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Geeky McGeekface
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It's time for baseball, people! Pitchers and catchers report soon and the national pastime is with us again!
If Ben Franklin was alive today, he’d probably get a decent set of contacts and lose those silly looking glasses. But I bet the *second* thing he’d do is change his famous aphorism to, “The only things certain in life are death, taxes, and a sequel to the previous year’s SdJ award winner”. It’s an annual rite of spring and we’ve come to expect it, but some sequels are more anticipated than others. Ticket to Ride Europe, the follow-up to last year’s enormously popular SdJ winner, has to rank near the top of the list. For one thing, Ticket to Ride really captured a lot of gamers’ imaginations with its elegant rules and surprisingly deep gameplay. For another, Days of Wonder’s rep is now so high that expectations skyrocket for *any* of their games. Finally, there was the promise that the new game would be a more “gamerly” version of the original, which was only fueled when designer Alan Moon released a teaser a while back that sounded most interesting. So the question remains, is the sequel truly the equal (or even better)? Armed with a review copy kindly sent to me by DoW, I will attempt to answer that question, based on but a single play.

I assume that anyone reading this is familiar with the mechanics of the original, so I will restrict myself to citing differences between the two games. The first difference is the board itself. The longer routes have, for the most part, disappeared. There *is* one monster route of 8 trains in Europe, but there are only two 6 train routes and none of 5 trains. Most of the routes are from 2 to 4 trains long. I assume this is in response to the concern that playing to longer routes could dominate the play of the original game. In any event, you will find that you’ll be playing to more routes of shorter length in Europe, with more interconnecting cities. This tends to increase the contention for the routes, particularly since there are fewer double paths in the new map.

The second difference is with the tickets. There are now two types of tickets. Six of them are “long” tickets, of value 20 or 21 (these tickets have different colored faces, but their backs are identical to the other tickets). The rest have values from 5 to 13, but most of them are 8 or less. At the beginning of the game, the two piles are mixed separately and everyone gets one long ticket and three normal tickets. Players must keep at least two tickets, but that doesn’t have to include the long ticket (although it does seem that keeping it is prudent). The remainder of the long tickets are put out of play, so any additional tickets drawn will be normal ones. This procedure effectively addresses one of the major complaints with the original game, that longer tickets were usually much more valuable than shorter ones. In Europe, everyone has their long ticket to base their building strategy around, but no one will have the good fortune of drawing more than one of these.

In addition to your initial tickets, the players begin with their usual 45 trains and a new type of piece: stations. These are large attractive plastic buildings and each player starts with three of them in his color. I’ll explain how they’re used in a little bit.

The player turns work just as they did in the original, with one additional option. Besides being able to select train cards, build routes, or add tickets, the players can now build a station. The “taking train cards” and “adding tickets” options haven’t changed in the new game. However, there are a few new wrinkles with building routes, so let’s take a look at that one.

There are now three different kinds of routes in the game: standard routes, ferries, and tunnels. Standard routes are built just as before. Ferries are gray routes which have locomotive silhouettes on one or two of the spaces. These are built over bodies of water on the map, making them nicely thematic. In order to claim one of these routes, the cards you play must include at least one locomotive for each locomotive space in the route. For example, the route from Palermo to Rome shows one locomotive space and three normal gray spaces. To claim this route, a player would have to play a locomotive card and three other matching cards (naturally, the three matching cards could include locomotive cards as well). Ferries are a response to the fact that locomotives were rarely taken from the display in the original game. Now, thanks to the ferries, they are in considerably greater demand.

Tunnels are shown by a heavy outline on the train spaces and usually extend over bodies of water or through mountainous areas. They add a gambling element to the game. Whenever a player attempts to claim a tunnel route, she first plays the cards that match the route, just as usual. She then draws the top three cards from the top of the deck. For each of these cards which match the color of the cards she played, she must play one more card of that color from her hand. For example, the route from Venice to Munich is a two-space Blue tunnel. The player begins by playing two Blue cards. She then draws three cards from the deck, revealing a Yellow, Green, and Locomotive card. Since locomotives match *all* colors, she must play another Blue card (or a locomotive) from her hand in order to build the route. If she does, the route is built (but she only scores for a two-train route, even though she had to play three cards). If she can’t, or chooses not to, she takes the cards back into her hand, but her turn is over. Tunnels add a nice bit of spice and players need to take their risky nature into account when planning their routes. By the way, the one eight-space route is a gray tunnel from Stockholm to Petrograd. Not a line that should be attempted by the faint of heart!

The “building a station” option is simple. The player plays a number of cards from his hand and then places one of their stations in a city. To build your first station costs only one card; to build your second and third stations costs two and three cards of the same color, respectively. No more than one station can be built in a city. Stations allow the player to use a single opponent’s route emanating from that city in order to satisfy a ticket. However, no more than one route can be used per station, although that same route can be used to satisfy multiple tickets.

The game ends in the same manner as the original. Scoring works the same, including the 10 point bonus for longest route. To the points for routes, tickets, and longest route, each player adds 4 points for every station which she *didn’t* build. High score wins.

