Tokaido: Competitive zen


European board games have a knack for turning even the most mundane tasks into a battleground. While American games often focus on more traditional fantasy and sci-fi fare, pitting players against each other in contests of galactic conquest or dungeon-crawling adventure, Eurogames have turned civil engineering and agriculture into blood sports.

Tokaido — from designer Antoine Bauza, whose 7 Wonders and Hanabi have made him something like the board game equivalent of a rock star — takes this style of non-confrontational confrontation to an extreme. In the game, players are travellers on Japan’s East Sea Road. As you walk from Edo to Kyoto, you stop off at scenic vistas, bathe in hot springs, collect souvenirs and encounter strangers before gathering at the inn to share a meal. Whoever has the most thoroughly pleasant time, wins.

At its heart, Tokaido is a game about managing victory points. Each type of activity gets you a certain number of points, and with most, repeating those activities makes them increasingly valuable. Seeing a part of a vista, for example, gets you a single point, while looking at the second part is worth two points, and so on. The twist is that the player furthest behind on the road is always the next to move, so if you speed ahead to finish a souvenir set, your rivals may be able to stop off at two or three different spaces before your next turn.

Thematically, this makes sense. The game is designed to reward taking your time along the way, enjoying as wide a variety of experiences as you can before reaching your destination. Focus too closely on a particular goal and you’ll put yourself at a disadvantage; take the journey as it comes and you’ll find a wealth of opportunities.

Because of this Zen approach to game play, where nearly every choice provides a roughly equivalent benefit, Tokaido isn’t a particularly deep game; nor is it overly cutthroat if you’re playing with more than two people. It is quite pretty, though, which is fitting when the theme is indulgence in aesthetic experiences. The artwork is simple but striking, with a minimalism that suits the ancient Japanese setting, and the upcoming collector’s edition, which raised nearly $700,000 on Kickstarter, looks downright gorgeous.

That focus on appearance over strategic depth makes Tokaido excellent for casual gaming, but less ideal for more experienced groups. It’s rare to find a five-player game that can be completed in under half an hour, and the simple rules mean there’s very little here to intimidate the board-game-averse. Think of it the same way you would think of the actual journey — it’s much more enjoyable to treat it as an experience to be had, rather than a puzzle to be solved.

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