Stick to baseball, 1/13/18.

No new Insider content this week, as MLB appears to still be asleep and I was working on the top 100 prospects package, which is scheduled to start running on January 22nd. I did hold a Klawchat on Thursday.

My latest board game review for Paste covers Pandemic: Rising Tide, a standalone spinoff of the original Pandemic, this time pitting players against rising waters threatening to flood the Netherlands, so players must build dikes and pumps while trying to complete four hydraulic stations to win the game. We liked it, as it gives a new twist to the now-familiar cooperative mechanics of Matt Leacock’s various games.

Feel free to sign up for my email newsletter, which costs you nothing and totters somewhere between occasional and infrequent. And, of course, thanks to everyone who bought Smart Baseball for themselves or as a Christmas gift, or as a Christmas gift for themselves.

And now, the links…

Race for the Galaxy app.

I’ve mentioned previously that I don’t share the broader tabletop community’s love for Race for the Galaxy, a very popular deckbuilding game that ranks in the top 50 on BoardGameGeek, for two reasons – you need to know the deck rather well to play the game at even a competent level, and there’s one strategy (produce/consume x2) that is superior to others (military, trade). That strategy isn’t entirely dominant, but you are also somewhat restricted in your choice of strategy by the ‘home world’ card you’re dealt to start the game; if you get New Sparta, you almost have to use the military strategy, for example.

So it might surprise regular readers to hear me offer a strong recommendation for the Race for the Galaxy app ($6.99 on iTunes or Google Play) given what I’ve said before about the game itself. Those problems still hold true in the app, of course – this is a faithful implementation of the physical game. The app, however, is just about perfect in how it implements the game, with strong AI players (on the hard setting), and because it’s so fast to play, you can start to learn what’s in the deck a little faster to get yourself up to speed.

In Race for the Galaxy, players must build out their tableau of cards, representing worlds, ships, or people in their empire, using specific action types each turn – drawing cards, spending them to play cards, producing goods on cards that have that power, trading goods for more cards, or trading goods for victory points. Cards you play also carry victory point values of their own for the end of the game, and some award bonuses based on what else you have already played. You start with a home world card that, as I said above, kind of dictates your strategy for the game – some home worlds are ideal for trading, some for the military, some for the produce/consume strategy.

On a turn, each player chooses one of the available seven actions, and then the choices are all revealed simultaneously. Every player gets to take all of the actions chosen in that round, but you get an extra ability when taking the action you chose, such as building for one card less than the normal cost, or getting to keep two cards of the ones you draw instead of just one. Turns are fast, and players can usually do their turns at the same time. The game ends when one player has built (played) 12 cards to the table, or when the communal pool of victory point chips is exhausted.

The app is nearly perfect, and it helps reduce the time new players might spend learning what’s in the deck and what cards are useful (or even essential) for certain strategies – for example, if you are trying the military strategy, getting the cost-6 development card New Galactic Order, which gives you one victory point per unit of military strength on all your cards, is critical. The AI players move very quickly, and the actions chosen by each player are clearly visible twice, once at selection, then during the round in a bar on the left side of the screen that highlights the actions in use for the round. You can see the details on any card – the app uses the graphics from the physical game – with a double-tap, which is necessary to play it on a small screen, and you can see key details, like cards or VP tokens remaining, easily on the right side. You can also see how many cards your opponents have played and what goods they have available without expanding their tableaus, so you have ample warning if the game is approaching its end. There’s an undo button on the right-side menu for just about every action you can take, and the app requires your confirmation of certain actions, like discarding cards or trading multiple goods. The trading/consuming mechanism isn’t quite obvious – when that phase starts, cards with a trade or consume function will be highlighted, and you must click the card you wish to use, then drag the good(s) you wish to trade/consume off into the blank area next to your tableau.

I did mention above a few times that the produce/consume x2 strategy, where you alternate turns producing goods and selling them for victory points with bonuses, tends to be the optimal strategy, but the first time I beat two AI players in the app came via a military strategy. I started with New Sparta and blitzed my way through to twelve cards before either AI player could really get rolling with production and consumption:

You’re damn right I’m proud of that one. So it can be done, but it requires a bit of luck and leaves you no margin for error – which I think is more evidence that the hard AI players are up to snuff.

The app comes with the New Worlds mini-expansion, and the Rebel vs. Imperium and Gathering Storms are available as in-app purchases.

Lotus.

