Tokaido is perhaps the most British game I’ve ever played and that might be surprising given how every element oozes Japanese aesthetics. It is a gorgeous, sumptuous feast for the eyes that combines elegant minimalism with evocative art. The game focuses on maximising the spiritual satisfaction of a traveler following the eponymous Tokaido as part of a personal pilgrimage. The Tokaido was the most important of the five major highways that connected the Japanese capital of Edo to the outer provinces of the island. In Tokaido, we look to squeeze every last moment of joy out of a journey that takes us from one end of the road to the other. Along the way we’ll meet exotic travelers, sample local cuisine, and admire the gorgeous panoramas that stretch the length of the route. It is very clearly a game lovingly drawn from Japanese tradition. It’s also very, very British.
Tokaido is the third Antoine Bauza game that we’ve looked at here on Meeple Like Us. We liked Takenoko a lot. We hated Hanabi just as much. And now we encounter Tokaido which sits somewhere between those two extremes. See, for all the care and attention that’s been poured into this elegant box you can’t get away from the fact there isn’t much of a game here and that what game is to be found is primarily one of queueing. That’s why it’s comes across as a very British game despite having nothing to connect it to the British Isles. I just can’t imagine a country that is a better fit for such gamified passive-aggression.
Here’s how play in Tokaido works. Everyone starts off in Kyoto, at the left hand side of the board. Players receive two random traveller cards and pick the one that they like they most. Each has a different starting balance of coins and a special power that will influence the journey ahead of them. Some are especially good shoppers. Others are gregarious and outgoing and get the most out of social encounters. Others are lovers of natural beauty and can eke every last artistic insight out of the landscapes. The powers aren’t especially well balanced but in the end it doesn’t really matter very much. Everyone else is going to do their level best to stop you using them anyway.
From Kyoto, players will pick a space along the current leg of the journey and move their character there. Players will be enticed into stopping at villages to buy up souvenirs, each of which contribute to their final victory point tally. They might stop by natural hot springs, each visit to which contributes to the final victory point tally. Or you might have an encounter, which… yes, is going to contribute to your final victory point tally. You might stop to admire a particularly nice bit of scenery, and grab part of the panorama that’s going to… well, you know. Almost everything you do in Tokaido is going to get you points, you just need to make sure that they’re coming in the quantities that will earn you success in the final reckoning. It’s not enough to have a good journey – what matters is that you have the best journey. It is not enough that you win. Others must also lose. I think all of us that have a British background can get on board with this. After all that was the key moral message delivered by almost 30 years of grimly watching Wish You Were Here.
Here’s where the passive aggression comes in. In a two or three player game, only one person can take advantage of each stop. In a four or five player game some stops have extra spaces that can be utilised. If there are no spaces left though you can’t take advantage of the opportunity. The village is full, bugger off back where you came from. The traveler just had a conversation, and he or she is no longer interested in whatever gibbering chutney might spew out of your fetid face-hole. Want to have a wee look at the mountain? People will literally claw the eyes out of your head rather than let that happen. If you try to climb into this hot spring the locals will hold your head under the water until you go limp. Keep on walking, asshole. Just keep on walking.
The only place that this isn’t true is at the inns that separate each leg of the journey. Every player is obliged to stop in one of these before anyone can begin the next stage. When each player stops they will get an opportunity to purchase a tasty meal that is laden with nutrients and victory points. However, people get to pick from the set menu in the order of arrival, and the costs vary. If you dawdle along the Tokaido you might well find you can’t even afford the room-temperature fugu that was left for you by your fellow travellers.
But why would you dawdle? I mean, if Tokaido is a game where the winner claims all the spoils, it seems like the trick is to just run to the site that will give you maximum points and then stand there with your Katana drawn so nobody tries to mess with you. Why not just run right to the inn and grab the noodles before anyone sticks you with the tab? Or why not run to the space that you know someone else desperately wants just to cut them off from an opportunity? Why wouldn’t you do any of that?
Jeez, calm down. You’re getting excited. You’re getting flecks of spittle all over my nice game board. There’s a reason you don’t want to do that, and it’s a very good reason. See, you don’t go in ‘turn order’ in Tokaido. The next turn is taken by the player that is farthest back down the road. That is why you don’t want to run too far ahead – it’ll give everyone else the chance they need to cheerfully take their time and get the most out of their trip. No, you don’t want to race ahead here. You want to savour your experience. Or rather, you have no particular objection to savouring the experience if you can. Sometimes though you’ll just want to make sure you take a big dump in someone else’s noodles to stop them savouring their trip.
