It’s hard to believe Ticket to Ride is celebrating its bar-mitzvah this year. Alan Moon’s baby is all growed up, with twenty expansions, sequels, and alternate maps in print. It deserves its reputation as a great gateway game, with simple rules, a great combination of luck and strategy, and eye-candy graphics. Each variation puts a different twist on the basic mechanics, and like it’s more “serious” elder train-themed cousin 1829, tons of fan-made versions have been made, of places like the London Underground, Quebec, and even Alice’s Wonderland. Ticket to Ride has been very, very good to Moon, and to its publisher Days of Wonder.
Ticket to Ride is language-independent, one of the reasons for its international success, and also why it can be played with children old enough to understand the rules. I’ve played it with kids as young as seven. So it was a bit of a mystery to me why someone decided to publish First Journeys in 2016–but I guess a true measure of a game’s success is the release of a “Junior” version (see Kids of Catan, My First Carcassonne, or Agricola: Family Edition).
My skepticism stopped me from buying or even looking at a copy. But with the release this week of the First Journey app (for iOS and Android), I was given a chance to take a sneak peek by the folks at Asmodee Digital. What I found pleasantly surprised me–but also left me with a couple of questions.
It turns out First Journey, the game, is more than just a cutesified Ticket to Ride. There are no more “points” for claiming routes, with all that mathiness. Instead, it’s a race to complete six tickets. Connecting the east and west ends of the map counts as a bonus “ticket”. Whoever gets to six first, wins instantly. None of this “everyone gets an equal number of turns” nonsense.
In a way, it’s refreshingly direct, and with three or four players it’s surprisingly intense. I do find that the vagaries of the ticket deck tips the game more into “luck” territory. When every ticket is essentially worth the same, some tickets are simply harder to complete than others; furthermore, since you instantly draw a new ticket when you complete one, it’s very possible to luck into two or even three points in a row, especially later in the game when you’ve got routes all around the board.
Nonetheless, First Journeys does, in fact, distill things down into a very digestible package, making it possible for kids as young as six or even five to learn and play competitively. I would recommend the game to any parent or teacher looking for a new addition to their library…
Which brings me to the app. Ticket to Ride was an early iOS port and I still play it from time to time. It’s an excellent digital version of the game, with several expansions and maps available. So this is not Asmodee’s first rodeo, and First Journey shows all the polish and ease of use of its elder cousin. You can pass-and-play or compete against three levels of AI. Toss in some suitably cartoony graphics and music, and the app is an obvious winner, right?
Well…yes, basically. But a couple of decisions puzzle me. This is a game for kids as young as six, right? So why would the tutorial require so much reading, without a voice-over? They’re assuming someone will be there to read things out. Why are the player colours hard-wired to particular character models? If I want to be red, I have to be the dark-haired boy–but what if I want to be a red-headed girl? Or a unicorn, for that matter? They should have made the characters customizable–and added a randomizer to mix up player order. It makes me wonder if they beta-tested the game with actual kids.
They’ve also added a thing where you unlock “stamps” when you win a game–but they have absolutely purpose other than measuring how many times you’ve won. There’s no reason to care about them one way or the other.
Finally, and this is a bigger question, who exactly is the market for the app? If I’m a parent or teacher looking to get my kids interested in the Ticket To Ride series–ie, tabletop boardgames–why would I spend $8.49 (Canadian) for an app? Wouldn’t I rather be playing the physical game with my child or students? And the price point is awfully high if you’re looking for something for your kid to play while you’re waiting at the dentist office. Especially when the actual Ticket to Ride app is just as expensive, and provides a heckuva lot more gameplay.
As good as the app is–and it is good–I just wonder whether the folks at Asmodee really thought this through. I’ll be curious to follow First Journey’s journey through the digiverse and see how it fares.