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Subject: From gateway game to online obsession - 10 of 10 rss

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Christopher Rao
United States
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Q:When I say "lawyer" what pops into your head? A:Someone who designs games about penguins." - Dormammu

My name is Topher, and I’m a ticketoholic. Like many I started off playing TTR with friends, socially, maybe every couple of weeks. Then it grew more frequent. My friends were sensible enough to cut themselves off, but I had to have more. Unable to find other venues to play, I had only one other option – I went online. I told myself it was harmless. I told myself that I could stop anytime I wanted. Then evenings turned to nights. At about 1:00 AM, as most west coast social players were already in bed dreaming of their longest routes, I was meeting German and French players who were just getting up to start their days. According to my account, I have now played 909 games (and the next one will of course be a song - What a fitting time to do this review.

How did this happen? Part of the answer is that many of my games happened soon after the birth of Raja (son #1) and soon after the birth of Tristan (son #2) – when I was up a lot for late feedings and so forth (Tristan was actually born 15 days ago).

But the rest of the answer is that it’s a uniquely satisfying game. I admit, I’m partial to train games, but I hardly ever like playing games on computer. Except TTR. Every game is different, there’s plenty of social talk on the website if you like (I even practice my rusty French there!), and the learning curve just doesn’t stop. Plus it's free to play, and upgrades (to see your rankings, be able to start games, etc.) are just $2/month. Take that, Everquest fiends!

Sadly, given its lightweight reputation, singing its praise is like saying you listen to REO Speedwagon instead of touting such revered acts as The Velvet Underground, Fairport Convention or the English Beat (okay, so I know that someone on BGG listens to these classic bands, but is there anyone out there who will admit listening to REO as well as the other 3? I thought so).

Gamer gamers often think TTR is pretty luck-driven because of variable tickets and random drawing for train cards (see Baba Baba's review: But this just isn’t the case. In 4-player games (my game of choice), I routinely win in games with players with a score under 1300 and almost never win against players scored over 1550 or 1600 (I'm about 1500). As Scott Morefield writes in his excellent review, experienced players usually consider that the game is about 10% luck.

So why is the game so good?

TTR is in many ways a spin on the old crayon rail games. Instead of taking loads with a little, upgradable train to meet route requirements on a card, however, you instead just connect the cities. Also different from the crayon games, each route card has just 1 route instead of 3. And of course, there are no crayons. Instead, there are 8 colored train cards, and wild cards.

Between cities there are gray lines, which can be fulfilled using any one color, and colored lines of the various colors (4 yellow, 3 red, 6 pink, etc.). Between many cities there are double lines, each with a different color. In a 2 or 3-player game, only 1 of these 2 may be used. In a 4 or 5-player game, both may be used by different players (never by the same player).

To start the game you get 45 trains (similar to “track” in other train games) and 3 random route cards, of which you must keep either 2 or 3; you also gets 4 random train cards. 5 random train cards are then put in public supply face up. You choose train cards from either the 5 face up or randomly from the deck. Whenever there are 3 locomotives face up in public supply, all 5 face up cards are discarded and 5 new cards come out.

On your turn, you may take 1 of 3 actions:
1) Draw any 2 face up or random train cards, but only 1 card if it is a face up locomotive.
2) Draw 3 new route tickets and keep at least 1.
3) Play one entire route (no partial routes may be played).

There is no hand limit and with experienced players it’s common for the entire train deck (120 cards, I think) to deplete. If there are no face up or face down cards remaining, you obviously cannot take action 1.

SCORING - This is maybe the key strength of the game. Lines progress in value as such: 1-train line = 1 point, 2=2, 3=4, 4=7, 5=10, 6=15.

The player with the longest continuous route (no spurs) gets 10 extra points. In case of tie, each tied player gets the 10-point bonus.

And critically, not only do you get positive points for completed routes, but an equivalent number of negative points if you don’t complete the route. Scores for routes equal the shortest distance between 2 cities, so Seattle-NY is 22 points because the most direct route takes 22 trains, and Kansas City-Houston is 5 points because the shortest route is 5 trains.

END GAME: As soon as any player plays a route that leaves him or her with 2 or fewer trains, each player gets one more turn only. So the player who triggered the end game always gets the last turn.

I should point out that while I prefer 4-player play because I like sifting through the various player strategies and how they effect each other, most really good players prefer the 2-player duel – brutal blocking, even less luck, even faster. As many can attest, there are also some very nice spin-offs, both online and gone cardboard, such as TTR-Europe, Marklin, etc. But I prefer the original, if only slightly, mainly because I just love the map and how it forces you into very interesting decisions. So this review is geared towards 4 or 5 player TTR.

"How many and how compelling are the decisions you make per minute?"

The rules couldn’t be simpler – simpler than just about any other game in the top 35 except perhaps Go. Like most great games, the secret ingredient is great mathematical relationships, which in turn create lots of deliciously difficult decisions. The decisions are very tense for a number of other reasons as well.

