a game of competitive personal fulfilment

So, last week I wrote about Antoine Bauza’s flawed but beautiful board game, Takenoko, a game which (I’m not sure if I mentioned this) contains an adorable panda. Something I definitely mentioned is Monsieur Bauza’s slightly peculiar tendency to set all of his games in Asia.

In particular, I mentioned that he’d also released a game called Tokaido in which you play, depending on how you interpret it, pilgrims travelling a road along the coast at the height of Imperial Japan, or else a bunch of twenty-first century gap year students competing to have the “most authentic” holiday experience possible.  I should say that the twenty-first century gap year student interpretation is in no way supported by the actual game (which is actually, as I understand it, fairly well researched, so much so that all of the playable characters are actual figures from Japanese history or literary tradition) but it’s the interpretation that my friends and I tend to put on it. I think we do this partly because it strikes us as funny and partly because, in a strange way, it feels less culturally appropriative to us if we admit that we’re basically playing tourists.

Tokaido is a slightly funny game because, from what I’ve found poking round the internet, a lot of people find it genuinely relaxing, low-pressure, and all-about-the-journey-man. I’ve even heard it said that playing the game puts you into a kind of zen-like state, although I suspect that the individuals I’ve heard this from know as little about actual zen as, well, me. Basically I’d put Tokaido in very much the same box as Takenoko in that it has a lot of thematic packaging which makes it feel like it should be this quite abstract, quite touchy-feely experience. But, when you get right down to it, it has a clearly defined win condition that’s tracked throughout the game and that you will achieve best if you keep a very, very close eye on the mathematics.

I will admit that there are some mechanics in Tokaido that do reinforce the journey-man-journey aspect of the premise. Perhaps most interestingly there’s no limit on how far you can move. You start at an inn and you set out on the path towards the next inn and you can go as far long that path as you like. The only restrictions are that you can never go backwards and that the person who’s furthest back along the path always goes next. So if you race too far ahead you’ll be sat there doing nothing while everybody else bathes in hot springs, has interesting encounters on the road, and checks out the beautiful views.  And this is where most of the game’s strategy comes from. On the one hand, if you skip over a space you miss the opportunity to visit that space forever. On the other hand, if you visit the space and somebody else moves ahead of you, they might take your place at the space you really wanted to visit.

Perhaps I should break this down.

The conflict at the heart of Tokaido is that, basically, it’s a game where each character is supposed to be on a personal, spiritual journey. But ultimately all that matters is whose personal, spiritual journey is objectively best. I think I’d feel this conflict less intensely if some elements of the game didn’t do such a good job of making the spiritual journey aspect feel so well-realised. All the things you do, from idling at inns to chatting with people you meet on the road to gazing out over the magnificent slopes of Mt Fuji, create the sense of that this is a game about having experiences. Indeed, the whole way the game works, by rewarding the player who is furthest back along the road, by giving the most points to players who do the most things that aren’t directly related to the actual journey towards Edo, creates the sense that this is a game where you’re encouraged to take time out and smell the roses.

It would be more accurate, however, to say that this is game where you are in a merciless competition to smell more and better roses than your companions, and that any rose unsmelled is an opportunity for personal advancement irrevocably missed.

And this, more or less, is why my friends enjoy the game most when we assume you’re playing gap year students. If you’re actual citizens of Imperial Japan travelling up a road for personal reasons, then you shouldn’t give a crap that the collection of goods bought by the merchant is, by some arbitrary standard, worth more “points” than the beautiful vistas you have witnessed or the delicious food you have eaten. If, on the other hand, you’re a bunch of smug nineteen-year-olds rampaging across somebody else’s country on daddy’s (or, let’s by fair, mummy’s) credit card, then it makes complete sense that all you would really care about is who can upload the best pictures to Instagram and who gets to brag the most about how totally amazing and life-changing their time in Japan was when they back to Surrey. Although I said this interpretation isn’t supported by the game (and it’s not) it does make sense of a lot of the game’s mechanics.

For example, one the things you can do in Tokaido is collect panoramas. Basically, some spaces on the road correspond to beautiful views of the countryside, ocean or mountains and every time you stop on one of these spaces you take a card that gives you the next part of a picture. Each piece of each picture is worth more than the last and the first person to collect a whole picture gets a small bonus. So, basically, if you’re the first person to collect the whole panorama for Mt Fuji, then when everyone else completes it, you get to say “oh, yah, I went there a couple of months ago and it was really great, but I’ve heard it’s got really touristy since then.”

