Ask most people to name a board game and they’re likely to mention Scrabble, Monopoly or Cluedo – possibly adding an anecdote about a wet weekend in Margate for good measure.
But while these mass-market titles are already household names, in recent years, a community of independent designers and publishers has brought a new wave of innovation and creativity to the tabletop gaming industry.
One of the most successful productions of this board game renaissance is Ticket to Ride. Released in 2004, it casts players as travellers crossing North America in the age of steam.
Played on a lavishly illustrated map of the United States and Canada, the game is deceptively simple. Most turns see players taking one of two actions – adding cards to their hand or playing cards to claim routes between cities on the board. But the simplicity masks hidden depth. Each player also receives cards listing pairs of cities. Link those cities up by the end of the game and you’ll receive bonus points. Fail, and you’ll take a penalty that could drop you from first to last place.
This makes Ticket to Ride a game of strategy, subtlety and opportunism. It asks players to make constant tactical decisions. Should you claim routes that work to your advantage, or ones which block off options for your opponents? Should you take the most direct route between your objective cities, or a more roundabout path to avoid giving away your plans?
It’s a thoughtful and understated example of game design – and in the 10 years since Ticket to Ride was first published it’s proven extremely popular. In an industry where a game with sales in the five figures can be considered a hit, Ticket to Ride has sold over three million copies and generated retail sales of more than $150m (£93.3m).
For all its success, though, the game came close to never being published.
In 2003 its designer, Alan R Moon was on the verge of giving up. He had spent two decades in a succession of low-paid jobs, working on game designs in his spare time. The financial hardship was taking its toll.
“I wasn’t making much money at it, that’s for sure”, Moon said. “I was working as a waiter to give myself some flexibility, but in truth I was working too many hours and I had less and less time to devote to design.”
A lifelong gamer, some of Moon’s most enduring childhood memories are of family Risk and Monopoly sessions. But unlike many of his peers, he never stopped playing. By the time he graduated from university there was one thing he wanted to do above all else: design a best-selling board game.
But while his designs were well-received by niche “hobbyist” gamers, none sold well enough to provide him with a steady income. The success of Ticket to Ride saved him from having to get a “normal job”, he says.
“The idea for it came to me when I was out for a walk one day. I was frustrated. I’d just tested a design for a train game with friends and it hadn’t worked at all – it was too complicated.
“Suddenly the idea for Ticket to Ride just came into my head pretty much fully formed. I couldn’t wait to get home and get a prototype together.”
Moon sent his design to three publishers. This first two didn’t reply, but the third offered him a meeting.
“I remember when Alan first showed us the game,” said Eric Hautemont, co-founder of game publisher Days of Wonder.
“We started playing a couple of rounds. Suddenly he swept all the pieces off the board and said: ‘Well, now you get the idea.’ We just gasped and said ‘Hey, what are you doing? We were playing!’ A few weeks later we called Alan and told him we wanted to publish the game.”
Ticket to Ride sold well, and in 2004 it received the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award, considered the highest accolade in the industry. But interest in the game surged when its publishers decided to make it available for free online.
“The rationale was that we wanted to get as many people playing as possible”, said Hautemont. “If you stand on the street and hand out free copies of a game to people, you could check back a year later and nine out of 10 of them won’t have taken it out of the box. People buy games like Monopoly because they’re already familiar with them, and this was a way to make people familiar with Ticket to Ride.”
The company found users were spending long periods playing online – some clocked up over 40 hours a week. Today there are players who have completed over 100,000 games.
And, said Hautemont, sales of the physical game increased by around 30% after the launch of the online version. They spiked again when the company released versions of the game for the iPhone and iPad – reaching a level of popularity which has surprised even its creator.
“Originally I thought: ‘Why would you want to let people play the thing for free? They’ll never buy the board game”, said Moon. “But I was absolutely wrong. The internet hasn’t hurt board gaming at all. In fact it’s just the opposite. People are finding out about games they might otherwise never have heard of. They get them on their iPhones and want to play them for real.
“And a big part of that is the social aspect - just sitting down around a table with other people. That’s something you don’t get from electronics, and I think it’s why new people are still coming to the game 10 years on.”
The distributor of Ticket to Ride paid travel and accommodation expenses for Owen Duffy to conduct interviews at the game’s 10th anniversary party in Paris.