The new board game app for Lotus (itunes) • android), a 2016 title from designers Mandy & Jordan Goddard, comes from the same studio that brought us the wonderful Lanterns app last year, and the game has a very similar look and feel from the graphics to the animations to the sound. The game itself is quite simple and should lend itself well to the app format, but there are a couple of problems with the implementation that keep me from recommending it yet.

On each turn, a player has two actions, which can include placing one or two petals from his/her hand to a single flower, trading in cards for others from the player’s own deck, or adding a ‘guardian’ with his/her symbol to a flower already underway. Each petal card has a specific color and shows one or two icons of your own symbol; when a flower is finished, there’s a bonus for the player who had the most symbols on the flower, whether from petal cards or guardians. When your turn ends, you can refill your hand from your deck or take ‘wild’ flower cards from the table, which have a specific color but no player symbols, and thus are useful for finishing a flower but not for gaining control of it.

When a flower is finished, there are two bonuses handed out. The player who finishes a flower gets one point per petal on the flower, from three (purple) to seven (pink). The player who had the most tokens on the flower, whether from petals or from guardians, gets a second bonus, which can be five points regardless of flower type, or can give the player one of three special abilities for the remainder of the game: a hand size limit of 5 instead of 4, the ability to play three or more petals to one flower in a single action, or adding a guardian with double the influence. The first two are extremely valuable if you get them early, but I’ve had minimal success with the bigger guardian and prefer to skip it for the five points.

Lotus app screenshot

Lotus largely devolves into a game of chicken, where you’re trying to force other players to play petals so that you can finish off one or more flowers on your turn, especially the higher-valued pink or white flowers. There’s always the five-point bonus you get when you have the most petals/guardians on a flower someone else finishes, but even that is subject to change if an opponent plays wisely. If you finish the most flowers, you’ll probably win, even if you weren’t working too hard on maintaining control via your symbols – you’ll get a few along the way regardless. So often players, even the AI players, will trade cards to burn off an action in the hopes that someone else will place cards that make it easier to finish a flower next time. It’s a bit of a drag, and also boosts the luck factor because you need to get the right cards at the optimal time.

The app is gorgeous and runs smoothly, but I have two real issues with it, one of which is that the AI players are not very good, even on the ‘hard’ setting. I had never played this game before I downloaded the app, but can easily beat the hard AI when playing one or two opponents, and usually win or come in second with three. The AI players just don’t utilize the added abilities well enough to compete with a decent human player. The other issue is the lack of an undo function. You have two actions on your turn, and thus should be able to undo the first one before you’ve taken your second one. This is a simple enough function for the programmers to include and I think it’s a necessary one for a board game app that isn’t real-time or involves revealing information with each action. So while the game itself is pretty and pleasant to play, I think both of this issues need to be addressed before I can recommend it.

Stick to baseball, 12/2/17.

My Insider post on Shohei Ohtani is finally up, with a scouting report compiled from aggregating opinions of multiple scouts who’ve seen him hit and pitch, and thoughts on what MLB’s rigging of the rules against him really signals. Between the lack of significant activity in the hot stove and the fact that I got quite sick in the middle of the week, that’s been my only baseball content since Thanksgiving. I did hold a Klawchat on Thursday.

For Paste, I reviewed the train game Whistle Stop, a mid-weight title that’s among the best new board games I’ve played this year. My ranking of the top ten games of 2017 will go up the week of December 10th. EDIT: My first piece for Ars Technica is up now – a look at a beta version of Catan VR, an upcoming digital port of the global bestseller from Asmodee Digital.

I’ve taken an unintentional hiatus from my free email newsletter, but will resume this week. The holiday, PAX Unplugged, and that virus I had have all conspired against me, I swear.

Smart Baseball is out now in hardcover, e-book, and audio formats, perfect for your holiday shopping! Buy one or forty copies, your call.

And now, the links…

7 Wonders app.

7 Wonders has been one of my top 2 all-time boardgames since I first played the tabletop version back in 2011 (here’s my original review), and after a bit of a layoff – which happens given all the new games I need to try for Paste and Vulture – I got back into it this summer and found it hasn’t lost a thing for me. It’s just a brilliantly designed, fast-playing game that rewards long-term thinking, has a lot of interaction among players, and leaves players with very little downtime. All that was missing was an app version of the game, which had been promised at least as far back as early 2015 but seemed stuck in perpetual beta.

