At the beginning of the main game, players are dealt four train car cards as their playing hand. They are also dealt three "destination ticket" cards, each of which shows a pair of cities on the map. These become goals, representing two end-points which players are secretly attempting to connect.
The player must keep at least two of these destination cards and discard unwanted tickets to the bottom of the stack, if any.
Once kept, a destination ticket may not be discarded for the rest of game. Each player also selects a group of 45 colored train pieces with a matching scoring marker.
Each turn, players have 1 of 3 options to choose from. They may draw two railway car cards in various colours from the draw piles (with the restriction that drawing a wild Locomotive card face up forfeits drawing another card), or draw three additional destination ticket cards and keep at least one (replacing undesired tickets at the bottom of the stack), or play their collected railway car cards from their hand to claim routes on the board which is a map of the United States and southern Canada and place the corresponding number of train pieces from their store on the claimed route, thereby earning points. On his/her turn, a player may only do one of the options mentioned before. Doing more than one option per turn is not allowed.
The routes are of varying lengths (requiring varying numbers of matching coloured cards), and each discrete route marked on the board can be claimed by only a single player. Some cities are connected by two parallel routes that can each be claimed by a different player (unless the game is played by 3 or fewer players, in which case only one of the routes can be claimed). The same player may not claim both parallel routes between two adjacent cities. Longer routes are worth progressively more points than shorter routes, e.g., a route of length four is worth more than two routes of length two.
On his or her turn, a player can claim any route anywhere on the board that has not already been claimed, regardless of whether the route helps to complete his or her destination tickets. The routes score points by themselves, as mentioned above, but routes not connected to a player's destination do not help him or her in reaching the destination or completing his or her destination ticket.
The game ends when one player has exhausted or nearly exhausted his or her supply of coloured train pieces. When this occurs, every player then plays one additional turn, after which they each reveal their previously hidden destination tickets. Additional points are awarded for having successfully connected the destinations on the cards, whereas points are subtracted for any incomplete tickets. A ten-point bonus is awarded to the player who has the longest continuously connected set of routes, not including branches.
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