tabletop

Top Of The Table – Tokaido

by Matt Miller on Nov 26, 2014 at 01:00 PM

Just in time for the holidays, we’ve got a look at a perfect board game to get you through the cold months ahead. From acclaimed board game designer, Antoine Bauza, Tokaido is a fascinating strategic board game for two to five players set in Japan several hundred years ago. Each player adopts the role of a vacationer traveling along the East Sea road, also called the Tokaido.

Along the way, players compete to have the most relaxing and enjoyable holiday trip that they can. Overlook beautiful vistas. Sit in hot springs. Buy souvenirs. Eat delicious meals. After traveling from Kyoto to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) the players count up points, and find out who had the most enviable vacation. 

I love Tokaido’s spare and beautiful aesthetic, the unusual strategies it encourages (all about taking your time, rather than rushing to the finish), and the brilliant non-violent themes that nonetheless remain competitive and challenging. Tokaido has been a staple at my gaming table for months now, and here’s why. 

Getting Started

Tokaido has a stunning and pared-back aesthetic, dominated by its bright white board and cards, and offset by the colorful images of Japanese travelers, tasty food, bright souvenirs, and rolling natural vistas. Artist Naiade has done a wonderful job of crafting a cohesive style. The oddly shaped board is long one way, and short up and down, depicting a linear road that connects the two great Japanese cities of the day, giving Tokaido a distinctive visual presentation on the table. 

Setup is surprisingly straightforward, with some clearly marked card decks and coins to lay out on the table. If this is your first time playing, expect to spend some time learning the various icons and imagery that appear on the board and cards, as most of the game’s information is communicated through those pictures rather than through text. 

Gameplay unfolds as players move from one end of the board to the other, stopping at regular intervals at inns for a pleasant meal and a night’s rest. Each player has a distinct character that suggests a strong strategy for success. For instance, the artist is in a good position to get points from stopping at beautiful panoramic views, while the old man has a better vacation if he takes the time to stop at various hot springs to rest his tired muscles.

The instruction booklet is thoughtfully configured and well written, and clear organization makes it easy to refer to in your early games as you learn what each space means and how to handle turns and actions.

[Next Page: The real life history of the Tokaido]

Theme and Story

The Tokaido is a real historical road that connected Edo and Kyoto, and the path has a long history of depiction in Japanese art and literature. The game Tokaido taps into this rich tradition, and borrows some of the thoughtful themes that the road inspired, rooted in Buddhist traditions of contemplation and peaceful living. 

The nature of the rules encourages players to take their time on their journey, but also to pay close attention to the movements of fellow players along the path. I’m a particular fan of the distinctions between the different travelers, and the emergent stories that arise as each character makes their way along the road. After playing the game with a number of player groups, I consistently found that players craft their own narratives about their characters, from the hungry little girl orphan getting free food at inns to the beautiful geisha charming her way to better souvenirs. 

I also love the element of choice that each unfolding game presents. It’s impossible to stop at every location along the road, so each player begins to craft a tale about their journeyer’s unique vacation and what they enjoy. There are many viable strategies to win the game, so each character’s story is memorable and different from those experienced by other players. 

For repeat players, I strongly recommend that you try a different character each time you play. Since each traveler’s abilities help to guide their own story, the game is more enjoyable when you try out a new character upon subsequent treks.

Gameplay

Tokaido has an elegant and simple gameplay loop. Players take turns moving their traveler along the road, stopping at farms to make some money, and villages to buy souvenirs. Alternately, players can stop at one of several panoramic views, like the oceans or mountains, to stop and observe nature. Hot springs offer a relaxing point boost, but players can also head to temples to make an honorable donation to the temple. There are even spaces on the board at which you draw a card to meet an interesting person on the road, such as a noble that might share some of their wealth, or a traveling merchant with wares to sell. 

No matter the stops along the way, every player is forced to stop and rest at inns along the path, where they choose a meal to purchase (if they have the money left over) and wait for the other travelers. In an interesting twist, the player who is furthest back on the road always goes next, even if they just took a turn, so one player might jump ahead to the inn very early, while another player may still be taking multiple turns getting there.

The dynamic that emerges is an unusual one. The players who take their time often end up getting to stop at the most spaces, but since each location only allows for one or two travelers to stop, you can be barred from stopping where you want. Do you rush ahead to get to that desired panoramic view, and get the best meal selection at the inn? Or do you move slowly, knowing that your choices might be limited further down the road?

Strategically, the game comes down to finding a few areas to specialize in, but without diversifying so much that your vacation is totally random and unfocused. It’s amusing as the game concludes to find out which player was the cleanest and most bathed, who had the best meals, and who gets the chatterbox award for having the most interesting encounters and conversations with folks along the way.

[Next Page: Is the expansion worth a purchase?]

Complexity

The biggest hurdle to learning Tokaido is the preponderance of visual icons and learning their meaning. It’s helpful if one player (probably the game’s owner) takes the time prior to introducing the game to their gaming group to examine the cards and spaces to learn the purpose of each. Tokaido is significantly more engaging and fun if you’re not looking at the manual every time someone moves their traveler token. 

The rules for souvenirs are particularly worth examining, as the scoring system around their collection is often confusing to first-time players. Take some time before the first game to show off an example of how this mechanic works to the group. 

In addition, the purchase and acquisition of meals at inns can make or break a player’s strategy. If you don’t want the game to unfairly slant towards players already familiar with Tokaido, take the time to impart the importance of saving money for meals at the inns, and why getting to the inn first is sometimes important, especially later in the game, since you can only eat the same meal once during your vacation. 

What else do I need to know?

An excellent expansion called Crossroads is available that dramatically expands the choices players have along their journey. As a result, it’s a fantastic way to extend the life of the game and encourage repeat play sessions, but it might not be a great choice to introduce the expansion to a brand new group. With Crossroads, each space on the board has two different options. For instance, instead of getting a standard coin payout at farms, players can instead gamble in the gaming room, at a greater risk for loss but also a greater chance for big money returns. For gaming groups who particularly enjoy Tokaido, I strongly recommend adding Crossroads into the mix, as it makes the strategic choices along the way much more complex. 

Tokaido is likely available at your local hobby and games store, or they’ll be able to order you a copy within a matter of a few days. If you prefer to shop online, you can check out online retailers like CoolStuffInc and Amazon.  

Tokaido is a gorgeous game with several innovative mechanics. While its strategic choices might not be as involved or complex as some larger and more component-driven games, its ease of play and cleverly integrated themes make it an ideal choice for a broad variety of gaming groups, from families to longtime gamers looking for some lighter fare. 

Looking for some more great tabletop games to play? You can peruse my choices for the Top Tabletop Games of 2013 and Top Tabletop Games of 2012. Or, you can read more extensive write-ups on titles like AscensionTannhauserCastle RavenloftYomiStar Trek: Fleet CaptainsAgents of SMERSHA Touch of EvilMage WarsThe Adventurers: Pyramid of HorusDixitStar Wars: Edge of the EmpireLords of WaterdeepPathfinder Adventure Card GameEldritch Horror,  Robinson CrusoeTakenoko, or Firefly.