Tokaido isn’t a game about war and death and conquering people. It’s a game in which you and your friends face head on to have the most ‘lovely’ trip down the famous Tokaido Road in Japan. You get points for having a relaxing bath, eating delicious meals, and painting the landscape around you. The game ends up being an open, fairly friendly family game. It sounds lovely- and the game can be quite a lovely experience- however it leaves quite a bit to be desired…
Tokaido is played with anywhere between 2-5 players, however 3 and 5 players seem to be the sweet spot for enjoying the game. The players move along the Tokaido road, stopping at different points along the way to work on their art, collect friends, shop, or just relax at a hot springs for a bit. Every element of the game picks up points or money (to spend on things that give you points). The main strategy of the game involves where you place your traveller- as once a traveller has visited a place, the other travellers cannot move there as well. It’s sort of like a linear worker-placement game.
Tokaido is a fairly troubled game. While it presents well, and is a fairly quick and easy play, there is something that just doesn’t sit right. The movement system seems to be a fairly large part of this. The player who is the furthest from the end of the board is the player who has his/her turn. But essentially what this turns into is the players leapfrogging each other in a constant battle to do the most before the road runs out. It can feel at times that the board makes the majority of the decisions for you, and you’re a sort of glorified spectator to your own boardgame.
All the games I have played of Tokaido seem really similar. It seems all strategies that you can employ work equally well, and the games tend to end up incredibly close between all the players. If you do manage to snatch victory, you end up a little confused about how you got there. I could never nail down exactly what decisions I made that were better than my opponents. Similarly if you lose, you can’t fully understand why. There are so many different ways to get victory points, that if you want to figure out robust strategies, it becomes a muddy mess pretty quickly. The strategy to the game doesn’t feel as deep as it really ought to be, because often you feel forced to go to a particular spot where you gain a few victory points and wait for your next turn. As such there isn’t a feeling of urgency or tension in the game- you get stuck in the cycle of the board.
So instead of being a strategically focussed fame, it inevitably ends up being a much more open, social experience. You can see the cards people are collecting, what their plans are, and what strategies they are employing to try and win. There is no teasing of information out of people. So what tends to happen is that people sit back, chat, and make their go and the evening turns into a more relaxed atmosphere.
So looking at Tokaido as a much more casual experience, it’s still fairly average. So why buy/play it? It is certainly one of the most beautiful boardgames I have played. Painting your art piece over the course of the game is one of the more aesthetically pleasing things to do. It just fits together so nicely. Colour in the game is used sparingly, and to great effect. Little splashes here and there on a fairly neutral background make it very visually appealing. The game is also very quick to teach and play-a veteran team of 3 or 4 people can smash out a game in 20 minutes to half an hour. Even novices can keep up with a person who has played it a good half dozen times. The different routes you can take in the game seem pretty balanced in terms of how many victory points you can acquire from them. A person who pretty much solely invests in buying souvenirs is as competitively viable as a person who spends their time on the road painting. It can potentially be an OK ‘opener’ to a bigger, meatier game for a person with a good boardgames collection. The Japanese theme can fit quite nicely with a bunch of boardgames that have come out recently- Takenoko being the standout- so if you’re having a themed night it can slot in there as well.
I would say Tokaido is a good game to pick up if you’re looking to round out your board game collection with something with a fresh theme and look, but plays quite casually. It’s not the best boardgame in the world, but is certainly serviceable. There are better strategy games (like Setters of Catan, or Takenoko), and better social games (like Sheriff of Nottingham, or the Forbidden Island series)
If you want a pretty boardgame to play with 4 of your mates, expect to pay around $70 for a copy of Tokaido. Franchises might not yet stock the game, so check out your independant game stores or online for a copy.