Coming up with a sequel to a successful game is always a challenge, but Ticket to Ride Europe is pitched at just the right level. The game isn’t nearly as elegant as the original and had this been the first game to appear, it wouldn’t have been as suitable for casual gamers as TtR is. But once the original is known, the new stuff is quite easy to add on and therefore these additions permit players to add new dimensions to the gameplay quite painlessly.

The “long” tickets are an excellent addition and address a very real problem with the original game. The solution is simple, but very effective, and does nothing to increase the complexity of the game while still giving players their own unique building requirements. I assume that experienced players will quickly be able to recognize who has which long ticket, but that might actually add a good deal to the fun. It puts in a bit of a deductive element, rewards players who hold back from building early (but how long do you dare to wait?), and should make it easier to play defense. All positives in my book and my hat is off to Moon for coming up with such an elegant solution to the “long tickets” problem in TtR.

The additional gameplay choices are also all good. Ferries takes a minor problem (locomotives are under-utilized) and turns it into a strength, by giving players another kind of decision—now spending a turn to take a face-up loco becomes more attractive and might even be required. Tunnels do add some luck to the proceedings, but do so in a painless and colorful fashion. Besides, as I mentioned, they add another element to route planning without changing the basic procedure too radically.

Stations are quite clever. At first glance, they look like an insurance policy for those that get locked out of their preferred route, but there’s more to think about than that. Moon very nicely makes them simple to build (particularly the first one), while making the ramifications of their construction serious enough (the loss of 4 points at the end, along with the cost of a turn and 1, 2, or 3 cards) to make building one an interesting decision. Again, this adds an extra element to the mix at the cost of only a small amount of additional complexity. One possible reservation I have to stations is that it may make playing defense even harder than it is in the original game. But since Europe seems to get more congested than the American map, this probably won’t be a problem. In any event, a single play isn’t nearly enough to get a good handle on the subtleties of using stations properly, which to me is a good sign.

Days of Wonder games always score high with their components and TtR Europe is as beautiful as the rest of their line. But in comparison to the original Ticket to Ride, I think Europe falls short in a couple of areas. The problem is, DoW seemed to take a “bigger is better” approach with the new game, and that isn’t always true—just ask your friendly neighborhood T. Rex. First, the good news. The stations are works of art: big, stylish, and with an archway built into them, so that they fit snugly over the trains, in case you want to show which route your station is used for. Definitely bit-o-licious. The train cards are much larger than in TtR and judging from earlier comments, this will be a popular decision. However, given the number of cards you hold in this game, the smaller sized cards might be more suitable. Offsetting this is the fact that the bigger cards seem much sturdier than the original ones and the indices are easier to distinguish. Overall, this is probably an improvement, despite my cramped hands.

The game board is a work of art as usual, but I feel it’s a step back from TtR’s. Much to their credit, DoW tried to make Europe as approachable as possible for the color blind. This included putting larger indices on the train cards and imprinting each color’s index on each train space on the board. To make these indices distinguishable, they made the spaces larger. This is definitely going above and beyond to accommodate this group of gamers. However, and I feel kind of like a jerk for bringing this up, the new board has lost a good deal of its esthetic appeal. To make room for the larger spaces, straight line paths between cities are now the exception rather than the rule. Instead, we have paths going catawampus all over the board, with right angle turns and staircase structures being the order of the day. Gone are the elegant lines and gentle curves of the Ticket to Ride map. Worst of all, I find it hard to tell the difference between the different indices on the spaces, so I’m not even sure it was all worth it. Another slight problem is that the cities don’t particularly stand out when the trains are on the board. This is really only an issue at the end of the game, if you want to verify everyone’s score, but it’s yet another small annoyance. I hate playing the part of Scrooge, but I wish DoW had used the same style of game board as in Ticket and found another solution for the color blind problem. Despite this concern, I give them a huge amount of credit for trying as hard as they have.

So, other than problems with the gameboard, since all the new elements are good ones, Europe has got to be an improvement over the original, right? Well, call me crazy, but I think I slightly prefer TtR. What makes Ticket great is how well it plays with such a simple set of rules and how approachable it is to casual gamers. Europe successfully adds rules to make it more gamerly, but this will still never be a gamer’s game. Even though many of the luck issues have been addressed, players can still get good breaks with how well their tickets mesh and how well the card display matches their needs. That’s fine, but the point is, even with the new rules, Europe is still a middleweight game. Yes, it has some more interesting gameplay, but at the loss of some of the original’s elegance. In my one game, it also seemed as if the game played a little slower. Given the shorter routes and greater congestion, that may well prove to be the case. Mind you, downtime still wasn’t a problem, but Ticket’s slightly faster pace seems to fit the weight of the game a little better. These issues, along with the fact that I really do prefer the appearance of the original board, means that I rate Ticket a hair above its new cousin.

But that’s hardly harsh criticism. Ticket to Ride Europe represents another excellent offering from Days of Wonder. All of Alan Moon’s new rules work very well and he has successfully recast the game as a slightly heavier one. For those Ticket veterans looking for a new challenge, this is a must buy. As for me, I still find delight in the original game, but will happily explore the nuances of the new version. Either way, I’ll still be riding high!
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