Ticket to Ride

ticket-to-ride-boxI’ve been a board gamer since I was in High School. I remember discovering that there was this sub-category of board games that had a cult following. I’m talking about railroad games. I never got into the heavier railroad games, but I did enjoy games like Empire Builder and Eurorails — a family of railroad games where you drew rails on the board with erasable crayon and competed to complete routes.

Empire Builder, Eurorails and that whole family of games were fairly popular. But in recent years, more streamlined, and lighter games have supplanted them in popularity. The chief one among these has been Ticket to Ride, along with all of the variants, and alternate maps. I discovered the computer version of the game about 2 years ago, and since I’ve gotten back into board gaming, I purchased the basic game to play with friends. And I’ve recently gotten a chance to do so. This is how the game works:

ticket-to-ride-1024x577Ticket to Ride is a game for 2 to 5 players. It has two decks of cards and a map of the US that is crisscrossed by potential routes. Each connection between cities is between 1 and 6 in length, and may be grey, or one of 7 other colors (red, orange, yellow, black, white, purple, green). There are also 8 types of train cards in the train deck — one is wild, and the others match the colors of the routes (other than grey). Each player starts with 4 random train cards and 3 route cards. At the start of the game, each player may, if they wish, discard one of the route cards of their choice. There are also always 5 face-up train cards that are available to players on their turn. The goal of the game is to have the most points at the end of the game.

On your turn, you may do one of the following:
1. Take a face-up wildcard.
2. Take two train cards, any of which may be from the face-up cards, or from the deck of face-down cards, so long as the face-up card you draw is not wild. Face-up cards taken are replaced immediately.
3. Discard 1 to 6 cards of the same color to build tracks connecting two adjacent cities. The color of your cards must match the color of the route, and the number must match the length of that  route. You can use any color if the route is grey, but all your cards must be the same color.  You build tracks by placing your train tokens on the board on the individual spaces (see image below). You can, of course, substitute wildcards for any color.
4. Draw 3 new route cards, discarding up to 2 of them if you wish.

ticket-to-ride-connectingNote that at any time, if there are three wild cards face-up, you must discard all of the face-up cards and replace them from the deck.

The end-game is triggered once any player is down to 2 or fewer train tokens. At that point, every player gets one more turn, including the player who triggered the end-game. You then add up the scores, getting points for every route completed, minus points for each route not completed, and 10 bonus points for the longest contiguous route. And that’s basically it.

The game is easy to teach, and it plays very fast. The people I’ve taught it to were able to grasp the basic strategy very quickly and told me that they liked the game. One of them actually asked to play it again. It’s a great entry-level game for those who are new to board games. Even though there is some strategy to the game, I will say that there is a lot of luck as well, plus I’m not quite good enough that I can consistently beat newcomers (one of the people I taught, won his first two games in a row). That said, anyone who is looking for a game with a lot of depth to it, will probably not be satisfied. Games generally last 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how many players there are.

ticket-to-ride-comp-gameKeep in mind that Days of Wonder, who currently makes Ticket to Ride, also sells a number of versions of the game, including a children’s version, alternate route decks, alternate maps with special rules, and so on. There are maps for Europe, Pennsylvania, India, England, and so on, plus a new children’s version that will only be sold at Target. There are also both a mobile version and a version for the PC. I have played the PC version, and own all of the available maps and alternate decks for it, and I’ve enjoyed all of them, though Europe and Pennsylvania are my favorites.  The computer AI is not very good, but thankfully, the game does include online play. At least games against the computer are a lot faster. And scores are stored on-line, should you want to compare your high scores to other players.

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I definitely recommend this game in all of the incarnations that I’ve tried so far. I have not actually seen the 10th Anniversary edition, so I can’t comment on that one. But I do give thumbs up for both the computer edition and the standard edition (with the US map). I do plan  on eventually buying Europe and Pennsylvania/England. Each map adds a few extra rules, but the core gameplay is the same. Based on my experiences in the computer game, those are the best. If you are going to only buy one, I’d recommend Europe. the mini-expansions with alternate decks of destination cards are also good (again, only based on my experiences with the computer game).

