Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday 15 March 2013

Back to Africa

Railway-themed board games, or Train Games as they are known, such as the 18XX series, Age of Steam, Railways of the World, Empire Builder, and so on, are all about their maps. Many of the expansions for these games come in the form of maps as the terrain presented on each board presents the players with challenges anew when it comes to making connections between each map’s destinations. Ticket to Ride is something of a latecomer to the concept, its publisher, Days of Wonder, having preferred to put out new core games like Ticket to Ride: Europe and Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries that stand alone rather than new boards that expand upon one of the core games. So the Ticket to Ride Map Collection series has been something of a breath of fresh air.

To date, Days of Wonder has published three volumes of the Ticket to Ride Map Collection. The first, Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 1:Team Asia and Legendary Asia added mountains as a new terrain and expanded the number of possible players from five to six players with a team play element. The second, Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 2: India and Switzerland reprinted the Switzerland board from its original release in 2007 together with a new board for India that advanced the series’ timeline into the Edwardian age. Late in 2012 these were joined by the third and latest in the series, Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa.

As with the other titles in the series, Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa requires a base set to play, either Ticket to Ride or Ticket to Ride: Europe. Unlike other titles in the series, Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa only includes the one new map board and set of rules rather than two. So in comparison, it has to do the work of two new boards to be interesting, let alone challenging. The good news is that The Heart of Africa is challenging…

Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa consists of the new map board, forty-eight Destination Tickets, forty-five Terrain Cards, a new type of card, plus the twelve-page rules booklet, which includes the expansion’s rules in ten different languages. The map itself does not depict the whole of Africa, but rather the South and the West of the continent as far North as Nigeria in the West and Sudan in the East. Thus it does not include North Africa nor does it include the Horn of Africa. As with the Switzerland map, The Heart of Africa map includes destinations that are countries rather towns or cities. These are limited in number though, consisting of Nigeria, Tchad, and Sudan on the map’s northern edge. These destinations are reflected in the game’s Destination Tickets.

Physically, The Heart of Africa map reflects the Ticket to Ride line’s chronological progression. The original board game is set in the 1890s whereas the India map from Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 2: India and Switzerland is set in the Edwardian period. The Heart of Africa map is placed in the 1920s, as reflected in the artwork with its motorcar and its biplane. Elsewhere, the art on the map has a dry, dusty feel apart from the rich illustrations accorded to the country destinations depicted at the northern edge of the board.

Most Ticket to Ride maps reflect the type of terrain they depict in the routes that the players have to claim in order to fulfil their Destination Tickets. Thus, on the Switzerland map from Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 2: India and Switzerland, there are a lot of mountain routes that the player must claim if he has to connect to any of the destinations in the South of the country or over the border in Italy. Similarly, the map of Scandinavia from Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries has a lot ferry routes reflecting the difficulty of reaching certain destinations and the fact that the Baltic Sea divides the various countries on the map. The map in Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa does reflect the type of terrain it depicts in the type of routes available. Indeed, besides the standard type of route, there is only one other incidence of another type of route on the map, that of the ferry route to Madagascar.

So if The Heart of Africa map does not reflect the difficulty of its terrain in the types of routes it depicts, then how does it do it? It does so by grouping the route colours according to terrain type. So rather than distribute route colours across the map, here they are grouped – orange, red, and yellow for Desert and Savannah routes; blue, green, and purple for Forest and Jungle routes; and black, grey, and white for Cliff and Mountain routes. These groups are organised geographically, with the Forest and Jungle routes across the middle of the map, the Desert and Savannah routes to North and South of this, and the Cliff and Mountain routes to the North and the East.

This grouping has a strong influence on play. First, it will have players scrabbling for Train Cards of the same colour if they want to make connections through the terrain types. The map has multiple incidences of routes of one colour being connected to a destination out of which leads a route of the same colour. This is only exacerbated by the lack of double routes in the interior of the map – all of its double routes are located along the coast of the continent. The map also has very few grey routes that can be claimed using any colour Train Cards. Second, it will be obvious to the other players what terrain group a player a wants to claim a route from the colour of the Train cards he is drawing.

The Terrain Cards specifically work with the route groupings and so come in three types – Desert and Savannah, Forest and Jungle, and Cliff and Mountain. When a player claims a route he can also play a Terrain Card (or two Terrain Cards if the route is longer) that matches the colour of the route to double the value of the points scored for the route. He must have as many Terrain Cards of that terrain grouping as any other player – this is known because they have to be kept face up on the table where everyone can see them. Alternatively, Locomotive or Wild Train Cards can be used instead of Terrain Cards. Once played, Terrain Cards and Wild Cards are discarded.

Game set up is little different to that of other Ticket to Ride games. Each player receives his forty-five trains and four Train Cards as usual. He also receives four Destination Tickets, of which he must keep two, and a single, random Terrain Card. Two Terrain Cards are placed face up as well as the usual Train Cards. When a player decides to draw cards during his turn, he can choose to draw Terrain Cards as well, so either two Train Cards or two Terrain Cards, or one of each. Once drawn, a player’s Terrain Cards are placed face up so that everyone can see them.

Both the need to have Terrain Cards and the need to have as many Terrain Cards as another player adds the need to make more decisions in the game. Drawing more Terrain Cards gives the potential for a player to outscore his rivals, though this may come at the cost of drawing Train Cards and expending them to claim routes. Or should a player ignore the Terrain Cards and grab routes before anyone else does rather wait to score double points. In addition, a player can draw more Terrain Cards in order to have as many as his fellow players or more as a means to stop them scoring double with their Terrain Cards. In other words, the Terrain Cards can be used as means to block other players.

Over the course of the Ticket to Ride line, the distribution of the routes across the various map boards have got tighter and tighter and thus more competitive. The India map from the previous expansion, Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 2: India and Switzerland being the most recent evidence of that. With The Heart of Africa, the map is equally as tight and competitive if not more so because of the lack of the double routes and the grouping of the route colours. The tight nature and competitive play of the Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa map is enhanced by the use of the Terrain Cards making this the most challenging version of Ticket to Ride yet.

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