Then there’s the way that inns work. Every stage of the road is bookended by inns and, once you get to one, you have to stop until everyone catches up. When you reach an inn, you buy food. The different foods have different prices but each one is worth six points. However, the twist is that you can only score points for each given type of food once. So, if you’ve ever eaten donburi, you never want to eat it again. I’m not sure how you’re supposed to parse this if you’re just pilgrims: surely food is food in that case, and as a Japanese person, wouldn’t you be eating this stuff all the time anyway? On the other hand, if you’re a gap year student, then clearly you’re just trying as many things once as you possibly can, just so you can say you’ve eaten them. You don’t want to eat the same thing twice because you clearly don’t like this stuff. You’d far rather be eating at the McDonalds two doors down, but there is no way you can admit this to your friends.

This mechanic is particularly hilarious if you’re playing as the orphan. All the characters in the game have a special ability that interacts with one of the types of space on the board. So, for example, the merchant and the geisha get bonuses when they go to villages to buy, um, souvenirs (the rule book explains that buying souvenirs on the Tokaido road was a real thing that real pilgrims really did in real Japan in real history but, I’ve got to say, the amount of emphasis the game places on souvenir shopping is another strike on the side of team gap year) and the artist gets a bonus for collecting panoramas. The orphan, being a poor and penniless child, gets offered free food whenever she arrives at an inn.   However, like every other player in the game, she only scores points for eating a given type of food once. This means, quite often, she will refuse the free food she is being offered by the kindly innkeepers who want to stop her from starving to death and, furthermore, will sometimes use the perfectly adequate supplies of money she’s carrying with her to purchase something more interesting and exotic.

“Please, sir, I have lost my mummy and daddy, and am very cold and hungry.”

“You poor child. Have some miso.”

“Oh, I am so over miso. That is, like, so two inns ago. I’ll take the fugu, and can you put it on my Amex?”

The character special abilities are what inform the player’s strategies in the game. So the geisha, for example, will usually be trying to visit villages to buy souvenirs as much as possible. This means she will also need to visit farms to generate money you’re your gaming group can avoid making the obvious jokes, you’re better people than we are). By contrast, the samurai will be trying to meet as many people as he can on the road because his special ability gives him money every time he encounters someone (again, it’s not clear how you’re supposed to interpret this. We’ve variously played it as “he holds them up at sword point” and “he charges them for the photo op”). And then he will probably also want to visit either temples or villages so he can use that money to do things that score him points.

The way this interacts is actually quite clever because everybody has slightly different priorities but they overlap just enough that you come into conflict. The Samurai might want to spend some of his spare cash, therefore denying the geisha a chance to visit a village. The geisha, unable to get to the village, might think about going to a farm but decide that it’s too far and that she should, instead, go for a low-cost activity like visiting a hot spring or looking at a panorama. But that might stop the artist getting the panorama segment he’s looking for so he might, instead, have an encounter on the road which conflicts with the samurai. This makes for quite interesting gameplay but—and I appreciate I’ve made this point a lot—I really feel it conflicts with the idea of a wondrous, meandering journey in which were you’re going is not as important as how you get there. I mean, I suppose technically it’s true that where you’re going is not as important as how you get there, but only because you have to make damn sure that you get there via at least three farms, four villages and a temple, while arriving at every inn early enough to get your pick of the food but not so early that you miss out any experience that might give you little bit extra to boast to your friends about over your totally authentic Japanese meal.

The thing is, I don’t dislike Tokaido. I actually have kind of a soft spot for it. It’s just that I can’t quite reconcile the conflict between the game’s premise and the game’s mechanics. Or, worse, between the game’s premise, the way the game’s mechanics support that premise, and then the game’s actual victory condition. In fact, it belatedly occurs to me that the problems with Tokaido can be more or less summed up with the following observation. The point of the game is to take your time, enjoy the journey and in no way treat it as a race. But the game also uses a linear victory track in which the person furthest ahead on points wins. So it is, in fact, literally a race. It’s just, bizarrely, a race you win by being slowest. Well, slowest and best at resource allocation.

