Curse your sudden but inevitable action denial!
Note: This is my entry for the Voice of Experience 2.0 review contest, a competition to review games we've played 10 times or more with a weight of 2.0 or less. Feel free to wander over to the contest Geeklist and thumb all the entries as they are posted.
It’s tough to nail down what makes a good family game, and it’s arguably as difficult to figure out what can make an educational game fun. So it’s surprising how well 10 Days in the USA manages to accomplish both, while simultaneously offering a challenge for hobby gamers that can even prove mentally exhausting. It isn’t my favorite game, and it’s not one I’ll usually bring to game night or formulate strategies for on my morning bike ride. I’m in no danger of getting a 10 Days in the USA tattoo on my inner thigh or anything. Yet the 10 Days series, and USA in particular, keep me coming back for more. It’s the kind of game that’s perfect for a 20-minute wind down in front of the television or at the kitchen table just before bed, or for a weekend opener over a cup of coffee on a sunny Saturday morning.
A pile o' tiles and a game board: no fiddly bits here.
When you crack open the game board for the first time and pull out those shiny blue tile holders, it’s understandable that you’ll think it’s a game only suitable for children or a game stack in an elementary school classroom. Ten minutes later though, your head will be in your hands as you stare at the tile display hopelessly, realizing that your entire plan is kaput, agonizing over which tile to discard. Does my opponent need this one? She’s been taking lots of Northeastern states, but she also grabbed that purple airplane, so maybe Alaska’s going to help her out more... It’s the kind of brutal “help my opponent or hurt myself” decision-making that makes Lost Cities such a deceptively vicious game.
The real game here lives in these moments. Yes, there are strategies you can employ at the beginning to increase your odds of getting good tile draws--just realize that your puny strategy is going to hit the fan as soon as your opponent swipes the crucial state he caught you eyeballing last turn. Where 10 Days in Africa is a pleasant, simple experience for all involved, the larger number of states, colors, and 1 tile-per-state ratio elevate USA to a real challenge. (This game absolutely must be played with the original, advanced “no swap” rule for maximum punishment to all involved).
Half the game's challenge is in how well you plan during your setup phase.
It may be enlightening to compare this game to a Moon title that was published just a year later, Ticket to Ride. I like Ticket to Ride quite a bit, and numerically I’ve even given it a better score here on BGG than I gave to 10 Days in the USA for various reasons. The 10 Days series and TTR have quite a bit in common: drafting from a common pool, a central connection element, hidden player progress, and even a journey theme. Despite these similarities, only the latter has seen unreal commercial success.
But there’s something USA has that Moon’s biggest game doesn’t, and that’s a delicate simplicity that’s lost in some of his other work. When you’re playing Ticket to Ride, you’re grabbing these Hobbit-sized cards, then laying them down to travel to cities, or build tracks, or something--thematically it’s just all over the place. There’s a disconnect between what’s happening on the board and what you’re physically doing. Blocking an important TTR route, while a great, nasty little mechanism that I appreciate, just never feels as personal as those nail-biting seconds as a player reaches for that final country you need to link your entire itinerary together and rejoice in your victory.
Pleasedonttakemyairplane, pleasedonttakemyair--HNNNNGG she took my airplane.
Games without big moments, without punch, leave me cold. I love Acquire because you can slap down a tile and change the course of the game for the next hour. I similarly love Sackson’s Executive Decision because a one-dollar difference in your bid price can mean the difference between $450 profit and a net loss for the turn. Ticket to Ride gives you lots of options, a design feature that can make it seem deeper than the 10 Days games--yet there’s a cheapness to the idea that losing out on a couple big routes can be made up for by snapping up the six-car connections for a big 15-point bonus each time. A smart blocking play by an opponent can be shrugged off, so it isn’t felt viscerally. Having a tile stolen from under your nose, the very tile that you had waited patiently the whole first half of the game to see, is a big moment indeed. 10 Days in the USA lets you fail spectacularly, and it's better for it.
Ticket to Ride is like a marathon, where you see the finish line a mile off and adjust accordingly. By way of contrast, 10 Days in the USA is this gun-totin’ showdown where each opponent is teetering on the edge of victory with each tile draw, and you’re staring each other down wondering if you’ll get the three more turns you need to win, or if your opponent will suddenly look up, grin at you, and do the dreaded tile rack spin of victory to demonstrate her clever route. It’s devastating and brutal and challenging and just a great piece of game design.
But 10 Days in the USA is also a friendly, educational game that teaches geography without quite meaning to (I suppose the real key to getting someone to learn is to not make him aware you’re teaching him). Just as wargames have deepened my understanding of their subject matter and rekindled my love for history, USA cleverly gets kids and families to pore over maps for an hour together, and maybe even accidentally learn a thing or two. The tiles even have nice little facts that just casually adorn the cards, knowing that as you’re gazing desperately at the useless tiles and trying to make something of them, you’ll inadvertently learn what the capital of North Dakota is.
You can force your kids to stare at a map for 4 hours, or you can play 10 Days. Your call.
Still, the game is flawed. Primarily, game time can vary, and we’ve come dangerously close to exhausting all the tiles without a winner, though it hasn’t quite happened just yet. It can be frustrating to sit down for a nice 20-minute puzzle experience and have it drag on for twice as long as you’d hoped. Similarly, it’s entirely possible to win the game on turn two, or even one, or even before the game proper has started (this has occurred in our Africa games, but not yet in our USA plays).
There’s also a risk management element, which can sting when you’ve planned your whole play around one state tile--a tile your opponent happened to have on his tray the entire game. Yes, your strategy should be able to shift tactically as the game demands it, but blind drawing tile after tile without finding a specific one you need can extend the endgame and fail to entertain as a good game should. This situation doesn’t occur every game of course, but when it does it can detract from the experience.
While other Moon games stand in the spotlight and soak in the accolades, his 10 Days in the USA collaboration is easily overlooked as a 6-point-font footnote to his career. Yet I think it’s an important design, both in how it informed later Moon designs and as a specimen of the merits of simple rule sets resulting in confrontational play. You won’t play this every time you get the game group together, or even every family game night, but it’s definitely one that deserves to be remembered on occasion.