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Alexa Can Now Teach You Ticket to Ride

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game: Ticket to Ride
Board Game: Ticket to Ride: Europe
Game publisher Days of Wonder is working together with mega-giant online retailer Amazon to get more people playing Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride: Europe.

How? By introducing Alexa skills that will both teach these games to new players and serve as an opponent for players both old and new. These skills are now available in English and French for those in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. An excerpt from the press release announcing this development:
After saying, "Alexa, launch Ticket to Ride" or "Alexa, launch Ticket to Ride: Europe," players are taken on a guided journey from setup to the end of the game for either game. No matter the player's experience level, the skills offer new ways to play and learn. For those new to the game, they offer full rules walkthroughs during play sessions. Veteran players can skip the walkthroughs and use other helpful tools that are part of the experience. The skills customize themselves to the number of players and track their remaining trains, the longest route, points, and more. They also act as an additional player for groups looking for an extra person or anyone who wants to get in a solo game against the skill itself. While each player takes their turn, the skills provide thematic background music and sound effects to immerse everyone in the world of Ticket to Ride.

"Ticket to Ride is a fast-paced, immersive board game experience that is now being elevated by voice," said Joe Balzarini, Director, Alexa Skills. "We're thrilled to be working with Days of Wonder to bring these skills to life and provide customers with an immersive, interactive voice gaming experience."

"Working with Amazon to bring the Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride: Europe Skills to Alexa-enabled devices has been exciting. We believe this is a great way for players to discover these classic games for the first time or in an amazing new way," said Adrien Martinot, Head of Days of Wonder.

Days of Wonder is eager for players to experience the free Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride: Europe skills for themselves. Additional languages and territories will be supported soon to ensure players around the world can learn and play Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride: Europe like never before.
I attended a press event during SPIEL '19 where this Alexa skill was demonstrated by Amazon employees, and while it's not something I'll use (since I already know the rules to these games and prefer playing against people rather than AIs), I can imagine this skill being extremely useful for the vast audience of potential players out there.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Nashville-to-Atlanta is still unclaimed?! Newbs!

As easy as Ticket to Ride is to learn, I recognize that it's easy only because I have a familiarity with games; I know the language of games and have a lot of background upon which to draw when learning new ones. If you asked me a question about, say, cars or anything related to the technical requirements of BGG, I'd stare at you for a while, then likely say, "I'm not sure what you want me to do." (Scott Alden can verify this from de-bugging sessions we've had.) I've encountered plenty of folks who have this reaction to learning a new game because they're not familiar with the game language, and they would benefit from having a teacher hold their hand from start to finish. Alexa can be that teacher.

In the demo session, the presenters started from ground zero: opening the box and laying out the pieces. This process could be tedious for some, but you can say "skip" and jump to whatever's next.

If you don't have Alexa join you as an opponent, you can still use it as a rules monitor and score tracker. You draw cards like normal, but when you claim a route, you say something like "Green player claims New Orleans to Houston", and Alexa will note this internally. If someone else tries to claim the route (because you were refilling the snack bowl and forgot to put your trains on the proper spaces), Alexa will stop that player from doing so, just as it will keep someone from claiming a double-route in a two- or three-player game. At game's end, you read off the tickets you completed and failed, and Alexa will tally the scores for all players.

With Alexa as an opponent, you start the game by drawing three tickets from the deck and reading them off to Alexa, with those tickets now being hers. (Do you refer to Alexa as "her"? I've never used one before.) You then remove them from the game so that no one else will claim them. Alexa has her own train card deck, so when she draws cards, nothing changes with the actual cards available for drafting by humans, whether for good or bad. When Alexa claims a route, she announces this and you must place trains on that route so that no one else will go there. It's an interesting take on an AI given that the drawn train cards are private and the tickets are public, which is the opposite of the online version of Ticket to Ride.

Why is Amazon doing this? To make more money, of course, but more specifically, at the press event an Amazon rep said that one of the most frequent error messages they get for Alexa is from people asking Alexa how to play such-and-such a game, with this being a skill previously unavailable on Alexa. Days of Wonder has sold millions of copies of games in the Ticket to Ride series, and I'm sure the customer service department receives plenty of questions about how to play. Amazon knows how many copies of the game it's sold and who has purchased them, and now it can send these buyers a message about this new skill — and if those buyers now play a game that's previously been hidden in a closet, some percentage of them will buy more games in the series, similar to how the introduction of the Ticket to Ride app years ago led to more sales of the physical game.

The biggest hurdle that exists to getting more people playing board games is the need for them to learn rules prior to playing. A video game allows you to start, then hit buttons and move around at random until you figure things out; board games don't allow players that same luxury. As for where this goes in the future, who knows? The rules-teaching app Dized has been in the works for years, and I don't know whether it's gained traction with publishers and players, but Amazon and Days of Wonder have a larger customer base upon which to launch a program like this. We'll see what comes in the years ahead.

[Disclosure: Amazon gave attendees of the press event an Alexa Echo so that they could test this skill themselves, something I've yet to do as this announcement came earlier than I had anticipated. Whoops. I'll post an overview video of this skill later, then pass the Echo on to someone else given that I won't use it otherwise. —WEM]
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