Board games are fundamentally things of imagination—buts of paper, plastic, and wood that, with rare exception, are meant to represent other things. You could run a farm or a space ship, or do anything the designer has in mind. As much as I love board games and the themes and genres common to them, it’s always refreshing when a game comes along that does something different.
Enter Tokaido. Fancy traveling in feudal Japan?
Players take on the roles of travelers along the Tokaido, a road stretching between Kyoto and Edo (known today as Tokyo). The goal isn’t just to get there, nor is it to get there first—you can’t fail to arrive, and this isn’t a race. Your goal is to have the most enriching journey along the way.
Like the eponymous route, there are fifty-three stops along the way, and each one presents the players with one of several possibilities. You might buy some souvenirs, admire a vista, or relax at a hot spring—basically, you’re trying to enjoy your vacation. It’s essentially a cruise by foot.
Nearly every spot on the board will earn you points immediately, and those that don’t will instead get you coins to help you earn points in the future. The variety comes from the fact that these spots launch you into one of several mini-games. Souvenirs are worth more as you complete sets. Each installment of a panorama is worth more than the last. You might rest at a hot spring, which… actually it just gets you two or three points. Okay, so they’re not all particularly compelling, but it does add variety and give you enough grip on the game to actually make meaningful decisions.
Instead of a regular order for the players to take their turns, it always goes to the player furthest behind along the Tokaido. That player gets to advance their token to any spot further along, up to and including the next inn. If that player is still in last place, he or she gets to go again, and if not, play passes to whomever is now the furthest behind.
What makes this competitive is that once a spot is claimed, no one else can put their token on it. The characters must all meet together at each inn before moving on to the next part of the board, but between those inns, they’re all rather unsociable.
So, while the game is elegant, it’s also dynamic. Turns pass between the players irregularly, but not randomly, and your remaining options will constantly change depending on what the other players are doing. You can rise above the the chaos by skipping far ahead on the board, but that would let the other players make more frequent stops as they catch up to you. Maybe finishing your painting of that vista will net you a lot of points, but that will let someone else visit a temple and have a lovely chat with a noble they met along the way.
It’s worth mentioning that, while the game is competitive and interactive, it’s not particularly vicious. You can block players from taking the spots best for them, but that just leaves them with several other options that are merely good. There aren’t any complicated strategies, just more or less optimal paths. People looking for a more competitive experience will probably think that the game is lacking teeth—but, really, it’s relaxing by design.
Even if there’s only one winner, everyone else will at least feel as though they’ve had a partial victory. Each spot on the board is essentially a button you press for a little instant gratification by way of scoring points or taking money, with milestones along the way. There are several rewards given out at the end of the game to whomever excelled in different ways—finishing one of the landscapes first, chatting up the most strangers, buying the most souvenirs, spending the most on food, or for most resembling a prune after spending so much time in hot springs. There are tiered rewards for most donations at the temple, too. Odds are no one player can claim all of these, so even if you don’t win the game, you still feel like you won some of it.
In some ways, it’s like a less maddening, more relaxing, board game version of Mario Party.
The rules provide a laid-back experience, but it should be just as obvious by the way the game looks. It’s absolutely gorgeous. The board is clean and elegant, the cards have charming illustrations, and even the box just looks striking on a shelf. Every level of the design is treated with care.
The worst thing to be said about Tokaido is that it’s a really nice game… and that’s about it. Games are ultimately designed to create a reaction in the players, and while other games can get you laughing, or feeling excited, or engaged in figuring out the best moves to make, Tokaido doesn’t really have any peaks or valleys. You travel along at an even keel.
For some players, that just means the game is lacking. If you want something very competitive or evocative, you’re not going to find it in Tokaido—but, maybe that’s okay. I don’t think that’s a failure of design. A friend of mine forgot the name of the game, and just called it “the relaxing game,” and I immediately knew he was talking about Tokaido.
I’m tempted to recommend Tokaido universally just because it’s so charming. It’s a fantastic introduction to board games—the theme is appealing, and it’s very accessible. If that’s enough for you, have at it, it will look great on your shelf. That said, this isn’t a game that demands attention. When you get done playing it, it won’t leave you wanting to play it again. It’s a palate cleanser, not a main course—it’s a sorbet.
Think of it this way—the game is about a journey, but it’s a vacation, not an adventure. I’m sure an adventure will be more exciting and memorable, but if you’d rather something more soothing every now and then, Tokaido is a lovely way to spend your holiday.
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