By gateway, I mean that it’s perfect to introduce to people unfamiliar with how modern board games work and how much fun can be had playing them. It’s fairly quick, family-friendly, and considered easy-to-teach and easy-to-learn. Ticket To Ride is not a 100% luck-fest, and nor is it a brain-bursting, intimidating game like Gaia Project. It has a pleasing amount of entry-level strategy attached to it.
The base game is about building train networks around the US and Canada, and it lasts about an hour. There have been a fair few expansions by Alan R. Moon released since Ticket To Ride’s initial arrival in 2004 (set in geographically different locations, such as Asia, India and The Netherlands, to name but a few). There is no guessing where The Heart of Africa is set, but its location is not the only tweak between it and the base game – it has a few different rules up its sleeve, too…
Ticket To Ride Map Collection: Volume 3 – The Heart of Africa (that’s a bit of a mouthful, so we’ll stick with The Heart of Africa!) is an expansion for Ticket To Ride. You’ll need the base game components to play this.
What you get here is a brand-new board, a deck of cards featuring new tickets, and a deck of 45 cards for the three terrain types. It does not come with any trains (45 per player), player pieces (five coloured cylinders) or the train cards (110 of nine different types, plus the ‘wild’ rainbow locomotives).
The Heart of Africa uses the wonderful hand management and set collection offerings that the base game of Ticket To Ride provides. Up to five players start the game by picking tickets, which state they need to build a rail network from one city on the map to a second one. At the end of the game, they will reveal said tickets, and earn points if they have achieved the route, or lose the points if they have failed to complete the route.
On your turn, you either take two cards (one from five that are face-up, or risk it by drawing blind from the top of the deck), or you claim a route by cashing in cards you’ve collected, or you gamble and take on even more tickets.
Players claim a route by playing the set number of cards according to the colour and length of the route. Grey routes, like the base game, can be any colour of the player’s choice. Players will then earn points for the length of the route they have just built.
The big difference in The Heart of Africa is that the continent is full of marvellous, exotic terrain, from jungles (green/blue/purple routes) to deserts (yellow/orange/red) to mountains (black/white/grey). Players can, if they wish, take a terrain card instead of a train card. Again, there are some that sit face-up, or you can put your faith in Lady Luck and draw blind. Any terrain cards are placed publicly, face-up in front of you, immediately.
If, later on, you claim a route of the colour that matches a terrain card that you have in front of you, that route will be worth double the points. For example, if you wanted to claim a red route that is a length of three, you’d normally receive four points. But you have a desert terrain card in front of you, so that three-length route is now worth eight points. You give back the terrain card, and chuff along eight spaces on the exterior points track.
There are a couple of other things to consider with terrains, too. If you want to build on routes that are four, five or six-lengths long, you need to have two terrain cards of that type. Also, to claim any route for double points, you need to have at least as many terrain cards of that specific type as any other player at the time of claiming.
Meaning: if you have, say, a six blue (jungle) route and two jungle cards – but Simon has three jungle cards in front of him – you cannot claim double points for that route until you also have the same number of jungle cards as Simon. You can, however, use a locomotive card to sit in for a terrain card, in the same way that a locomotive card can sit in a set, acting as a particular colour. You could claim the route for face value points, but just think of those juicy double points…
There is no Longest Route reward given out at the end of the game in The Heart of Africa, like there is in regular Ticket To Ride. Instead, there is a Globetrotter bonus of 10 points given out to the player that has completed the most tickets by the end of the game. This is a like a devil on your shoulder, teasing you: “Take one more ticket, go on. There is time to complete it… Besides, it’ll be worth it for the extra 10 points!”
Ticket To Ride is brilliant because of the way the maps are laid out; it’s a race, because there are only limited routes between certain cities. If others claim those routes before you, you’re in trouble. You’ll have to go the fiddly, long way around if you want to link up your route to claim your ticket points… But that means wasted time and trains!
Sometimes half the fun in Ticket To Ride is trying to second-guess where your opponents are aiming to build next and beating them to it, if you have similar ticket routes. Like all the Ticket To Ride games, The Heart of Africa scales in this aspect by having some double routes and single routes between cities – the double (second) route being accessible in a four/five-player game only, not in a two/three-player game. This means that the game will always feel cramped – in a fantastic way! – no matter your player count.
