Designed by: Alan R. Moore
Published by: Days of Wonder
Review copy provided free of charge.
Ticket to Ride may be the best gateway game I’ve yet played. In it you attempt to build railway lines connecting various locations, spending cards to do so and plonking down little plastic trains as you go. It’s brilliantly simple, wonderfully tactile and has just enough going on to keep you interested even once you move on to more complex games. But now it seems Days of Wonder want to make their beloved franchise a bit trickier to master. Enter Ticket to Ride: Rails & Sails, the biggest and most complex Ticket to Ride ever. But here’s the question; did Ticket to Ride need to be bigger and more complex?
I’ve never reviewed Ticket to Ride here on the site, though, so before we delve into what Rails & Sails brings to the series let’s chat about what Ticket to Ride is first, because like always I write this reviews with my videogaming audience in mind.
The basic gist is that every turn you’ll do one thing and one thing only, starting with the most common; getting new cards. To do this you browse the laid out cards and can take up to two of them, immediately replacing any claimed cards with new ones. If nothing seems helpful then you can also drawn blindly from the deck, but because luck is a bit of a douchebag you’re almost guaranteed to never get what you actually need.
With cards in your hand you can get down to the business of building a network of railways. To claim a route, as indicated by the colored squares between locations, you simply discard cards matching the routes color and length, at which point you can grab your plastic trains and proceed to plonk them down along the claimed piece of board while making soft “choo choo” noises to yourself. Depending on the length of the claimed route you’ll also be given some victory points with longer routes or just plain awkward ones obviously scoring higher.
You won’t just be laying down train lines all over the place, though, as ticket cards are what gives the game focus. You’ll be given five of these at the start of the game and must keep at least three of them, but you can always use a turn to acquire more later on if you’re feeling brave. Should you connect the two locations listed on the card, regardless of how circuitous the method, you’ll score the points shown on the card, which can be a very hefty sum. The downside is that any uncompleted tickets cost points at the end of the game, so there’s a nice risk vs reward mechanic at play, especially toward the end of the game where you’re unsure if there’s time left to complete a ticket.
Now, there’s a bit more to Ticket to Ride, but what you’ve read so far does cover the basic idea of the game. It’s brilliance lies in the fact that it can be taught easily, even to children, and yet there’s still a little bit of strategy hidden away in how you plan out routes and blocking other player’s from achieving their desired path. A great example is my niece, who is eight years old. She understands how to play Ticket to Ride, but does struggle with the idea of building toward multiple tickets at the same time. Still, she has fun working on a single ticket and just slapping down random routes. The more she plays, though, the more adept she is becoming at planning out where she wants to go, and now she’s also beginning to understand how other player’s affect each other. It’s not a strategically deep game, but as a gateway game there’s enough there for new players to keep learning for a little while.
Now we arrive at Rails & Sails, the biggest Ticket to Ride game to date.
The big change is that now there are also routes that cross water, and frankly trains are a bit useless at that without massive bridges or becoming submarines, so ships have been added into the mix. It might sound like a seismic shift in all things Ticket to Ride, but it’s actually not. Ships are actually almost identical to trains. Er, in the game, anyway. I mean, obviously trains and ships are two entirely different methods of transportation, and one goes on water and the other only goes on water in very rare circumstances. Look, just shut up. From a gameplay perspective they are nearly identical; to claim a ship route you just spend tickets matching the color and length of the route, and then plonk your little plastic boats down. Oh! But many of the ship cards are actually worth two ships instead of one! How exciting!
So, the ships new cards get added to the table alongside the regular train cards so that now by default there are three trains and three ships to pick from at any given time, and whenever a card is removed the player can choose whether it gets replaced from the train deck or ship deck. This brings up new opportunities to annoy other players if you know they’re looking for one type of card, while also making an already heavily luck-based mechanic even more dependent on the cruel whims of chance. With regular Ticket to Ride you only ever need one type of card and there’s five available on the table, providing a reasonable chance for something useful. With Rails & Sails there can be up to nine cards of one type, or none. It’s so easy to get screwed over and wind up having to draw blindly, which rarely ever goes well. As a result I generally found that game’s lasted longer, with players having huge hands of cards as they patiently waited for what they needed to pop up. The argument against this, of course, is that it forces players to adept on the fly by using whatever colors and cards are available to take longer routes to their destination.
