My Life with Games (part 27)–Tokaido

If you’ve known me for any length of time, you know that I’m quite the Japanophile. Have a look at this picture of my desk at work to establish some of what I mean. And so, picking up a game themed on the Tokaido, the most famous of the ancient highways in Japan, shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise.

And look at it. It’s so beautiful….

But I resisted for a while, largely because I didn’t want to pick up yet another game. I’m trying to focus in on what I have, remember? (Only fair to moderate success, I’ll admit, but that’s still a concept I’m holding before myself.)

But then my birthday came around, and I had birthday money, and I realized that Tokaido would be perfect to play with Justice. Because it’s so simple and straightforward and peaceful. And so I bought it, and I’m glad I did.

This will make the most sense if you glance at this picture of the game board.

Sigh. So pretty….

Anyways.

That line across the board is the Tokaido, with its 53 stations (like Hiroshige showed us). You start at Kyoto on the left and travel towards Edo on the right. Whoever is furthest in the back takes the next turn. On your turn, you move as far ahead as you’d like (but not past the next inn), and do what the space says. As a rule, only one player per space. Each space lets you take a different sort of action, which boil down to different ways to score Journey Points. For example, in the village, you can buy little souvenirs. At the temple, you can donate coins. At the hot springs, you can bathe. At various points, you can stop and look at the scenery. From a pure mechanical perspective, these are mostly little set collection mechanics that score points. Simple and straightforward. Each player also plays a particular character, who gains a little power that lets him take advantage of certain stops along the road better than normal.

And that’s it.

You may be asking, “But where’s the game?” Oh, but you’re missing it. There’s a subtle interplay between two mechanics. First, since there’s essentially only one player per space, you can block other players from taking actions that they want by simply moving there yourself. On the other hand, if you move too far ahead in one go, you’re letting the other players take several turns before you get another one. How badly do you want to secure that next hot springs? Enough to let your opponents make several stops behind you? How much has your rush cost you?

And that concept is why I love this game.

You don’t win Tokaido by getting to the end of the road first. That would be a race game, and Tokaido isn’t about racing to the end.

It’s about having the most enriching journey. It’s about savoring the experience of traveling down this highway. It’s about pausing to gaze at beautiful landscapes or poking about in little local shops or sampling the local cuisine. It’s the opposite of rushing.

As I’ve read up on this game, I’ve seen a number of people throwing around “Zen” as a description of this game. I think that’s true, but not for the reasons that are often offered. Most people zero in on the peacefulness and simplicity of the game, and I won’t argue with that at all. But I think something deeper is going on that makes Tokaido a Zen game.

More than anything, Tokaido is a celebration of mindfulness, of being present in the present, of being truly here, wherever you might be.

I find myself currently locked in a battle with myself to be slower, to be softer, to be mindful. I’ve spent so long rushing from meeting to meeting that it’s become my default mode. But I want better for myself and my family. I don’t want to feel the pressure of the “next thing” bearing down on me. I want to be in the moment, wherever I am. If it’s time to work, then I’ll work. If it’s time to hug my daughter, then I’ll hug my daughter. I want to move slowly enough to see the beauty that God has placed all around me. I want to be, not just do.

And Tokaido celebrates this approach to life. It reminds me that victory isn’t found in efficiency and speed. It’s found in the celebration of all the good gifts that I’m being given every day as I journey through my life. And maybe this beautiful game will help me practice what I want to live.

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