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Ticket to Ride: United Kingdom & Pennsylvania Review

I’ve nurtured a long, slow hatred of American cultural imperialism. As a developer, having to spend every working day spelling “colour” wrongly in your code will do that to a man. So, petty as it is, wherever possible, I’ll pick a British version of a thing over an American one. And if a British one doesn’t exist, I’ll seethe quietly while I wait for one.

So it feels like about time that there’s a local version of Ticket to Ride for me. With it being such a great family game, my kids know the routes between Seattle to Atlanta and Essen to Sevastopol better then their own home town. Now they can learn the way around their own country too, with the help of some little plastic trains from either original set.

Or perhaps they can’t. It turns out that this is one of the least family-friendly iterations of the game yet released. Its gimmick is the addition of technology cards, which you buy using locomotive cards as currency. To support this the box has a whole new card deck with extra locos. Plus a new rule that allows you to cash in any four ordinary cards instead of a locomotive. So that’s more rules and a whole slew of new technologies to memorise. No hurdle for hobbyists, but it’s a steep slope for regular family folk.

At the start of the game you can only build poxy 2-space routes in England. If you want to build longer routes, build ferries, build in Ireland, Scotland or Wales you’ll need the appropriate technology to do so. Plus there are more esoteric options, like tech that gives you extra points or lets you cash in less cards for a route.

With all these new options on the table, it looks like a recipe for some new strategies. In reality, however, they function more as limiters. Everyone needs to be able to build longer routes to succeed. It’s hard to imagine doing well without building ferries or outside of England, too. So buying these is a given. As for the other stuff, well, let’s just say I’ve never seen a technology heavy strategy win.

Conversely, there’s a massive ten-space, 40 point route on the board and I’ve never seen anyone claim that and lose. It looks like a bit of a game breaker, although people who’ve grabbed it do tend to fail a few tickets.

In summary, it seems to add extra rules and extra luck of the draw for no particular extra gain. I’ve no problem with the latter, as Ticket to Ride is inherently a luck-heavy game. The former is less forgivable, though. So unless you have a particular geographical bee in your bonnet like me, there’s no real reason to favour the UK map over the vanilla one.

But wait. What’s this? Tucked away on the corner of the cover like an embarrassing elderly relative, there’s a little logo that says “Pennsylvania”. If you rummage in the box there’s a few more cards with funny pictures on. If you flip the board over, there’s another map, another bit of god-damn America.

The new mechanics for this map are a lot more easily digestible. Each time you claim a route, you can grab a stock certificate from one of several rail companies associated with it. At the end of the game, players total up their stocks in each company and get bonus points depending on how many they got. Simple.

Yet what looks like an afterthought turns out to be the better of the two maps. Those stock certificates are mean. They’re kept face down which means you have to try and keep a running tally of what other people are collecting. Unless you’re a human calculator that rapidly becomes impossible. So every selection becomes a cauldron of paranoia, as you wonder whether the card you’re picking is worthless, or a game winner.

Plus, each company operates on a small sub-area of the map. To maximise your points you want to spread widely. So that’s another thing to plan alongside making your tickets and gunning for the longest route. With plenty of blocking opportunities too, the game becomes gloriously brutal. And with both tickets and stock points waiting until the game end, there’s uncertainty right up until the last minute.

So the UK map is only for real Ticket to Ride enthusiasts. But Pennsylvania may be the best variant of the original game I’ve played. It’s almost a shame they made you pay for them both in the same box. Much as I hate to admit it, America wins again.

Trains and Trains: Rising Sun Review


The deckbuilding mechanic of Dominion was the most revolutionary thing in the last decade of tabletop gaming. Many other games have build on that creativity. Yet after all that time and all those titles, deckbuilding still feels like a mechanic struggling to find its place in the world.

It’s an inherently insular thing. Demanding significant setup time and forcing players to obsess over their own constructions while ignoring everyone else. Nightfall and Star Realms added more interaction, but it wasn’t enough. A Few Acres of Snow briefly looked like a miraculous saviour but got crushed under the Halifax Hammer.

Enter Trains.

