Ben McJunkin: First Impressions – Tokaido

Designer: Antoine Bauza
Publisher: Funforge
Players: 2-5  |  Ages: 8+  |  Time: 45 minutes

In recent years, Antoine Bauza has made a name for himself in the board game industry with clean, accessible designs that contain just enough tactical and strategic decisionmaking to hook more serious gamers.  These accomplishments should not be taken lightly: like the rare children’s movie that manages to keep paying parents legitimately entertained, there is considerable artistry in speaking to diverse audiences through a single voice.

Bauza’s latest design to attempt just that is the zen-like Tokaido, from the up-and-coming French publisher Funforge.  Tokaido attempts to send players on a journey along ancient Japan’s scenic East Sea Road from Kyoto to Edo (modern-day Tokyo).  However, as any true fan of Emerson (or Alicia Silverstone) will tell you, life is a journey, not a destination.  Holding true to that wisdom, Tokaido eschews any sense of race-like competition to reach the capital and instead rewards the player whose travels produced the richest personal experience.  Players get points for sampling the local cuisine, purchasing souvenirs, relaxing in hot springs, and simply marveling at the beautiful countryside that extends before them.

The game’s theme is marvelously conveyed through the illustrations of Xavier Gueniffey Durin and, more generally, the detailed eyes of the entire Funforge production team.  Despite the richness and radiance of Durin’s art, the game smartly sidesteps the gaudy and overworked aesthetics too often seen in modern games.  Instead, Tokaido relies extensively on negative space, and small, clear (but did I mention small) illustrations to produce a soothing backdrop to the players’ thematic travels.  Even eschewing primary player colors, the game employs pastel tokens that smartly compliment that the art.

Lighter than Bauza’s previous offerings, Tokaido nevertheless stays true to his largely non-confrontational style.  Beginning in Edo, players take turns effectively drafting their preferred stops on the road to Kyoto.  Employing a mechanism vaguely reminiscent of 2004’s Neuland (a mechanism far-too-often credited to the much lighter and less-interesting Thebes, which was released the same year), the active player is always the player who is furthest behind on the journey.  As this generally rewards the laggard, Tokaido offers competing incentives for players to occasionally race ahead.  The game, then, exists in correctly evaluating when and how reaching a particular encounter is worth the loss of additional stops.  Though subtle, I find this evaluative process both fascinating and enjoyable, notwithstanding my well-known preference for needlessly complex, angst-inducing gamer’s games.

(On the road to Edo)

To me, the most noteworthy element of Tokaido is how Bauza manages to employ distinct, and mildly interactive subgames at each stop along the path in order to achieve his design intention: reward players for a full, rather than quick, journey without simply handing the win to the player who stops most frequently.

Aside from Farms, which simply provide a player who stops there with a small influx of cash, each of the potential stops on the road offer opportunities for both immediate and end of game points.

