One of The Best Games I’ve Ever Played: All Trains Go to Helena

In March of 2011, I attended the three day geekfest known as PAX East. I was a PAX newbie but quickly found that standing in line for hours to get a glimpse of a videogame I could buy in a few months didn’t get me too excited. What did excite me was the large station set up where you could rent boardgames for free and even more enticing, a series of tournaments set up. Settlers of Catan, Dominion, Race for the Galaxy and Carcassonne all piqued my interest, but the schedule had a four hour block in between Race and Dominion with a Ticket to Ride tourney eating up two of them. I hadn’t played Ticket to Ride in a few months but figured that it’d be a fun way to spend some time.

Two hours and three straight relatively easy victories later, I found myself in the finals for a game I had to doublecheck the rules for before playing my first game. Whats that? Never played? Well here‘s the full set if you need it. Its been awhile since you played? Here’s the quick refresher then.

Ticket To Ride

Here’s the board:

At the start of the game everyone gets three Destination Tickets, of which they must keep at least two. The tickets each have a start and an end point listed as well as how many points its worth at the end of the game.

Each turn, players may choose one of three actions to take. They may either:

  1. draw new cards (from the stack or from a layout of five tickets that are replaced as you draw them) into their hand,
  2. draw three Destination Tickets (and keep at least one of those three) or
  3. take a route using cards from their hand. Routes can only be taken if you have a set of cards that are both the correct color (gray routes it doesn’t matter what color, just as long as they match) and the correct number.

You score points when you take a route based on the size of the route (1 train = 1 point up to 6 trains = 15 points as can be seen in the above). Everyone starts with 45 trains and when they get down to 2 or less you finish out that turn and the game ends. At the end you add to your score the points on your completed Destination Tickets and subtract the points from your incomplete ones. Whoever has the longest continuous route adds an extra 10 points. High score wins. We all caught up? Okay, then lets get to this game.

Game: Ticket To Ride

Opponents: 4, all of whom I had bested at least once before. Each other game was a 4 player, but due to the lack of time and the informality of the tourney, the judges decided to just throw the two people who tied for fourth into the game rather than try to figure out a tiebreaker (I don’t blame them). So this was going to get tight and aggressive.

Starting tickets: Duluth to El Paso (10), Winnipeg to Houston (12) and Dallas to New York City (11). I quickly tossed Dallas to NYC since the other two seemed much easier both to complete individually and with each other.

My strategy in the first few games was pretty basic: connect destinations, avoid routes that look like they can be blocked easily, once routes have been secured, take more tickets. So I started to do that here, first getting the all important Houston to El Paso (this gives me multiple options on how to get north) and soon after grabbing the Winnipeg to Helena route (black cards were tough to come by, but blues were easy). Meanwhile one player dropped a few tracks in the northwest and one player made sure they got out of Miami, but everyone else was building small routes along the east coast. Raleigh to Pittsburgh, Atlanta to Nashville, Toronto to Pittsburgh, and New Orleans to Little Rock were all placed in rapid succession. As the board began to form I decided that my routes were not being taken, so I could take the more leisurely route and rather than try to go up the gray Houston to Duluth corridor, I would zigzag my way across, taking a few more turns for many more points.

By midgame I had placed more cars than anyone else by a large amount and I had Winnipeg to Helena to Duluth and Houston to El Paso to OKC. Very little development was happening in the midwest other than a lot of the Houston/Dallas/OKC/Little Rock area being claimed. I took more tickets and found both Duluth to Houston (8) and Kansas City to Houston (5). Both of which were practically on my route already.

The turning point:

Here’s when I made the choice that makes this game memorable for me.

Do I risk going back into the pile in hopes of pulling out another ticket I could get to (unlikely, given the mess on the east coast and the length of routes for the west coast)?  While I had won the previous games with the help of bigger tickets like LA to New York or Vancouver to Montreal or the ten point longest continuous route bonus, I figured this time:

I’d try something different.

I’d try something untested in my short time playing this game. I’d try to rush to the end and do it by playing high value routes. So with my massive pile of cards in my hand I started playing routes I needed: Denver to KC and Denver to OKC.

And then with a sort of embarrassed smile I announced: Helena to Omaha.

The guy who’s been running the tournament gives me a quizzical look. A few other players eyes bulge a little as they realize what’s coming. The focus has shifted from the hotly contested coasts to the suddenly sparse middle of the board. One player gets the Calgary to Winnipeg line and this causes another to throw up his hands in disgust. His big ticket has been crushed. People are no longer being sneaky about where they need to go and I block off another with a sheepish grin: Denver to Omaha.

Two players have now been blocked, one player is middling around along the east coast and won’t use a number of trains, and as people use the last of their tickets where they can, I play my final cars in a place that might annoy someone: LA to Pheonix, which causes another groan from the guy who was blocked once already.

The Final Scores:

The points are counted and the moment of truth is set to be revealed. Did I make a brilliant play? Did I royally eff this up? One girl reveals she got Seattle to New York AND Vancouver to Montreal (eating the New York to Atlanta ticket she started with though). My heart sinks a little. Two guys count their scores despondently, they know they’re out. One guy is surprised that despite having three east coast tickets and the longest continuous route, his lack of getting all his trains down has put him in a distant third. My count ends up being one point over the girl who took the northern routes. We recount and, we find its actually a tie in score, and that I get the win based on four completed tickets to two. Victory never tasted so good.

The Post Mortem:

This game featured something that I love: taking a game that you’ve played and finding a new way to win (even just barely). My previous games had been won with a large number of small destination tickets plus the longest route bonus, or with a long ticket or two. But in a suddenly crowded game and with my starting tickets I went for the win using base points more than anything. While others had a large number of small routes where the two trains were worth 1 point each, I got my trains to average out to be worth 1.98 points each. And while this was my goal from the beginning, only in the last few turns did it become clear there was a secondary benefit: I was the only one who was going to place all his trains.

Picking up 6 trains and playing them for a 6 length route takes 4 turns, while picking up 6 trains and playing them on two 3 length routes takes 5 turns (and if its a 3 a 2 and a 1 length route, it takes 6 turns). Those extra turns and extra trains are what propelled me to victory. And only in the last few turns did it become clear what was happening, which made the entire thing very satisfying.

Oh, and having a gold medal helps.

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2 thoughts on “One of The Best Games I’ve Ever Played: All Trains Go to Helena

  1. Pingback: Playing for second | anygamegood

  2. Pingback: The Co-Op Conundrum | anygamegood

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