Let’s look at how that might work in practice. We’ll begin the game with the three characters shown above. Zen-emon is a merchant and he can buy a souvenir of his choice for one coin regardless of its face value. Some offerings might be as expensive as three, so that can be a nice ability to have if you can make village visits a regular part of your trip.
Kinko gets discounted meals at the inn – these cost one coin less for him than for anyone else. Meals that would cost a single coin are free – for a budget conscious traveller that can be a mercy. Otherwise you need to be constantly juggling the contents of your wallet against what you need now versus actually getting a hot dinner at the end of the day.
Umedge is my favourite – whenever she has an encounter on the road, she gains a victory point and a coin regardless of what ends up being drawn. Money in Tokaido is often too tight to mention, and being able to develop an income stream is important. There are some farm stops along the road where travellers can do a little itinerant labour for three coins but doing that costs you an opportunity that might otherwise have been golden. Farms are the only consistent source of money for most players, so blocking them even if you don’t need the cash can really put a dampner on their holiday spirits. There is nothing worse than walking into a village and finding nothing you can afford, or watching everyone else enjoy tasty sushi while you sit glowering away with an empty stomach.
Our three travellers begin in Kyoto, and then in order they take their first move choosing where to go on the board. Remember, this isn’t just about what you want to get out of the trip – it’s about what you want to stop other people getting out of the trip. You’re trying to incentivise everyone else to shuffle in front of you so you can maybe seize the day a little harder than you otherwise would. At least in theory.
Umedge leaps out to have an encounter, leaving the village and the temple free. In doing this she’s gotten to activate her special power, but also all but guaranteed that the other players will get to take two turns before she gets to take her next. It’s not just about what people do after you’ve moved – it what they’ll get to do by the time you get to move again.
Her encounter is with a friendly samurai – this is worth three victory points, plus the coin and point she gets from her special ability. Other encounters are more interesting, offering money or chances at the surrounding panoramas, or just free tat from the back of a wagon. Encounters are chosen randomly, but if you have no other way to get what you need it might just be the thing to put you back in the holiday spirit. It can be very nice to meet a noble that gives you a handful of coins just after some bastard stopped you getting the farm work you needed.
Kinko visits the temple and tithes some money – each coin is worth a victory point right away, and at the end the player that has tithed the most will get a massive ten point bonus. The second most generous player will get seven points, the third most generous four, and everyone else that donated gets two points. A visit to the temple, regardless of how miserly you plan to be, might well be worth it especially if you’ve cultivated a reputation for generosity.
Zen-emon sensibly grabs the village space, which lets him use his power, and also keeps him last on the track. That means he gets to take two moves back to back, which is a rare but welcome pleasure in Tokaido. The village vendors offers him a selection of three goods, and he buys them all for three coins as opposed to the four it would cost anyone else.
Souvenirs are scored in sets made of up instances of different categories. The sake and uchiwa form a two card set worth three points. The next card added to that set will get five, and the one after that seven. The yunomi forms a set of its own, worth an unimpressive one. However, as new cards are bought it’ll likely be the foundation of some real future value as they are eventually joined by other own-brand holiday memories.
Having done a bit of shopping, Zen-emon stops by the rice paddy to admire the view. Each panorama is made up of a set of cards in increasing value, and each successive stop gets you the next highest card in the set. The first person to complete the set gets an achievement card worth three further points. As you can imagine, later sections of the panorama are far more lucrative than earlier parts. Getting the fifth card of the sea landscape is worth five points in and of itself, adding to the ten points you would have gained already for the previous four. Appreciating the landscapes has a lot of merit in your trip along the Tokaido.
Eventually after a few more rounds of this, players shuffle into the inn and start picking their meals. Everyone has to reach the inn before anyone can move again, and the person that entered the inn last is also the first to leave it. Late to bed and early to rise. That gives a nice risk/reward aspect to ending the leg of the journey – do you want to arrive first and get your pick of the menu, or last and get the first option at what’s to be found next on your journey?
When everyone finally reaches Edo, a set of final achievement cards are awarded – the person that had the most encounters; the person that had the most varied palette; the person that bathed the most; and so on. Everyone then tallies up their final score and finds out who enjoyed their holiday and who just thought they did. What did you do on your holidays? If you had a good holiday, you made sure that you spoiled everyone else’s experience. The core motivation in a game of Tokaido is to behave like the spoiled brat that has decided if he can’t have ice-cream then everyone else is going to know all about it.