There’s also the fact that at the beginning of every game you have to choose the mixture of physical boat and ship pieces you want to start with. The rulebook actually recommends numbers for each, and to be honest I’d advise sticking with them. It’s an interesting twist, even if it is a bit like asking you to pick what food you want to consume at an all you can eat buffet before you even get there.
Another new addition are ports that can be placed on locations marked with an anchor by spending two trains and two ships, all of which must the same color and bear the anchor symbol. You’ll be given three of these to use throughout the game, and every time you manage to get a complete a ticket that ends in a location with you’ll score considerable bonus points, enough to easily swing the entire game in your favor. And if you somehow manage to get all three ports on the board with multiple tickets leading into each of them then prepare for a onslought of points so impressive that God himself will come down from His perch to congratulate you. The obvious downside to ports is they’re heavily luck dependent. If a player gets a run of good fortune when drawing tickets then they can easily gain a substantial lead. In one example a friend was in last place, but then lucked into a couple of tickets that he essentially already had completed. This alone gave him a considerable points boost, but then with ports as well it put him well into the lead.
Of course luck has always been a huge factor in playing Ticket to Ride. While planning out your routes and hand management are important, it’s really luck when drawing new tickets that determines the winner. Ports amplify this effect. I’ve had a few games now where players who have been struggling lucked into a couple of good tickets, stuck down a port or two and won the game.
You don’t just get a single board here, rather you get a lovely double-sided version. The first is named The Great Lakes and is a bit smaller and more compact, creating a shorter game. Flip the board over and you have a world map, which unsurprisingly equals a much longer playtime and some large routes. The world map also introduces the idea of difficult terrain where two train cards of the same color must be spent per space, although you can use a different color set for each space, which is nice. Plus, the world map has tour tickets which give you heaps of points if you can follow the exact route shown, but incur a substantial penalty if you don’t. Of the two I prefer the Great Lakes as the world map, while a cool idea, does tend to go on for too long. You get a lot more pieces, and since the game doesn’t end until one player has gotten through them all it can begin to seriously drag.
The problem is that there’s new layers of complexity on top of the game, but with it comes no new depth or nuance. All that it really does is damage Ticket to Ride’s greatest strength; how easy it is to play. It’s such a great example of a gateway game for bringing new people into the hobby, but by adding ships as well the designers have tossed in more for players to keep track of without improving the gameplay. Mechanically speaking boats are almost identical to trains. They bring nothing of any real interest to the action.
It’s not all bad. I do really like ports because unlike ships they add some extra depth, rewarding you for planning out your routes better, even if they do make luck an even more powerful factor. Likewise the new tour tickets are a fun addition because while the rewards are huge they take a lot more work and time to complete and leaves you hurting badly. They provide an extra layer of risk vs reward. And of course underneath every new editions remains the beautiful nature of Ticket to Ride, a game that I fell in love with the very first time I played it.
I guess the issue is that I don’t really get Rails & Sails. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand who it’s for. These new mechanics have complicated the game, so my eight year-old niece struggled with it. She had a hard job with ships because suddenly she had a whole new set of cards to think about. She couldn’t deal with ports because they were confusing. As for me I didn’t feel like I was getting a deeper experience. I wasn’t having to think much harder, or strategize more. Mostly I was just getting a little annoyed at the small deck of cards I was collecting.
My final verdict on Rails & Sails is that you should stick to the regular Ticket to Ride and its myriad of expansions and spin-offs. It’s good that Days of Wonder want to take the series further, but this doesn’t feel like the way forward. It adds nothing of any real value, while compromising the simplicity which makes Ticket to Ride such a fantastic game.