Well, I have good news: The 7 Wonders app is here, for iPads at least, with an Android version due next month, and it is great – if you already know the game, at least. The AI players are solid, the app itself is easy and intuitive to use, and there’s a lot of info crammed on the screen. I have some questions about whether this would be so intuitive to someone who’s never played the game, given what isn’t shown on the screen, and feel like there is room for some added features before the developers deliver the promised Leaders and Cities expansions.

7 Wonders is a card-drafting game with set collection elements, working much more quickly than most card collecting games do. There are three rounds, and in each round, players will get to buy (or just take) six cards to place on their tableaux. The unique mechanic of 7 Wonders is that you start each round with a hand of seven cards, choose one to play, and then pass the remainder of your hand to an adjacent player. Once you’ve played a few times, you know what cards are in each age, but you can never know what cards will be available to you in a specific game. In a game with six or seven players, the cards you pass will never come back to you; in a game with fewer, you’ll at least get something back from your original hand, but you can’t predict what it’ll be.

The cards themselves typically cost resources to acquire, but unlike many resource collection games, 7 Wonders doesn’t come with bags upon bags of little wood and stone tokens. Instead, you get resources every round from cards you’ve played that produce those, and you can buy resources from your two neighbors for 2 coins per unit – if the neighbors actually produce them. Many cards also give you the right to play specific cards for free in later ages, which can be a very powerful way to rack up points without producing a ton of resources yourself.

There are multiple avenues for scoring points, and while there’s a lot of debate over an ideal strategy, I find they’re all fairly balanced, and often the best strategy is just the one that no one else is pursuing. You can gain military points if you have more military symbols than each of your neighbors at the end of each age. You can rack up science points by acquiring green cards with three different symbols in sets. Blue cards simply give victory points. You can also discard cards to build stages of your Wonder, usually three different stages, each of which confers some benefit in resources, points, gold, or sometimes extra actions. And the purple guild cards in the third age can lead to huge bonuses.

The app version of 7 Wonders looks fantastic, and the developers have managed to get all the relevant info for you on to one screen, with most of the real estate occupied by your tableau and your hand, and with two smaller sections on the left and right sides to show what your neighbors have. Because card play is simultaneous, when you drag a card from your hand (bottom of the screen) to your tableau, your opponents’ moves happen at the same time, and you’re immediately given your new hand of cards.

Each card in your hand will be outlined in green, yellow, or red, with an indication in the lower left of the cost to play it. Green-outlined cards are either free to play or are already covered by resources you produce or cards you have. A check mark in the lower left says you’ve covered the cost; a chain link symbol means you have a card that gives you this one for free. Yellow outlines indicate you’ll have to pay at least one coin to buy resources from neighbors to play the card. Cards you can’t play are outlined in red, and if you try to play them anyway, you’ll get a Not Enough Resources message. You can click and hold any card to see a text explanation of its effects, including cards your neighbors have played. You can also see your neighbors’ current military strength, money, and wonders (including whether they’re completed) at all times.

The app moves fast – I can rip through a game against AI players in about five minutes – which might be confusing to new players. There isn’t a speed setting, although you can turn on an option to require move validation, which would at least make it feel slower. It would be incredibly useful if you could click and hold a card to play and see what its point or gold value would be at that moment, even though it could change later in the age or the game. The game-end scoring screen shows you how many points each player got from each scoring method, but switching back to the game at that point shows you the cards without further explaining the scoring breakdown, which I think would also be useful for new players.

I found the AI players to be sufficiently challenging, and surprisingly agile – they clearly respond to what you’re doing on the military side, which requires you to react in turn – but after a handful of plays over the last 24 hours, I’m finding my winning percentage approaching 50% already. I have won with military, with blue bonus cards, and with racking up guild points, but have yet to win with science – although once I lost to an AI player with 48 science points, which I think is a good sign I just wasn’t paying attention. (If you’re curious, that’s three cards with one science symbol, three cards with another symbol, the wild-card scientists’ guild, and two cards with the third science symbol.)

The app has online play and what appeared, on day one, to be an active lobby of players, although today on day two I haven’t been able to connect via the app. You need at least 3 players, on or offline; the 2-player variant isn’t included here, although I’ve never loved that rules tweak anyway. It is not available for smaller screens like iPhones, and while I’m sure that’s disappointing to a lot of users, I can understand why given how much information is required and how busy the screen gets by Age III even on the iPad. I’m completely hooked at the moment, and unless/until I start killing the AI players regularly this is going to be one of my go-to boardgame apps. I’ll update this post when the Android version is out, but if you have an iPad, go get this app.

