Friday 10 July 2020

Board Report - Ticket to Ride: Stay at Home

When we first entered this lockdown, I had some vague ambitions that it might be a new renaissance for board games in our family and to brush a little dust off of our games cupboard. While this has been true for me, with the chance to rejoin my old college board game night as it went digital, it hasn't been all that I'd initially hoped when it comes to two-player board games over a physical table, as my time together with Mrs. Owl mostly having been devoted to educating her about early 2000's serial drama television and other important screen-based pursuits instead of staring at pieces of cardboard.

I did, however, get the opportunity to make myself a copy of the pandemic-themed print-and-play release of the Ticket to Ride: Stay at Home, expansion, in which up to four family members attempt to complete routes around their own house (the idea of a game that is fundamentally about travel being subverted like this makes me giggle), and after low-level badgering over a period of weeks Mrs. Owl eventually agreed to play it with me.

In TtR:SaH, each player gets 32 trains (just less than 3/4 of a full size TTR game), then picks one of four characters and gets a random two of that character's special tickets as well as a selection of two of the general shorter tickets that will make up the deck during the game (as usual, they can pick and choose which they keep as long as they keep some). This means that players who've studied the cards (maybe while cutting them out) or who have played on this map a couple of times will have a pretty good (but not certain) idea of the general area where the other players will be intending to play depending on their role.

This aspect has loomed large in the online conversation about this game, since the featured family is a pretty typical nuclear family, with a mother that cooks and decorates, a father who likes board games, a girl who dresses up as a fairy princess and a boy who likes trains, and given the board games community's poor track record in the area, a game reinforcing this much WASPy heteronormativity feels pretty on the nose for a 2020 release. That was my first reaction too, but as I've thought about it I've adjusted my headcannon into believing that rather than being intended as a stereotypical average family that the featured player characters are actually based on the game designer Adrien Martinot's actual family. This is based on some pretty flimsy evidence, like the cat being called 'Rouky' being weirdly specific and the Dad character looking vaguely like Martinot himself if you squint, and I have no idea if he has a family at all, but I prefer this interpretation, so I'm just going to run with it for now.

The other significant change is the addition of starred multi-coloured 'Family Routes', a number of longer, relatively central special routes that can only be filled one train at a time and can be shared cooperatively between all the players that contribute to them. These routes definitely slow down the game a little, as a single route can take many turns to complete, but they do add an interesting element of getting along together that seems very thematic. In the two player game they were pretty underutilised, since I built a lot of them while Mrs. Owl mostly did her own thing in the corner. With more players with overlapping routes (I suspect this game will be at it's stressful best with four) it feels like they might have a little potential, though testing that theory is going to have to wait until we can have friends over to play again.

Even with that slight slow-down, the game was over much more quickly that either of us anticipated, as we'd both taken extra tickets part way through the game that we ended up well-short of being able to complete and had to take negative points for (I guess we're just both wired on some deep psychological level for a full-length TtR game), leaving us both feeling a little bewildered and wishing it were a little longer. When the dust settled and the points were counted (as TtR traditionalists, we only ever count TtR points at the end) we both ended up with 70 points and an equal number of completed routes, so we had to settle for a tied game. We'll have to have a rematch soon to settle the question of which of us is the best player, but I guess it'll have to wait at least until the end of series 2 of Grey's Anatomy, at least.

If you think this looks interesting, or you want to play any other print-and-play games that have been released during the pandemic, check out this handy list over at Board Game Geek. I've already downloaded the Pandemic: Hot Spot variant to try some times, as though we don't own the base game we've both played and enjoyed Pandemic games before and you can apparently play it with any old pieces. And besides, it's a pandemic, after all, not playing Pandemic at all during all this time inside it would just feel wrong.