Tokaido, like Takenoko, is a game that strikes me as more of a meditative tool than a game in its usual sense. It’s not that it isn’t fun, because it is. Or, rather, it can be. It’s just that it’s a very passive game of being reactive rather than proactive. Things happen to you in Tokaido – you rarely happen to other things. You have an encounter, which results in someone happening to you. You arrive at a village, which results in some things being pushed in front of you. You lounge around in some hot springs. You look at the sea. You reflect. You don’t do, you be.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s just not particularly exciting or engaging. Really all you ever do in Tokaido is choose where something is going to happen, and then if you’re lucky pick between a few options that are presented to you. Most games have an energetic, frenetic web of branching options where the possibility space heaves and undulates like an angry ocean. Tokaido is more of series of abrupt branches that converge into a tiny handful of budding leaves. You can’t ever let yourself get too far ahead of the pack in Tokaido – the same thing that makes it a calming and meditative experience means that you can’t play very aggressively. You might prevent someone from getting a couple of points if you grab a space well ahead of them. If the cost of doing that was to deprive yourself of an opportunity or two you might well find it does more damage to you than it does to your opponent. Especially if they get to calmly stroll in your backtrail for a while picking up the chances you bypassed. Two sub-optimal opportunities can easily be worth more than one optimal one. As such, while it seems like there are real decisions in play in the end they all tend to become ‘just take the next free spot because that maximises the number of opportunities you’ll get’. That’s not always true, mind – occasionally there is a perfect confluence events that arises to justifies the risk of racing ahead. This happens sufficiently rarely though to make many games proceed in a way that can be accurately predicted by simple algorithmic analysis.
Shut Up and Sit Down recently posted a video regarding the history of British board-games, primarily those that were of moral instruction. It’s well worth watching, and I think it has something of value to add to a discussion of Tokaido. I don’t think Tokaido works very well as a game, but I think it does have some merit in this space. It feels like a game where the value comes in reflecting upon the experience rather than having fun in its strictest sense.
But again, I don’t think the game really succeeds in that arena either even if success comes a little bit closer. We were positive about Takenoko because while it is an unsatisfying game on a strategic level, it encourages a kind of meditative mindset that focuses on what you can do now rather than what you’d like to do in the future. The game itself lives or dies on your ability to react to events with the limited tools you have available – if you can’t do that, it’s intensely infuriating. Tokaido isn’t a frustrating game but the meditative experience it might offer is peculiarly shallow. There are five kinds of encounters you might have. Hot springs give you two or three victory points. There are lots of different kinds of souvenirs but they’re all just entries in a set. It’s all perfectly nice, but there isn’t enough of it to create an opportunity for meaningful reflection on experience. Games like Tales of the Arabian Nights show just how much content a game has to have in order for the novelty of the experience itself to overcome the mechanical shortcomings.
You’ll get quite a lot out of your first trip along the Tokaido. Much like you would in real life you’ll drink in what is a distinctively unique experience. There are few games quite like Tokaido. You’ll admire the views. You’ll go ‘ooo’ over the elegance of the game rules and the simplicity of the game systems. You’ll arrive at Edo and think ‘That was really nice, I’d really like to do that again’
And so you’ll find an opportunity to walk this route once more. You’ll see some things you didn’t see last time. You’ll experience some different sights. You’ll meet a noble on the road that throws coins dismissively into your begging bowl. You’ll eat some different food. And you’ll arrive at Edo and think ‘well, that was okay. I probably wouldn’t say no if someone wanted to do that again’
Play it again and you’ll likely realise that you’ve been suckered in to what is basically a gamified commute with all the attendant lack of joy or variety. You’re not exploring Japan. You’re stumbling bleary eyed into the car at seven in the morning to pass the same cars on the same road on the same way to the same place as before. The Tokaido was undoubtedly a beautiful, evocative route through the heart of Japan. I bet the real thing lost its lustre too when you were a daimyo that had to travel it forwards or back every single year. That’s Tokaido then – a soulless commute broken up by intermittent queuing at shops that don’t have the things that you want to buy. It may as well be called United Kingdom: The Board Game. I like that I own this – I think every game group should have access to it. I just don’t think it’s easy to convince any individual person it belongs on their particular shelves.
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