Should Ticket To Ride Send Rankings Packing?
Alan R. Moon's Ticket To Ride is one of the most successful modern board games since Settlers of Catan. Offering players a game of strategy, cunning, and trains, it has also been just as succesful a port to tablet and desktop, especially as it offers 1v1 and up to 1v4 multiplayer with players around the world.
One of the features that has spurred on the game's multiplayer capability is the introduction of a world ranking system. By winning games you can see you climb up the leaderboard, or alternatively tumble down it. But is this what the game really needs, and is it something that it could do without?
Skill, Luck, and The Elo Rankings
Ticket to Ride is an incredibly well balanced board game, one of the reasons it's received so many awards. You have to think about whether you want to grab more wagons at the risk of someone claiming a route you want, place a route and give away your intentions, or grab more destination tickets for extra points at the end of the game. Then there's weighing up route options around the likelihood of grabbing enough wagons of the colour you need in time and the amount of points that it will score for you and advance you towards your destination(s).
Ticket to Ride's official rules tutorial in handy video form.
There is an intense amount of strategy involved in the game, so saying that it relies heavily on luck is incredibly unfair. The whole point of it is to be an expert in risk assessment and try to out-fox your opponent. But unfortunately, luck is still a significant aspect to the game. So even with the best strategy in the world, if luck decides to abandon you and/or spoon your opponent(s) instead, it all counts for nothing. It might play a minimal role, but it's still enough to completely screw you over.
Therefore, it seem absolutely mad that the ranking system in Ticket to Ride is the Elo Ranking: a ranking devised by Arpad Elo for chess tournaments. Chess is a game of 100% skill and logic. No player starts with three extra queens whilst you spawn with three knights and a bishop instead of a two rooks. So why is it deemed appropriate here for a game with a significant element of luck?
Countless times have I seen my rankings and that of decent players plummet because of a run of really unfortunate games, where the moves just happen to fall into your adversaries' laps. It turns what should be a fun little board game into a table-flipping inducing annoyance, especially as the ranking system used is inappropriate.
Rankings Bring Out The Worst in Gamers
If luck taking an unprecedented disliking to you was bad enough, rankings cause other players to behave abominably! The game is pretty cut-throat as it is, but when you're playing the board game with a physical person there's a restraint and a sense of sportsmanship between you. The anonymity afforded to players online throws all of that out of the window.
Specially, there is a way to exploit the game by not playing it properly. If you get enough wagons to claim all the six-long routes on the board after choosing the lowest value destination tickets at the start, you're highly likely to just come out with the highest score, despite your incomplete destination ticket deductions and the efforts of your opponent. Whilst this is not against the rules, it's really not in the spirit of the game. If anything, it makes for a really dull match. But there are plenty of players who do this just to satisfy their own sense of self-worth at the expense of the enjoyment (and rankings) of others.
Furthermore, potential opponents can chuck you out of a game before it even starts because you're "too low" a rank, out of snobbery and/or because if you do win they take a significant hit due to the rank gap between the two of you. It makes the amount of games you can play really limited at times if very few people around your rank are online, and oozes unnecessary elitism.
On the other side of the coin, it also makes a lot of players behave like babies. Because it's so easy to loose countless ranks in one fell swoop, gamers get really upset and moan when it comes to opponents who know how to play the very well. The move known as "blocking" - where you specifically cut off a player from completing a route or cause a deliberate obstacle - is something that many players petulantly deride.
Yes, it's certainly immensely frustrating when it happens; even Penny Arcade have taken a loving pop at this tactic. But, as it's not against the rules, it's a legitimate strategy, and absolutely within the strategic spirit of the game as "blocking" doesn't always pay off. You cause grief for another player, but you do so at the cost of trains which you may later need to finish off your routes, building a stock of wagon cards, and claiming any routes useful to you. Plenty of times have I seen players/myself "block" and it has actually caused them/me to loose a game. Yet all too often, when you take this risky punt, some players will let all hell loose and pretty much have a tantrum, even if it actually puts them in a better position to win!
Should Ticket To Ride Do Away With Rankings?
Yes, Ticket to Ride's rankings are inappropriate, but it really wouldn't be so bad if the utter lack of gamer etiquette didn't add insult to injury. The behaviour of players mar the game more than the suitability of its rankings system, and that's something the game can't be held accountable for.
The popularity of many games are driven by such rankings as it gives players a reason to keep playing and something to aim for. As the AI for Ticket to Ride can be incredibly baffling, PvP is really the only reason to purchase the electronic version. If there weren't any rankings, then there'd be very little point to it.
The behaviour of players mar the game more than the suitability of its rankings system, and that's something the game can't be held accountable for.
Thankfully, you can play PvP in the game whilst opting out of the ranking system altogether, but there are scant players who do this so you'll just find yourself sitting it out in the lobby for quite some time.
The whole issue regarding how hideously rankings make players behave is a real problem, not just in this game, but across gaming as a whole. It really sucks the fun out of playing video game when players don't play nice for the sake of their own ego.
Unfortunately, everything bad that comes with rankings in games is just something all players have to deal with. It's only ever going to improve if there's a complete change in culture, and frankly, that's never going to happen.