Review: Tokaido28 Mar 2017 3
Released 20 Mar 2017
Five years after Tokaido’s original release, its digital analogue is finally here. This game was designed by Antoine Bauza, of Ghost Stories, Hanabi, and 7 Wonders fame. The game’s namesake and setting both come directly from the fabled road leading from Kyoto to Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Anywhere from three to five travellers brave the four-day journey on Tokaido, represented in-game as a linear path with six different location types. As both the game’s paper rulebook and app tutorial have rather ornately put it, the players “will pass through magnificent countryside, taste delicious specialties, purchase souvenirs, benefit from the virtues of hot springs, and have unforgettable encounters”.
Players move along Tokaido, stopping each turn at various spaces that represent the enriching experiences while keeping a close eye on their dwindling coins. Three inns along the way will offer them a meal. More to the point, the travellers collect and score points in a variety of categories mainly involving set collection. First, each player is dealt two of the ten possible travellers, each representing a unique player power. To offset the varying utility of their asymmetrical abilities, travellers also have different amounts of starting coins. Players pick one of the two travellers and the initial turn order is decided randomly.
Each turn, the furthest back player moves forward to a space of their choosing. Farms (yellow) give three coins; Panoramas (green, white, and dark blue) offer sketches of an idyllic scene that scores increasingly greater points as it nears completion. The first part of a sketch is worth 1 point, the second 2, the third 3 and so on. Each colored panorama space represents a different scene (rice paddy, mountain, ocean). Temples (red) allow players donate one through three coins to the shrine, yielding as many points right away. At the end of the game, players are ranked by the generosity of their donations, scoring a bonus 10-7-4-2 points in order of largesse, with friendly ties. Villages (black) sell three Souvenirs, each priced anywhere from 1 to 3 coins. Souvenirs come in four varieties: foodstuffs, small objects, clothing, and art. Each set of souvenirs scores depending on its diversity. The first type is worth 1 point, the second 3, the third 5 and the final one 7 points. Hot Springs (light blue) give either two or three points. Encounters (pink) usher players towards a chance meeting with a random benefactor, providing one of several beneficial effects. Inns break up the game into fourths, with one at the end of each quarter of the game. There, players buy a dish, priced 1 to 3 coins and worth 6 points. Once everyone reaches the final space, bonus points are awarded for various achievements and the aforementioned temple contributions. Highest scorer wins.
As you might have guessed from slogging through my slavish description of the rules, almost anything you do nets you points. It’s a bit like sitting in the audience for a taping of Oprah or Ellen that way. The game presents a few tactical decisions over an average playtime of twenty-five minutes, with a dash of randomness to keep things interesting. Money is always tight, and the final scores are always close. Despite this, the game is neither very cutthroat nor demanding. Its limitations for clever play are not necessarily a drawback so long as you have healthy expectations for what the game is, and can provide. The boardgame is a solid light gateway game, and the app reproduces many of its original virtues along with some new advantages.
It’s impossible to give a full evaluation of Tokaido without at least nominally praising its looks. Tokaido is a game with presence and restraint. A virtual sea of white surrounds anywhere you look. The frames which actually contain colors show them to be relatively placid. The shapes are soft and rounded, the animations cutesy. There are no edges or borders. Fortunately, these aesthetic choices dovetail nicely with the game’s mechanical and thematic trappings. Characters are, well, full of character as they putter across the screen, giving a little bow after each move, for example. And the locations you visit look piquant and inviting, from the trio of hogs romping across a farm space, the furoshiki and konpeito for sale in the village spaces, to the baboons soaking in the thermal springs.
Best of all, the app presents and collates its dry information in a clean, accessible way. Clicking on another player’s portrait pulls up a summary of their collection, breaking down points by general categories and the specific items therein. In short, the app succeeds in presenting Tokaido as a journey because it devotes so much space to the road and its characters. It does this without giving the game short shrift, too, by niftily tucking away and compressing the necessary dry game tidbits. This follows the trend of other digital game adaptations like Sushi Go or Patchwork by prioritizing a sense of place and presence over literal reproduction of analogue tokens, dice, or cards. Tokaido was a golden opportunity for such streamlining, which makes the flaws of its implementation harder to bear. It nailed the big stuff but is lessened by a few bugs and the omission of some must-have features.
First among these faults is the lack of any kind of save feature. I can forgive the app for being memory-intensive; pretty hurts, after all, so when my processor runs a little hot on my lap I just pretend it is a miniaturized kotatsu. What I can’t forgive is how exiting an in-progress game for more than a few seconds means abandoning it entirely.
This cardinal flaw is exacerbated by the game’s second misstep. While the AI provides a decent challenge, there is no way to speed up or eliminate the animations. So the bulk of time spent during the game is unavoidably concerned with watching the models walk. If you’re in a scenic mood or want to check another player’s scorecard, then fine, but there is zero possibility of a quick game or a series of decisive, exciting back-to-back turns. Ditto for online mode’s synchronous-only play.
Lastly, on-release the store page listed its compatibility with pretty much every iThing under the sun, which has led to a bevy of grumbling reviews from consumers struggling to run it on older devices. It wouldn’t run at all on my first-gen iPad mini, and encounters a niggling but not deal-breaking bug on the iPad 4. (If you can’t exit a Panorama screen, for example, you need to touch the OK button repeatedly for up to a half-minute until it exits to the main map) This is a very nice game which needs a workhorse to run smoothly, and should be advertised as such.
If someone took the linearity of Candy Land, added smart decision points, traded its kitschy artwork for a modern, spare look, bleached its jewel tones, and blanketed it all with enough negative space to make a whiteout blush, the result would look and feel like Tokaido. But is the gameplay equally as blissed-out? And if so, is that such a bad thing? To both, I’d answer no, not really. It is a gentle stroll of a game, incredibly soothing to gaze at passively. It almost goes without saying, but to really enjoy Tokaido, you must really enjoy the journey.