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Alexa can now beat you at two popular board games

Alternately, she can just help you set the games up and learn to play

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Ticket to Ride board game box Image: Days of Wonder via Amazon
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant can now play two popular board games, Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride Europe. These aren’t simply digital ports of the modern classics; you’ll actually need physical copies of the games in order to play. However, while it’s a great way to quickly learn or re-learn the rules, I’m not sure I’ll be inviting Alexa back to the table as a participant any time soon.

The Alexa skill is available for free on any enabled device. I ran a demo on both an older Echo Dot and a brand new Echo Show, which was provided by Asmodee’s Days of Wonder imprint along with a copy of Ticket to Ride. The skill itself is available for free. All I had to do was say “Alexa, launch Ticket to Ride” to get started.

As a free add-on, the skill has tremendous value in familiarizing players with the basics. Alexa is fairly helpful in unboxing and setting things up. It’s also pretty good at going over the basics of a turn. I’d rather have her running a tutorial, frankly, than be forced to watch an awkward, pre-recorded video on YouTube. But, things begin to break down when Alexa takes on the role of one of the opposing players. It’s especially frustrating playing one-on-one against her as the AI.

There’s two reasons for that frustration. First, having Alexa as another player changes some of the subtleties of the game. Destination Ticket cards, for instance, are supposed to be kept secret from other players. That allows for bluffing and more competitive play. But when Alexa draws her Destination cards you have to read them out loud to her, so you have at least an idea of where she might be headed.

Even more frustrating, Alexa never actually draws from the other deck of cards, called the Train Car deck. That tends to slow the pace at which new cards, and therefore new strategic options, enter the game.

It also means that Alexa has different odds of drawing certain cards than the other players at the table. While human players are limited by how many cards are left in the physical stack on the table, Alexa has no such limitations. The end result is a game that tends to be less exciting, and slightly less fair, than one played without a virtual assistant.

Of course, there’s the usual rigmarole of trying to get Alexa to understand you. I had to repeat myself many times throughout my playtest. Also, there’s no pause button, so if you walk away for any period of time you’ll have to turn the volume down or endure Alexa repeating herself every minute or so like an automated phone system.

The Echo Show 5, from Amazon, features a small touch-sensitive screen. It reacts visually to play, showing when Alexa draws cards from her virtual deck, but offers no physical inputs of any kind.
Image: Amazon

At the end of the day, this new Alexa skill is a promising new development. I’d love for Amazon’s virtual assistant to be able to help me set up more complex board games or help move me through rounds of play. It would also be handy to help search a game manual for obscure rules. But Amazon’s virtual assistant is no match for another human opponent, and that’s unlikely to change until it has its own set of high-functioning eyeballs or custom-made game components that it can identify some other way.

You can find Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride Europe at your friendly local game store, on Amazon, and at both Target and Walmart stores nationwide.

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