Saturday, January 17, 2015

Down Tokaido Way

I am still learning things about Japan, the country that became my second home. Thanks to the thoughtful Christmas gift given me by my brother, Yumeko and I have traveled a part of Japan even she knew little about. What follows is our first foray along the most famous of the Five Routes of the Edo period: Toukaidou.

The game Tokaido puts you into the shoes of a traditional Japanese traveler on his or her way from Kyoto (Japan's first capital) to Edo (Tokyo, the modern-day capital) by way of the eponymous road. The goal is to be the traveler who experiences the most eventful journey (measured by a point tracker, 0-100), buying the most diverse set of souvenirs (omiyage), enjoying the most trips to the hot springs (onsen), having the most colorful encounters, and eating the finest foods at the inns (ryokan) along the way (left to right).
You are randomly dealt two traveler cards (out of ten total) to select from at the start. I chose to play as "Chuubei the messenger," whose special talent allows him to have an extra encounter (draw an extra pink card) prior to eating at each of the interim inns. Not a rich character, he starts with 4 coins.
Only slightly more well-to-do than Chuubei, at 5 coins, Yume chose to play "Sasayakko the geisha." Her special talent grants her each time the ability to waive the cost of the cheapest souvenir when buying two or more so long as she has the coin needed to buy them legitimately. (Which begs the oh-so-obviously-answered question: What is the vendor getting in return for his charity?)
Lastly, the two-player rules require that a third non-player character (NPC) join on the journey. "Zen-emon the merchant," starting with 6 coins, can purchase one souvenir each time for 1 coin rather than the listed price (up to 3 coins). As an NPC, however, his only role is to act as a blocker under the control of the player who is farthest along the route each turn, and to donate coins at the temples (again at the players' discretion), creating added competition for bonus points based on donations made in the final tally; otherwise, Zen-emon takes no other actions during the game.
Yume (blue) demonstrated this strategy, as seen here, by using Zen-emon (gray) to block all available spaces at the nearest farm (the main means by which players earn back coin). No two player markers can occupy the same spot on the road (except for double spaces), and the player who is farthest back on the road takes the next turn. That meant I (gold) was stuck having to jump over the two of them on my way to the next location, and running low on coin. (Note: Only after playing did I realize that a 2- or 3-player game is not supposed to use the double-spaces. At least we were consistent in our error! :/)
Nearer to the first inn stop-off, I turn the tables and use Zen-emon to block Sasayakko-chan from getting access to the hot springs (an easy place to earn 2 or 3 points). By doing so, I've also ensured that Yume is the first player to reach the inn, giving her the greatest number of choices when selecting a meal. Meal cards, taken at the inns, are all worth 6 points, so if you don't have the coin to buy what's left at the inn when you arrive, that's 6 points you'll never get back!
Before the second inn stop-off, I'm lucky enough to secure some more coin at the farm, but Yume again reaches the inn first. Her choices are soba (a buckwheat noodle dish), donburi (a rice bowl dish topped with meat or fish and vegetables), nigirimeshi (rice balls wrapped in seaweed), and fugu (a notorious type of fish). 
I enacted a real coup here as I finished two different panoramas, placing myself in a commanding lead, 63-37. Panoramas are massive multipart paintings that you find time to complete as you journey along the road, provided you stop at the places on the route where your muse is at its best (green, white, or blue locations).
Luckily, at the previous inns, I twice drew the encounter card "Annaibito, the guide" (at bottom-left), who freely gives you a panorama card. You can see the two achievement bonus cards (3 points each) for the finished panoramas (at top). Each card you collect along the road grants you points or other needed items and tells the story of your journey. (Notice how I was at this time broke [no coins]; back to the farm!)
Leaving the final inn before Edo, I had arranged it so that Yume would be left with a choice of meals too expensive for her remaining coin, robbing her of an easy 6 points. Then here, I employ the blocking method again to keep Yume from a panorama location. Pretty scheisty, I'll admit, but at 83-54, I was enjoying my largest lead at that point.
By the end, Sasayakko-chan had cut considerably into that lead, but Chuubei-san's earlier run had proved too much. Despite my efforts, Yume had managed to piece together two out of three panoramas, even garnering the 3-point bonus for completing the three-piece green panorama first. She also got 3 bonus points for having the most expensive taste in cuisine (center middle).
Sasayakko had also posted the most coin at the temple, awarding her with 10 points. Chuubei and Zen-emon had tied, so they were both awarded the second place prize of 7 points. 
In the final summation, making sure you eat at each of the inns (a sure fire way to 24 points), and nabbing as many panoramas as possible (potentially 31 points) go a long way to ensuring victory. Above, you can see I finished all three panoramas (two of which I got the completion achievements for), and also scored 9 bonus points by visiting the hot springs most (middle left), having the most encounters (bottom left), and buying the most souvenirs (bottom middle).

All-in-all, the art design is elegant, the gameplay is intuitive but offers strategy, and the materials are of sturdy make. Time and further playthrus will tell whether playing as each of the other travelers offers a different but balanced play experience. My wife, Yume, herself Japanese, can't get over how delicious-looking all the meal card illustrations are. Perhaps, for me, the thing I love the most is how the game marries a real world place, with its own history and significance, into a game that never once feels dry or dated. Go out and get yours!