One of the great things about TTR is that the game changes dramatically depending on the strength and style of your opponents. Players tend to play for a longer game, accumulating massive amounts of tickets, or play a speed game, trying to finish before over-ambitious players can connect cities from their multiple tickets. The speed game usually wins, but not always, and the 10 points awarded for longest route is hugely important as well, because it ends up being a swing of 20 points in relation to other players (something I routinely forgot for an embarrassingly long time). There are other strategies as well: a speed game eschewing both longer tickets and longest route in favor of gobbling up numerous 6-card (and 5-card) lines, and of course, blocking.

Blocking is simply trying to stop one or more players from getting into a particular city. Sometimes a player simply tries to cut off most routes to a certain region (usually the northwest or southeast) or blocks where a particular player is going. In a 4 or 5 player game, many lines are double lines, allowing 2 different players to build a line b/w 2 connecting cities. Sometimes you will even see one player taking 1 of the double line, hoping another player will complete the block, preventing a third player from getting into the city (there is of course etiquette against ganging up with a friend against others, and this is rarely broken).

The more you know the game, the easier it is to figure out where people are going. One game recently a very good player (top 10 in the world), as the game was winding down, chatted to everyone about how many points in tickets he thought everyone had, and “guessed” exactly how many points in tickets I had, even telling me exactly what tickets I had. Impressive.

If this sounds like torture to you, don’t worry. The way the server is set up, it’s pretty easy to find the crowd you want to play with. And because ratings basically follow a chess rating system, the very best players usually don’t play with us mere mortals (in a 4-player game, the ratings program treats you as if you are playing three 2-player games and adjusts your score accordingly; so if you play 3 players who are all much better than you, and beat just one of them, your score may actually improve).

The various decision points can be broken down into 3 main categories: 1) what to draw / what lines to compete for; 2) when to play a line; and 3) when to draw new routes / what new routes to accept:

1) There is a huge amount of public information available in TTR because players cannot resist the temptation of taking the colored train cards they need rather than waiting for the luck of the draw. But because the map is set up in such an elegant way, it’s difficult to tell what line a player is saving for when he draws a black or a purple or an orange. This is why experienced players will often not lay any track at all until they have at least 20 cards, then play track very quickly before other players can draw cards to block them from a certain line. Of course the risk of waiting is that the best routes will be taken – and sometimes all the routes to a particular city will be taken. Timing is everything.

And planning for contingencies is also a great part of the game (i.e., I’ll go for El Paso-Houston, but if I don’t get 6 green trains in time, I’ve got these 4 red in hand to play El Paso-Dallas, and can get to Houston afterwards so I don't get blocked…). The ability to intelligently plan contingencies is one attribute that greatly reduces luck in the game.

2) The flow of the game is tremendous, and new information is constantly trickling in. For example, if a player is drawing lots of black and green early, it’s likely that he or she is saving to play 2 long lines, LA-El Paso (black) and El Paso-Houston (green). But if a player is drawing black and blue, he or she may well be playing a Canadian Northeast route. Once you know that an opponent is saving for the same long route that you are, there’s another knawing decision to make – do you blow your very limited wild cards to ensure that you get the route, or play greedy, hoping that you will get 6 of the color, for example, before your opponent takes the route.

3) Drawing new routes is often done when there’s nothing you need publicly available, when you’ve already completed all your current routes and are looking for a direction to go, or as a last ditch desperation move near the end (usually a bad idea – I’ve lost games I should have won because I underestimated my position this way, and almost never won this way). Remember that anything you don’t finish can count against you and count against you big. Moreover, the more experienced the opponent(s), the greater chance that you’ll get blocked from the cities you need to get to (especially if the way you lay lines makes it clear to others which way you’re headed). The ability to block other players is another element that reduces luck in the game.

Also, the 10 points for longest route (which amounts to a swing of 20 points between you and any other player) also reduces luck because it can be planned for down to a T. As others have pointed out, it sometimes takes 44 or even all 45 trains in a row to get longest route. I’m pretty certain that there’s a bigger correlation between who gets longest route and who wins the game than there is between who gets the highest value starting tickets and who wins the game.

Analysis Paralysis/Downtime?
Minor. A 2-player online game can take as little as 5 minutes, and a 4-player 20-25 minutes. As with other favorites, there are sometimes 1 or 2 key decision points that take a bit of time, but these are usually few and far between.

2. MECHANICS 10 of 10
"How intuitive, elegant and flowing are the moves that bring your tactics to life?"

It’s hard to think of a game that has better mechanics. Similar to other favorites including Catan, Puerto Rico, Power Grid, and Caylus, there are many many micro-decisions made to implement a larger strategy, thus reducing downtime. The micro-decisions in TTR, however, are more interesting than in, for example, Puerto Rico, simply because you have more goals (i.e., usually in Puerto Rico if there’s only one spot left in the market and you have a valuable good you’ll sell no matter what, just to deprive others, but in TTR you are building sets of many colors, and constantly pushing your luck and debating whether you can wait just one more turn before playing that critical route).