  • Villages – Villages allow players who stop there to purchase up to three randomly drawn souvenir cards.  Souvenirs come in one of four types – trinkets, clothing, art, or food and drinks -and, expectedly, the game rewards diversity handsomely.  In terms of victory points, Villages are some of the strongest spaces on the board (potentially averaging out to 12 VP per stop).  Additionally, the player with the most souvenirs at the end of the game earns an additional three points.  Each souvenir costs money, however, so players must typically spend previous actions visiting VP-barren Farms to position themselves for profitable shopping sprees.
  • Panoramas – The board contains three different panorama spaces which allow players to stop and admire the Seas, Mountains, or Paddies.  Each stop at a given type of panorama earns the player one more victory point than the player’s previous stop at the same type of panorama, naturally incentivizing players to repeatedly enjoy the same types of scenery over the course of their journey.  However, the game also rewards the first player to visit a given type of panorama a given number of times (3, 4, or 5, depending on type) so players would do well to commit early to a given type.
  • Temples – When visiting temples, players may donate money for victory points.  While the initial rewards are small, the players are rewarded at the end of the game for their relative contributions to the temples (with 10 points going to the largest donor).  As with Panoramas, a lack of competition can make Temples extremely strong, whereas a multi-player fight for those endgame points can undermine their utility.
  • Hot Springs – Despite (or perhaps because of) being one of the least interesting stops on the journey, hot springs are my personal favorite.  Each stop at a hot spring gives players either two or three victory points (determined randomly).  It is as simple as that.  The player who stops at the most hot springs over the course of the game is designated “the Bather” and receives an additional three points.
  • Encounters – As one is wont to do on any lengthy journey, players occasionally run into random passersby who, despite their outward appearance, can prove to bevery rewarding.  Encounters are just that: players reveal one random personality and take the rewards, which vaguely mirror the other spaces I’ve already described.  In additional to increasing the possibility for good fortune, the Chatterbox – the player with the most encounters – earns three victory points at the game’s end.
  • Inns – Inns are the only mandatory stop on the journey.  At designated intervals, all players must stop at an in and enjoy a well-earned meal.  The first player to arrive has his pick of available meal cards (each worth six VP, but of varying costs).  Later travelers are simply stuck with what is left, if they can afford a meal at all.  To further discourage dallying near Inns, the game requires that no player can purchase the exact same meal twice, so even players who are well-stocked financially can find themselves going hungry.  As with so many other spaces, the player who purchases the most expensive set of meals throughout the game earns an additional three points.

(Purple encounters a samurai)

Prior to playing, I had heard reports from players who considered Tokaido “decisionless,” as each stop results in some small purse of points (a little under 2.5, on average).  Having now played twice, I am left scratching my head at these comments.  As you can see, while each stop is beneficial in its own right, maximizing one’s relative points requires carefully balancing stop frequency and stop location.  To add to that equation, each player also begins the game with a Traveler tile, giving the player a special bonus associated with a particular type of location.  For example in one game I may be Satsuki, the orphan, who receives random meals at Inns for free.  In another, perhaps I am Umegae, the street entertainer, who earns coins and victory points for each random encounter in which she participates.

While the game is unquestionably light, Tokaido is certainly more than just a family game.  For me, it is a pleasing 45-minute “appetizer” game between three-hour-long main courses full of swearing and screwage and brain bun.  It appeals to the same members of my game group that enjoy both 7 Wonders and Kingdom Builder.  The simple rules and subtle, but present, interaction permit players to simultaneously feel comfortable with their own achievements and yet engaged with their competitors.

I have now played the game twice, once with five players and once with three.  Although the three-player game resulted in more obvious blocking opportunities (due to a well-done scaling mechanism that restricts available spaces), I preferred the five player game.  With five, I found the risk/reward considerations associated with jumping ahead to be more fascinating, since as many as eight turns could theoretically pass between your moves (the game is quick and engaging enough for that not to qualify as downtime).   Also worth noting is that the same player won both games by a healthy margin, while not obviously employing the same strategy.  It is clear that the game rewards skilled play, despite the obvious and considerable luck element.

(Having reached Edo, players receive their final awards)

While my personal preference continues to be for both complex and confrontational games, there is a place for games like Tokaido on my shelf.  Shorter than other light, social games like Bohnanza, and easier to teach (and frankly more enjoyable) than the ever-popular 7 Wonders, I’m pleased to say that my official Opinionated Gamers stance is “I like it.”  Though it will never be a favorite, I am impressed by how artfully it is crafted, and how well it accomplishes what it set out to do.

[A review copy of this game was provided by Passport Game Studios]

Comments from other Opinionated Gamers:

Jonathan F.: I enjoyed the peaceful play of my first game of Tokaido.  It is so beautiful and has a variety of ways to score, but by the third game, I was not finding new space to consider.  I would be happy to play it if someone wanted to, but would probably not suggest it.  I tried playing a blocking game once and it totally backfired, but it might work in other situations.

