of a series of smaller one-card links, it would still have only been a step away from being like an abstract. You draw a card one turn; you place it the next turn. At any stage, each player would need a great variety of card colors to play. Maybe you need this red card, but even if someone takes it, you can always use that yellow card - or some card that's available. But requiring sets of cards to be played creates urgent goals which need to be fulfilled over several turns. The set collecting aspect to the game helps to bring in the best elements of Union Pacific - that "do I draw or do I play" dilemma that Alan Moon describes. He creates a situation where, when a red card comes up, that player really really needs it, and requiring cards to be collected in sets enforces that need.

Everything I've described so far has focused on the connection part of the game, and has entirely ignored the points that players get from laying large sets of cards. To me, the connection part is what defines Ticket to Ride, and the set scoring aspect is pretty mundane. If you took away the set scoring, you'd still have a pretty interesting game. If you took away the connections - you'd have a weak card game that couldn't stand up to "Coloretto" or "Get the Goods". I think that the set scoring may have even been an afterthought - a rule to compensate for the fact that it is disproportionately harder to create a single 5 track connection than five 1 track connections. In the first version of "Ticket to Ride", the set scoring got a little out of control, as the values of 5 and 6 train connections became a little too strong and threatened to overtake the connection game. This was addressed in "Ticket to Ride - Europe", which made a number of improvements. It made those 5 and 6 train connections less common. It designed the long connections to intersect each other to a greater degree, forcing more competition. It also put in some elements which were not improvements - notably by introducing luck in rules for the tunnels, and in the giant 21 point tunnel between Petrograd and Stockholm, which can too easily dominate the victory conditions and which favors certain long routes more than others.

The points you get immediately for playing cards don't make the game, but they definitely enhance it. While the "tickets" provide those big scoring opportunities that bring urgency to the game, the card-laying points do so in a shorter time frame; they help to propel the game.

"Ticket to Ride" is what has become known as a "gateway game" - meaning a game that is useful for introducing Eurogames to non-gamers. Sometimes I fear that term is applied to this game a little derisively. It's as though this is a gateway that you walk through, then keep on going, and don't look back. I first played "Ticket to Ride" after I had been playing Euros for over a decade and I was immediately taken by it's straightforward fun, and I hope to never tire of it. I prefer to see it as the gaming equivalent of works such as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" - works which are instantly enjoyable by almost anyone, but whose simplicity belies their true inventiveness and master craftwork. And like those other works of art, I expect it to join the gaming canon and someday be enjoyed by many of our grandchildren.

Saturday, January 21, 2006


I created this blog because I wanted to go a step further after writing a series of four articles in "The Games Journal" entitled "Game Theory 101". I've been playing and loving boardgames for my entire life - really the first present in my life I ever remember asking for was "Clue". When, in Junior High, I became aware of the 3M series of games I became obsessed with them - in spite of what seemed like their insane cost of $8 each. Nonetheless, after endless agony, I bought and loved "High Bid", and in time added "Acquire" and "Stocks and Bonds" to my collection.

Just before entering college, I discovered and subscribed to Strategy & Tactics (through an ad in National Lampoon!) and bought many SPI games but the truth is I rarely played them. They were overly complicated, made it hard to find opponents, but most of all they were slow moving. Even back then, I was a little outside the norm because I preferred multiplayer games.

(The one nice thing about spending money on so many SPI games that went unplayed is that I was able to sell many of them years later at a hefty profit - funding my current habit quite nicely!)

During the 1980's I discovered more player-friendly games, often through exposure to Games & Puzzles, The Gamer, and Games International magazine. It was in this period that I picked up games ranging from 1829 and Civilization to Organized Crime and Conspiracy. While simpler and more approachable than the wargames, it was still very difficult for me to find opponents and many of these games just filled shelves.

Things picked up significantly when I moved to Southern California in 1986 and discovered some of the conventions that are held in Los Angeles. It was here that I got to meet gamers who shared interest in the types of games I enjoyed best, and I started pulling these games off the shelves and actually playing them. I played in public groups and in a small private group - where some of the games of choice included Merchants of Venus, Eurorails, Guerilla, and The Great Dalmuti.

But in the early 90's, things started breaking open with the discovery of Eurogames. The exposure came from several angles. One was meeting a few gamers at these conventions who were taking the trouble to import games directly from Germany. The games were elegant, playable in an hour or two, typically possessing impressive components, and just had plain exciting gameplay. At open gaming tables, I got my first exposure to the beautiful deduction game "Inkognito", the auction business game "Modern Art", and the ambitious game of travelling "Elfenroads". Soon thereafter, I gained access to the Internet, and a friend pointed me to Ken Tidwell's "The Game Cabinet" which featured reviews and rulesets for more of these intriguing games. Soon, at a convention, I was introduced to the recently released games "Manhattan" and "Settlers of Catan". I just had to own them.

