Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The TransAmerica family: still evergreen

I recently took the chance to visit TransAmerica and TransEuropa. I used to call TransAmerica the navy blue blazer of my collection, a game suitable for just about any group or occasion. And I found them even better than I’d remembered.

TransAmerica was a standby in two of the groups I played with when I first seriously started playing board games. More importantly, it was the first game I played on breitspielwelt, which was my introduction to online gaming. The game and the interface was both simple enough that a complete newbie like myself could easily handle it. So I have a long and happy history with TransAmerica.

For them that haven’t played it, TransAmerica and TransEuropa are connection games where you try to connect five randomly selected cities before anyone else. The board is a map of the United States or Europe with a triangular grid on it. You take turns laying down track (little wooden sticks) on the grid. The clever bit is that the tracks are universal.  Connect to someone else’s tracks and they are yours too.

TransAmerica is a very simple game and I sometimes questioned that simplicity. After all, it’s easy to idolize complexity. However, while you don’t make a meaningful choice every turn, every round has three or four meaningful choices and the rounds are quick. You then have to see how those choices pan out. And TransAmerica really ramps up the tension fast. When folks are closing in on their last city, the table goes dead silent.

I always have known that TransAmerica is fun but, revisiting it, I am realizing how well designed it is. I commented on how I hadn’t seen any fan maps for the system, while I have for Ticket to Ride or Steam or such. A wiser person than me pointed out to me that other systems have ways of fudging the maps. Adjusting the value of tickets in Ticket to Ride or the freights in a crayon game or such. 

In the case of the TransAmerica system, every possible combination of cards has to be balanced and there’s no way to fudge that. I’m surprised that I never really thought about it but the very simplicity makes designing the maps very difficult.

With that in mind, I wonder if the Europe map is actually the more balanced map, having played the two back to back. I am very fond of the US map and I think that it is very accessible to new players and teaching. However, the choke point of the Rockies might weigh the west coast too heavily. I also wonder if the expansion, Vexation, which adds colored rails which count only for their player, actually hurts the tension of the game since the shared network are central to the game.

Regardless, the TransAmerica family has reaffirmed itself to me as a great game. Accessible to casual players while still fun for experienced players, they are evergreen and games I need to play more often.

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