Ticket to Ride…..with kids

Designer: Alan Moon

Artist: Cyrille Daujean and Julien Delval

Publisher: Days of Wonder

First time I noticed that everyone is wearing clothes of a different color (Photo credits: Deleted user@BGG)

Ticket to Ride is a huge commercial success and also well-beloved by niche gamers and the general public Nothing much to say beyond my amazement that the game transcends so many levels of player experience. While the base game is probably enough for most casual gamers, all the unique maps for Ticket to Ride are designed to cater the lifestyle gamers. Each map and expansion will tweak the base game in subtle ways, allowing players to extend their experience of the base game. For me, I enjoy the base game just fine, but having played it so many times, I no longer really crave it and rarely bring it out to the table. That said, I still play it with my six year old. Playing with her has made me realize that Ticket to Ride is not only a good gateway game, it is also an excellent game to expose kids to Euro-y mechanisms that might be missing from other kids games.

Much like My Little Orchard being the first game for many toddlers, Ticket to Ride can function as a turning point for 5-7 year olds to steer them toward light-mid weight Euros. I observed that many games targeted at kids will feature perhaps 1 or 2 mechanisms that drive the game and the decision-space tends to be more explicit and direct. There is not much metagaming going on in these games and the risk-reward are clear and easy for kids to comprehend. Ticket to Ride takes it to another level. To play well requires more in depth analysis and players must be able to project the decision space beyond just the next move. Importantly, these subtle gaming skills aren’t cloaked by a heavy and complicated rule set because Ticket to Ride remains one of the simplest games out there. The underlying mechanisms in Ticket to Ride can serve as a foundation for playing other more complex Euros. It is actually as much a gateway game for the general public, as it is for a kid, ready to take the next step.

Rather than reviewing the game in the traditional way, which at this point, really has no value given the mountains of glowing reviews, I think I much rather evaluate the game from the perspective of an emerging gamer.

Kids Corner

From 5 years to 6 years and 6 months: My kid and I started playing Ticket to Ride at the age of 5. We played intermittently for about a few months, then stopped and moved on to other games. She wasn’t completely ready. At that stage, she could put down train tracks and was happy to just score points. That was that. I wasn’t expecting much anyways and the game wasn’t all that fun for either of us. A competitive game of Ticket to Ride was still beyond her skills. Fast forward a year and multiple games later, she has matured as a gamer. Certainly, laying tracks is no longer an issue as is completing destination tickets. The fundamentals are there, but I was curious about her competitive drive to win and how she executes her vision. While she is much better at the game, there are still some areas that still feel….”lacking”. For example, even though I pointed out the relationship between track length and points scored, it did not seem to ring a bell. Her focus was solely on completing destination tickets and I think she takes great pride and satisfaction in completing the connection. I wonder if route building overrides any decision to make random six-car placements for 15 points, which in some cases, is more optimal. I would at times risk a slightly longer routes to include building connections that score more points.

I fell she is still unable to evaluate the trade offs between scoring points from laying down long tracks versus completing tickets. It’s clear that she did not seem to care as much about scoring immediate points, perhaps not fully comprehending the competition for track space. I could tell this by her choice to pick up the locomotive wild card at the expense of set collection. This means she still cannot project her decision space beyond one or two steps ahead. So, its likely that multi-tasking and future projections is something that she is still waiting to acquire.

There is very little aggression in her decision space right now and she does care for blocking other routes. If she does end up blocking other routes, they are all unintentional. She is however, very capable of circumventing blocked routes and not at all bothered by being blocked. I have at times intentionally built disjointed connections which opens up blocking maneuvers, but she has not really capitalize on that and seem to shy away from aggressive plays. It will be interesting to see if that attitude changes over time and whether there is a specific trigger for that transition. I have pointed out a few times on those opportunities, but she seems to just shrug it off.

As a parent, it’s tempting to remind her of strategy or pointing out certain logical actions to take. I have resisted the temptation to guide her decisions and to let her have a light bulb moment. She does get annoyed with “parental guidance” during games and I have defintely made a conscious effort to zip my mouth. Believe me when I say it is harder than it looks to hold back since my overriding desire is to “teach”. But I see value in letting her explore the decision space, however frustrating it is for both of us.

My partner and I don’t really believe in playing sub-optimally to let her win. Most of our games are competitive and consequently, she has learned to lose gracefully and it no longer bothers her unless she is exhausted. In which case, she can get cranky. Honestly, that happens to adult gamers too. Prompting her about losing and winning gracefully help. In Ticket to Ride, it feels like she cares even less about victory. Perhaps there is something inherent about route building that makes her feel happy just laying down tracks. Still, there is a noticeable gap between her skill set and ours in Ticket to Ride. In letting her explore the decision space without parental intrusion, a certain balance must be struck between maintaining a competitive balance and the frustration of losing constantly. Overall, she is great at losing gracefully but still gets understandably frustrated at times for being constantly steamrolled. Rather than playing sub-optimally, we have been playing with handicaps.That evens out the odds a little. For example, we are halving the positive points from destination tickets. It works.

Ticket to Ride is not a far leap from other games she has played complexity wise, but it does represent a jump in critical thinking skills. In most of her other games, this secondary processing is not nearly as evident and perhaps not as intertwined as Ticket to Ride. For example in Carcassonne, you can kinda tell where the optimal tile placement is (we play without farmers) and you don’t really have that many choices; in Ubongo, you either have the pattern recognition skills or you don’t, same is true for Rummikub; in Memoaar!, it’s all about memory; in Straw, you learn how to push your luck and keep specific cards at hand to avoid going bust. Each of these games and others in her collection focus on one angle or one specific skill to win. She can excel in these games. Ticket to Ride will push her toward developing multiple skills relevant to the modern Euro gaming. For example, TTR promotes risk-reward assessment (drawing tickets), aggressive play making (route blocking), forward planning (set collection), calculating odds (picking up additional tickets or anticipating end game scenarios), etc. These skills have to be combined and processed simultaneously to play well.

I have resisted getting TTR: First Journey because I think she is ready for regular Ticket to Ride. I highly recommend the regular game as a bridge between the HABAs and Gamewright and the light weight Euros that appeal to adults. There are several other games that could serve as a gateway game for kids along with Ticket to Ride. Many of the simpler Knizia games like Through the Desert, Sumatra, Whale Riders, etc. can fall into this category. There might be some elements within each game that needs to be progressively introduced for it to work. For example, the enclosure of territories in Through the Desert to score a massive chunk of points. But I will have to explore these variants.

Overall, I really enjoy seeing her develop into a mature board gamer and also look forward to the day I get whalloped by her in TTR.

Final word: Average; Great (as a parent-child gateway game)

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