Eight Minute Empire.

Eight-Minute Empire is pretty much what it sounds like – a Civilization-style 4X boardgame that plays in just a few minutes, promising 8 to 20 minute playing times on the box depending on the number of players (from two to five). The tabletop version came out in 2012, followed by a standalone sequel game, Eight-Minute Empire: Legends, that doubles the playing time by adding another layer of rules, which sounds to me like it might defeat the original’s purpose. I missed the physical games, but did pick up the new app version of the original Eight-Minute Empire, which is out for iOS phones and tablets and Android devices for just under $5, and it’s pretty fantastic. The tutorial is great, the app has some in-game tips for newbies (which you can later turn off), and you can rip through a whole game against 3 or 4 AI players in just a few minutes.

Eight-Minute Empire starts with all players on the same region on a map of multiple continents, with each player getting three military units on that space. On a turn, each player will choose one of six available action cards, which cost from 0 to 3 coins to purchase, and which determine the player’s action on that turn: Recruit new troops, move troops on land, move troops on land or via sea, build a city, destroy one troop anywhere on the board. Different cards allow different numbers of troop movements or additions. Building a city gives you the ability to recruit troops to that city as well as to the start region. Each card also has a symbol of one of the game’s six trade goods on it; collecting more of one type can gain you 1, 2, 3, or 6 points, depending on how many cards with that symbol you acquire.

The game lasts seven to ten turns, depending on the number of players, and while the app shows scoring in-progress, there’s no intermediate scoring – the game is only scored at the end. You gain one point for each region you control (more troops than any other player, with a city counting as +1 troop); one for each continent you control (whoever controls the most regions); and various points for the goods you’ve collected. Some cards have wild-card goods tokens, and the app will automatically place those wherever they’ll gain you the most points. If two players tie, which happens fairly often in my experience with the app, the winner is the player with the most coins remaining.

Eight-Minute Empire distills most of the best parts of map/exploration games to keep it simple for players. Everyone starts with the same number of coins, and you can’t get any more during the game. Turn order starts with open bidding; you can bid one or two coins to get to set the turn order, and there’s an advantage to going later rather than going first because you get to make troop movements after other players are done, thus ‘stealing’ another region or even a continent. Conflict is limited to the handful of cards that let you destroy a troop, which the AI players will use if you have one unit alone on a continent (which gives you control of that region and the continent, so beware). There are no actual battles in Eight-Minute Empire, no trading, no theft. You thus focus on where to put your units, where other players might choose to move theirs, and taking the action cards that will help you with units and/or goods while also potentially taking cards that might help your opponents.

The app comes with three levels of AI players, and I’d say the hard AI players are quite capable, strong enough that I needed many plays to beat them and still don’t do it consistently. (The randomness of card draws helps smooth gameplay out too.) It also offers clearer iconography than the printed version of the game, and the only drawback I see in the presentation is that with over 3 players you can’t see everyone’s points/goods status at once. The base game has two maps, the original (pictured) and a “sister continents” map, with several other maps available for $1.99 each or in a pack for $4.99; there’s also an IAP for the Mountains expansion, which was a free print-and-play addition to the base game, available for $1.99. I’m enjoying the two base game maps so far but I have a feeling I’ll eventually spring for others just to add some variety – the configuration of continents alters game play in a significant way, since the cards that allow movement by sea are rarer than those that only allow movement on land. Eight Minute Empire also plays very well on the smaller screen of my iPhone, which makes it a great little time-waster when I’m stuck somewhere without a book. I give it a very strong buy recommendation.

Tokaido.

Tokaido came out in 2012, the third hit title in three straight years from designer Antoine Bauza (7 Wonders, Takenoko), and like those previous two titles, it combines elegant rules and beautiful artwork into a short game time that allows for frequent replay. This year brought a Tokaido app (iOSAndroid) that has fantastic animations and a solid tutorial, although I did hit one glitch in one game.