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XCom 2 — An Introduction and Early Review

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I have been a huge fan of Firaxis since they released the computer game, “Alpha Centauri”.  It was one of my favorite computer games of all time.  If you like turn-based strategy and/or 4X games, you can still purchase it on-line, along with its unnecessary, but still interesting  at gog.com.

I also was very impressed with their reboot of the Microprose X-Com series, with their XCom: Enemy Unknown and the excellent expansion to it, XCom: Enemy Within.  I enjoyed the X-Com series in its day.  I have to admit that I did not play the whole series, but stopped with X-Com: Terror from the Deep.  X-Com presented a unique combination of global strategy and turn-based squad-level tactics in a science fiction universe.  I can’t think of any other game that did it better — up until the reboot.

Now I know I may be considered a blasphemer by many of my fellow X-Com veterans.  But I’m a big fan of elegant design — maybe it’s my background as a computer programmer, but I always feel that the best games are ones where complex strategies or tactics arise from simple rules.  As much as X-Com was a great tactical game, with decent strategic elements, it was quite a bit ‘fiddly’.  Certainly, the fact that you had to account for every bullet, that anyone could pick up anything dropped by anyone, if they had room in their inventory was more realistic than XCom’s fixed inventory slots.  But given a choice between playability and realism, I usually go for the latter.  I’m not going to dispute that X-Com has a more realistic feel to it and gives you more options.  But I LOVE streamlined gameplay, as it peels back the levels of fiddliness to get to the essence of the game — the raw tactics.  I totally understand people who disagree with me — I’m not saying that I’m right or wrong, only that it’s my personal preference.

But there was more.  I didn’t care for the strategic level of the X-Com games, for the most part.   In particular, I disliked the mechanics of shooting down UFOs.  I’m a turn-based gamer at heart, and those mechanics went against my grain (plus, against my total incompetence at anything requiring hand-eye coordination).  It is part of the reason that I never completed the early games.  I’ve had an issue since grade school with the muscles in my eyes,  which means that my eyes do not easily track objects moving on a screen. They just do not focus quickly enough for many video games.  I loved the fact that the aerial combat in the rebooted games were more of simply pressing buttons to utilize one of a variety of combat boosts.

Well, my wait for a new XCom game ended Thursday at midnight.  XCom 2, a game for PC-only, so far seems like a worthy sequel to XCom: EU / EW.  The premise is simple: all of the events of the previous games actually happened in this game world… except that XCom failed, and the aliens have conquered the earth.  You are (essentially) resurrected by the remnants of XCom team 20 years after the war was lost.  There is a fragmented resistance, spread around the globe, and you are tasked, with the help of whats left of XCom, to unite the various underground cells, and fight a guerilla war against the aliens.

But you are not completely helpless.  You now command the “Avenger”, a huge alien ship that was captured during the war.  It is so big, that you’ll need to excavate areas in order to repurpose them towards being labs, workshops, communications relays, training, and so on.  To aid you, you have science and engineering teams, led respectively by Tygan and Shen but a real sparsity of an actual engineering or science staff, so you’ll have to somehow recruit more.  You have Central Officer Bradford as your main strategic coordinator.  And that faceless, nameless, deep voiced U.N. representative will let you know pretty early on, that he’s the only surviving U.N. supporter of XCom left that has not sided with “Advent” (ie. the aliens).  Like in the previous games, he appears now and again to offer missions.

There are other significant differences between XCom and XCom 2.  In XCom 2, your strategic choices do not stop with deciding what to build, and what to research.  It quickly becomes apparent that you have SO MANY different choices to make that it becomes hard to decide which should take precedence, because almost everything you decide to do uses up time, and time is your most precious commodity in this game.  Not every decision requires you to send a team into combat.  Sometimes you merely must move the “Avenger” to a different location around the globe and do research towards setting up communications with an underground cell, or gaining intel, or waiting for a supply drop.

The nature of your missions has also changed.  Many of your fights will start with your team hidden, and you’ll be able to set up ambushes against the alien forces.  You may be tasked with destroying or stealing an alien object, or kidnapping or assassinating a VIP, or rescuing someone who’s been captured.  Sometimes when you kill an enemy, he will drop something useful — maybe intel, maybe a weapon mod, maybe a useful resource, and maybe even several different things.  Your soldiers will automatically pick up anything dropped, if they are near enough to the body.

