Tokaido is a board game about being the best damn tourist you can be, taking in the sights on the long walk between Kyoto and Edo, Japan. You’ve got a lot to draw your attention: souveniers to buy, local cuisine to sample, shrines to visit, travellers to chat up… but you only have so much time, and so much money, so you have to plan a bit. You might decide early on that there’s no real reason for you to see the temples, which allows you to focus on visiting the small villages instead, which is good, because there are a bunch of OTHER tourists walking the Tokaido road, and what good is visiting a temple that they’ve already seen, am I right? Which is to say, once a player has landed on a space, nobody else can visit it, which is mechanically neat and thematically sound, but also way too easy to get excited over.
But let’s look at this related one, from page 5 of the rulebook:
A traveler cannot taste the same culinary specialty twice during his journey.
Now that’s bizarrely specific. There is a deck of food cards; when you land at an inn (and everybody must land at inns, they are waypoints along the road), you draw a hand, and get a chance to buy one. Later arrivals at the inn can buy from the smaller hand. Food means points, points are how you win, so you want to get food… but if you’ve already purchased a meal, you cannot purchase a matching one. So woe betide you if you’re the last at the inn and everything’s been eaten except the same crappy nigiri you wolfed down at the last inn. Oh, you can hoover it down, sure, but you aren’t going to GROW from the experience.
Everything about Tokaido is built around one great conflict, and it’s not conflict between the players, or the hard choice behind whether to pursue your own adgendas or block other players from pursuing theirs, or even where you spend your money. Its’ this: You can move fast, or you can dawdle. The faster you move, the more control you have over where you go and what you get. The slower you go, the more you actually get to accomplish, even though it’s going to be composed of the stuff nobody else wanted. It’s fairly useful to dawdle, though… since the player furthest back on the road gets the next turn, you can hit every single space between you and the next player for free, and in so doing earn a lot of one- and two-point bonuses, which add up!
But then there’s the issue of food. Mechanically it cements the lack of choice that dawdlers get; if you don’t make it to the inn on time, you run a very real risk of getting nothing for it, missing out on an easy six victory points. So that’s one aspect.
It also forces everyone to adjust their pace… nobody wants to be the last to the inn, so the worst dawdler is inclined to move faster to get there. It’s hard not to envision the slow, moseying old man who sees the inn in the distance and suddenly realizes “dang, I AM hungry,” and leaps past everyone in his way to get there.
It ALSO gives early players the ability to screw over slower ones. When you arrive at the inn late, and there are two cards remaining, you can see what the other player who has yet to arrive has eaten, and if you’re lucky and kind of a jackass, you can contrive to saddle him with a plate of tofu he’s had before, or a plate of fugu you know he can’t afford. And that’s delightful, in a game where the only real interaction is blocking places you know other folks want to go.
Finally, it’s a tacit encouragement to broaden your gustatory horizons, something I can totally get behind, and which has a wonderful thematic synergy with the game as a whole. Experience everything you can as well as you can, says Tokaido. Experience everything you can as well as you can, says the meals deck within Tokaido, a minigame microcosm of the game as a whole. Keen, that.