Ticket to ride winning strategies – weekend engineering works

This week’s Weekend Engineering Works post is about Ticket to Ride winning strategies. The game involves racing against other players to build a network of railway lines across different counties and continents. What I find exciting about the game is the recreation of an age of bold and adventurous engineering: the railway era. I particular enjoy building routes that I have travelled down in real life. But what I enjoy most is dreaming up winning strategies, and then testing them out.

In this post I describe my few of my more successful Ticket to Ride wining strategies. Alongside, as you might expect from this blog, I’ve also provided some wider musings on their philosophical implications.

Hold back + dump track

In Ticket to Ride, the winner is the person who has the most points. Points are awarded for building track and also for connecting the cities on your destination cards. But points are taken away from any incomplete routes. The game is over when one person runs out of track.

This strategy involves forcing the game to end early (before opponents have had the chance to build their routes) and so forcing them to take penalties for incomplete routes. Think of it as a surprise attack.

For it to work, you need to make sure you can easily complete your routes, so choose destinations at the start that are easy to connect. It doesn’t matter that you won’t score many points for these routes. Your aim is not to gain lots of points: your aim is to build as quickly as possible in order to force a surprise ending before the opponents are ready.

When the game starts, just collect as many track cards as possible. I usually wait until I have a good 35 in my hand. I can then use my collection of cards to build long routes of any colour, thereby quickly diminishing my stock of track. Just remember to get the two short routes you have selected completed, otherwise you too will get negative points.

This strategy is fairly reliable if you are playing with a group of relatively inexperienced players. It is quite fun having the freedom to build with a wide stock of cards. The element of surprise is also enjoyable.

Your friends won’t thank you for it and it won’t work a second time. But… I’ve been reasonably successful beating computer bots with this technique.

Wider philosophical implications

Hold back and dump track is a reminder to look at what the parameters of a situation are. It’s a reminder that you can be successful by adopting a different strategy to everyone else.

Go perpendicular to everyone else

In Ticket to Ride the competition becomes intense where everyone is competing to get to the same destination. But I often observe that while a fierce battle for railway supremacy drains the resources and attention of most of the players, there is someone else who is quietly getting on with building their own network unimpeded by competitors.

If everyone else is competing for New York to Los Angeles, build your routes up and down the Mississippi. If the heat is on in the Alps, build miles of glorious track unimpeded in the Siberian Steppe. This approach is gloriously freeing and it allows you to more freely evaluate risk.

Wider philosophical implications

Cycle when everyone else is in a traffic jam. Buy your Christmas cards in January. Avoid a race to the bottom and enjoy the view from richer pastures.

Deal with the world as it is

The name for the second of my Ticket to Ride winning strategies comes from my Problem-Based Learning collaborator Søren Willert. Instead of laying grand plans for how the world should be and waiting to build up the resources to build the vision, work with what you have in front of you. More specifically, instead of waiting lots of turns to save up to build the long routes, build short lengths of track with whatever track is available to you. With this technique you can very quickly build the core of your railway network, dominating the centre ground of the board while your opponents play the waiting game.

In practice, with this strategy, I start building right from the start, laying down track where I can, picking up pairs of colours as they emerge from the draw pile. It can have the effect of unsettling others and forcing them to abandon their waiting game and play earlier than they would like.

With this technique I pick up new destination cards reasonably often, finding that my relatively random network can easily be used to connect together multiple destinations.

Wider philosophical implications

I find this strategy draws on the spirit of the clown. Deal with the world as it is: work with what you have in front of you. It doesn’t matter what the grand plan is. You will find something along the way, and if you don’t you’ll learn something and probably enjoy yourself.

Build an octopus

The first time I watched top players compete online I was blown away by their scores. I used to be happy with a score over 100, achieved through completing two or three routes. But these players were achieving scores into the 300s and completing eight, nine, sometimes ten plus stations. How was this possible?

I had up until this point viewed taking on extra destinations as a risky business. After all, incomplete routes carry a penalty. The trick, I realised, is to build a network covering the most common nodes and then play a numbers game. The game is to pick up lots of new routes, some of which you will not be able to complete, but others you will have already covered in your network.

The first time I tried this technique, gone was my long curling line built to try to win points for longest route. Instead my network spread out like the arms of an octopus from a central hub. I beat the computer with a score well over 300 and 20 routes completed – I only failed to complete three routes!

Wider philosophical implications

Of all my Ticket to Ride winning strategies, I like the Octopus strategy the most, and not just because I like octopi. It says to me look at what you can achieve from a wide base with your arms out. If you stand with your arms open you are more ready to receive what the world give you.

It also feels a lot kinder than holding back and dumping track!

← Previous Post

Next Post →


  1. Nice, I really enjoyed it! It’s just left me thinking what if there are four octopuses on top of each other all with their arms out… a lot of knots I think.

    • Thanks Joe, it’s an interesting question. If you look at how different railway networks developed over time, particularly urban metro systems, you can see what happens when you do have multiple octopuses. For instance, the New York metro was developed by competing companies who weaved their lines around each other to compete for traffic. The consequence now is that places that apparently close on the ground are not connected underground because they were served by different ‘octopi’.

      The London Underground started its development on a similar trajectory, with different tentacles competing with each other in the same vicinities. However, there the London Transport Board was established to force a degree of co-operation between the operating companies and to facilitate, for example, connections between competing companies’ train lines.

      In France, the country was divided up into different regions and only one company was allowed to build train routes in each area. The rate of development was slower and less extensive than in the UK, but arguably there was less wastage, redundancy and necessity to build lines in inconvenient places just in order to find a route through (although the train line from Beziers to Clermont Ferrand, with it’s jaw dropping viaduc du Garabi is an exception to that rule).

      So your question of what happens with the multiple octopi is actually a question of market regulation – and probably the best in my view is competing octopi within a set of guiding rules that keep the railways serving the passengers’ interests.

      It is actually quite fun to try and introduce these market regulation rules into Ticket to Ride. For example deciding that one company won’t operate west of the Mississippi or south of the Mason Dixie line. Maybe we should try it next time?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.