Settlers is a favorite of many people - but for me it was the game I had been seeking for over a decade. I love economics and the principles free trade, and had always imagined some game where players collected and traded commodities, and built up their economies. I had actively sought out such a game for many years. The few I found did not really work that well. "After the Holocaust" had more rules than gameplay, and was really plodding in the way it portrayed economic development. "Pecuniary" was a privately published game with some of the cheapest components imaginable (a sheet of paper for the map, sequins for the markers), but more important, all of the mechanisms of the game were flawed. There was a gold standard mechanism, in which you could bankrupt other players, but no sensible player would allow himself into that position. The game was all about collecting full sets of commodities, but again no sensible player would make a trade to allow that to happen. "Cooperation" was also a privately published game that seemed promising - but it not was only flawed, it was bizarrely polemical. The authors were trying to promote a sort of left wing fascism, with private ownership but great government controls - and so rigged the game to discourage capitalism by giving some players incredible advantages and others insurmountable disadvantages.

Settlers was a real game. It really had everything I had been seeking all those years. Just as I'd always wanted, it included a variety of commodities and gave each one unique qualities in what it could contribute to the economy. It showed how trade was mutually beneficial. It also included elements - such as building a network of roads - that I hadn't even thought of. On top of all this, it had really exquisite components - attractive art on its tiles and cards, and wooden houses, cities and roads.

I had to own it. I even took the trouble of buying it from an importer at what was for me the unheard of price of $45. In the same order, I made the even crazier purchase of El Grande - a game I had not played or even seen - for $65. El Grande soon became my favorite game of all time - so I suppose it was worth it. It was worth it not only for the value of the game, but for also opening me up to the wider world of what some of us then called German Games (since, heck they were all being published in Germany and had German rules).

Today they are most commonly called Eurogames (a tip of the hat to the occasional English, Dutch, or French publisher). Game designer Alan Moon has proposed the name "Designer Games", but to me that evokes "Designer Jeans", a term with too many fru-fru connotations. I'd like to propose the term "Alternative Games", paralleling "Alternative Rock", but who am I kidding - the term won't catch on.

This discovery of a certain style of games has pushed me into a hobby that has occupied me for more than the past 10 years. As more people have entered the hobby, I find that I play much less often than many others (my4+ hours a week seems like nothing to some of these guys), and my collection of maybe 125 games of this type is also often dwarfed by folks with deeper pockets and more shelf space. But I can say for myself that I've been gaming for longer than than the vast majority of them, and so I have an appreciation of the history and development of many games that exceeds most other hobbyists. And you can't take that away from me.

A couple of years ago I came up with the idea of writing game analysis which, I hoped, would approach an academic level. Again - so many people write reviews to make another contribution seemed redundant. However, I was taken by a book on art analysis - "A Fine Disregard - What Makes Modern Art Modern" by Kirk Varnedoe. In that book, the author identifies four key approaches to art which developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, especially by Degas and Gaugin. I wanted to do for games what Varnedoe did for modern art. To that end, I wrote a series of four articles, entitled Game Theory 101, which examined characteristics of game mechanics that I felt took games to a higher level. These four - never intended to be all inclusive - were:
1) Story Arc - the sense of a game developing differently in its beginning, middle and endgame.
2) The Bomb (I still wish I had a better term) - mechanics which create tension by offering players consequences that are disproportionate to the resources invested
3) Agonizing decisions - confronting the players with decisions which defy analysis
4) Nervous systems - an inherent instability in the game which forces players to always reevaluate their strategies.

In this blog I want to do at least two things. I want to continue this series with an examination of other game characteristics which make them successful. The idea here is to examine some of my favorite games to see what broad principles they have in common.

Knowing that this can be taken only so far, I want to also devote time to review specific games. These game reviews will not be like most reviews. They will not rehash the rules in painful detail, and will hardly rehash the rules at all. They will not be intended as a buyer's guide. In fact, the working assumption is that the reader is already familiar with the game. The model instead is intended to be taken from film criticism. The goal is to reflect the sort of approach taken by the great Pauline Kael (and my film professsor, Gerald Mast) rather than, say, Roger Ebert. The goal is to appreciate, reflect on, and analyze.

My hope is that this will lead to the growth of an accepted language in the appreciation of boardgames. In my dreams, this column will encourage gamers to look at and discuss games with a shared perspective.

Unfortunately, I know from the past that my time is limited and I may not contribute as often as I like - but I can only hope to discipline myself.

My first contribution wil be an appreciation of "Ticket to Ride". This game is amazing to me because it so well captures the many characteristics I look for in an engaging game - and does it so simply. Coincidentally, it first came out just around the time I had finished the fourth of my The Games Journal articles - so it was fascinating to discover a game that had it all - in one package - just as I had finished thinking and writing about what makes a great game great.