There’s a certain beauty in a subway line map. Sure it’s utilitarian, but it’s admirable how much information it can convey in such an efficient manner. Navigating the serpentine tunnels of a major city would be impossible with them and in a city like Tokyo, the militant punctuality is downright impressive. Here’s to the subway maps of TOKYO METRO!
How it Plays
TOKYO METRO has you investing in the development of the public transit network of Tokyo with the goal of making the most money. There’s a central map of the Tokyo subway system and an accompanying income track to keep tabs on how much money each line makes.
Each round is divided into 5 phases. The first phase simply refreshes the action card grid, removing the lowermost cards and adding a new row to the top. The next phase is a blind bid to determine turn order for the rest of the round. All bids are paid to the bank and the player who paid most is goes first, the player who played the next highest goes second, and so on. In the movement phase players will move their meeple up to 2 spaces on the grid map. The majority of the action happens in the appropriately named action phase.
Players take turns placing action discs on the action spaces of a cascading grid of action cards. Placing your disc blocks other player from taking that action and will immediately trigger the associated action. These actions are many and varied. Some are simple such as moving your meeple, gaining a bike to increase your movement, or gaining additional action discs. But the meat of the game revolves around investing, speculating, and building stations.
At the onset of the game there are no running trains. To get them operational, you will need to invest in one by purchasing a stock. Any money invested in it will increase that train’s income. Speculating is essentially placing a bet on a train. You’ll place some amount of money aside and will get a variable payout that depends on the performance of that train. Importantly, you cannot speculate on a train that you own stock in. With the Station action you can build one of your stations on one of the prescribed station spots on the map.
After all players have used all of their action discs or have passed, the train phase begins. Every train that is operational will move 6 spaces along their route. If a train moves through one of your stations and you own stock in it, that train’s income will increase by 500 yen. If you do not have stock in it, you’ll earn 200 yen in cash from the bank and the train’s income will increase by 200 yen (100 yen is lost to bank transfer fees or something).
After all trains operate, the action cards are cycled and the game continues until there are no more action cards to draw. Any speculations are paid out of the trains income and the the stocks are paid out depending on how high the train’s income is. Whoever has the most money is the winner.
TOKYO METRO is strange. It’s a train game, but you don’t lay any track. It takes a lot of space on the table, but it comes in a tiny box. There are stocks, but you can only ever have one in a any given company. It’s the kind of strangeness that gets filtered out when put through a committee. It’s the kind of strangeness that comes from a one person operation. It’s the kind of strangeness that comes from a personal place. If left unchecked there is the danger that the vision of one person is responsible for the creation of something that only appeals to one person, the creator. Designer/publisher/artist Jordan Draper has avoided that pitfall and has created something that appeals to at least one other person, me.
I’m typically a sucker for train games so I was initially wary of the idea of static routes. It’s not a completely foreign concept. The most popular train game around does the same thing. But I enjoy the creativity and interactivity engendered by laying track. It requires you think on your toes as you’re cut off from your intended target. Games tend to work out in new and fascinating way each time you play. Just a simple choice in track layout will ripple out over the course of the game and create fresh and varied scenarios. But as much as I love route building and track laying, TOKYO METRO is a different beast. It instead finds an avenue for these qualities in its action selection system.
The idea of placing markers to take an action certainly isn’t a new one, but having a randomized board of cascading actions complicates it enough to make it satisfying. And while there is an element of acquiring more action discs to take more actions, I haven’t found it to be a clearly dominant strategy. Doing so comes at a considerable opportunity cost. Giving up an action to get another disc means giving up the chance to invest in a train or build a station. Getting to certain actions first is of such importance that turn order is determined via a blind auction.
The words “blind auction” are enough to send shivers down certain players’ spines. I’m not one of them. It avoids the pitfalls of having auctions that drag out through a series of minimal bid increases. You’re forced to be quick and decisive while also still be mindful of how much other players are able to bid and considering which actions they are likely to want. It is a small part of the game, but it has a fairly sizable impact. It’s not just a vestigial means to determine turn order.
