Review by Matt S.
Tokaido is one of my favourite board games. It’s a serene, non-combative, elegant and minimalist game that is more interested in reflecting on the beauty and wondrous characteristics of Japan than it is having “winners” and “losers”. That zen-like pacing means the game isn’t for everyone; over on Board Game Geek it only ranks in at around 400th in the overall popular vote, but me being the contrarian I am, I find the meditative pacing and beautiful use of colour and art to be vibrant and fundamentally interesting.
Because the board game requires such a specific frame of mind, I don’t often get to enjoy it with other people, and that’s why I’m so glad that it had made its way to the iOS App Store, so that I can enjoy it as the single player experience that it always felt like it wanted to be. The developers have absolutely nailed this one.
Tokaido presents players with a linear line series of “spaces,” broken up into four sections of board, or “days.” Players start on the left hand side of the board, and move their character along the line of spaces to whichever one catches their fancy. Each space has a different effect; one might give you some money, while another will let you paint part of a scene, and a third will let you spend some of that money for goods. Basically every action you take results in something happening, and with a very few exceptions, those happenings give you victory points.
The goal of the game is to have the most victory points by the end of the fourth “day,” but of course there are catches. The first catch is that each space can only hold one character (very rarely, two). The second catch is that it’s the player at the back of the pack that gets to take his/ her turn next, and you can only move forwards, not backwards. So if one player jumps ten squares ahead, the other players get to dawdle, landing on spaces and collecting victory points as they slowly catch up with the leading player.
On the other hand, many spaces are very limited in the game. For example, painting an ocean scene will net you a lot of victory points, but you need to land on five different ocean squares to do that, and there are only seven or so across the entire board game. So, sometimes you’ll feel like you need to leap ahead a lot of squares in order to land on the squares that will achieve your strategic objectives. It’s impossible to land on every square and do everything, so you’ll need to think carefully about what goals you can achieve, and how effectively you’ll be able to achieve those goals, based on what the other players are doing.
Tokaido is not a game of deep strategy, but it does demand concentration, and there’s a certain serenity and purity to the way the game plays that makes it peaceful, relaxing, and calming. An aesthetic heavy on the whites and minimalism help, too, making for something elegant and graceful when most board games are anything but these things.
The app version of the game captures that spirit perfectly. Characters are animated in a simple, elegant fashion, and the game has a serene little background soundtrack. You can play online if you want, but I quickly found that I enjoyed myself playing in the single player mode more. There, the basic, but functional AI, meant that I was never getting bored from it being too easy, but at the same time I wasn’t being frustrated by being beaten unfairly.
What I love about this game – and its iOS port – is that it has done such a great job of capturing and respecting the essence of Japan. Through the Tokugawa era, there was a law that the lords throughout the country had to make their way to the capital city every few years. This was done in order to keep the lords quiet by effectively bankrupting them, but it had another effect; it romanticised the idea of a journey through Japan. Japan was one of the first countries to have a comprehensive network of roadside inns, which popped up to house these lords, and the movement from one inn to the next, taking in the local sights, smells, foods and entertainment, is something that remains popular to this day. People in Japan love walking down the old roads that the samurai used to march over, and Tokaido, abstract as it is, captures that same romance in the board game format.
– Matt S.
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