Final Thoughts on Tokyo Highway

I have too many board games. I know it. Perhaps you can relate. I wouldn't be much of an issue if it weren't for the physical footprint they occupy in my home. But it can't be escaped. Board games are physical beasts by their nature and it should be celebrated. A good game will not just simply exist in its physical space, but embrace it. Enter Tokyo Highway.


  Design : Naotaka Shimamoto & Yoshiaki Tomioka  Art : Yoshiaki Tomioka  Publishing : itten

Design: Naotaka Shimamoto & Yoshiaki Tomioka Art: Yoshiaki Tomioka Publishing: itten


This is a follow up article to a game covered earlier. As such, it assumes that you are familiar with the game and how it works. If this game is new to you, check out the Initial Thoughts video to see if it's a game you would be interested in.

There isn't much in a box of Tokyo Highway: a fistful of painted popsicle sticks, a pile of wooden discs, and little cars. It's a simple construction but it's executed to a beautiful standard typically found in Japanese board game design. A fully completed game of Tokyo Highway leaves an attractive relic of the experience that just transpired. It's sure to garner the looks of passersby and was a big reason why I dedicated valuable luggage space to it when I picked up a copy on a visit to Japan. Unfortunately, that display too often becomes a mess of toppled pillars and crashed cars.

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For a game that I'm praising for it's physical presence, it begins with a surprising sparseness. Two identical on-ramps facing off against each other in a game of chicken, hinting at the game experience to come. Each road is the same length and games can begin with trepidation as both players look for an opening to cross over or under the other. A sort of dance occurs as you look for holes in your opponent's defense, a bout of fencing played out in slow motion.

There's a surprising amount of thought behind each move you take. You're gauging distances, trying to move within striking distance without opening yourself up to counters. It's inevitable that you'll be crossed over or under, but hopefully you've positioned yourself better than your opponent and can place all your cars faster than them. To complicate matters, you have the Z-axis to contend with. Curse our 3 dimensional world!

Not only do you have to take into account how far your roads can reach, you have to consider clearance. You're roads are not allowed to touch another road and angling them so that they pass cleanly over another will surely catch you off guard from time to time. This leads us to Tokyo Highway's clever use of resource management.

Both players begin with an equal amount of pillars. It's tempting to simply build higher and higher in order to give yourself the opportunity to cross over your opponent. It can be difficult to maneuver underneath the evolving labyrinth, even with the included tweezers so it's tempting to build up and up. But there drawbacks are twofold. Your structures become increasingly unstable as you pile your pillars in increasing amounts. Additionally, the more pillars you use, the closer your come be to being eliminated due to running out of pieces. Though in practice, this rarely happens.

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There's a beauty in the simplicity of the pieces

 

All too often, my games ended in a crash of tumbling roads and pillars. A miniature disaster movie on the table. The rules dictate that you should rebuild the structure and hand over some pillar pieces to your opponent as a penalty. That's fine and well if the tumble occurs early in the game, but if it happens later on you're in for a bit of frustration. As the miniature highway system becomes more and more intricate, the roads and pillars settle into a delicate balance. Each piece becomes more and more integral to the structural integrity of the entire structure so the chance of a catastrophic collapse increases with time.

These collapses can put a real damper on the flow of the game. One moment you're caught up in thought as you mentally position your next move and the next your scavenging through the debris. Instead of partaking in the enjoyable act of creating and building up, you're suddenly in clean up mode. I suppose cleaning is fun for some. Not so much for me. And on multiple occasions, in the act of trying to reconstruct the highway I've knocked over even more pieces and was unable to put it back together again. An anti-climactic end.

 
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Some part of me thinks the game might be improved by eschewing any sort of reconstruction. It's such a drastic change of pace when you are putting things back together. But then that would take away some of the strategy. Trying to force your opponent to run out of pieces by making them knock things over is a legitimate tactic. So maybe getting rid of it isn't the best idea. Then I remember that designing games is difficult and there's a reason why I don't do it.

The absolute best part of Tokyo Highway is building the actual Tokyo Highway. The pleasure of watching your network creep across the table is some of the most enjoyable I've experienced in some time. It makes use of physical space in an ingenious way. There aren't too many games that really take advantage of 3-dimensional space the way Tokyo Highway does. Then, with a twitch of finger, it comes crashing down. I harp on the point because it's at such an opposition to the highlight of the game experience.

Conclusion

Tokyo Highway is a visual showpiece. It would be right at home in an architectural museum or chic coffee house. It will undoubtedly turn heads and for good reason. It's gorgeous. But there's some actual brains behind the beauty. It's a game of position with few restrictions, a head to head battle in the squared circle. I don't know what it says about me that the valleys stick with me so much more than the peaks. The satisfaction of creation and mental sparring the occurs is a true delight, but those moments of failure are a real kick in the stomach.

In a game like Junk Art or even Jenga, the topple acts as a cathartic stamp to the end of a game. Those experiences are a battle with gravity and a manipulation of physics. The crash is anticipated. It's to be expected. The hope for a successful game of Tokyo Highway should result in an impressive bird's nest of interweaving highways balanced precariously by your own hands. And when that doesn't happen, it's a real bummer. It can't completely erase the good vibes that Tokyo Highways sends out, but it certainly harshes them.


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