Review: Ticket to Ride - Märklin Edition
Zug um Zug - Märklin Edition
Zug um Zug is coming home to Germany. Ticket to Ride Märklin is the third official installment in the Ticket to Ride series (only counting real board games - the Ticket to Ride PC game contains a fourth official map of Switzerland). This time, designer Alan R. Moon and publisher Days of Wonder give us the option play on a map of Germany. The original Ticket to Ride game won the prestigious 2004 Spiel des Jahres award. So, the expectations are high.
Ticket to Ride Märklin is a special collector's edition developed in collaboration with Germany's famous model train company Märklin. Their brand name is very popular in Germany's toy industry. Many boys (aged 6 to 99) get their eyes sparkling with joy if a "Märklin Eisenbahn" needs to be build. Märklin is particularly famous for their realistic models with real-world company logos on trains and train waggons. And this design approach has found it's way into this "special collector's edition" of Ticket to Ride.
ArtworkEach train and waggon card in the game depicts a different Märklin waggon. This makes a total of 118 different waggons and 14+6=20 trains. Märklin fans will appreciate the fact that each card also depicts the make and type of the train displayed. On the other hand, infrequent players may find this design a little bit confusing as it takes a little bit of concentration to identify the proper color of a card. The game illustrator Julien Delval has successfully adressed this issue by putting images of blue waggons on the blue cards, image of yellow waggons on the yellow cards, etc. As one can imagine there are not many blue, yellow and purple train waggons in the real world. One would normally expect some greyish or brownish colors. But again, the designers coped with this issue well by including train carts with commercial brandings, such as DHL (logistics company owned by Deutsche Post World Net) or Maggi (supplier of instant soups and spices) for yellow and ARAL (biggest gas station chain in Germany, now owned by BP) for blue cards. While some of these brands will be unfamiliar to non-German players, this design not only adds a truly local German flair to the game but also also creates some interesting follow-up research opportunities for the TtR-Geek.
The waggon with Maggi brand
The waggon with DHL brand
The waggon with ARAL brand
While the previous Ticket to Ride editions were set in the early 1900s, the Märklin edition is set in rather current times. The art work reflects this by including a few elements one can find in recent industrial designs. Although I am not a design expert, they reminded me a little bit of recent German car (or train) design elements. This certailny breathes a little bit of fresh air into the game.
The game is illustrated by Julien Delval
The design has been adjusted to a modern look
GameplayBut the updated design is not the only novelty. Of course, the gameplay has changed, too (Please note, for this review, we shall assume familiarity with the rules of the original Ticket to Ride). The Märklin edition adds the concept of passengers who can collect merchandise by moving through the cities being connected by the player. Before the game starts, Merchandise Tokens are placed onto the cities. Whenever a player connects two cities they may also choose to put one of their three passengers on one of them. Note, this may not be done in a later turn, but only in the same turn that the player claims the route. Passenger placement is critical to the overall game: placing your passenger too early in the game will allow others to make a guess on destination tickets and will also encourage some competition on the most valuable merchandise tokens. On the other hand, the rules do not permit placement of a passenger without claiming a route and placing passengers only late in the game is not a great idea, either. Most often this will be too late to gain a substantial point benefit. One new tactical element in the Märklin edition certainly is to find the right balance here.
Passengers, not meeples
Once a passenger is in play, the player will typically want to claim a few more routes to maximize the points that a travelling passenger can earn. Having a passenger move, is a new action that can be performed instead of the "regular" actions of drawing two waggons, drawing new destination tickets or claiming a route. The passenger must move from the city he currently occupies along any or all of player's continuous routes, picking up Merchandise tokens in each city he moves through. To make this a little bit more complicated the game offers four types of cities (somewhat depending on their economic weight within Germany). The single most valuable city on the map, Berlin, allows the first passenger passing through to score 7 points. The second passenger scores 6, the third one scores 5 and the fourth one gains 4 points. Passenger #5 scores no points. These rules certainly create another incentive to play and move passengers early during the game. This incentive is also pretty strong for the yellow and red cities, but even stronger for the white cities where only the first passenger passing through scores points at all. Winner takes all.
Passengers moving through Mannheim or Karlsruhe are too late and will get no points from Merchandise Tokens. Saarbrücken still has Merchandise to offer but is not yet connected...
Another passenger-related novelty is the introduction of Passenger Cards. They are drawn like regular waggon cards and basically introduce a stealing mechanism for Merchandising Tokens. Normally, a Passenger may only be moved along your own routes. However, players may use other players' routes by discarding one or more Passenger Cards from their hand. Indeed, a very devious deed is to steal the 7 points located in Berlin by using another player's route. While this mechanism might not be applied as often when playing with friends or family, it will probably be used pretty often in competitive environments. As of now, Days of Wonder has not yet announced whether the Märklin edition will be made available online, but if they do, the passenger cards might be key to winning a competitive onlnie game. In several of our games, the winner had scored more points through passenger movement than by completing destination tickets. Although the player completing the most tickets will score 10 points at the end of the game (replacing the rule for the longest route in previous TtR versions).
