Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Peace is War: A Review of the Board Game Tokaido


Let's take a moment first to examine the game components:


 



 

You can tell by looking. This is a peaceful game. A nice game. A relaxed game. As reported by many other reviewers, the game has a benevolent, Zen-like aura. No one is angry. No one is excited. We are all simply enjoying ourselves.

The theme and mechanics reinforce this. The game is about travelling along the Tokaido road (this is redundant! "Tokaido" means "Eastern sea road!" But that's how we say it in English) sometime around the sixteenth or seventeenth century or so, and the goal is not to overcome an enemy at the end of the journey, or to defeat opponents in a race, or to enrich oneself, or any other of the typical mercenary goals you find in most board games.

No, the goal here is to eat good food, to meet interesting people, find neat little trinkets, and take in the expansive natural view.

This feeling of leisurely enjoyment is reflected in the game mechanics as well. For example, how do you determine where on the map you may move to next? Not by expending a resource, anxiously hoping for a return on investment. Not by rolling dice, fearful and hopeful in the face of blind luck. No, the movement rule is as simple and open as it could be. You may move forward any number of spaces. That's it! When it is your turn (and it is your turn whenever you are the one furthest behind along the road), you may move forward to any other space on the road. The only restrictions are these: You may not land on a space already occupied by another player, and you may not pass an inn. Instead, you must stop at the inn, and wait for everyone else to catch up. See? We're nice! We're decorous! We are happy to share!

(Note that, as you can see in the image, the map consists only of a single path. There are no choices to make as to which branch to take or what square to move to on a grid. No—there is only one way to go, and that is forward. Interesting that such an apparently constricted map should give rise to reports that the game connotes freedom and leisure! I'll be going a little bit more into this kind of minor paradox down below.) 

As each player arrives at the inn, he chooses a meal to purchase, and once everyone has done this, players begin moving forward on the map again.

Different spaces on the path are of different types, and this isn't the place to describe each type in detail (you can read the rules for that) but suffice to say each different type of space allows you an opportunity, sometimes with some cost in coins, to acquire one or more cards, with the space type determining the card type. Your goal is to acquire sets of several different kinds of cards, and the extent to which you completed various kinds of sets by the end of the game will determine your score. For example, "Encounter" spaces allow you to draw an "Encounter" card which names a particular character such as a Samurai or a Tour Guide. The character you draw gives you a character-specific reward, and you then place that Encounter card into your collection. Meanwhile, a "Village" space allows you to draw three "Souvenir" cards and attempt to collect (and pay for) a set of souvenirs that will add the greatest number of points to your score.

As you can see, the main scoring mechanic is set collection, with about five different variations on that theme being presented via the different types of cards you can collect. Once again, the non-confrontational, "Zen"nish niceness of the game presents itself. I don't get point-scoring resources (cards) by denying them to anyone else. We are all free to acquire as many, or as few, as we like!

The end of the game is reached when all players have arrived at the final fifth inn at the end of the map. At this point, several end-game bonuses are given out (for example, whoever has the most encounter cards receives a three point bonus) and the player who has the highest score wins the game.

The game is reputed to be light and non-confrontational. I agree (along with the game's designer) that it is light. However I don't think it is trivial. Granted, I have only played games against my eight-year-old son, but we are together discovering that decisions in this game can sometimes be difficult. For example, a person with no money left can't acquire cards very effectively (or donate to temples—another scoring mechanic in this game) and the number of spaces on the board that allow you to acquire money is pretty limited. There are several "farm" spaces which let you collect three coins from the bank, and one of the encounter card types also allows you to collect three coins from the bank. But this shouldn't be a problem, right? Since you can move ahead as far as you want, just grab a farm space when you need money, right? But it's not that simple. Remember that you can only move forward. By jumping ahead to grab that money, you relinquish the opportunity to gain points from any of the intervening spaces—and, if your opponent is behind you, you yield every single one of those spaces to your opponent! So some real thought must go into the question of when to make that jump. And moreover, collecting money is not the only reason you may want to occupy that space.

You may want to occupy the space simply to deny the money to your opponent. If you're rich and he's penniless, denying him an opportunity to gain money could be disastrous for him. 

Here a veneer of "niceness" begins to scratch off a little. 

This ability to deny resources to your opponents is a very clear opportunity for "take that!" type moves. Such moves are the paradigm of confrontational play. So then, why does the game have such a reputation for being a nice and non-confrontational game? 

People bring up "Zen" when writing about this game, and Zen Buddhism is influenced by Taoism, and in Taoism we have the concept of "Doing without doing." I have never clearly grasped exactly what "doing without doing" is supposed to mean, but you know, you get these flashes of insight. Classical Taoism—not the folk Taoism that's akin to alchemy but the philosophical Taoism of the Tao Te Ching—was about how to be a good ruler. (Whether of a state, or a household, or simply of one's self.) "Doing without doing" seems to have something to do with having a knack for being in the right place at the right time such that the people around you just fall in to place, doing the thing that's best, simply because of where you and everyone else happens to be, and what you and everyone else happens to be doing at the time. People may not recognize that you had anything to do with the excellent outcome, but somehow there they will keep finding you in the middle of success. Similarly, some expert chess player once said that Chess is a game of luck, but you have to make your own luck by knowing how to move the pieces such that everything seems almost magically just to fall your way. Sun Tzu said something somewhere about how the best victory is the one acquired without a battle. And so on. 

Peace can often hide a great deal of strife within it. It's none the less "peace" for that—but importantly, the wheels within wheels within that peace may be positively bloody.

In Tokaido what am I doing when I make a move? I am simply placing my in-game "body" in a place it has a right to be, by the rules of the game. What could be confrontational about that? Think of a game like Chess. In Chess, when I capture a piece, I physically remove one of my opponent's pieces from the board. Arguably, I do so against my opponent's will, in the sense that my opponent would probably like it very much if that piece were to magically remain on the board despite my capturing move. The confrontation here is overt. I physically interfere with my opponent's plans by actually touching my opponent (or anyway, his representation on the board) and forcing it to move where it doesn't want to go. But in Tokaido, I never touch my opponent. I simply am where I am. And we all have a right to be somewhere. Hence, I don't seem to be confronting my opponent. 

But if I'm on the last Temple space, and he needs to occupy that space in order to make a final donation to tip the donation bonus over in his favor, then my "simply" occupying the space I occupy is, in itself, a confrontational act of the most vicious kind.

Many games are characterized as "non-confrontational," and Tokaido is one of them. And undeniably, Tokaido is a nice game. It is pleasant to play. No one should feel stress while participating in this journey along the Tokaido road. 

But even acknowledging these facts, I think the lesson of this game is not exhausted by such observations. For in simplicity, reasonableness, and the avoidance of confrontation, we often find an engine built from strife, running on hard, costly decisions. And that's not true only on the board.


 


 


 

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