Ticket to Ride is quite possibly the most essential board game in any gamer's collection. An evergreen gateway classic, it plays well with young and old, new and experienced, casual and hobbyist alike. It’s a game I often forget to bring to the table, but whenever I do, I have a fantastic time.
Multiple base game sets – straight Ticket to Ride, Europe and Nordic Countries – give you options from the get go, and double-sided expansion map sets multiply this variety tenfold. The Switzerland map is ideal for two players, and the Great Britain set allows Brits to build railways to their own home towns.
But my favourite expansion map – by far – is the first, Ticket to Ride Asia, and that’s the one I’m going to talk about now.
The Rules of Ticket to Ride
Firstly, if you’re unfamiliar with the regular game – crazy as this may seem - a brief explanation of the rules. Ticket to Ride is a game of building train routes between cities (and in some cases countries). At the start of the game you draw tickets that name two places on the board you have to connect: Destination tickets.
These routes have a point score based on their distance and difficulty – complete a long route by the end of the game and you get a high score, complete shorter ones and you get barely anything. But should you fail to complete these routes, that same number is deducted from your final score. Meaning that your choice is largely about risk/reward balance. A longer route is a Schrodinger’s cat of a card that can mark the difference between victory and defeat and should only be picked with care.
On each turn you have three options; claim a route by putting down little coloured train markers and gain further points, collect two of the multi-coloured train cards that will enable you to claim a route in the first place, or pick a new ticket (although in practice people almost never do the last one).
The beauty of this game is in how that simplicity – a choice of three actions – becomes agonising. Unlike other games where you can have multiple actions on every turn, Ticket to Ride offers you only one. And that is never enough. You need that green train card for a later turn so you should probably take it now before someone else does… but that means not claiming that five carriage track on the board you’ve been saving up for for ages, and what if someone takes that? Which one is safer?
The game has you in a constant balance of deciding what is urgent and what you can delay, and then having to adjust for the inevitable disaster that follows the wrong choice. That’s literally it. Well, until you get onto the expansions. And the expansions are where you’ll find my favourite iteration of the TTR franchise.
Before we continue, a caveat. I have three map expansion sets for Ticket to Ride. Each of these three sets has a double-sided map so you effectively get two new games for every one (this is not true of all the expansion boxes, I should add, just the three I have).
However, despite this generosity of content, I’ve only played one board for each box. I don’t know why this is, largely I think that in each case one game more obviously appeals than the other, it’s just how things are. So this review is only really going to focus on one of the games in the first expansion set. But fortunately that game is worth buying the box for on its own.
Given the prevalence of team games in sport, it’s perhaps odd there are so few tabletop games that are also played in teams. The most obvious examples are hidden role games like The Resistance or Battlestar Galactica (where people often don’t know what the teams are), hidden movement games like Fury of Dracula or Letters from Whitechapel and one versus many game – but actual, evenly based, open teams… very few.
Credit: Days of Wonder
Ticket to Ride Asia
One of those few is Ticket to Ride Asia. The game is played in teams of two. You are still working towards completing Destination tickets and claiming routes on the board, but this time you’re doing it collaboratively. It doesn’t matter if you or your partner complete a ticket you have in your hand, you still get the same score at the end.
This would make the game much, much easier but for one problematic detail – you can’t share information with your colleague or discuss plans. You can’t tell them the routes your looking at or the destinations you’re going for, you just have to hope that they can intuit these details from the way you play the game.
This is the beating heart of Ticket to Ride Asia and the reason it works so well. You’re not just trying to read other players, you’re trying to read your own side, and has the same tension as evergreen classic games like Bridge – ultimately, how well you do in the game is less about how much better you play than your opponents, but how well you play with your partner and how well you understand them.
The basic mechanisms are broadly similar but there are a few key differences. Firstly, when picking your initial destination tickets, one of the cards you select goes into a shared holder between you and your colleague so it can be seen by both players on a team. This is the only bit of free information sharing you get in the game and it’s right at the top so it’s important to pick carefully as it will affect the way you play the entire game.
Usually, it’s best to share one of the longer and more ambitious routes as you’ll certainly need help finishing them off, though good luck if you end up with two that are on opposite sides of the board and don’t connect in any way at all.
The second change to the rules in Ticket to Ride Asia is that when selecting your coloured train cards, one has to go into your hand, and the other has to go into a second shared holder that can now be used communally by the team. This key piece of design is a little bit of evil genius. Sometimes you’ve got a vague sense of what your partner is collecting – due to the cards they themselves have picked – and are trying to help them out. Other times you are trying to store something up for later and have to hope that they don’t take the key card before you have a chance to use it.
The final difference from the base game is an extra action. Rather than the three options given in regular Ticket to Ride, Asia gives four. You can, should you wish, use your entire turn to share one of your Destination tickets with your teammate. A potentially, incredibly useful option… but as with the agonising choices of the original, it just makes things harder. Is it really worth giving the extra information for the future at the expense of scoring points now? Or instead of taking those blue locomotives you need? Oh, decisions, decisions, decisions.
If a good game is a series of interesting questions, then Ticket to Ride Asia takes the deceptively complex ones of the original release and squares them. If it was painful opting to take a card, that pain is now doubled by having to decide where to put it – in your hand on the communal holder? If claiming a route churned your stomach, it’s positively spinning like a tumble dryer when you know that by doing so you may be taking the cards your colleague needs to pull of a spectacular coup.
You find yourself constantly asking questions. Did they take that card because they’re collecting orange or because they know you are? Or because they think the other teams are? Even where you sit is a tactical choice as one of you will be leading and the other following (I wonder if an alternating turn structure might be preferable, but that’s a minor detail).
Equally, there’s vast tension when you watch your partner play their turn. You find yourself desperately hoping they take a specific move, or spot a particularly neat trick – then find yourself frustrated and rejigging plans when they don’t, for the perfectly fair reason that they’ve no way of knowing what’s going on in your head. That’s the strongest aspect of this game – you’re always engaged. Everyone can screw up your plans at any given moment – even the person on your side – so you watch every move avidly, adjusting your ideas, thinking all the time.
If there is a corollary to the praise, it’s probably that you should really be relaxed and comfortable with your teammate, and about winning in general. Because, should you lose, there’s bound to be a post-mortem, a series of debates about what actions should or shouldn’t have been performed during the course of play. With the wrong teammate, this game could lead to rows.
Also if you’ve not played Ticket to Ride with the tunnels, introduced in Europe, – a detail where on some routes you effectively gamble on how many cards you need to claim then, the single one of the games general rules I’ve ever found people slightly struggle to grasp - then this probably isn’t the best place to encounter them from the first time as this rule is amped up a little in Asia.
Closing Thoughts on Ticket to Ride Asia
But those are pretty much the only downsides I can mention. The game’s design and components are impeccable, as has become to be expected from a Days of Wonder release. The rule book outlines the key adjustments cleanly and concisely, and the game itself is a joyous hour or two of tension built from a surprisingly simple rule-set that’s ideal for families who want something a little less easy going than the standard game.
Ticket to Ride Asia is the most played variant in our family, and I think it could become the same in yours too.