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.


David Arnott said...

Wonderful piece, Jonathan. I'm hoping you find a way to post here more often, but even once a month would be okay if each new piece was as polished as this one.

huzonfirst said...

Yes, a very interesting and incisive article. I agree with all your points, but not all of the aspects of the game are "features" for me. For example, the ticket "bomb". While it adds considerably to the game's tension, its all or nothing aspect detracts from the game a bit. In most games, missing out on even one moderately sized route eliminates you from contention. I actually prefer incremental connection games a bit, because the ramifications of failing to meet one objective aren't so extreme. I still find plenty of tension in those games, since the margin of victory isn't usually that great, and even one missed connection can mean the difference between winning and losing.

However, I completely agree with the importance of the set collecting aspect of the game. As you say, this is what successfully removes TtR from the domain of an abstract game (although the map and actual cities helps as well). Abstact games are usually single dimensional and this is a second dimension (in addition to route claiming). I find it comparable to the card buying in Hacienda, which makes that game much less abstract than, say, Durch die Wuste. These two-dimensional games are much more interesting to me and much more fun to play.

Great first article, Jonathan. I eagerly look forward to your next effort!

Greg Aleknevicus said...

An excellent article and just the sort of analytic review we had discussed so long ago. I look forward to more of these.

I agree with your assessment of Ticket to Ride as a system but I find that the specific implementation of that system in the original to be poor. The problem as I see it is that the board and distribution of tickets strongly favours east-west route building. Getting an east coast-west coast ticket will not guarantee victory but in over 90% of the games I played the winner did indeed have such a ticket.

I think Ticket to Ride: Europe greatly improves the game despite its "fiddly" extra rules. I do agree that the Petrograd-Stockholm run is excessive but I think the tunnels are a fine addition. Yes, it introduces luck to the claiming of routes but it's not as if the original did not already have luck to begin with (albeit limited to the card draw). The reason I like it is that it adds tension -- losing a turn to a bad tunnel draw is something you really want to avoid. So much so that you won't always claim a (tunneled) route as soon as you have cards for it. But how long to wait? Having an extra three cards ensures success but it will be quite difficult attaining that many cards. Should you risk it with only 1 extra ? Yes, it's heavily luck-based but it's manageable to some extent. (Mainly by keeping an eye on the cards and noting how many in "your" colour have been played this time through the deck.)

Lincoln said...

What a great piece Jonathan. After you pointed out your articles on Games Journal to me last year I have become a keen fan of your writing. For me this is the best yet. I'm glad you found a new outlet for your thoughts on board game design. I look forward to the next.


Richard Vickery said...

Nice work Jonathan.
One additional aspect of the set collecting is that it provides you with some (limited) information about your opponents' plans. In Hex etc you have no indication where your opponent will play, other than your educated hunch. In TtR, you can watch the cards drafted and so narrow the range of locations. This helps you more clearly identify a developing threat, which adds to the tension and feeds into the agonizing decision.

Chris Farrell said...

Interesting article, but I would have appreciated seeing what your four qualities for an exciting game were. You mention this up front, but I couldn't find a link, and it left me disconcerted.

The "bombs" you mention have an upside - increasing the stakes is always fun - but they have big downsides too which turn off many players, myself included. They are twofold:

a) Constraining options. If you feel that you can't win without finishing your big ticket, this significantly constrains your play. You can only use other tickets that compliment this route, and you can't build much track that doesn't work towards your goal. Many people, even amongst those who like light games, do not enjoy being railroaded. I'm not a huge TtR fan myself, and this is a big reason, especially compared to the much more wide-open and interesting play of Through The Desert, say.

b) Perceived inadequacy of the reward for the risk taken. This can be imbalances in the Tickets; as Greg mentions above, some tickets offer better rewards for less risk, which is not higly desireable. However, I see the main problem as being that TtR basically forces a certain level of risk on you, which you then have faily limited tools manage. If people don't feel well-rewarded for the risk they've taken, or if they don't feel like they have control over their level of risk, this can lead to frustration. Compare TtR to Settlers, say, or Tower of Babel, Beowulf, Lord of the Rings, or Through the Desert again, all of which give players more tools to manage their risks and more flexibility to accept larger risks for larger rewards. To me, this subtlety (and TtD and ToB are both at a very similar complexity level to TtR) makes a game more exciting that just having a big jackpot.

Now, again, I like playing TtR well enough, but if I had to boil down the reason why it didn't take for me or for the people I game with is because we found it rather unexciting! With little control over your risks, a high potential for frustration at situations beyond your control, and a lot of time spent not interacting with other players, it just didn't seem that interesting compared to the much more dense Through the Desert, Modern Art, Settlers, Tower of Babel, or Beowulf - lots of player interaction and little downtime are big contributors to an exciting game for me, and while TtR does OK, the pacing is uneven. For me, when playing with people who don't spend a lot of time gaming, the more subtle Through the Desert or much more exciting Modern Art have both generated better responses.

I think where TtR has scored big as a gateway game is familiarity. I've always thought of it (admittedly rather simplistically) as Rummy with a board, and Rummy is a game that many have played and are comfortable with. Many people have grown up with melding card games of all sorts, and TtR is a natural bridge to "our" sorts of games for them, and a good game. I, on the other hand, have never played card games much.

So, as always, your mileage may vary.

David Arnott said...

"Interesting article, but I would have appreciated seeing what your four qualities for an exciting game were. You mention this up front, but I couldn't find a link, and it left me disconcerted."

Chris, the links to these...

Story Arc
The Bomb
Agonizing Decisions
Nervous Systems

... are in the sidebar on the left. An embedded "bomb" link might have been the way to go, but I can see why Jonathan might have thought that unnecessary.

David Arnott said...

Whoops, sidebar on the *right*, I mean.

Chris Farrell said...

The reason I was confused was because those links appear only the "main" page, and not the individual article page. I was directed to the individual article page by my RSS reader, so was confused by the references to links I couldn't find.

Now that I know where they are, though, I can check them out.