Trains looks like a re-themed Dominion. You play cards to get money to buy more cards and, if you pick your combos well, the economic engine of your deck slowly improves. It’s got a curious new concept of Waste, useless cards that you gain from certain actions and which do nothing but clog up your hand. You can pass to get rid of all the Waste cards in your hand, or certain other cards can help you get rid of them.

It’s interesting, but it’s not enough to differentiate the game on its own. What does make Trains different, and special, is what you do with your economic engine. Rather than just an ever-increasing velocity of victory card purchases until someone wins, the goal of Trains is to build track. Across a hex board. Against other people.

This changes everything.

Suddenly, your deck and your hand are worthy only of peripheral glances. Everyone focuses down the board in the middle of the table. They’re together: pointing, chatting, worrying about what’s going to happen on that board before their turn rolls around. It’s not just more interaction. This is deckbuilding as a shared experience.

This dynamic is enhanced by the clever way in which you score points. Some come from building track into “remote locations” and some will come from victory point cards in your deck. But mostly they come from having track in cities where there are stations. It costs money, a card, and waste, to build a station but no-one owns it. Everyone with track in the city benefits. Station building in crowded locales thus becomes a vast and intriguing game of chicken.

Yet the game still manages to feel friendly and welcoming. Building track in a hex doesn’t claim it as yours, it just makes it more expensive for someone to join you. Competition without cruelty.

Turns roll round with incredible speed, but you’re faced with a wealth of options. Besides all those ways to score points, there’s different ways to build your deck and expand on the board. Sometimes it makes sense to build a lean, card dealing machine and others you can embrace the Waste. Sometimes it makes sense to isolate yourself in a corner and others you’re best shadowing other players and feeding off their stations. No two games are ever the same.

It’s not as good a family game as it makes out to be, however. It has the same information overload as many deckbuilders, with so many cards to choose from and a selection that shifts with every game. This is great gamer fuel, of course, but many find it confusing. The two big maps on the double-sided board aren’t great with just two players, either.

Enter Trains: Rising Sun.


This is one of those expansions that’s also a stand-alone game. You can play it out of the box, or combine the new cards and boards it offers with those from the original Train.

If you’re new to the series, it’s a much better place to start. The double-sided board has a big map for three to four players and two smaller maps for two. They’re cramped and awkward making the game much more compelling for a duo of players.

There’s also a couple of new mechanics. One of them is the concept of Route Bonuses. These are effectively like the tickets in Ticket to Ride: extra points you can get for connecting cities. There’s nothing not to love about this. It adds depth, competition and excitement for no overhead. Rising Sun has the necessary cards and markers to add Routes to the original game too.

The other thing is adds are Attack and Reaction cards, two sides of the same coin. The Attacks are a little soft, as you’d expect in a game like this, but they still add some sweet kid glove brutality. And if you like the interaction, but not the nastiness, be sure to throw in some Reactions into the card mix too.

In making for these extra card types, Rising Sun does create one odd problem. What’s gone to create the space are a selection of cards that allow you to slim and control your deck. Without them you’re stuck with your starting cards for longer and it’s harder to hone your deck into a potent engine.

Some might say this is a good thing. It can certainly end up creating some surprise plays. If you don’t like it, there’s plenty of cards with the necessary functions in the original Trains. Mix them both together.

Neither of these games are groundbreaking with their design. Plus they have a feeling of trying to be all things to all gamers, creating a game of all trades that’s master of nothing. These are the only reasons I can think of why they haven’t exploded into wider consciousness, because they’re cracking titles. What they lack in innovation they make up for in impact. Here, finally, is a proper fusion of deckbuilder and board. Here, finally, is a game with all the creativity and variety of deckbuilding with interaction and positional play. Here, finally, is a deckbuilder I actually want to play.

Trains and Stations Review


I’ve always loved interaction in games. I’d bet that most gamers do, really, it’s just that those who’ve chosen to embrace the bloodless, over-balanced mechanical model that runs screaming as far from zero-sum games as it possibly can think that logic is more important than interaction. But there is, thankfully, an alternative. Instead of having players taking chunks out of each other, you can instead encourage them to co-operate for mutual gain.

