I played the original Tokaido about five years ago and I love the relaxed gameplay, the beautiful art, and the one-way-street mechanism. That is when you can you move your piece as far down a track as you want to take an action, but you can’t go back. This mechanism is one of my favourites and crops up in games like Glenmore II Chronicles and Heaven and Ale. It leads to some really crunchy decisions: I desperately want to go to that space, but that will leave my opponents all of these juicy spots to choose from, what do I do? The only downside to Tokaido is that it doesn’t play well at two players.
What Is It All About
In Tokaido Duo you play the part of three characters: a pilgrim, travelling around the island of Shikoku; a merchant, selling their knick-knacks for rich returns; and an artist who savours every landscape. You control all three of these characters and the player who manages to make the most of their combined activities wins the game.
How Do I Play
At the start of your turn, you will roll three dice—each one matching one of your three characters. Then you choose one and move the corresponding character that many spaces. Yes, it’s a roll-and-move game! Please, don’t leave. Give it a chance. It’s not that bad. For example, you choose the artist die that shows a 2. You move the artist exactly 2 spaces.
Each character moves in a different way: the artist moves from one area on the board to another, going in any direction you please; the merchant only moves on the trade routes occupying the centre of the island; and the pilgrim moves clockwise around the edge of the island, always landing on one of the stations. After you’ve moved you get to perform an action. The artist can choose to paint or to give a painting. The merchant can either pick up wares or sell them for a tidy profit. The pilgrim can do a variety of things depending on the spot where they land: visit a coastal town, a temple, a garden, hot springs or the seashore. The coastal town gains you a few pennies. The temple and garden are solely for end-game points. The hot springs allow you to take the hot springs token which lets you use a future die roll twice. The seashore gives access to one of three special powers, each one linked to one of the characters. Once you’ve got a special power, your opponent hasn’t got that same power, but beware, they can steal it at a later point in the game.
Once you’ve chosen your first die, moved, and performed the appropriate action, your opponent chooses a die and repeats the process. You will now be left with one die. You use this to again move and perform an action.
Then your opponent rolls the dice and they get to choose the first die, etc.
The game ends in one of three ways: the pilgrim reaches the end of either their temple or garden track, the merchant earns their sixth gold slab, or the artist gifts their tenth and final painting. You get points for visiting temples and gardens, selling wares and gifting paintings. The winner is the person with the most points.
The One-Way-Street Mechanism
My biggest disappointment with Tokaido Duo is the lack of the one-way-street mechanism. Yes, the pilgrim can only move clockwise and never go back, but you are limited to moving what the dice shows. You don’t get to move as far as you want, leaving all of the other actions for your opponent. That tension is sadly missing.
Okay, let’s let that go and focus on what the game does deliver. Much like Tokaido, it is a gentle game. There are times when you can block your opponent from a spot. For example, you see your opponent has five vases to sell—they’re going to make a fortune!—so you go and sit your merchant on the spot where they can sell them for 4 coins rather than the other spot that only gives them 3. Fortunately, your opponent will have a chance later in the game to leave you the merchant die, forcing you to move. Blocking isn’t a huge feature of the game.
Getting the special powers early in the game is very useful. You don’t want your opponent to get there before you. The hot springs token is useful but you need to use it before your opponent lands on a hot springs station and pinches it from you. It’s always quite fun leaving the pilgrim die for your opponent with the perfect number that forces them to land on one of the coastal towns where they get a few coins. They’re not the best of spots. That’s really it for interaction and that fits with the gentle theme.
Do I Get To Make Any Meaningful Decisions
My main problem with the game is that I never feel like I’m making any crunchy decisions or any decisions at all; it feels very obvious. A turn goes like this: I roll the dice. Now, I check through each die, seeing what it allows my characters to do and also what it allows my opponent’s characters to do. I then choose the best die for me, based on this information and what I’m going to leave for my opponent. It feels a little like work, like checking figures on an excel spreadsheet. It's not hard work, but I rarely had to stop and actually think—just check, then pick the best die. I may be being a tad harsh here but I rarely felt like I had to put in a lot of thought. I’ve played it five times and I feel like I’ve seen everything it’s got to offer.
The consequence of that is that if you’re both paying attention to checking the dice then the outcome of the game is pretty much down to the luck of the dice rolls.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I love games like Tucano, Strike, and Quixx which all rely heavily on luck. The difference is that they’re fun. Tokaido Duo borders on being a relaxing activity for me.
The rulebook is very good and the game is simple to learn and very smooth to play. Once we’d learned the game we never had to go back to the rulebook. Everything is very clear. The components are, in general, good. The character pawns are lovely and chunky, and the artwork—in the same style as the original—is gorgeous. My only quibble with the components is the inclusion of an extremely thin colour marker to show your player colour. As we say in Yorkshire, it’s neither nowt nor summat. Either it needed to be larger and have more presence or omitted. It’s not a big issue. We played without them and it didn’t affect the game at all.
For me, Tokaido Duo is a disappointment. The one-way-street mechanism can be done well in a two-player game—Glenmore II Chronicles has some stupidly crunchy decisions and plays great at two—so its omission is a shame. But playing it on its own merits, accompanied by some soothing Japanese music, it is a relaxing experience. It’s a game that I would play every once in a while and enjoy, but it’s not something I’m going to hammer out plays of regularly. I know that some people really enjoy this game, so despite my lukewarm review, give it a try especially if you like games like Splendor and Century Spice Road. It has a similar relaxing feel that you may well love.