When you first start up, Tokaido greets you with the tentative swell of Japanese flutes. They linger for a few moments, evoking a musical tradition centuries old; uplifting, folksy, and tranquil. Then, like a thunderclap, an orchestral score bursts to life. It is cacophonous, driven and almost combative, as if spurring you on for some great challenge ahead. This shift of tempo and mood is the perfect microcosm of the paradox at the heart of Tokaido. It is a game about relaxation that is also a fierce competition. A race to see who can travel the slowest.
Tokaido is Funforge‘s Steam adaption of their highly regarded board game of the same name. Titled after the Tokaido road – an important travel route in the Japanese Edo period – the game is themed around ancient Japanese folklore and imagery. As a board game, Tokaido exhibits a sleek, minimalist design. Its art style rests somewhere between the sparse lines of traditional Japanese paintings and a stripped back, westernised Kawai. In this blend between the dignified and Disneyfied, the tabletop incarnation of Tokaido veers towards the former. With bright colours that pop out from the snow-coated mountain road and whimsical, animated caricatures, this digital version sits firmly in the latter.
Make no mistake though – Tokaido is gorgeous. It’s true that animations stutter occasionally, and models are a tad blocky. To focus too closely on these elements is to miss the mountain for the rocks. Tokaido‘s painterly cel-shading and Zen soundtrack creates a distinct mood. One that is relaxing and contemplative. It is also a mood completely at odds with how the game is played.
Journey to the East
After choosing one of ten available characters – each with vivid designs and unique special abilities – you’ll begin at the starting inn, munching on sushi and rice bowls, warily sizing up your fellow travellers. There are four inns in total on Tokaido‘s board, each one representing the end of a travel day. As players move around the board and take part in various activities they earn victory points. When the four days are up, the game is over. The player with the most victory points wins.
Tokaido is – like many great board games – utterly simple but with a few small twists that provide most of the titles’ strategic choice. The four inns are spaced out so that each has a number of activities between them. When a player reaches an inn, they can’t move on until everyone else arrives. The more activities a player takes part in between each inn, the more victory points they’ll generally receive, so it would seem to make sense to go as slowly as possible. But while Tokaido encourages you to enjoy the sights, it doesn’t let you linger.
Rather than having a traditional set turn order, the player who is furthest back on the board will always move first. Because your character’s abilities generally compliment certain activities, it pays to have some sort of hierarchy planned out for which ones are most worth your time. But – and here’s where Tokaido transforms from a leisurely stroll to a strangely cutthroat conflict – only one character (or two with 4 or more players) can occupy any single activity at a time. And just like that, a relaxed dip in a bubbling hot spring turns into gaming your opponents, secretly wishing for some Wacky Races-esque gadgets to show them the scenic route down the cliff face.
And it’s a strange conflict, truly. I encourage you to check out the board game’s rulebook (which remains fundamentally unchanged in this version) for more information on the mechanics. For my lucky coins, the rules are elegant, simple, and hold great potential for depth. The incongruity here is not in the rules, but in the entire form of the experience. Tokaido as a board game is built – both thematically and mechanically – around the concept of relaxation. The social ritual of sitting down with friends and engaging with tangible components lends itself well to an easy pace. The instantaneous nature of the digital version naturally encourages pace and competition. Like a violent Sensei that brings down the staff during blissful dojo mediation, Tokaido‘s peaceful aesthetic hides this underlying aggression at its core.
It is perhaps even stranger, then, that this clash between systems and themes does not diminish the experience of Tokaido. It merely transforms it, and depending on your perspective maybe elevates it. The game works extremely well as this short-session exploration of optimal strategies for winning with what is ultimately a very simple and transparent rule set. Acknowledging Tokaido‘s thematic facade improves the game when you realise there’s great tongue-in-cheek comedy value in watching these whimsical cartoon folklore stereotypes pretend to relax to a blissed-out soundtrack while greedily plotting their next move.
The other advantage that Tokaido offers is online play. It’s a fairly bare-bones offering, with no ranking system, but customizable player numbers. At least, that’s what the feature list says. In reality, I tried for about an hour to find a match. The in-game lobby connected me with players, but no games materialized. Your experience may differ. Based on a little research, I’d put it down to a lack of players rather than faulty infrastructure. It’s also worth noting that, at the time of writing, the achievements aren’t working as intended. I received some, but not all, of the achievement I should have unlocked through my actions. The pass feature – which allows you to play games locally with friends – works perfectly. There are both IOS and Android versions of Tokaido available that may better suit players looking for something portable, or easily passable.
With no campaign mode, and currently without the expansions that many Tokaido players consider essential to the experience, the digital Tokaido‘s main fault is a lack of variety or compelling reasons for long play sessions. While each of the ten characters encourage different play styles the core game of Tokaido is unchanged on each session. I can see myself dipping back in occasionally and thoroughly enjoying myself for twenty or forty minutes, but I don’t think I could spend an evening traversing Tokaido‘s mysterious mountain, as beautiful as it is.