4 Lessons from Ticket to Ride for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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Ticket to Ride came out in 2004. Along with games like Catan and PandemicTicket to Ride helped turn board gaming into the juggernaut of a hobby that we know and love today. It’s for good reason, too. It’s an elegant game that can be learned very quickly. It scales well at low and high player counts. On top of that, the experience for beginners and the experience for advanced players are different enough to keep the game engaging even as you learn more about it. For these reasons and more, we’re going to dive into Ticket to Ride and talk about what new board game designers can learn from this 15-year-old game.

 

Ticket to Ride
Photo by garyjames. CC BY-SA 3.0. (Source)

 

Ticket to Ride is all about connecting railways across North America. The longer your routes, the more points you get on the board. You also get points from meeting the conditions on Destination Tickets, which connect distant cities and for making the longest continuous route. It’s very straightforward, but you’re constantly balancing different decisions, which keeps it fresh and engaging.

 

1. Scale well to different player counts.

Ticket to Ride can be played just as easily by two as it can by five players. Most games have a pretty defined sweet spot – Ticket to Ride being four players – but often fall apart at low player counts or high player counts. Ticket to Ride simply doesn’t. The framework is simple enough to apply to different player counts without substantially changing rules. This is really valuable because a lot of classic games that came before it had kludgy solutions to try to make low and high player counts work. For games that did this, these “solutions” damaged the overall fun of the game.

 

2. Create with expansions in mind.

At the time Ticket to Ride was created, expansions and alternate versions were not a particularly large part of the nascent board game community. Granted, games like Trivial Pursuit already had a billion editions, but Ticket to Ride wasn’t like Trivial Pursuit. It was a hobby game.

Because the framework behind Ticket to Ride is so simple, it became very easy to make alternate versions. That’s why we have Ticket to Ride: EuropeTicket to Ride: GermanyTicket to Ride: New YorkTicket to Ride: Rails & SailsTicket to Ride: Nordic Countries, and more. There are also expansions both formal and fan-made because the system is so straightforward. Change the cities, change the routes, draw some new lines, swap out Destination Cards. Voila! brand new game with a new strategy based on the quirks of the map.

For better or worse, variations and expansions are part of the board game landscape today. If you’re looking to start your own intellectual property that will last far beyond a single game release, Ticket to Ride is an excellent model to look at for inspiration.

 

3. Allow for different levels of strategy.

When you first play Ticket to Ride, it seems simple. All you have to do is connect railways to score points. Meanwhile, cutthroat super-competitors are blocking each others’ railway connections, packing their hands for surprise assaults on the map, and trying to hide their moves so their competition won’t catch on. There are scores of articles on Ticket to Ride strategy, which is incredible when you consider that the game has a complexity rating of 1.87 / 5 on Board Game Geek. Clearly, there is more to it than meets the eye on the first play.

As a game designer, this is one of the ultimate objectives of creating a board game. You want a game that works on multiple different levels and stays fresh for a long time. In order to get to that point, you need complexity to come from the interactions between elements of the game instead of the rules. Then you also need to play-test a ton just to make sure that different strategic options are viable. You always want there to be more than one path to victory.

 

4. Force players to make difficult decisions.

Naive new players don’t often feel the burn of Ticket to Ride decision making, but veterans sure do. Alan R. Moon, the creator of Ticket to Ride, put it this way: “the tension comes from being forced to balance greed – adding more cards to your hand, and fear – losing a critical route to a competitor.” There is no strategy that is always right. While you will be making strategic moves on a grand scale throughout the game, you will constantly have to switch up your tactics based on what the board looks like. If your competitors are moving slowly, you have more leniency to be greedy. If your competitors are moving quickly, you have to constantly sweat the risk of getting your rail connections poached.

Furthermore, there is the question of where you want your victory points to come from. You can connect cities for points, establish routes for points, but also get points for making the longest route. You’ll need to mix and match, to be sure, but one of these will ultimately wind up being the linchpin in your strategy. You want to be able to pursue goals, but build yourself an out in case you have to switch quickly when you find your opponent is pursuing the same goal! It gets very heady, very quickly.

As a board game designer, you want people to feel like their choices matter. Ticket to Ride is excellent at doing this, mostly because the decisions are difficult ones with real consequences. Games need stakes to be satisfying. You need, at least sometimes, to make people feel like opening a door closes another.

 


 

 

Ticket to Ride has become successful and stayed relevant for many of the reasons I’ve listed above. It’s outlasted thousands of other games. By seeking insight from the game, we can become better designers capable of creating evergreen masterpieces 🙂

4 Lessons from Terraforming Mars for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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I recently had the pleasure of playing Terraforming Mars for the first time. I am pleased to say that it is an absolutely fantastic game that’s worth purchasing. There are some really good qualities as well as some really annoying ones, and we’re going to discuss both. I consider this to really valuable for learning game design simply because there is so much going on.