Lorna: 1 play only. I like the art design. The game is probably a little on the light side for me and feels a bit longish for a filler, or maybe a game with that big of a board just doesn’t fall into the filler category in my brain. Probably good for the completely non-confrontational gamer though, as you just touring along the beautiful countryside.

Tom Rosen:  Tokaido is definitely not for me.  I’ve played it twice and am pretty certain it was designed for some other board game audience out there.  It’s a shame because Bauza’s Ghost Stories was easily my 2008 game of the year, but I guess you can’t win ‘em all.  Whereas the rich complexity of decision-making in Ghost Stories makes it an eminently replayable game (which I’ve enjoyed over 50 times), Tokaido is a light, random game that I have a lot of trouble feeling invested in.  I actually don’t have strong negative feelings about it really, it’s I just that don’t have any real feelings because my two plays failed to inspire any amount of actual caring.  As Ben mentions, every “decision” earns every player about 2.5 points.  Sometimes you draw a random 3 point card, other times you draw a random 2 point card, and the game is ultimately decided by a few points.  I suppose it’s a fine way to kill time if that’s what you’re looking to do.

Luke Hedgren: I really, really wanted to like Tokaido. Preordered, and got a copy picked up for me and shipped back from Essen. I had read the rules ahead of time, and the art, presentation, and aesthetic definitely appealed to me. I knew it wasn’t going to be Ghost Stories-level depth, but I had high hopes for something akin to Africa, Indus or Verflixxt! where many tactical decisions, while influenced by luck, add up to a skill-rewarding whole. Even after my first few plays, I was defending the game to it detractors. Then, I tried an experiment. I played 3 games against 3 “robot” players who never skipped any spaces, and made reasonable decisions otherwise. I played normally, skipping spaces where I thought reasonable. The no-skips did not, even where it made no sense for them. I came in third, twice, and then tied for a win. So, my conclusion was one of the following was true:

  1. I was no good at the game (a very real possibility, I suppose, and one that I am not totally discounting, even though I had a couple wins in “real life”.)
  2. That skipping spaces is a very bad strategy, as so many points are lost in the process. If true, well over half of the game decisions are lost.
  3. The game is basically just inherently random.
  4. Small sample size.

Regardless, I traded the game away. I don’t hate it, but I concluded that it didn’t have enough there for me to keep it.

Ratings of the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it!
I like it.  Ben McJunkin
Neutral…  Jonathan F.,  Lorna, Luke Hedgren, John P.
Not for me…  Tom Rosen

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4 Responses to Ben McJunkin: First Impressions – Tokaido

  1. jeffinberlin says:

    I think the mechanism from this game most reminds me of Knizia’s Tutankhamun from 1993, as each space on the time track rewards something particular. In Thebes and Neuland, the track is just keeping track of the actions you are taking on the board, and it doesn’t matter which space you move to–only how many.
    In fact, it was when writing about Tutankhamun for our “Games to Play Before You Die” series that I realized it was actually the game that pioneered the time track mechanism.

    • Ben (chally) says:

      Excellent bit of trivia, Jeff. I used the term “vaguely reminiscent” because I agree that Tokaido doesn’t employ the same the mechanism (effectively, Neuland and Thebes are just action-point allowance games in which one’s allowance is per-game, rather than per-turn, with turn order tied to spending habits). However, I had seen enough other people reference Thebes when discussing Tokaido that it seemed the comparison could be illustrative. I’d like to check out Tutankhamun someday.

    • peer says:

      I agree, it seems to have been designed with Tutanchamun in mind with he main difference being that in Tutanchamun you only take pieces, while in Tokaido you have small “Subgames” as stops. FWIW: Tutanchamun is good only with three (or max. 4) players, beyond that its rarly good to jump ahead. That seems to be fixed in Tokaido

  2. qwertymartin says:

    I’m kinda relieved that Ben is a positive outlier here, because man I was unimpressed by this game. Lucas’s description of a no-skip bot outperforming a human is exactly the impression I was left with after 3 plays.

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