As interest in board games continues to rise, so too does the interest in exploring new ways of playing those games. One such way is through digital ‘ports’ of those games – translating them PCs, consoles, phones, and tablets.
While digital versions may not exactly replace the feeling of a physical board game, many add subtle tweaks that such as for solo play, campaign modes, online competition, or simply as a more portable way to enjoy the game. This is new territory to explore. Welcome, to the Pixel Provinces.
FunForge’s new Tokaido app brings up a very interesting question about the nature of digital board games: why do we play them? Do we play digital games in an attempt to replicate the physical versions? Are we just looking for a similar strategic experience? Or is it something completely different?
Or maybe we’re just looking for fun and don’t care about any of those other things.
Hold on. Let’s back up a step…
If you’ve never played Tokaido, it’s a set collection game that sees players traveling along the Tōkaidō road, one of the great roads of Japan’s Edo period. Players compete to have the richest travel experience by collecting souvenirs, gourmet foods, panoramic paintings, and other adventures.
The strategy comes in when you have to choose which space on the map to visit next. Jumping far ahead guarantees you’ll get the spot you want, but it means you’ll make fewer stops on your journey. Fewer stops means fewer experiences. And fewer experiences means less loot. So you must carefully choose your destinations to maximize your rewards. And because players regroup three times before the end of the game, you’ll need to make that choice repeatedly.
In reality, the game isn’t strategically heavy. In fact, you can do pretty well just choosing the next available space on the board, though trying to maximize the bonuses you get from your character card’s special ability helps, too.
So, then, how can a relatively simple set collection game bring up questions about why we play digital board games?
It’s all about the interface.
The physical version of Tokaido is a work of art. The board, the cards, and even the box are absolutely gorgeous, and its overall appearance is part of why it has garnered such a positive reception. And it’s clear from the onset that one of FunForge’s goals in making this app was to capture that same essence by making it as visually appealing as possible.
Therefore, instead of going with a more traditional board game app design layout (say with Twilight Struggle or Ticket to Ride) they fittingly took a different path. Tokaido looks more like a lightweight sim game or a throwback to the classic tactical RPG Final Fantasy Tactics than a standard game app. The 3D visuals, fully animated characters, sound effects, and ambient music all make for a very different experience than the physical game.
In general, this makes for a really entertaining app with a vibrant yet minimalistic presentation. That said, if you’re used to more toned-down displays, it can take a while to get used to. Sometimes it’s hard to see which spaces are available, for instance, and scrolling to see the next available spaces can be quite difficult, slightly diminishing its otherwise sterling mien.
Thankfully, the map across the bottom of the screen helps a lot; it’s not nearly as visually exciting as selecting the individual locations, but it can be a bit easier to find the spaces you’re looking for and send your character there.
Once you get used to the atypical presentation and the occasionally annoying interactions with the larger map though, it quickly starts to feel just like the physical game (or the BoardGameArena version, which is also great).
However, uninformed travelers beware. If you haven’t played Tokaido elsewhere prior to the app, you might want to read up on the rules beforehand. The app does provide a decent tutorial that walks players through the feel and pacing of the game, it doesn’t explain everything – particularly the VP rewards for many of the actions taken. The full game will have some rules reminders and a few explanations scattered about, but that’s about it. So while newer players can learn the basics via the tutorial, to get a complete understanding of the game it’ll be easier to read or watch the rules elsewhere prior to starting down this digital road. For a fairly accessible game that’s not particularly complicated to teach to begin with, omitting anything from the tutorial seems to hinder the learning experience rather than aid in it.
For competition, the app provides two options. The first is to play against the AI (albeit with a minimum of three players), which is a fun way to practice. You can whip through a game pretty quickly, especially if you set the AI to fast mode, which you’ll likely want to do after watching Name1, Name2, and Name3 trot around the East Sea Road a few times. (That being said, the sped-up characters in doing so are rather goofy-looking and can detract from the gravitas of the game.)
There are no scaling difficulty levels for the AI, but the computer opponent seems to be at least moderately adept at making decisions. It may not be outstandingly challenging for experienced Tokaido players, but the app’s AI is smart enough to make for an entertaining opponent in quick games.
Your second option is to face other humans. In offline mode, the app offers a pass-and-play mode for two players using the traditional two player rules. Tokaido also provides online play, but unless you’re playing with friends this feature comes off very underutilized, as the online lobby isn’t exactly packed with players. I imagine, however, that it’s very much like playing against the AI, but a little slower.
Editor’s Note: As of this publication the app now allows you to maintain a highly desired friend list for online play, as well as public game option, which may help with the lobby issue.
In the end, FunForge’s Tokaido app implementation provides a great gameplay experience. While the app doesn’t contain a lot of the bells and whistles found in similar game apps, it nevertheless maintains the core zen-like essence of what makes Tokaido so endearing. In that way it’s just like the board game: an aesthetically pleasing journey about making the right choices and planning ahead where you can.
What’s more, the choice to present the game in a unique format pays off, helping it stand out among other digital family games. The result is that the Tokaido app is at once familiar but wholly distinct from its cardboard parent.
Which begs the question: is this Tokaido a truly digitized version of the board game or a video game reinterpretation?
And, in the end, does it even matter?
Tokaido proves to be a fun, well-designed port that captures the lightweight strategic fun of the original. Some of the standard app elements you’d expect are regrettably absent and others are at times underwhelming (the touch interface could be better, for example), but overall, this a good digital version of a good board game.
Dann Albright is contributing writer with an enthusiasm for games both physical and digital. He can be best reached via Twitter.
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