 

Terraforming Mars

 

Terraforming Mars is a game where each player acts as a corporation trying to, well, terraform Mars. Each of you will do your part to cover the surface in cities, greenery, and water while raising the oxygen level and temperature of the planet. As time passes, Mars will become ever more hospitable and you will receive points based on your contribution to society.

It’s a resource management game, in essence. You’re dealing with money, steel, titanium, plants, energy, and heat. Beyond the simply trackable resources, you’re also affecting the board through tile placement and determining your destiny through hand management. There are also variable player powers, and… You get the point. There’s a lot going on here.

A quick disclaimer before we go any farther. Terraforming Mars is a great game. It has some incredibly likable qualities to it that I believe will help it endure. However, you need to be very careful about imitating it. It’s a complex game, the rules are not particularly well-presented, and the pieces are fiddly. It makes some basic mistakes when it comes to accessibility that you shouldn’t repeat. Yet even with these problems, I still want to play it again today. That’s how good the underlying engine is!

 

1. If you go heavy like Terraforming Mars, create variety.

Most people I know would call Terraforming Mars a heavy game. There are a lot of rules. It takes hours to learn, and you won’t understand it on your first game. There are so many resources to manage as well as other decisions that you need to make.

This isn’t necessarily bad, but it can destroy a game if you’re not careful. Weighty games need to bring something special to the table, and Terraforming Mars does. One of the ways Terraforming Mars keeps the game fresh is by an absolutely massive deck of project cards. To be specific, it’s 208 and there are no repeats. Each one has a different impact on the game. Combine this with other situational factors and you have a game which never resolves in the same way twice.

This is so critical. Terraforming Mars is not fast and it’s not cheap. For gamers as consumers to feel like there is real value in the game, this level of variety is very useful!

 

2. Use theme as a hook.

Terraforming Mars feels academic in its complexity when you learn it for the first time. This is one of the weakest qualities of the game. In fact, if the designers were not careful, it could have made the game a dud. Yet the sci-fi theme and the grand scale of terraforming an entire planet is very appealing to gamers. For that reason, the theme is a sufficient hook to keep gamers engaged even while being beaten down by the rules, the exceptions, and the complex logic of the game.

Look, if your theme can’t keep people engaged for long enough to learn the game, you won’t go very far. The game will be played by a select few and are later forgotten. Terraforming Mars, whether intentionally or on purpose, nailed theme and thus captured lightning in a bottle.

 

3. Use graphic design to convey weight.

Between the hex spaces, the enormous amount of components, and the complex tracking system, Terraforming Mars looks complex. You can also see this reflected in the iconography of the game as well. The game exudes complexity and intellectualism.

“So it comes across as complex? How is that a good thing, Brandon?” It ultimately comes down to product-market fit. If Terraforming Mars looked lighter than it was, people would be blindsided by the complexity of the game and they would ragequit. Likewise, if the game looked more complicated, people wouldn’t want to try it. Terraforming Mars hits a sweet spot right between looking too easy and looking too complicated. It attracts just the right crowd and that has helped it to succeed in the marketplace.

 

4. Create opportunities for creative play.

This is the most important lesson from Terraforming Mars. Everything I have said before has been a lesson in how Terraforming Mars pre-emptively addresses its weaknesses as a product or as a game. That’s because Terraforming Mars needs to keep people engaged for long enough to really see the game for what it is. People need to make the decision to buy it, learn it, and muddle through it before they ever see the full extent of this game’s creative play.

And my, is this game creative. There is so much variety in the project deck, the variable player powers add a lot, and even the board can play out in a number of different ways – almost feeling like an abstract strategy sub-game in and of itself. You could play this game 100 times and never reach the conclusion. I could play an isolationist game where I contribute little to enviornment and don’t hurt others. I could work almost entirely on the enviornment, speed up the game, and gain glory doing so. Still, I could play zero-sum and try to injure my opponents to get ahead. There are so many options!

For heavy board gamers, the ability to express their creativity, escape their day-to-day worries, and receive intellectual stimulation are very important. This is what compels heavy board gamers to play heavy board games. Terraforming Mars does all of this because the game is creative and can be played a lot of different ways. All the frustrating aspects of it disappear once this simple truth comes to light.

