Game Review: TOKAIDO

tokaido box

Designer: Antoine Bauza
Graphic Artist: Naïade
Publisher: Fun Forge
Players: 2-5
Playing Time: about 45 minutes

Complexity: light/fun
Random Interference: medium
Components: A*
Aesthetics: A
Overall: A

(For general information on my ratings systems, CLICK HERE.)

Short Version:
It’s Candy Land for adults. But that’s not meant to be pejorative. Take it as a compliment. Players take on the role of Japanese travelers in the pre-modern era, walking the famous Tokaido Road that connects Tokyo to Edo. It’s a sight-seeing tour, and like Candy Land, the players follow a more-or-less linear path through a beautiful, pastel-colored land, trying to partake of all the whimsy it has to offer, but far and above Candy Land, the players of Tokaido are scoring points for their experiences and encounters, and they are quietly and politely sabotaging each other in order to squeak ahead into the lead.

Some Background Info You Probably Don’t Care About:
I discovered this game by accident. I was at Toys R Us, buying a Pokemón starter deck for my son, and of course it was required that I peruse the games section for anything new and exciting. As it happened, my wife and I were keeping our eyes and ears open for something totally new to play with one of gaming friends—who felt like she was always at a disadvantage when she played games my wife and I already knew. So I was on the lookout for something that was new to all three of us. I happened to see this on the bottom shelf, and I actually dismissed it at first. It seemed strange and different from the kinds of games I’d typically investigate, but then I was drawn back to it for the very same reason. The lovely thing about modernity is I can look at 50 Amazon reviews right there on the Toys R Us floor while my kids play with Marvel Rock’em Sock’em Robots. 20 minutes later, I was 40 dollars poorer, but geekishly wealthier.

tokaido board

The board and components in an active game.

Play Summary:
The game board is a singular path with stopping points along the way, each point representing one of several different types of stops: village, farm, scenic vista, hot spring, temple, inn, or an encounter with a stranger. Each stop-type has a small deck of cards associated with it, and the players “experiences and encounters” are represented by drawing from the corresponding decks. Different experiences and items collected earn points for the player, which accumulate over the course of the game, and once everybody has completed the journey, points are totaled, a few bonuses are awarded, and the winner is declared. It takes about 30-45 minutes, and the stress level is pretty low.

What Really Works for Me:
The mechanics of the game are unique. The player at the back of the line becomes the next player to act, and because it’s basically a collecting game, you are encouraged to move as slowly as possible through the course in order to accumulate as much as you can. In fact, if you race ahead of the other players, you’d simply be handing them extra points, as they will get multiple turns before you get your next one. However, it isn’t enough to simply take the next available space. A player’s position on the board blocks other players from moving onto that same position, forcing them to miss an opportunity they might have had, as they are compelled to move forward. Because of this, the tactical player watches what the other players are trying to collect and which stop-types they need to visit, in order to try and hinder them. This is all done in a very passive-aggressive sort of way, with everyone regularly apologizing and insisting, “I didn’t mean to block you, I just needed one of those, too.” It’s delightful.

Another very strong selling point is the artwork. It’s magnificent. The color palette is beautiful; the character design is whimsical; it’s a real treat just to look at it. And the team obviously put a lot of time into researching and respecting Japanese culture in this project, which makes it fun for a Japanophile (shinnichi) like me. I mean where else do you get to really annoy impress your friends and family with how well you can pronounce all those Japanese words?

What Doesn’t Work So Much for Me:
The random interference is a little high. In fact, it’s about at my personal limit. On the bright side, victory is relative, and everyone survives to the end of the game no matter what, usually with very little deviation between scores, so you don’t ever really feel like your whole game was ruined by poor shuffling. However, there are moments when you feel like you don’t really have any meaningful choices before you, and you’re just sort of mindlessly nudging your little meeple along the candy-colored trail. Opportunities to undercut the other players are somewhat scarce, and sometimes not all that detrimental to them. It’s definitely a conversational-level game, but then again, maybe that’s a strength for some.

tokaido board defect

Detail view of the board peeling away from the backing.

Final Remarks:
Just like the artwork, the components are high-quality: wooden meeples for the travelers; good, thick chipboard for the player cards and die-cut coins; high-grade glossy card decks (mini-size); mounted board. The * on my “components” rating is because the board I got was already peeling away from the mounting as soon as I pulled it out of the box (see picture). On one hand, this might be a defect unique to the particular box I bought, and maybe a side effect from sitting in Toys R Us’s inventory for too long, but then again, I worry if the manufacturing process won’t have that same result in a whole run of games. Other than that, I have no complaints about the game. It’s probably not going to be super interesting for your heavy-hitters, except as something to soak up time while you’re waiting for the others to arrive, but I enjoyed it and will play it again, probably often. It’s light fare and fun, playable with kids and/or with your more social gaming friends.

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