The Tokaido was the most important of the Five Routes of the Edo period in Japan, all government-regulated paths for travel and trade, with the Tokaido connecting Edo (now Tokyo) to the imperial capital of Kyoto. In this boardgame, each player takes on a specific character of a Japanese traveler who will move along a straight track that includes various stops where the player can take a specific action, as well as four inns where the player can buy a meal for victory points. The order of the stops varies along the track, and the player who is furthest back on the track gets the next turn. There are six distinct types of stops in the game: gain 3 coins; take one “encounter” card (which gives you something good at random); donate to the temple for one point per coin; buy one or more souvenirs; take a hot springs card for either 2 or 3 points; take the next card for one of the three panoramas in the game. The souvenirs come in four types, and cost 1 to 3 coins each; you gain points for each different type you collect in a set, 1 for the first card, 3 for the second, 5 for the third, 7 for the fourth, so potentially 16 points for each quartet you collect. The three panoramas are all different lengths, and you gain points for each card you collect; the longest is five cards, and you’d get 15 points for completing it (1+2+3+4+5).

At each inn, you can choose to buy a meal, each of which is worth six points. Some cost 1 coin, some cost 3, and the first person to reach the inn thus gets first choice of all of the meals for that round (you draw one card per player plus one more). If you get there last, you get the last choice, and may have to pay more, but you will be the first to leave the inn for the next round. You can’t buy the same meal twice in the same game, however.

There are also seven bonus cards for 3 points apiece. The first player to finish each panorama gets a 3-point card. The player with the most encounter cards, the most meal cards, the most hot springs cards, and the most souvenir cards at game-end gets a 3-point bonus card for each as well. The temple gives bonuses to the most generous players, 10 to whoever gave the most over the course of the game, then lower bonuses to each donor below that.

The nature of the game means blocking other players can be an effective strategy, especially given the way the scoring rewards players for hitting the same destination type (or color) repeatedly. I think it’s more valuable in 2- or 3-player games, where only one player can occupy any stop on the track at a given time, than in 4- or 5-player games, where some track locations have a second spot for another player. You may wish to stop another player from finishing a panorama, or keep a player who’s low on cash from hitting the 3-coin space. That said, even in a smaller game, I wouldn’t use this as a primary strategy; there’s a big opportunity cost to skipping spaces if you’ve visited that color type earlier in the game.

Although you can move as far along the track as you want on your turn, in reality, your best move is nearly always to take the next open space. Skipping spaces can give other players additional turns before you get to go again, so until the fourth section (the last set of spaces before the game ends), you’ll probably want to take the next space every time, maybe occasionally skipping just one space to get something specific, like moving to a yellow spot to get 3 coins if you’re out of cash. In the fourth section, it can make more sense to move ahead to complete a panorama or try to get the fourth souvenir in a set because those deliver higher points rewards than other moves. Those will depend on what you’ve accomplished earlier in the game, and sometimes what others have done – there’s a 3-point bonus for being the first to complete each panorama, and end-game temple bonuses depend on who donated the most – will alter your choices.

The app, by Funforge’s digital division, looks fantastic. Rather than simply implementing the boardgame as a 2D experience, they’ve animated everything, so you see the board from an isotropic view and the player-characters jog from space to space. There’s also a line at the bottom of the screen that represents all the possible stops between inns, so you can see what’s coming up, and you can press there to select your next destination or you can scroll through the 3D view to get there. Each time you stop at any place that will require a decision, you get a fresh screen that shows you all of your options – for example, at the souvenir stand, you’ll see the three choices for you at that stop, and on the left side are the four symbols with numbers indicating how many of each you already own. (I played the iOS version.)

I did experience one bug in the app, just the second time I played it, and it hasn’t recurred since: one of the animated AI characters ran to the next stop but couldn’t quite get there and ended up sort of running in place. I had to kill the app and restart it to get out of that. There’s only one level of AI player, but I’ve found it to be perfectly competent, enough challenge for me as a relative newbie to the game.

Bauza’s got quite a track record of successful designs, and I’d rate Tokaido behind three of his better-known titles – 7 Wonders, Takenoko, and the two-player game 7 Wonders Duel – but ahead of the Spiel-winning coop game Hanabi or 2016’s Oceanos. My daughter, now 11, loved it right out of the box and picked up the strategy pretty quickly, so I’m comfortable recommending it as a good family game that you can easily play on a school night given its 30 to 40 minute playing time.

Asmodee Digital app sale.

A bunch of the best boardgame apps out there are on sale right now courtesy of publisher Asmodee Digital, and since there are too many to squeeze into a tweet or FB post, I’m going to list my favorites among them (they have over 20 titles on sale) here with links to my reviews and to the iOS/Android stores.

