16 June 2022
The creator of Electric Bastionland and Into The Odd brings us his favourite tabletop walk, Tokaido
Surely there’s no such thing as a ‘favourite game’ for those of us who are always thinking about the next addition to our collection. With limited shelf space, I strive to maintain a ruthless detachment from any one particular game, operating a strict one-in one-out system.
Even Pandemic, the very game that opened me up to the wider world of boardgames, has since been sold onto a new loving home. Nothing is sacred here, so I approached this column with a view to picking my favourite game of right-now, rather than crowning a permanent champion.
But nestled between this rotating cast, a few familiar faces endure. I can’t sell my haphazard binder of Dominion cards without sorting them all out, my partner has granted Kingsburg a rare permanent residence, and Battle for Rokugan is one of those games that I just need to get to the table one more time, but never quite have the right opportunity. These will all be sticking around for a while, but their persistence is more out of chance than merit.
Then I see a white box, and I wonder if it is, in fact, my favourite game.
Tokaido is a game about walking from Edo to Kyoto, trying to have the best journey by taking in magnificent views, meeting other travellers, buying souvenirs, and making sure you keep enough money aside for your dinner. The real game is in trying to achieve all that while the other players are getting in your way, blocking those valuable spots. So it’s pitched as a relaxing stroll, but the rules evoke something more akin to a Christmas Eve shopping rush.
This sort of thematic disconnect is something we’re all used to seeing, but whenever I get this game to the table it doesn’t feel like a high-pressure game of blocking and action optimisation at all. It somehow walks that tightrope between challenge and relaxation. Running out of money means you’ll miss out on some shopping and dining opportunities, but most of the activities you’ll undertake are free. Getting blocked from your favourite type of space is annoying, but there are always other places to go. At times the journey can feel uphill, but you never feel lost or stuck.
Most of all, the game is just easy to play. I’m not talking about winning here, but the actual experience of sitting to play it. You’re making constant decisions, but you never feel paralysed. You’ll be mostly focused on what you’re doing yourself, but will be constantly bumping into the other players on the way. It’s dripping with thematic touches, but also the sort of game that you can play while you’re just talking with friends.
It might sound like faint praise to laud a game for not seizing your whole attention, and I do enjoy getting stuck into a table-devouring brain burner, but those games call for a very particular time, place, and crowd. Tokaido is a game that I’m always happy to play, and eager to show to anybody I can. If it weren’t for its legendarily inefficient box I’d carry it around with me as much as I could.
The best distillation of the game lies in its Hot Spring locations. When you visit these spaces you draw from a deck, either getting an empty spring worth two points, or a spring visited by monkeys worth three points. Card-counting aside, it’s a coin flip that grants an extra point when it lands in your favour. To get the most out of this game, I think you need to embrace that. Real journeys come with their own disappointments or pleasant surprises, and Tokaido is no different. Put each hurdle and hindrance behind you, look to the horizon, and decide where to go next.