For most modern travellers, journeying along Japan’s 360-mile East Sea Road (or Tōkaidō) requires boarding a bullet train at either Tokyo or Osaka and thundering through majestic scenery at speeds in excess of 150mph. Either that or boarding a coach for the delights of the Far East’s answer to the M6.
It wasn’t always such. During the Edo period (from 1603 to 1868), the only way to traverse the length of Japan was to brush off your wooden geta (or footwear) and set off, experiencing everything the land had to offer along the way. For most it was to be the mother of all hiking trips.
There were rules. Women were forbidden from travelling without males to escort them, checkpoints would require an early form of passport to be shown to allow continued travel, and the upper classes of the time would travel in a sort of carried ‘hammock’ known as a kago. From the 1830s, during the highly moralistic Tenpō era, literary interpretations of the road’s 53 official rest stations had to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid committing offence, resulting in a series of visual puzzles being created by Japan’s three leading designers of the time to represent each stop. Each was carefully designed to circumnavigate the taboos in place at the time, while still giving viewers a sense of the stories and experiences one could have along the route. The Tōkaidō was perhaps the epitome of the idea of travel being as much about the journey as the destination.
It is this sense of experiential travel that lies at the heart of Tokaido, easily one of the most beautifully designed board games to appear of late. Board gaming has been experiencing something of a renaissance during the last few years, with titles such as Cards Against Humanity, Settlers of Catan and Pandemic Legacy taking the world of tabletop competition as far away from playing dreary sessions of Monopoly at interminable family gatherings as it’s possible to get. While many boast clever gaming rules or high levels of social interaction, Tokaido combines both of these with some of the most beautiful visual design ever to appear on pieces of card.
Tokaido takes players back to that more peaceful, more elegant, more human time in Japan’s history, simulating the journey from Kyoto to Edo (the former name for Tokyo). Players gain points not by amassing money or by how quickly they reach their destination, but for how rewarding a journey they have along the way. Buying souvenirs from villages, enjoying relaxing hot springs, ‘collecting’ landscapes, meeting fellow travellers, enjoying fine meals and enriching one’s soul at various temples, all the options in the game are designed to elevate the players’ spirits (and scores) so that once everyone has reached the journey’s end, those that had the most rewarding time of it is declared the winner.
Crucially though, no one can experience everything, so players have to be tactical in how they decide to approach the great road. Much like tourism of today, it’s crucial to plan ahead as each location can only hold one or two fellow travellers at most and if a location is in use, you’ve no choice but move on and have a different experience, one that may not be as rewarding as your original goal.
This sense of tactical ‘blocking’ plays a large part of the game’s core puzzle – boost your own score or prevent a rival from boosting theirs – something that combines beautifully with the elegant movement rules at work. Players can move as far forward (never backwards) along the road as they like in a given turn, only stopping at the mandatory inns to refresh, with the player furthest back taking the next turn. This means each move becomes a tricky balance between deciding to race ahead to a crucial high-scoring ‘open’ location but allowing those behind you to then mop up points from everything you skip, going slowly and gaining a broad (but lower scoring) range of experiences, or deliberately paying attention to your rivals’ tactics and blocking their options at the expense of your own strategy. With each player gaining bonus points for different specific types of experiences, it all adds up to a very clever piece of gaming design.
And then there’s the production quality. As mentioned, Tokaido is one of the most visually attractive tabletop games ever produced. It’s a masterclass in elegance, effortlessly combining useful design with entrancing looks throughout. The visual approach toes precisely the right line of being bright and appealing without being overly cartoonish or falling into Westernised cliches of what we image ancient Japan to have been.
But it’s the theme that really stays with you. It’s a simple game to understand, but one that manages to capture the feeling of learning a country through the experience of travel with breathtaking ease. It’s not a hectic game, there are no frantic dice rolls or moments of fist-pumping adrenaline. Instead Tokaido offers serenity, a sedate but rewarding trip where even if you don't emerge the overall victor, you’ll likely still have won just by taking part in the journey.
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