Lots of games try to be Ticket to Ride Plus—to take that classic game’s simple, elegant concept and spin it out into a bigger or longer or meatier game. Skull Canyon: Ski Fest does a better job than most at this, while offering enough twists to become a different game at heart—one with a little more complexity, some of which works and some of which doesn’t, but that still scratches that same core itch that Ticket to Ride and its many descendants do. Also, there’s a Yeti.
Skull Canyon: Ski Fest has two core parts to its gameplay. In the day phases players try to complete routes down the mountain, going down trails of different difficulty levels, gaining points and some bonuses by doing so. You make your way down a trail through set collection with your cards, similar to the mechanic in Ticket to Ride, and then score points based on how long the route was. If you happen to finish the day at the bottom of the mountain, you get a bonus. In between days, the Night phase covers “apres-ski” activities, where you buy gear cards that give you additional powers during the day, or gain trail cards or fame tokens. After three Days and two Nights, the game ends, with a whole slew of game-end bonuses available based on how many trails of each type you finished relative to your competitors.
The board has two different sides based on player count, one for two-player games and one for three- or four-player games. At the start of each game, you’ll set the weather for Day 1 to sunny, and then choose two random markers (sunny, icy, or snowy) for Days 2 and 3. 10 of the trails get Style bonus markers which players can claim when they complete those trails. They then each start with a hand of seven Slope cards, the type players must collect in sets to be able to fill in trails on the board. The Yeti starts in the cave, but only because he has a toothache. He’ll be along shortly.
During the Day phases, players can collect Slope cards, ride a lift up the mountain, or play a set of Slope cards to ski a run. The Slope card collection mechanic is almost exactly like that of Ticket to Ride, except you can match the run’s color or style to move your skier down the trail, so it’s easier to complete a set—you avoid the Ticket to Ride issue where you’re drawing cards for twenty-seven consecutive turns to try to draw one more blue. There are yeti cards, which function as wilds, like Ticket to Ride’s locomotives. You also get two actions per turn in the Day phase, so you can use one action to take two Slope cards, and then a second to play a set from your hand. When you ski a run, you get victory points and fame points based on its difficulty. You also get to claim that run on the scoreboard: If no one has skied it so far, you claim it automatically, but if someone skied it already, you have to claim it with a set one card larger than the last person to do so before you can claim it. These matter for end-game scoring, so playing the extra card is usually the right move.
If you played a set with one Yeti (wild) card, you must move the Yeti to any run on the board (aside from two he can never occupy), thus blocking that trail until the Yeti moves again or a dentist arrives. If you played a set with two or more Yeti cards, however, you cause an avalanche, and all players slide down the next run below them on the mountain—a move you can use for strategic purposes, to reposition yourself or stop an opponent from skiing a valuable run.
Then you head to the lodge for après-ski, a term I confess I did not learn until my wife took me skiing in March of 2021, the first time I had done so in over 30 years. (I did not see a Yeti, but I assume he was on the black diamonds.) Below the trail map is a small map of the ski village with six stops on it, five of which limit how many players can go there at any given time, each of which gives you some kind of reward. The last space is the Hotel, where everyone’s night ends, with each player drawing new slope cards and, if they wish, spending fame tokens to buy one Gear card from the face-up options. These Gear cards are worth points at the end of the game, so buying is nearly always a good idea, and many have useful functions within the game, such as giving you one extra fame token for each run you complete or letting you draw an extra card when you take a Yeti card. Then you move your skiers back on to the mountain and start over again.
At the end of the game, you add the points you accumulated over the course of the game to the points on your gear cards, and then everyone scores from the run scoreboard. Claiming the most Easy runs gets you 9 points, the most Advanced runs gets 6, the most Expert runs gets 4, and the most overall runs across all difficulty levels also gets 4. You get one point for every 3 leftover Fame tokens, and that’s the game.
It’s Ticket to Ride Plus, on skis, with a Yeti. The core mechanic is familiar, made a bit easier (you have two ways to build sets) and also more complicated (you get two actions per turn). The après-ski stuff gives you some opportunities to get dialed in so that days 2 and 3 are more productive, which can help you with the end-game scoring as well as make it easier to do longer runs. You don’t get to build up that much with just three Days, and while a fourth Day might have pushed the game time over an hour, I do think the game would benefit from the extra time on the hill. It’s a great step up in complexity from gateway games that brings the familiarity of a common mechanic to make it easier for new players to learn.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.