And the soldier classes available to you have changed.  The main classes that you can play with at the start include:

  • The Ranger: A close-combat specialist, similar in some ways to the Assault class from the previous games, who carries a sword and a gun.  With his powerful sword, the Ranger can attack ANYONE he can move into range of, even while dashing.  And his chances of hitting in melee combat is almost certain.  Skills that they can obtain tend to either help maintain and/or reinstate stealth, or can improve their close-combat skills.
  • The Sharpshooter: This is XCom 2’s version of a sniper.  Like the Sniper, he excels at hitting targets at a distance, even those that he cannot see directly (teamsight is the default starting skill for all Sharpshooters, and allows him to hit any target, no matter how far away, that he has line of sight to, so long as a teammate can see him.).  But Sharpshooters also can obtain some really excellent pistol skills.
  • The Grenadier: Grenadiers are, at first glance, similar to XCom’s Heavy class.  By default, they can carry, in addition to their powerful minigun, a grenade launcher and 2 grenades (by default, other soldiers are limited to 1).  Their grenade launcher will allow them to lob the grenade of choice much further than usual.  Also, they are experts at demolitions, allowing them to remove obstacles, to either clear a path, or ruin an enemy’s cover.
  • Specialist: Specialists combine the skills of XCom’s Support class, with something completely new.  Specialists all have a little flying robot that they command, and can be used to hack into computers, or to aid their allies to increase their defenses.  Depending on skill choices, the gremlins can also be used to attack enemies, to heal allies, and maybe even take control of alien automated units.  Although their hacking skills are a bit risky (at least at first), the benefits of successful hacks can include restoring stealth to themselves and/or allies, or to give a variety of different combat bonuses.  Unfortunately, unsuccessful hacking attempts can result in bad things happening.

One other class has been revealed, but is not available by default (you’ll have to do some research and training to gain them), and that is the Psi Operative.  In the first game, you could train any soldier that showed psi talent (after lengthy testing) to gain Psionic skills in addition to their normal class skills.  Apparently, that has been changed.

Note that it’s also possible to enable soldiers to gain skills outside of their class, but to do so requires special actions that I have not unlocked yet.  HOWEVER, something that I did experience is one of my soldiers being revealed to be low-willed, and thus, especially susceptible to panic.  If you’ve played the first game, you’ll know that panic is often bad in a soldier.  And it can be contagious.  You will not be able to control a panicking soldier — his actions can vary between running away, or hunkering down, or shooting wildly at enemies.  However, such panic is temporary.

Note also that there have been numerous changes to enemy units as well.  Thin Men have been replaced with Serpents, snake-like enemies who can grab your soldiers (even at a distance, dragging them away), and strangle them.  Sectoids have been upgraded, and now have a wider variety of psionic attacks.  There are also Advent soldiers — grunts and captains.  The basic soldier is a weak, easily killed grunt — basically an altered human who works for the aliens.  The captains are a bit harder to kill, and are capable of marking your soldiers, so that he and his allies will gain combat bonuses against them.  There’s lots more, but I’m treating those as spoilers (plus I haven’t gotten far enough into the game that I could tell you much anyway).

I know that some veteran players will disagree, but I feel that the game has gotten a lot harder.  The AI is certainly decent, and will do its best to flank you, or to do area attacks to hit multiple soldiers, whenever possible.  The shear number of strategic choices can be overwhelming at times.  There are a number of ‘doomsday counters’ that are associated with revealed alien plots, that if completed, can result in a really bad day.  All of this leads to a much more intense experience, to frequent second-guessing as to whether or not you made a good strategic choice (because you will never have enough time or resources to do everything that you wish you could).  That was one weakness, I felt, of Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within — the strategic choices were there, but I didn’t feel like my time was running out, as much as I now do with XCom 2.

With the little that I’ve played of the game, I can’t in all good conscience, give a full review.  That said, from what I’ve seen, if you liked the previous games, you’ll LOVE the new one.  I cannot comment on how the game progresses later on.  I don’t play computer games as ravenously as younger people do — I can’t sit up all night in front of my computer playing games.  I tend to play in smaller bursts.  So it may be a while until I finish my first run-through.  But preliminarily, I will say that I can recommend the game for anyone who likes turn-based tactical combat, or who liked the previous games.

