For so many people, Alan R. Moon’s Ticket to Ride represents the first foray into contemporary board gaming. Perhaps the most popular ‘Gateway Game’ ever made, the original Ticket to Ride has spawned countless expansions and variants, each of which remains true to the simplicity of the original, but adds its own slight tweak or nuance. Of course, another key attraction of these expansions is that players learn about new countries, places, or times in history. The expansion that I have been reviewing over the past week is just one such example and features a large, double-sided board showcasing early 20th Century France on one side and the Wild West of America on the other.
I should say that France and the Old West is not a standalone expansion, so anyone considering adding it to their collection will need a copy of either the original Ticket to Ride or Ticket to Ride: Europe, as pictured below. Inside the box, the real star of the show is the huge board, which unfolds into a beautiful, dual-sided map of the featured locations. I don’t know what the norm is for other Ticket to Ride expansions, but at three-by-three leaves, France and the Old West is currently the largest board I’ve played a game on and it looks really impressive, with soft, watercolour artwork on the France map and bold, colourful oils depicting the Old West. As always with Days of Wonder products, everything is produced to an exceptional standard.
Also included in the box is a new set of forty white trains to enable a sixth player (on the Old West map only) plus a deck of journey ticket cards for each of the board themes and a set of city tokens for each player colour. The final key component is a large handful of multicoloured train tracks that populate the France map as you play, forming the key variation for that experience. There is also a token for Alvin the Alien (which is used in a niche variant of the Old West map) and a brief, multilingual manual for each of the different sides of the board.
The France variant of the game works in a very similar way to the original Ticket to Ride, with one key change. Each time a player draws cards, he or she must also take a coloured two-to-five, car-length track piece and place that tile onto an empty space somewhere on the board. Because card drawing happens on a different turn to actually placing train pieces, this leaves your newly built train line open to being claimed by another player. As a result, making obvious journeys in the France variant is a particularly bad idea, especially if that journey includes shorter sections of track that an opportunistic opponent might exploit.
In the Old West variant, the track laying mechanic is set aside, but instead (in addition to the option of adding a sixth player) players are required to strike out from a starting city, claiming tracks along the way and building new cities to then increase the number and diversity of tickets that they will be able successfully achieve. Alvin the Alien can be added into the mix as a variant option and he simply gives the first player arriving Roswell a bonus card worth ten points and a token which must be placed on one of their cities. Should another player build a route into that city, they may claim Alvin’s bonus card and token, then place him in one of their cities (and so it goes on).
Now, just in case anyone still reading this is unfamiliar with Ticket to Ride, it’s worth knowing that the game has won much of its popularity as a result of its simplicity and competitive but non-confrontational gameplay. The France and the Old West expansion effectively introduces new and more complex gameplay features, but as an experience, both remain true to the simple design of the original game and remain extremely user friendly. Whatever variant of Ticket to Ride you play, you’ll always be using sets of matching cards to place trains on a board, with longer sections of train scoring higher points and the ultimate objective being to place multiple sections that complete the journey tickets I referenced earlier.
Now interestingly, the expansion is clearly marketed with the intention of appealing to the French (or at least Western European) audience, but in truth, most of the more interesting components in the box focus on the Old West. There are no new plastic pieces included for France and thematically I don’t quite understand why there are no train lines – perhaps this is a reflection of the slow or late uptake of commuter lines in France due to the great size of the country, which is certainly reflected in the size of the map. In any case, the placement of the rail pieces before trains works really well in games with four or five players, but at two or three, I found that the board had sufficient space to accommodate each player without a need to hamstring each other. As a side note, I can’t think of a reason why France couldn’t have supported the sixth player (except maybe that five turns between placing a track and putting trains on it means you’ll almost never get the line you want) and whilst the game also tells players to drop from 45 to 40 trains, France can easily accommodate up to three players running all 45 trains.
Whilst I found The Old West to be less enjoyable overall, I did find that it had a better thematic link. The idea of rushing across the Wild West settling towns as your railroad grows and expands felt really on-message, but this mode does eventually run out of steam (pun intended) and begin to feel a lot like the original game albeit in a different (and welcome) skin. This may explain Alvin the Alien, a fun and novel inclusion that I suspect younger players will love (even if it does distract them from chasing higher-value activities). I didn’t have chance to play with six players, but because of the size of the board I suspect it will be possible, if perhaps a little hectic.
Whilst neither of the board themes in France and the Old West dramatically changes Ticket to Ride, each of them has its own beautiful board and set of mechanics that subtly change things and force experienced players to rethink some of their standard tactics and thinking. The track placement aspect in the France map forces a fair bit of bluffing and planning ahead, whilst expanding outwards from cities in the Old West feels a lot like a genuine gold rush kind of mechanic.
I think France and the Old West is a must-have expansion for serious fans of Ticket to Ride who are seeking to expand their options and enhance the experience they already know and love. If, like me, you are a very casual fan of Ticket to Ride and would prefer a heavier game (or a miniatures game in my case) then you may not be able to justify the cost of expanding the base game, although I will say that I did enjoy both of these expansion maps a lot more than the base game itself. With Christmas fast approaching, you could do a lot worse than picking up the base version of Ticket to Ride if you have friends with a passing interest in trains and/or board games. Then, if they like it, this expansion is a logical next step.