A few weeks ago I was listening to one of my favorite board gaming podcasts. A topic they had discussed was how you approach playing a game; do you approach a game for the experience or to win? Does it depend on the game? It was certainly an interesting topic and I recommend listening to it. This month’s game, Tokaido, is one that I would say is more for the experience though competitive minds may disagree.
The game Tokaido, designed by Antoine Bauza, is a game for 2-5 players where players act as travelers on the ancient Tokaido trail from Kyoto to Edo(which is Tokyo today). Along the way players will be able to meet other travelers, pay tribute to the various shrines, and take a relaxing bath in the mountain hot springs. These are just a few of the experiences each traveler can take before they make it to one of the inns, a series of checkpoints where each traveler must stop and wait for the rest of the pack while resting their tired joints and sampling some local cuisine. At the end of this long journey the travelers will eventually reach Edo and the player who has had the most rewarding experience (which is tracked in victory points) is declared the winner.
I have to say first and foremost that I absolutely love this game. The art, the style, and the theme all come together and despite a minimalist approach to the art, create a very fun gameplay experience rich with theme. I’ll admit that I’m a little bias (being a big fan of Japan and Japanese culture) but others who have played it with me who aren’t so married to the theme have enjoyed the game as well.
To start, the board is simply beautiful. Mostly white, the board actually depicts the southeastern coastline of Japan and outlines the Tokaido trail. Along the thin line that represents the trail are the various stops travelers can frequent before reaching one of the inns. The stops deviate from the trail in vertical lines, making the board look reminiscent of Japanese writing. Around the main section of the board are various spots for the decks of cards that are used in the game. Though the spots are color coded, the colors are represented in a gradient that fades back to the white, making the spots blend in rather well to the zen-like board.
But let’s talk about the game itself and less about the game board. After selecting who goes first the players arrange themselves at the first inn, with the first player farthest away from the road. Once all the pieces are set out the first player can choose to go anywhere. That’s right. The first player can go anywhere he or she chooses. The first player can go just one space forward and earn a few gold, or he can jump several spaces and go right for the hot springs he’s been dying to visit. He could technically go all the way to Edo at the end except for the three inns that appear along the way. Each inn acts as a checkpoint and each player must stop and wait for the rest to catch up. After the first player makes his move then the player farthest from the pack goes and so on and so forth. This leapfrog style of movement, and the free nature of choosing where you want to go, really lends itself to the theme. You want to take your time, absorb the scenery and if the other players are waiting at the inn and there are three spaces ahead of you (the shrine, the hot springs, and a small village) then you are free to go to each and every space. This is because the game looks at whoever is last in line and says that that player make go next and so on. Near the end of the game this can lead to some interesting choices as you may really want to jump ahead to the space you want/need but don’t want to allow another player all these free options.
At this point it might be best if I mention how the inns that appear in the game actually work. As mentioned above, each player must stop and wait at the inn before all the other players arrive. The first player who arrives draws cards from a deck of cuisine cards equal to the number of players plus 1. They can then pick one of the cuisines, pay its associated cost, and earn 6 points before passing the cards to the next arriving player. Each dish is worth 6 points despite their various prices and you can never eat the same food twice. This is a nice balance to any player who tends to lag behind as the later a player arrives at the inn, the less options they have from which to choose. However, the last player to the inn will also be the farthest from the road and therefore, will be the first to set out.
At the end of the game the final score is tallied. Along the way each player would have already scored points based off of who they met, what they ate, any paintings they attempted, and so forth. Once all players reach the end, the game awards cards to certain players as achievements (who met the most people, who ate the most food, etc) with each achievement being worth 3 bonus point. Once all the extra points are tallied then the winner is decided.
Once you are familiar with the game, which really only takes about 1 play, then you can add a little variety by adding the various unique travelers you can represent. Included in the game are several different characters ranging from a hermit to a merchant and even a geisha. Each character adds something different to the game in terms of rule bending and will often help guide a player in a certain direction in regards to strategy. For instance, Hiroshige (seen left) paints every time he eats at an inn. This allows a player a little more freedom, being less reliant on the painting spaces on the board, but can also cause the player to be more focused and grab paintings as quick as possible to earn the various points and bonus points for doing so. To add another layer of variability each character starts with their own differing amount of coins. Hiroshige for instance starts at 3 coins while Zen-Emon, the merchant, starts with 6.
Of course I believe this game really isn’t about winning but the experience. After all the very point of the game is to have the most rewarding experience possible. Just because your experience may or may not be the best in accordance to the game mechanics doesn’t mean it was any less enjoyable as a person playing the game and compared to the others at the table. There was one game where I was Satsuki, The Orphan girl. My ability allowed me to draw a card from the cuisine deck and take it for free. The catch was that I still had to follow the rule in regards to duplicates and if it was something I had already eaten I would have to pass it up and pick like a normal person. I was on the last leg of the journey with no coins left to my name. I had already eaten quite a few different dishes and so my chances of pulling something off the top of the deck that I hadn’t already sampled seemed rather slim. In the end I lucked out and earned my 6 points. Needless to say it was a tense but very fun moment for me. I still lost the game in the end but had plenty of fun in the adventure.
Tokaido can be a competitive game as players can block others off from desirable spaces. It really depends on the people who are with you around the table. As a strictly competitive game I could see the game getting stale over several plays but if you and your group can immerse yourselves in the journey this game is trying to portray then you are going to have one heck of a time playing Tokaido.
-The Secondhand Took