My suspicion is that this what Trains and Stations sets out to do for the light family gaming crowd. Clearly influenced by age-old classic Poker Dice, the game sees you roll a handful of beautifully marbled custom dice, picking what they want to keep and rolling the others again. Except that, in a nod to modern sensibilities of choice and strategy you can actually keep certain dice from turn to turn if you find you didn’t roll the combination you were looking for and you have to pay for each re-roll.

The aim is to build mines, ranches and the like across an abstract map of America, and to fill in the interconnecting routes with trains. To build a building you need three matching dice of the same type. Train dice can be used alone: you take all your train results and place the dice on the map in the spaces between the cities. The final dice face is more coins that you can spend on re-rolls.

But here’s the kicker: each player is supposed to roll five dice from a pool of eight. But as train results come up and the dice go on the map, the pool shrinks until you have less than five and can’t roll them all. To reclaim your dice from the board requires the route to be completed and scored, whereupon all of the dice in the scored route go back to their owners, who get some points.

But all the routes are at least three spaces long, making even the smallest ones tough to score on your own without impacting your dice pool. Ideally, you’ll need help from other interested parties. This is the carrot the game hangs before you as a nudge to co-operate with one another and, of course, as soon as your start favouring some parties over others with your deals, you get all the fun of interaction in an otherwise tame game.

As further incentive each player has certain route cards which score bonus points for connecting more distant cities. It doesn’t matter who actually completes the route, as long as the connection is made the person with the card scores the points. Which can lead to some delightfully mean moments where you manipulate third parties into doing your dirty work for you, before beaming like a Cheshire cat and flipping your bonus card.


At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. And sometimes that’s how it does work. The problem with games of this nature, where the need to get down and dirty with the other players is implied rather than being spelled out mechanically, is that some players get it and some don’t. The poster child for this style, Cosmic Encounter, goes to considerable lengths to push players toward negotiating with one another, to the point of have specific roles and rewards in every combat for attacker, defender and allies of each. But even then I’ve played it with numerous groups of gamers who failed to spark even that lengthy touchpaper, because either all the players pitch in or it doesn’t work. A single refusenik can derail the whole game.

Trains and Stations doesn’t go to such lengths, instead gently nudging the player with possibilities and a typical rules paragraph about negotiation which spells out, rather forlornly, that deals don’t have to be binding. It’s pathetic that some gamers need reminding, but they clearly do. And without clear guidance from the mechanics, more players won’t quite grasp the delicate intricacies of dealmaking that go into the game, and more sessions fall flat.

That might be okay if the game was mechanically tight, if there was lots of excitement of strategy to fall back on if the hive mind around the board fails to gel, but there isn’t. Rolling the dice is fun, but the excitement is tempered in one direction by the ever-present specter of choice about re-rolls and keeping dice between turns, and in the other by the hellish ghost of punishment should you be unlucky enough to roll three locked trains, resulting in both a victory point penalty and no further re-rolls. It seems unnecessarily severe.

Yet there’s still too much randomness in the game to satisfy those looking for a properly strategic experience. Then there’s the fact the rules around the buildings and the resources they generate seem overly complex. Get triples to build a building on a city, grab a matching resource for each route that passes through. But then halfway through the game the resources each building makes change, with what generating which depending on the order that old ones run out, and you can then trade in old cards for new if you want. It’s not really hard to understand, but it’s a lot of work for what amount to a few paltry bonus points for having a majority in a particular resource. Sometimes they can determine a winner, and those times are exciting. But mostly they’re just extra overhead.

Set against this is the fact that the game as a whole is quite easy to learn and play, not to mention quick. The hour play time listed on the box seems pretty accurate once you’ve got a sense of how it all flows. And it’s got some inventive concepts in it too. But while you can forgive a game a lot of flaws if it’s fast and fun, that’s rapidly becoming a crowded niche, and I don’t think Trains and Stations does enough to stand out from the crowd.

It’s not so much that it’s a bad game as one with a very limited audience. Ideally, I guess, you’d want a family group who game regularly and aren’t afraid to get stuck in to quick and dirty dealmaking. My Mum, it just so happens, fits that profile very well and she really enjoyed the game. If that sounds like it could be you, it’s probably worth your time to check this out. If not, you should probably go back to King of Tokyo.