Becoming the first mover can really pay dividends for a few reasons. Station spots are exclusive and staking your claim early can cut people off and throw a wrench in their plans. Also, being the first investor in a train line is cheaper than being second or third. It also pays better dividends at the game’s end. Spending an action to get another disc could mean missing out on that, though you do get a few yen for every unused disc you have when you pass.
There’s also the discount action. By placing your disc on a discount card, you’ll be able to get a reduction on a future disc placement. Again, it’s TOKYO METRO highlighting tempo as a resource. Sure, you’ll save some money, but giving up a turn to do it may cost you dearly. Turn order and priority placement become carefully managed items to juggle amidst everything else the game throws at you and provides for tense decisions of trade off.
With about a dozen distinct actions that are revealed in random order, TOKYO METRO is able to mix things up in real and appreciable ways. If there are few investment actions and lots of station actions showing it will be a fight for the train companies and vice versa. With a static map it’s important that there’s variability from game to game.
Setting the game in a real world location means being true to the geography. Changing the map for gameplay purposes is a tricky proposition. Any changes to the map means compromising historical authenticity. I’m usually not too bothered by such things, but from my limited knowledge of the actual Tokyo subway system, TOKYO METRO’s map appears true to life. That means that some stations will be more traveled than others with a higher potential for income. This has the potential for stale game sessions as players just gravitate towards these sport, but TOKYO METRO deftly avoids this pitfall due to some smart design choices.
The high trafficked stations are also the most expensive. And in a game where money is incredibly tight, staking your claim in these spots isn’t an automatic choice. Furthermore, owning a station isn’t a guaranteed money maker. It’s only one piece of the puzzle. Stations will only generate money when a train runs through it. You might think, “Fine, I’ll just invest in a train and run it through my stations.” Sure, but that will take more money and remember, if your trains run through your station you don’t get any cash, the money goes straight to the train company. Not so simple, is it?
What I’ve found is that you’ll need to interact with the other players in order to remain solvent and competitive. That means building stations on lines that others are invested in. You might be helping them a little, but you’ll receive liquid cash that you can hopefully convert into more valuable assets. That means helping someone’s train line become more valuable and then investing in it yourself at the last minute to get a major portion of the profits. And if see someone setting up a fantastically lucrative train line setup, time to speculate that company and siphon off the profits when the game ends. It’s these interactions that make game sessions memorable and TOKYO METRO is full of them.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows in the land of the rising sun. In order to fit such a large game in such a small box, the map and board are made of cloth. I’ve personally never enjoyed using cloth maps. The folds and wrinkles can get in the way of clarity and make it difficult to place pieces. The map of TOKYO METRO comes out unscathed on these fronts. The player pieces are chunky enough that they can lay flat and the graphic design is easy enough to discern. It’s the income track that doesn’t fare so well. The income markers are tiny wooden pointers that can easily slide on areas where the board has folds and the income numbers are a little hard to read due to the decreased resolution of printing on cloth. I even tried ironing the cloth, but after a week packed away in the box the folds returned. It’s an inconvenience, but a minor one in the grand scheme of things.
The bigger hurdle to enjoyment is the train phase. When running trains, there isn’t much thought going on. You simply move the train and adjust the incomes accordingly. When the game starts, it’s a relatively brisk one as there will only be a few trains and stations. But as the board fills up and more trains come online, it can get quite lengthy. These type of bookkeeping phases aren’t unheard of in board games, especially train games, and even though there is a certain zen-like enjoyment derived from adjusting markers on a track, it can really mess with the flow of the game. Thankfully, by the time this phase gets really long the game will be nearly over.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first played TOKYO METRO and even after having played it, I don’t know if I could give you an elevator pitch for it. It’s an odd duck in the train game world, but one that I find strangely enjoyable. Investing and symbiotic relationships are a surefire way to get my attention and TOKYO METRO executes it in such a delightfully strange way that I’m sure to be exploring the metro for some time to come.
Review copy provided by Jordan Draper Games.