Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Zen and the art of board gaming

Tokaido is a very, very pretty game. The graphic design and the illustrations combine to form a simple and elegant presentation that fits perfectly with the peaceful nature of the game, which is about accumulating experiences while taking a scenic walk along the road between Kyoto and Edo in feudal Japan.

Players move their pieces along a linear path, with spaces representing the temples, villages, and inns along the road where different experiences can be had, such as meeting another traveler, buying a souvenir, eating a meal, or viewing a bit of scenery. These experiences are represented by cards that are worth points at the end of the game.

Movement is the most strategic part of the game. There are no dice, and no regular turn order. Rather, it is always the turn of the player who is farthest behind on the path, and that player can keep taking turns, landing on spaces and drawing the appropriate card for each, until they are no longer at the back. In this way, the game rewards players who take their time to enjoy the journey, but at the same time, the other players may block a space you are trying to get to if you let them get too far ahead.

At various points on the path are Inn spaces where every player must stop and have a meal. The first player to land at each inn gets to draw the meal cards that will be available at that inn, and gets first choice of what meal to buy. The meals are all worth the same number of points, but they have different costs, and no player may purchase the same meal twice, so having a wide variety of meals to choose from is preferable to being the last to arrive and having only a few choices.

Other experiences along the path include three different scenic overlooks, which are represented by sets of cards, the idea being to collect all the different cards in the set, both to score points and to complete the panoramic illustration that is formed by the cards. Players can also make donations to temples along the road, visit hot springs, and meet strangers that will offer anything from free souvenir or panorama cards, to extra money or points.

For added variety, each player is given a particular character to play, with their own special abilities that will help guide that player's strategy. The artist, for example, is better at collecting panoramas, while the street urchin gets free meals at the inns.

For as cheerful and pleasant as the game is, it can be a little cutthroat, with a lot of the movement strategy involving preventing your opponents from being able to land on the spaces they need to, but this brings a good balance to a game that might be a little dull otherwise. We've also found it to be a great game for non-gamers, having played several games with my mother and aunt on a recent visit.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Tokaido has a surprising amount in common with a lot of the "move around the board and draw a card to see what happens" style adventure games that we tend to favor, but the differences in theme and tone make it feel like something entirely new.

Date played: November 2, 2014

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