As always, I feel I should say a couple of words about how this game works for families. And, honestly, I have no idea. My instinct is that there’s a lot about the game that a young player could misinterpret or that would be sufficiently contrary to their expectations as to be genuinely frustrating. Hell, I find it frustrating sometimes, and I’m getting to the point that I’m officially middle aged. I always believe it’s a mistake to underestimate children but I think if you present someone with a game and tell them that the premise of the game is that they’re on a journey up a road and they can move as far as they like, they won’t immediately respond by doing optimal path analysis of the highest scoring victory spaces between their start and their destination.  It’s also one of those board games where the only real interaction between players occurs when they get in each other’s way and that can be quite unfun. Even if your ten-year-old (I don’t why it’s always a ten-year-old in these things, I imagine everyone’s kids are ten) did grasp the non-obvious strategy well enough to realise that they needed to maximise souvenirs bought or panoramas viewed, they might get extremely irritated if every time they needed to go somewhere one of their parents was sitting on it.

So, yeah. Tokaido. There’s a lot I really respect about it, but I’m not a hundred percent certain I recommend it.

Also, there are no adorable pandas.

Oh, and I was recently nominated for a RITA. Which is nice. And something I will write about in a few days when I’ve sort of got my head around it.


3 Responses to a game of competitive personal fulfilment

  1. Noriko says:

    I love this series of game posts, and just wanted to add that actually my kids do well with Tokaido, although it’s not one they immediately suggest on any given occasion. My older son quickly figured out the blocking thing, which he relishes. And as a historian of Japan I can say that the research by Bauza is quite solid, souvenir purchases and all, though at the same time your gap year experience competition comparison makes perfect sense.

  2. Pam/Peejakers says:

    You know, I’ve realized that a big part of what I love about your posts on games, is that despite the fact that these *are* games, you think & talk about them in the exact same deeply thoughtful, deconstructive way that you think & talk about big, important issues. Haha, maybe it’s just me but I find this deeply adorable <3 But also, I'm sort of delighted this is giving me epiphanies, just like your posts always do 🙂

    I don't think it ever occurred to me that a game should feel like, in spirit, the activity it's supposed to represent, until I started reading these posts. Or, well, on 2nd thought, I never *consciously* thought about it, but I realize now that's probably just because I've become so jaded over the years by the fact that most games, in my experience anyway, are *not* like that. Or they didn't use to be. And I'm just recognizing that's always been kind of subliminally disappointing to me.

    Like, there's this child's game, "Candyland" we played when I was little, and I remember always being so excited to play, but coming away vaguely disappointed. And I think it was because it didn't actually *feel* much like an adventure in a kingdom of candy, since in a real kingdom of candy you could eat the candy 😉 Another example is Scrabble, because as you've pointed out before, it's not actually a game about words, but about numbers. And the way Clue/Cluedo isn't really about solving a mystery. All hose are games I always expected to like much more than I actually did, but I never really thought about why. Or, I did, kind of in the back of my mind, but only to sort of conclude, oh, well, I guess that's just not how games are. Only, they obviously can be, it just depends on the game.

    But anyway, something else struck me as I was reading about this game. Where you're talking about the fact that a bunch of people on a spiritual pilgrimage wouldn't/shouldn't be so preoccupied with stacking up points . . . this is actually really fascinating. It's like, unconscious materialism in action, both in the design of the game, and in the behavior of the characters within the game. Because that *is* actually *exactly* what people tend to do, take something intended to be about an experience & reduce it to a "thing" that can be acquired, quantified. Even on a spiritual journey. That's what medieval pilgrims trying to buy saints relics were doing, basically. It's what an inherently materialistic culture does to spiritual experience. You can see that in the way religions get so hung up on the "things" of the religion, not just the obvious like relics or churches, but dogma, mythology, good deeds, etc., etc. Or the way legal systems become about the letter of the law instead of the principle behind it.

    So, it's kind of like that's what the pilgrims in the game could be doing too. Though I doubt that was an intentional on the part of the game creator. It's more like, he couldn't help unconsciously putting all these inherently materialistic markers of success into a game about a spiritual journey. But I think that's inevitable as soon as you make the game a competition. Whether you win by having less or more, being slower or faster, it's kind of the same, because its about someone having more than someone else, even when more is literally less.

    Anyway, it just strikes me that the game can believably about spiritual pilgrims, they're just . . . doing it wrong, just like real people 😉

    Omg, look what you did to my brain again 😀

    And congrats, again, on the RITA nomination! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  3. Lennan Adams says:

    This game would completely stress me out (although I would love to giggle about the geisha). By the way, I very much appreciate your references to 10 yr olds, since I have two of them.
    So many congrats on the RITA nomination – you are my very favorite writer and I feel a lot of pride of association (or something). My heart is full!

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