 


Terraforming Mars is an engaging game that uses its looks to scare off casuals, its theme and variety to hook the skeptical, and its creative gameplay to engage gamers for years to come. Anybody want to play a game? 🙂

4 Lessons from Sagrada for Aspiring Board Game Designers

Posted on 69 CommentsPosted in Behind the Scenes

Sagrada is one of my recent favorite board games. It is fundamentally a pretty simple game, but it has a lot of really endearing qualities. First and foremost, it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. The dice are bright and pretty, as are the puzzle boards on which you build stained glass arrangements of dice. It’s ultimately a puzzle game, but a very attractive one with some subtle elements that arise from it being a nearly perfect information game where players draw from the same draft pool. It is also a smashing success of a game – so let’s talk about why that is.

 

Sagrada board game
Photo by Eric Yurko, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0. (Source).

 

First, let’s do a quick rundown of how Sagrada works. Your objective is to score the most victory points. You do so by placing colorful dice on a 5 x 4 grid in such a way that you meet conditions spelled out on one or more public objectives and/or your private objective. You also make sure to fill in as many spaces as possible on your board and keep as many “favor tokens” as possible by the end of the game.

There are ninety dice in the game, of which there are five different colors. Each player will roll a certain amount of dice (2 for each player plus 1). Then you snake draft around the table and everybody picks one die to place on their board. Certain spaces on your board can only hold certain colors, certain spaces can only hold certain numbers, and some spaces have no restrictions. No matter what: no two dice with the same color or number can be adjacent to one another on the board.

Got all that? Good – because that’s basically Sagrada. There are few other elements, but that’s the gist.

 

1. Looks matter.

You can’t talk about Sagrada without gushing about the colors. In fact, this warrants another photo…

 

Sagrada board game
Photo by Eric Yurko, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0. (Source).

 

The bright, colorful dice, the gorgeous card backs, and the stained glass cardboard player boards are all incredibly photogenic. This game came out in 2017 and the creators knew that in order to succeed on social media, it had to make people stop and click. And boy did it! There was a while on Instagram where you couldn’t go 10 pictures on a board gamer’s Instagram feed without running into this game.

The key takeaway is that you need to be mindful of how your game looks and feels. This is not just because of the experience that gamers will have when they play it on the table. Gaming goes deeper than that. A lot of gamers – and people at large – experience things by sharing them through photos with their friends. Once you realize people are doing this, you can make games that are perfect for that kind of behavior, like Sagrada.

 

2. Combine chance with choice like Sagrada.

There is an old running gag in the board game industry about board gamers hating dice. Sagrada has 90 of them. Yet Sagrada doesn’t use dice like “roll a 6 and this happens.” No, they use dice as pieces with variable states. For example, in a four-player game of Sagrada, you start with a draft pool of 9, of which each player will eventually receive 2. The active player will always have one or more choices of dice to choose from and then an additional choice of “where do I put this on my board?” to make.

The point I’m making is that you can incorporate chance. Chance elements are valuable in game design because they keep games from being “solved” in the same way that chess – a perfect information, zero luck game – ultimately was. Yet adding an element of chance haphazardly can make the game feel like it’s playing you instead of the other way around. For that reason, you always want to make sure that gamers can make meaningful choices based on the chance events that occur.

 

3. Make your restrictions easy to remember.

In Sagrada, you can’t have two dice with the same number or color adjacent to one another. Easy to remember, right? While this creates a very real struggle that informs your decisions throughout the game, it’s not gimmicky and you’re not likely to forget it. This is an underrated strength of Sagrada. There are a number of ways this could have been implemented poorly. Take note, aspiring game designers!

 

4. Make passing a rarity.

The restrictions above will every once in a while cause you to cede your turn entirely. This is arguably one of the worst feelings that a game can give you. Losing your turn, or having to cede your turn because you can make no legal moves, generally feels awful. Yet this becomes a very real risk when you have easy-to-remember restrictions that apply to a lot of situations.

Sagrada has an easy way around this that greatly minimizes the amount of turns that you will have to pass. It comes from tool cards which allow you to take certain actions after you place favor tokens on them. Most of the time, you’re better off simply placing a die on your board and holding on to your favor tokens until the end of the game for extra victory points. However, when you’re truly stuck, the tool cards let you continue to influence the game in interesting and engaging ways. I like that aspect of Sagrada a lot.

If you truly must create a game where passing is an occasional necessity, it may be worth adding an extra mechanic that allows players to continue to take actions. Typically, you want to implement the fewest mechanics possible to decrease rule overhead. However, allowing players to continue to play and stay engaged is a good reason to make an exception to this heuristic. Learn from Sagrada in this sense.

 


 

I enjoy Sagrada a lot and I find it to be an excellent example of a modern board game. In a world where Scythe and Gloomhaven remain topical for years after their initial release, Sagrada is a remarkable example of what it takes to make gateway games that stay appealing over time.