Splendor

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“Splendor” is a board game for 2 to 4 players, designed by Marc André, published by Asmodee.  The digital versions are published by Days of Wonder — versions are available for PC (on Steam), iOS, and Android.  I am going to talk about the physical and PC versions.  Unless I specify, you can assume that everything I say in this post refers to both versions.

The general ‘theme’ of Splendor is that the players each represent wealthy Renaissance-era merchants, acquiring Gems, in order to purchase mines, ships, and the backing of nobles.  In practice, though, except for the beautiful artwork on the cards, the theme is pretty thin.  If you are looking for a strongly thematic game, this may not satisfy you.

The goal of the game is to collect victory points — once any player reaches 15 points, you are in the last round — the game will continue until every player has had the same number of turns.  At that point, the player with the highest score, wins.

The game consists of 6 piles of different-colored poker chips, each representing either Diamonds, Rubies, Onyx, Emeralds, Amethysts, and Gold, 3 decks of development cards, divided by general quality, and 10 noble tiles.  On a turn, you can do one, and only one of the following:

  1. You may collect up to 3 (non-gold) gems, none of which are the same color.
  2. You may collect 2 (non-gold) gems of the same color, so long as there are at least 4 gems of that color available.
  3. You may reserve any development card on display OR the top hidden card of one of the three undealt development card decks.  If you reserve a card, you collect a gold token.  Gold tokens are just like other gems, except they are wild, and can be used in place of any other color gem.  You can have up to 3 development cards reserved.
  4. You may purchase any one development card on display or that you personally have reserved.

Note also that you can never have more than 10 tokens (including gold), so if you go over 10, you will be forced to discard the excess.

Development cards have 3 relevant stats — purchase cost, point value (which if not shown, is zero), and bonus value.  The bonus value is the displayed gem on the top-right-hand corner of the card, and this bonus is cumulative, and can never be lost.  It is used to reduce the purchase cost of all future development cards.  So while the top-tier cards may seem really out of reach as far as their purchase cost is concerned, as the game progresses, they will become more readily affordable.

And there’s just one more thing — there’s a random selection of nobles who can join your faction once your accumulated bonus matches or exceeds the required bonus printed on his tile.  No more than one noble can join your side on a given turn.  However, if two nobles qualify to join you on a turn, and the second one is still available on the following turn, you’ll get that one as well.  Since every noble is worth 3 victory points, you should definitely take them into consideration when plotting your moves.

The PC version is very faithful to the board game.  BUT it does not support on-line multiplayer.  You can play hot-seat games, or you can play against the AI.  Hopefully, on-line play will be added sometime in the future, but it’s not available now.  One thing that the PC version DOES add are challenges.  Challenges are very fast-paced, often timed puzzles where you are given a goal and a deck with a fixed order, and must achieve that goal within the specific time period or turn limit.  And I will say that I found most of them to be VERY challenging (and not only because I’m not a fast thinker).

The game itself, whether you are talking about the board or computer game, is very easy to learn, and plays relatively fast (once everyone is used to the rules).  While there is certainly luck involved in the game, you’ll find that there are a lot of meaningful choices that can make the difference between victory and defeat.  Do you buy the cheap cards that aren’t worth points, to build up your bonus, or do you collect gems towards more expensive cards that give you points up front?  Do you aim for the bonuses that are most desirable on the noble cards, or the ones that are rarest or that you need the most for future purchases?  Do you reserve a card to prevent another player from taking it, or do you risk leaving it out there, to collect even more gems, so that you can purchase it outright?

Splendor is an INCREDIBLY elegant game.  What I mean by this is that the rules are deceptively simple, but it still has as somewhat rich complexity that arises out of that simplicity.  It’s a very clever design, and the game is addictive as hell.  It lacks the depth and thematic atmosphere of many other games, and it is very light.  But I still enjoy it.

If you have friends to play with, get the board game.  If you don’t mind playing against the AI, and don’t mind about hotseat being the only multiplayer mode, or if you like the idea of the challenges, then certainly consider the PC (or mobile) versions.  I have not tried the mobile versions but I understand that they are pretty much the same as the PC version.  If you are still uncertain, check out any Youtube Video for the game in the version of your choice.  But I give it a definite thumbs-up.