Collecting merchandise is at least as important as earning points by completing destination tickets
So far, this review has been generous with space for the passengers. Simply because this is the most influential change and key to the success in gameplay. However, the Märklin Edition also creates new or refines some existing mechanisms.
First, we have several long routes with a length of 6 or 7. Without exception, they are difficult to claim as player's need to collect one particular color. To mitigate those colors becoming too scarce as a resouce, there are also new jokers, the Locomotive +4 cards. These cards are drawn like regular waggons, i.e. it is possible to openly draw two Locomotive +4 cards per turn. They are played pretty much like regular jokers, but may only be used on routes which have a lengths of four or more.
The game does neither include tunnels, ferries nor train stations as with Ticket to Ride Europe.
The game does include refined rules for the destination tickets. These are now available in two stacks, one with short tickets (5-11 victory points) and another one with long routes (12-22 pts). Whenever a player chooses to draw new tickets they have to announce how many they would like to draw from each stack. It is mandatory to draw four tickets but the player is only obliged to keep any two of them.
Several tickets require players to create a city to country route. This mechanism has been previously introduced by the Ticket to Ride PC Game. It also works nicely with the new map, as German economy is highly interconnected with that of France, Nederlands, Switzerland, Austria and Denmark.
However, the map does neither provide connections to Poland nor to the Czech Republic, Germany's neighboring countries to the East. Although this is not a main issue, I think of Ticket to Ride as a family game capable of teaching kids a little bit of geography (for example, the map of the US taught many German players where Duluth is located). While the Czech Republic is even depicted on the board, I can see that there was little physical space to include Poland. But both Germany's historic responsibilities and the current geopolitical and economic situation in the EU would have required such a connection. I will be very forgiving to both Alan R. Moon and Days of Wonder, but a German publisher might not have gotten away with this so easily. I know it is just a board game, but imagine German kids playing this game in geography class. It would have been so great to see this happen... I certainly would have loved to learn my geography through Ticket to Ride.
SummaryFor someone living in Düsseldorf, it was great to see the city on the map. Others might argue about the exact GPS position of city locations. I have pointed to some flaws in a politically correct map-layout. However, these are really minor issues. Ticket to Ride Märklin Edition is an extremely well designed board game. It is certainly a standalone game that has some (actually not that many) common rules with it's successful predecessors. Even experienced players of Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride Europe will have to come up with revised and newly devised winning strategies. The new passenger-related game mechanisms create a deeper game. While the Spiel des Jahres 2004 winner was the simplest Ticket to Ride, perhaps the best gateway game ever, but probably the essence of Ticket to Ride, Alan R. Moon has managed to create something that will be more appealing to "serious gamers". It's neither Puerto Rico, nor Caylus. But some interesting new strategic opportunities unfold with the passenger cards. Players can take the traditional Ticket to Ride (US) approach and complete long tickets and long routes (preferably on the Eastern section of the map). As an alternative, they can run for the shorter routes in the west which helps their passenger points to increase. A weighted strategy is also eligible for success. Some longer tickets run on a east-west trail, rather than the more common north-south. This version of Ticket to Ride forces some real strategic decisions in competitive play: By placing passengers, players give hints to their destination tickets. If this is done too early, it can cause some catastrophic blocking which will easily over-compensate the passenger points. By not placing passengers, players will miss on the winner-takes-all merchandise.
Midgame situation with Passenger Movement
The game also has some negatives.
1. The uppermost criticism above all else is the fiddly setup of the Merchandise Tokens. This is not fun and here you can learn a new German word: setup is simply "frickelig" (= fiddly, tricky in an unpleasant way). These tokens are certainly designed for kids finger sizes not mine. Hopefully, we will see someone come up with an easier mechanism for this (I mean aside from playing online).
2. The plastic trains come in different colors than in the predecessors. Green and blue have been replaced by purple and white. The reason behind this remains a mystery, as it certainly makes a variant with tunnels (from the TtR Europe) look a bit confusing. I am not sure whether this variant makes sense at all, but it might have been worth a try...
To wrap this review up: Each individual game of Ticket to Ride Märklin Edition will force players to make hard decisions each turn. The game requires players to constantly be alert on others, evaluate their own options and adjust the short-term plans with their long time strategy. Ticket to Ride Märklin Edition has not become a brain-burner (and I doubt TtR games ever will), but it's no longer simply a nice hand management game. Strategic options have increased and no single winning strategy is apparent. The flow is still quick and not prone to analysis paralysis. For kids / beginners it might be simpler to apply the original Ticket to Ride rules, first, and add the passenger rules later on. The experienced player will enjoy the passenger movement. If you were asking me, this is a must-play for 2006. Ticket to Ride Märklin Edition has already made it to my personal Five & Dime list and might just make it to number one.