Another bonus to the mechanics is the map itself, which offers numerous interesting possibilities. Like the under-rated game Medieval Merchant the board may stay the same, but the design of the routes is first rate, and always interesting – even after 900 plays!

3. INTERACTION 7 of 10
"To what degree does it facilitate a rich social experience?"

The interaction is higher than average for a euro both because the actions of other players effect each other so dramatically, and because the micro-decisions are quick enough that dialogue is possible even during a 20 minute game (especially if you type fast).

4. ORIGINALITY 7 of 10
"How fresh and unique are the strategy, mechanics and theme?"

- What's the freshest part of the game?
The colored lines were very fresh when this game came out in 2004, as was the idea of abstracted routes that did not require players to move a little train around the board. The spin-offs that have evolved show that as a game system it's very tight, even if it's less unique now.

5. AMBIENCE 8 of 10
"How much do the theme, aesthetics and bits add the overall experience?"

The theme is, well, what it is. Thin. But the map is just beautiful to look at, and takes on new and different meanings as players start playing their lines. The board game bits are good, but nothing spectacular. The online version has very nice, clean graphics as well.

"Who would love this game?"

Probably the biggest misconception about TTR is that as a gateway game it lacks the draw for repeat play among serious gamers. In my regular gaming group, our frequent rotation includes Die Macher, Railways of the World, Imperial, Power Grid and even Doppelkopf. The depth of play in TTR approaches any of these games. And like Puerto Rico, just when you think you have an optimal strategy mapped out after 20 or 25 plays, you realize that there are whole levels of strategy you haven’t even scratched the surface of yet.

People who like train games, like cutthroat competition, and enjoy very fast play, will love TTR – and there are legions of intelligent, friendly online players from New Zealand to Germany. People who like Andreas Seyfarth's latest gem Thurn and Taxis should find the game flow quite similar.

People who don’t like games that have a card-drawing mechanic, games where you have to notice trends in what resources other players are accumulating, or who just don’t like train games are likely not to like TTR. Their loss.

And of course as a gateway game, it can be played by non-gamers and kids to whet their appetite till they're ready for Die Macher.

- Does it hit a sweet spot? Which one?

Absolutely. Where else can you find a rewarding 5-minute game experience (the 2-player online version). Although it doesn’t have the economic elements of Railways of the World or Age of Steam, it may just be the best map/train/travel game there is.

- Luck (& Chaos) : Player Control
I find the level of chaos actually quite small. There is some luck with the drawing of routes, but that rarely makes such a difference among experienced players because experienced players will punish you for being too greedy by blocking and/or finishing the game before you can make all your routes. The only real complaint I have about the game is that there is no balance for the random turn order, and it matters. I think in a 4-player game that the 3rd and 4th players should get one extra train card. Otherwise, there’s nothing to fix.

As to player control, despite the plentiful opportunities for screwage, I almost never feel like I got plagued by something out of my control. Compare this to Puerto Rico when I feel like I have zero chance because I can’t maximize my game enough against the various strategies of other players (can’t ship faster than A, can’t build faster than B…). Or Power Grid, when the wrong power plant just shows up at the wrong time and just about wrecks your game. Or Railroad Tycoon, when a bonus run (or whatever they’re called) shows up late and gives a huge boost to one player. Point is, you can plan, and the more you play the better you understand which routes get taken when, the better you can plan.

Overall - 10 of 10
I have to think long and hard about giving any game a 10. I actually listed TTR as an 8 until I reconciled myself to the ridiculousness of giving something an 8 I had played 700 times (call it Speedwagon Syndrome )

But when I compare TTR to the 7 other games I rate a 10 - Caylus, Imperial, Magic: The Gathering, Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Catan and Die Macher - I find that TTR must take its rightful place there.

EDIT 1: I don't know if TTR will drop from a 10 at some point in the future. But the way tickets work and the near-infinite ways to construct a rail network make each game feel like a unique experience. There are times when it seems just impossible to connect your routes, and it feels so rewarding when you do so, whether you win or not. Maybe one of the reasons I can play this 909 times is that not only do games feel different, but I can remember distinct games for their unusual attributes many moons later. For now, 900+ plays dwarfs even Puerto Rico and Settlers (at about 200 plays each), and probably tops number of plays for me in everything except Chess.

My name is topher, and I'm a ticketoholic - one with questionable taste in Midwestern power bands - but what a long strange trip it's been goo

( for those who were born while I was already in college.)

EDIT 2: Photos added
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Steve PP
United Kingdom
North Devon
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Great stuff! A really well written, and easy to read review! As a recent discoverer of TTR , I can truly sympathize, as I feel my own OCD starting to kick in with this game.
Thank you!

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Benjamin Maggi
United States
Clifton Park
New York
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This is a great review, and you have nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to declaring your love for REO Speedwagon. One of the hottest bands of the 70's and 80's, and they play great concerts.

I haven't played this game yet, even though I am a train fanatic, and I hope to this Christmas get my wife involved more with board gaming by using this game as the "gateway."
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