Ticket to Ride ($1.99): Review, iTunes Store, Android version

Splendor ($1.99): Review, iTunes store, Android version

Pandemic ($1.99): Review, iTunes store, Android version

Small World 2 ($1.99): Review, iTunes Store, Android version

Jaipur ($0.99): Review, iTunes store, Android version

Ticket to Ride First Journey ($1.99): Review, iTunes store, Android version

Also, I have only played Twilight Struggle ($1.99) on Steam and haven’t reviewed it, but it’s also on sale for iPads and Android tablets. It’s a two-player game that I think requires a lot of playing experience to play it well because you must be familiar with the cards in your deck.

Alhambra app.

The boardgame Alhambra is a modern Euro classic, winner of the 2003 Spiel des Jahres award and a host of other prizes, and still rated fairly highly on Boardgamegeek even thought it’s a bit light for that crowd. It’s also one of my least favorite Spiel winners, and one of my biggest disconnects between what I think of a game and what the gaming community thinks. I reviewed the original game back in 2011, and while I’ve softened on it just a little bit, it’s still not something I’m eager to pull off the shelf.

But there is now an Alhambra app (for iOS devices and Android), and because I take my responsibility to all of you seriously, I have played it for the purposes of reviewing it. And … I still don’t like the game that much, and I find the app a little clunky to use; after I’ve been spoiled by a run of Asmodee Digital apps and a few other super-clean ports, this one fell short of the mark for me. The AI players are solid, though, so it’s a good challenge for solo play, so if you enjoy the tabletop game, you may find value in the app that I didn’t.

Alhambra is a tile-laying game where players use money cards selected from a rolling display of four cards and use them to buy one or more of the four tiles currently in the market. You get one action per turn and can use it to buy a tile, take money cards (one card, or several if they add up to five or less), or move a tile already in your palace to storage/move one from storage to the palace. If you buy a tile and pay the exact amount, you get a bonus action, so in theory you could get five actions in one turn: you buy each of the four tiles for the exact amount, and then get a bonus action to take money or renovate. There are six tile types, and you score for having the most or second-most of each type, with three scoring stages during the game and points increasing at each scoring. Tiles also have wall segments on zero to three edges; at every scoring, you score one point for each edge on your longest contiguous wall.

The app version of Alhambra has two different views – a standard top-down look and an isometric view with graphics on the tiles to give them 3D textures, with the isometric one much more comfortable to look at in my experience. You can also tailor the app speed if you want to see AI or opposing players make their moves, or if you’d rather speed things up and have cards just disappear from the display as they’re taken.

Making moves in the app is not intuitive in the least. First, you must select your action from a box at the top of the screen – buy, take money, renovate. If you’re buying, then you must select the money cards you intend to spend to buy the tile, and selecting the cards is a pain because of the way they’re laid out, overlapping each other, forcing you to click on the edge of a card to select it. Then you pick the tile you’re buying. If you pay the exact price, the app automatically gives you a bonus action by asking you to select a new action type. If you don’t have enough money to buy any tiles, that action is greyed out.

Any tiles you buy go into a temporary storage bin on the screen until your turn is done, after which you place all of the tiles at once. You drag the tile you wish to place over towards your board, and the legal spaces for it light up in green, then go back to retrieve the next tile if there are more in your tray. Once you place a tile, I don’t think there’s a way to undo it. The isometric view only fails in this one spot – it’s hard to distinguish walls on the ‘far’ side of tiles.

The game ends when the supply of tiles is exhausted, at which point there’s a quirk in the rules – the remaining tiles are assigned to players based on who has the most money of each color, whether or not those players have enough to buy the tiles. That can also mean you acquire a tile you can’t place, and the app wants you to place that tile in one of your renovation slots … which I only figured out from trial and error. If you don’t know this, you’re stuck.

The app is stable now after some early bugginess, and some expansions are available as in-app purchases, but I find the UI here too frustrating – and, again, I’m not wild about the game underneath it. If you love the base game, go for it. Otherwise, I’d give this one a miss.

Ticket to Ride First Journey app.