In The Heart of Africa, the terrain cards throw a superb spanner in the works. Think about it, you could score 30 points for a six-train route (they’re usually worth 15 points). 30 points! That’s huge. But other players can combat this by collecting terrain cards… After all, Jenny won’t be able to score her double points for completing her route if you have more terrain cards than her. How long can she risk leaving it before someone sneaks in and just decides to claim the route anyway? Is sacrificing double the points worth it for the sake of completing your ticket? Welcome to the conundrum that is The Heart of Africa…
The board itself is the same size as regular Ticket To Ride – a fairly large rectangle. It features the lower half of the continent, so everything south of Nigeria, Tchad and Sudan. At this point I should mention that the rulebook says that the geographical locations and, in places, city names themselves are located and spelled as such as according to depictions of those in circa 1910. “Countries and cities’ positions and borders have often shifted since then,” Days of Wonder say, “and may have been further modified for gameplay purposes.” So no nit-picking, please – yes, I’m looking at you, geography teachers!
There is a reason why this game is called The Heart of Africa. It’s so cramped in the centre of the map – the ‘heart’ – with a terrifying number of single-only routes. In a four or five-player game it’s going to be a real rat race scramble to claim those routes as quick as possible, or else you’re going to be left having to go the long way around!
Thematically this makes a lot of sense. Train routes would more likely have been more prevalent around the coastal areas of Africa, for purposes of trade and more manageable terrain for building tracks. Also keeping in tune with geographical theme is the location of the colour tracks that are associated with the three terrain types. They’re roughly clumped together, like real terrain is, rather than in sporadic, random patches.
The score track sits around the board’s edge, keeping in tune with other Ticket To Ride games. Pleasingly, you’ll notice that every five spaces have recognisable animal hide as its background: well-known beasts that roam the continent such as zebras, leopards and giraffes. Subtle details like this seep into players’ subconscious that they are playing a game set in a safari environment.
The cards themselves are of a regular playing size – larger than the small train and ticket cards you get in the base game. They’re a far more ergonomic, comfy size for an adult hand to hold. The terrain artwork on the cards is clear; each colour has a symbol on it too, meaning colourblind players are not restricted by colour alone.
If your African geography isn’t so hot, don’t worry – an ‘as the crow flies’ route is on each ticket card, showing you both cities you’re trying to connect. The points on the cards are perhaps generous, but this is due to the ‘heart’ of the board being so tight and keenly contested, rewarding players that can accomplish longer routes.
The Heart of Africa is an exciting, intriguing addition Days of Wonder’s board game darling, Ticket To Ride. There is real tension with trying to complete tickets through the central part of the map, so expect some friendly fist shaking across the table when you play this! Take note that this can get tough when played at higher player counts, so this might be a more ‘competitive’ game (if you’re playing with younger players – or bad losers)!
The terrain cards add in some fascinating diversions to tried and tested strategy in regular Ticket To Ride. It’s so tempting – not to mention immensely satisfying! – to score double points for your train routes. However, it might take a bit longer to accomplish this, particularly if someone else is blocking you by holding more terrain cards. Decisions like this are great to have, especially in a game that has a racing rhythm to it. (It’s worth noting that in theory you can add these "double your points terrain cards" to any version of Ticket To Ride, which while deviating away from theme, is still a neat touch.)
This expansion board and cards can, in theory, fit in the Ticket To Ride base game box alongside the regular pieces (and board). However, you’d have to dump the default, plastic insert provided by Days of Wonder and rearrange the components. If you want to collect all of the expansion maps for Ticket To Ride, at some point you won’t be able to store them all in one box. This box alone is half the depth of the base game’s box. It’s an attractive, rich shade of orange, akin to a beaming African sun, and will look smart sitting next to the base game on your shelves.
Perhaps unfairly, some more ‘experienced’ board gamers who’ve been around the block a time or two cast Ticket To Ride aside. Some who consider it mere gateway fare and consider it beneath them as they grew to discover games with more layers, more complexity, more decisions to make.
I’ll admit that for a phase, I was one of those gamers. However, I’ve found that this expansion has breathed fresh life into Alan R. Moon’s most successful game. It’s now made me want to seek out the other Ticket To Ride expansions and their own rules… If they change the game the same way The Heart of Africa does, then I want to experience those, too! This, Volume 3 of the series, is all about those terrain cards. They provide an excellent shot of liquor into what I felt was a becoming a previously diluted mixer.
Of course, it’s unfair to compare any of the Ticket To Ride games with a mid-weight Euro-style board game. Let’s not mince words; The Heart of Africa is still a light-weight, introductory, ‘gateway’ game with a twist on the formula. It won’t win back gamers that prefer more meat on their bones. It will, however, delight many folks who enjoy the lighter side of board gaming, with it having just the right amount of suspense and decisions to set your own ticker pounding (in a good way, of course).