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Review: Tokaido (digital app)

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Tokaido is famous (at least in certain circles) for its striking visual appearance and its bizarrely laid-back theme of competitive vacationing in Japan. And no, it’s not “competitive” in the sense of stealing other’s belongings, sabotaging their travel arrangements, or poisoning their meals. No, the goal here is simply trying to enjoy yourself the most, experience the broadest array of culture, and take in the sights. It’s not even a race to finish first; if anything, taking more time on the road just gives you more experiences – and, as a direct result, scores you more points.

Now let’s about the recently released digital version of the game, an app for both iPhone and Android.

First and foremost, the aesthetic of the cardboard version has carried over perfectly to the small screen. The style is instantly recognizable, with heavy use of slightly-textured white space allowing the focus to remain on the adorable character design. Everything has been translated into 3D animated versions of their paper counterparts, given life with subtle animation that compliments the design. Characters jog along the path to their next stop, ships float at sea, the river water flows. The landscape is still mostly white, but bursts with color where the action is happening. The tiny icons from the board have been fleshed out into detailed little models; all in all, the charm has carried over and even been enhanced with these little details.

So pristine

The gameplay is faithful as well, although arguably to a fault. If you’re unfamiliar with the game: you’re locked on a linear path, shared with 2-4 other players. On your turn you move forward as far as you want, but can never go back, and wherever you stop you earn some reward. There’s limited space at each location, however, so where you stop may block other players (and vice versa) – and turn order is determined by whoever is furthest back in line. (For a complete rules rundown, check out Jen’s review of the physical game). The interface is simple; you tap on a location to select it, and tap again to confirm that’s where you want to go. You can drag the 3D board around to see further ahead, and there’s a flat iconic representation of the board at the bottom of your screen to help you keep track of who is where and what’s coming up. The only real difference is that in cardboard, you can see the whole journey at once, whereas the app only shows you the current leg of your travels.

So where does the fault lie? Yes, the gameplay is faithful, but there just isn’t anything added to it. No challenge modes, no alternate board configurations. No real experimentation with the media whatsoever. Oh, there are a few achievements, but most of them boil down to “Complete X number of games.” Nothing to change the way you approach how to play or mess with your perspective on the game.

A little breakdown of the different locations

The full, accurate representation of the game is nice, but that’s just it. It’s fine, but it’s not exciting. It doesn’t draw me back in to play again and again like other board game apps have. Perhaps even worse, because the app makes it so easy to play a quick game here and there you can quickly blow through the different characters. The more you play in a short amount of time, the repetitive nature of the game becomes exposed.

Oh, and I’ve never actually been able to play online. Yes, there is an online mode, and I think I would enjoy sitting down for an evening to play with strangers across the globe. But I’ve never seen anything other than “0 Rooms Available” when I log in. I’ve tried creating my own rooms, but not a soul has ever joined in.  If you want to play online, it seems at this point you’ll need to pre-arrange things with people you already know. I hope the community grows, but the longer it goes without players, the less people are going to even bother checking.

A little sad

You do have pass-and-play mode to play with people in the same room, and there only one person needs the app. That’s nice. The A.I. is certainly competitive, and if it has any weird quirks (as board game AIs often do) that cause it to occasionally make awful strategic choices, that hasn’t shown itself in any of the games I’ve played. It’s not a particularly tough challenge to win (unless you’re very unfamiliar with the game beforehand), but it is at least a competition. For what it’s worth, there are no difficulty modes; the AI is what it is, no easy, medium, or hard variants.

Perhaps the game is best approached in the same spirit as the theme; as a casual, relaxed experience. I certainly enjoy sitting back and playing a game or two here and there. Any functional board game app is welcome on my phone; it’s just not going to outshine other apps, at least for the time being.

Feel like a champ!

I do need to level some complaints against the user interface. The design so heavily leans towards “beauty” that it sacrifices ease of use. What bothers me most? It’s simply unclear exactly how many points you are scoring whenever you take an action. Point icons fly at your total, but no specific number is shown. It’s a small thing, but that kind of instant feedback helps people know if the action they just took was worth it. It helps people learn to play better. Even worse, you get NO indication whatsoever of how many points an opponent just scored, even though that information is public. You can see their overall total in a hard-to-read font at the bottom of the screen. You can tap your character icon (or your opponent’s icons) to see a breakdown of what you’ve earned, but even that is hard to parse out what each item is actually worth.

I’ve been places. I’ve seen things.

Keep in mind – these screenshots, if you’re viewing them on a laptop or desktop, are much smaller on a 5-inch phone screen. Those tiny numbers are hard to read.

There are a few other minor issues that just bug me. There’s no clear indication of your player color on the screen (and why can’t I choose my own color?). Your primary character icon, the 3D avatar on the board, and the small icon at the bottom of the screen are all just different enough that it’s hard to see at a glance where you are relative to everyone else. Even worse, player colors are completely forgone at the end of the game. I found it really easy to lose track of which characters were scoring which end-game bonuses, and even frequently spend a few moments at the end of a game trying to figure out where I placed. Minor annoyances, but they reduce the usability of the app.

I look at my character icon – my first instinct is that i’m purple. But no – and the image at the bottom of the screen doesn’t match the silhouette at the top left, so it takes me a few seconds to find myself. I’m grey.

The most annoying quirk, however, is the inability to speed up AI turns. You’re treated to a full animation of their characters running from place to place. It’s cute, but after you’ve seen it a few times you don’t need it any more, and it takes time. A lot of time. So much time that my screen often dims or goes blank while I’m waiting for my turn to come back around. I end up spending more time watching the little animations of my opponents than actually playing the game. I’ve played several board game apps that have speed controls or allow you to skip the animations entirely. Another minor inconvenience, but it’s this sort of thing that makes me think twice when I’m thinking about flipping open a game of Tokaido in a spare moment.

These complaints are relatively small, but enough to cause some frustrations and possibly enough to put people off from returning to the game. It’s a shame, too, as it’s a beautiful app with decent gameplay. Hopefully these quirks get fixed in early updates and more settings are added. Even better, add a few new gameplay modes to keep the offline game interesting.

Have I been talking too much?

Look, I don’t want to leave you with a bad feeling about this app. It’s fun, it’s beautiful, it’s simple, it’s relaxing. If you enjoy Tokaido in cardboard form, or if you’d like an entry point, this is a worthy app. I hope they clean up some of the usability features and maybe add some new modes or challenges to draw me back in. But if you take it as a relaxing, almost spiritual journey and enjoy the app as a leisurely, slow activity, you’ll get your money’s worth.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank FunForge for providing a review copy of Tokaido.

  • Rating 7.0
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Summary

Pros

Beautiful, beautiful app
Faithful translation of the board game
Decent A.I.

Cons

Nothing added to the experience
Online arena seems to be a ghost town
Some user interface annoyances

7.0 Good

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Your review echoes my own thoughts of the app.
    It seems beautiful but there is simply way too much downtime and not enough variability to draw me back to it again and again.

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