Board Game Night: Tokaido

Number of players: 2-5 (best: 4)
Playing time: 45 minutes
By: Antoine Bauza / Fun Forge
Rank on BoardGameGeek: 397th

I don't know how it happened, but a LOT of Japanese-themed games wound up in our shared collection, and then Tokaido just kind of made us want to get more (see House Rules for why). Tokaido, named after the road between what is now Tokyo and Kyoto, is a race, but the slowest, most leisurely race you're ever likely to take part in. In fact, it really isn't about the destination, but about the journey. Walk too quickly and you'll miss the point of life.

Gameplay
Each player receives a different character card that gives you certain abilities on the road - you might be a geisha who receives gifts, a ronin who pays less for his meals, a priest who stands to gain from stopping at the temple, etc. - which also determines the number of coins you start with. You then advance your meeple to different empty stops on the road, where you can do a number of point-giving activities - collecting sets of items at market, giving the temple donations, lounging in hot springs, painting landscapes, meeting interesting people, and eating good food, the latter done at obligatory inns where you spend the night and rest for the next leg of the journey. To push the idea of a leisurely stroll, the turn always passes to the player at the back of the line, so skipping ahead too far may be your undoing, though not skipping far enough could result in you missing the pit stop you really need. At the end of the game, additional points may be scored for being the gourmet, most relaxed, etc. of the bunch. A simple card/point collection game that, consarnit, they really did manage to make as relaxing as the trip is meant to be.

Theme
The theme obviously comes through in the art, which is pretty and non-threatening. The variety of things you can do on the road represents well the Feudal era, and the characters you can play have abilities that tap into their personas, whether that's the geisha evidently receiving gifts or the artist getting more out of painting. Effects are thematic, but the basic mechanics are fairly abstract. There's no real-life reason your pilgrims can't all go to the same market at the same time, or not order the same thing from inn's menu, etc. Surely, you would not be painting the same landscapes in the same pieces if you were all different artists. But generally, the feeling that radiates from the game is the one that's meant to come over the travelers, and the points represent well how "enriching" a journey has been, either spiritually, socially, or culturally.
ComponentsThe art is nice, the white of the board soothing, and the punch-out cardboard pieces sturdy (the coins even have that hole in them, consistent with the money of the era). To keep the game's foot print under control, the cards are a little small, but that couldn't be avoided. Meeples aren't very interesting - downright generic in fact - as game pieces, though you could splurge on the Collector's Edition and get all-different miniatures (you'd have to paint them yourself for the best look). One minor point: The Crossroads (see below) expansion's character cards have a hole that doesn't exactly match the player color token; oops!

House Rules and Expansions
The game has come out with two expansions, and though I haven't played the second, they ostensibly work the same way, essentially by associating the pit stops with other activities, giving you a choice when you land on them (though you could certainly play with clear-cut substitution, if you made sure it didn't leave a character in the cold, these options are less interesting by themselves than the core game's). Crossroads as gambling, peaceful cherry blossoms, bathhouses, legendary objects and calligraphy, for example, while Matsuri adds festivals and feasts. Each package also comes with new characters that take advantage of those new opportunities, though Matsuri has a whopping 18 new travelers that run the gamut.
The game plays five, but we've frequently upped it to six to accommodate another player, by simply making all one-slot locations, two-slots. The game becomes a little more strategic, in a sense, because you might run out of certain resources that way. We also have plans to play it as a some of day-long event, setting up at least one more gaming table and moving to another Japanese-themed game at each inn-stop. The long journey might then include fireworks (Hanabi), feeding the Emperor's prize panda (Takenoko), defending a village (Samurai Spirit), cooking (Sushi Go!), working on Japanese gardens (Tsuro), taking a boat ride (Tsuro of the Seas), or pruning bonsai trees (Kodama) - to name only the ones we have in our group! Obviously, this involves walking to one city, then back, the second time using the expansions perhaps. We'll let you know how it went if we ever make it happen.

In conclusion: Tokaido is a game where strategists and casual players can play together without feeling like one type of player is necessarily overwhelming the other. You can just move, make simple choices, and get points, perhaps not win but still feel you had a good run. And that's a useful tool to have on your gaming shelf when not everyone is a hardcore gamer. Definitely the kind of game where you can still chit-chat around the table and not lose track of the action. As social an experience as the voyage it is designed to emulate.

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