Ticket to Ride

This is not a review of Ticket to Ride, which is – needless to say – a wonderful game, both for experienced gamers and for those weened on Monopoly and Life. If you’ve never played it, stop reading right now and go here to play for free. (Their publisher, Days of Wonder, has an interesting business model as well – their online games are free-to-play but pay-to-host.)

No, what I would like to talk about is the story of Ticket to Ride. Since you have played the game (seriously, just go do it), reflect for a moment on what the game is about. During the game, you lay tracks to connect distant cities while trying to block your opponents from finishing their own routes. There are sub goals too, like having the longest contiguous rail line and completing your network first, which ends the game for everyone. It’s essentially a simplified version of Railroad Tycoon, right? Right?

Let me quote from first page of the game rules:

On a blustery autumn evening five old friends met in the backroom of one of the city’s oldest and most private clubs. Each had traveled a long distance – from all corners of the world – to meet on this very specific day… October 2, 1900 – 28 years to the day that the London eccentric, Phileas Fogg, accepted and then won a £20,000 bet that he could travel Around the World in 80 Days.

Each succeeding year, they met to celebrate the anniversary and pay tribute to Fogg. And each year a new expedition (always more difficult) was proposed. Now at the dawn of the century it was time for a new impossible journey. The stakes: $1 Million in a winner-takes-all competition. The objective: to see which of them could travel by rail to the most cities in North America – in just 7 days.

Ticket to Ride is a cross-country train adventure. Players compete to connect different cities by laying claim to railway routes on a map of North America.

What?!? This storyline makes the game sound almost like a spiritual successor to Around the World in 80 Days instead of what it actually is – another link in the great chain of railroad tycoon games. The fiction simply does not match the gameplay. For example, why does a player “claim” a route just by riding on it? Do the trains shut down, preventing anyone else from using that line? On the other hand, “claiming” routes matches perfectly with the fiction of ruthless rail barons trying to monopolize the best connections.

This disconnect leads to some interesting questions. Does a game’s designer have the right to tell us what the “story” is if it doesn’t match what’s going on inside our own heads while we are playing the game? And if the designer doesn’t have this right, then does a game’s official “story” ever matter at all because it can be invalidated so easily? However, setting the game in the world of trains was clearly very important – if Ticket to Ride was a game about bus lines, I doubt it would have nearly the same resonance. Once again, setting trumps story in importance…

6 thoughts on “Ticket to Ride

  1. I didn’t realize that Ticket to Ride even had a story. Clearly I just fast-forwarded to the setup and rules sections.

    I suppose I always just assumed that this was a rail-baron type game. I do however wonder if the game would have been nearly as compelling given a different context, maybe a fictional location or different modes of travel. I mean, there’s Elfenland, which fits that backstory much better.

  2. I own Ticket to Ride: America, Europe, Marklin, and Switzerland. Looking at the rules booklet from Ticket to Ride: Europe, even the designers themselves don’t know what they want the “story” to be.

    “From the craggy hills of Edinburgh to the sunlit docks of Constantinople, from the dusty alleys of Pamplona to a windswept station in Berlin, Ticket to Ride Europe takes you on a new train adventure through the great cities of turn-of-the-century Europe.

    Will you risk a trip through the dark tunnels of Switzerland? Venture aboard a ferry on the Black Sea? Or erect lavish train stations in the great capitals of the old empires? Your next move might just make you Europe’s greatest train magnate!”

    Half of the description seems to stick to the traveling on trains portion of the story and the other half seems to go with the train baron one.

  3. Those were my same thoughts when I read TtR’s back story. It makes zero sense in light of the mechanics and, even if it did, it neither informs nor affects how the game plays out. No cards or events that make it a city visiting competition (Stuck in Snow in Winnipeg! Miss One Turn!). It’s all about putting your colors on exclusive routes, intuitively very much about buying more than visiting.

    But of course, as Alan suggests, even the setting is a veneer for basic mechanics that could apply to pretty much anything. If this was a game about space routes or something, it would still be the same game. However, I think it would have sold much less. The decline of train travel has done little to remove the old romance of the rails for a lot of people.

  4. As for the questions at the end:

    “Does a game’s designer have the right to tell us what the “story” is if it doesn’t match what’s going on insider our own heads while we are playing the game?”

    I can’t really think of another case where the game’s fiction was this different to the game’s mechanics. However, whenever a game allows customization of the lead character but then uses that character in fiction or story outside of the game, it opens up differences between the “canon story” and what actually happened in your instance of the game.

    For instance, in Knights of the Old Republic, your character can be either male or female and can choose to go light side or dark side through actions and decisions in game. At the end, the player makes a fairly decisive choice affecting the future of the Galaxy. Outside of the game, there are references made to the main character, but in this case, they always refer to the main character as a male and as one who went light side.

    Personally, in this case, I say the official story can go suck on eggs. I crafted my character and my character is who I made it to be. This is probably why I didn’t receive Knight of the Old Republic 2 very well either.

  5. To wander slightly off-topic, KotOR 2 tried to account for the major character choices from KotOR by letting the player comment on “rumors” about Revan’s sex and alighment. It sort of worked, but it demonstrates how quickly that sort of thing can get out of hand when you try to weave it into a narrative. I guess the only reliable way is to create genuine continuity, via an old savegame or a character data file. Of course, that approach creates different problems, but that’s a separate topic.

  6. One would have to wonder what would happen if, for example, you were to attempt to overlay a story on the classics such as Monopoly and Life? Would anyone care?

    In a way, it reminds me of the video/computer games from the 80’s. That was in the day where even moderate quality box art was far superior than the in-game graphics. In fact, some concocted story (either through book narrative or box art implication) was almost required to nudge some semblance of a story into the player’s head. Heck, often enough the only reason we would know what a particular low-res blob on the screen was is because it was represented on the box or in the manual. (Remember when games used to have manuals?)

    While I certainly agree with the idea that the game designer “has a right” to impose a story upon the player, that doesn’t mean that the player will have to digest it. In fact, at that point, isn’t the designer actually doing himself a disservice by either confusing the player or, at best, making them roll their eyes and move on?

    I think one of the more heinous locations where this sort of “reaching” on the part of game designers (or perhaps marketing people) is in the casual games market. In almost a throwback to the 80’s games I mentioned before, there seems to be an insistence at times on foisting a mood, milieu, or outright plot line on what amounts to a color/tile matching game. I think it would be fascinating to quiz the ubiquitous housewives that play these games and see if they actually remember (or care) what the theme of their favorite clock-spinner is.

    That being said, without much knowledge of TtR, I can’t say whether or not this sort of artificial facade is really necessary. It would seem that the “back of the box” description would simply have something to do with “build a rail empire” rather than the more esoteric one they have provided.

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