The current explosion in popularity of European-style boardgames has tended towards older players, adults or teenagers, without as much emphasis on the youngest players who, at least historically, were a prime target for boardgame publishers. A few companies have produced stripped-down, introductory versions of their Eurogames for kids aged 8 and under, but until now none of them had appeared in app form. Asmodee Digital changed that with today’s release of their Ticket to Ride: First Journey app for iOS devices, Android, and Steam, and as you’d expect from an Asmodee product, it looks incredible, plays smoothly, and is extremely stable and reliable. At $4.99, it’s a steal for folks who want to introduce their younger kids to the glories of tabletop gaming.

Ticket to Ride: First Journey is a simplified version of the boardgame Ticket To Ride, which is itself among my top five games all time for its own simplicity and universal appeal, with First Journey – sold exclusively at Target – aimed at kids six and up (and probably fine for kids as young as four, as long as they can match colors). The board itself is smaller, with fewer cities on it and fewer trains required to connect cities that remain – there are no five-train connections between cities, for example.

If you’re already familiar with the rules and mechanics of the full versions of Ticket to Ride, here are the main differences between that game and the First Journey version:

  • You draw two train cards from the deck rather than choosing from five visible options.
  • You start the game with two route tickets (and have no choice).
  • When you finish one ticket, you get another ticket.
  • Everyone knows when you’ve finished a route.
  • Each ticket is worth one point; first to six points wins.
  • You get a point for building a continuous route from coast to coast.
  • There is no penalty for failing to complete a route.
  • Even in the two-player game, players can use both routes between two cities, and you can’t occupy both routes to block another player.
  • Each player has 20 train cars; as in the regular game, if a player places all his/her cars, that also triggers game-end.

The board is streamlined, and the cities on your route cards are animated in the app until you complete them. Each city has a unique icon, like a beaver in Montreal, a totem pole in Seattle, or a movie camera in Los Angeles. The pictures are bright and the text is very clean – not quite Comic Sans, but in that vein. You can drag your train cards to a route to place them; it’s a little fussy about your placement, but the app zooms in on the two cities to help you direct the arrow to the correct route. When you have two colors of tracks between cities, the one you can use is evident and the one you can’t use shows up with lock symbols on it. Some of the routes are extremely short – one track of three trains, two tracks of one or two trains each – so it doesn’t take long to complete your tickets.

On a turn, you have just three options: take two train cards, place trains on the map, or trash your two current route tickets and draw two new ones. That keeps turns quicker than in the base game, since no one is hemming and hawing over which train cards to select, and gives you an out when other players have done something to prevent you from completing a route card.

The route-planning aspects of the main game are still here but much simpler. There’s no longest route bonus, just the “coast to coast” bonus, so building a more efficient route that encompasses your two initial tickets is more about hoping you’ve already completed tickets you’ll draw later in the game or will at least be closer to finishing them. That means less need for the long-term planning of the original game, which makes it easier for younger players to keep up with the adults.

For the youngest players, First Journey might still present the frustration that comes from getting boxed out of a route, especially with three or four players. You can use your turn to trash your two current route cards, however, and draw two new ones, which at least gives you a chance to draw something you’ve already completed or at least will be able to complete. It also means that showing other players your route cards isn’t a negative, so if parents want to help their kids it doesn’t hurt the parents’ ability to play their own hands. The game still has a fair amount of luck involved in card draws of both types, and it’s possible to just have an unlucky game, which cuts both ways with younger players since they can be helped by randomness as well as irritated by it. There are three levels of AI difficulty; I only played against the Hard AI, which I think would be hard for a young player new to the game but isn’t challenging for someone who’s played the full Ticket to Ride.

The game appears to end immediately when one player reaches six points, rather than allowing all players a final turn as in the base game, which seems to give the first player an advantage. It’s possible, therefore, to have a player complete his/her fifth route and then draw a ticket for a route s/he has already completed, ending the game on the spot.

The game comes with a U.S. map and players can unlock a Europe map with a free Asmodee online account. The Europe map will be a standalone game in physical form (due out to U.S. retail in January) and includes a coast-to-coast style bonus, which is more of a west-to-east bonus with players connecting Dublin, Brest, or Madrid to Moscow, Rostov, or Ankara (represented by a samovar rather than an iron fist). There are also collectible stamps within the app for players to earn with each victory.

The First Journey app is ideal for players too young for the full game, with the inflection point probably somewhere around age 7 or 8 depending on your kids’ experiences with better boardgames. For older kids and adults, I recommend the Ticket to Ride app itself, which is among the best boardgame apps available and allows you to buy different maps as in-app purchases to give you different experiences and new rules tweaks.