Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Game Review: Alvin & Dexter - Monsters & Trains, Oh My!

Ticket to Ride: Alvin & Dexter
  • Designer: Alan R. Moon
  • Publisher: Days of Wonder
  • Reviewer: Mark Jackson (review copy provided by Days of Wonder)

When he designed Ticket to Ride, Alan Moon mashed up a card-drafting mechanic along with some rummy-ish set collection and then let all of that play out on a map of the United States. Coupled with the gorgeous Days of Wonder production, the game won a well-deserved Spiel des Jahres.

Over the following years, Alan has tweaked the game in a variety of ways:

  • three “big box” additions to the franchise (which are stand-alone games, each with their own innovations): Europe, Marklin & Nordic Countries
  • one “map” expansion for 2-3 players that can be used with any of the big box games: Switzerland
  • two “tin box” expansions that add cards & other alternate ways to play the games: 1910 & 1912
  • one “dice” expansion

So the next logical step, of course, was to have monsters invade.

In interest of full disclosure, I was an early hater of the idea. I tweeted about Ticket to Ride “catapulting the shark” – managing to reference Fonzie & the most ridiculous of the Carcassonne expansions in the same 140 characters.

But after playing the basic game (augmented a couple of times by the 1910 tickets) with Alvin the Alien & Dexter the Dinosaur, I’ve had a change of heart. I think there’s a lot to love about these not-so-cuddly additions to the Ticket to Ride franchise. The Alvin & Dexter expansion (it requires any full box edition of the game in order to play) is a winner.

They’re simple enough to use: the two players who are last in turn order place them on the board & the game takes off as usual. Each player now has an additional option on their turn: trade in a locomotive (wild card) or two to move one of the monsters 3 (with one locomotive) or 6 (with two locomotives) cities.

Any city occupied by the monsters are being ravaged. (You are welcome – nay, encouraged! – to make sounds of destruction & mayhem.) Those cities are unsafe and therefore may not be built into or out of until the monster has moved on to greener pastures.

When a player moves a monster, he receives a card that indicates he’s done just that. (You can decide for yourself whether this indicates that he’s used the military might of our great country to chase the monster away… or instead that he is actually in cahoots with the monster, directing its every move.) No other player can move that particular monster until the end of moving player’s next turn, when he flips that card over.

At the end of the game, Alvin & Dexter affect the scoring in two ways:

  • the player who has moved each monster the most gets 15 points (ties are friendly)
  • the two cities which are currently being rampaged are worth 50% less points (rounded down) for any player with a ticket that ends in those cities

In practice, we’ve found that the monsters affect the game without overwhelming it – in other words, they add some variety to the game without making it into a completely different game… and with a game I like as much as Ticket to Ride, I see that as a good thing.

Here’s some ideas for things you can use Alvin & Dexter to accomplish for you:

  • block access to a city that looks to be important to your opponent(s)
  • stop building in a city which you need until you can get the appropriate tickets
  • position them for the endgame so that your opponent loses half the value of their high value tickets (this means that monsters should head for the East & West coast)
  • position them for the endgame so that the tickets you whiffed on only cost you half the points

So far, we’ve found that most of the monster movement occurs in the mid to late game… but I think that’s probably a function of the aggressiveness of the people you’re playing with. I’d be interested to see a game where players begin sending Alvin & Dexter out to kill & destroy earlier – thus really chewing into the number of available locomotives for actual track building.

As I’m not as big a fan of the more complex games in the series, we haven’t tried the monsters with those sets. I’m especially curious to see how Ferries (which require locomotive cards) will interact with Alvin & Dexter.

My only negative about the monsters is that their miniatures are a little tippy – I wish they’d had slightly larger bases. In the long run, however, that hasn’t proven to be a big deal in play.

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

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