Board Game Gumbo: Spice It Up with Tokyo Highway
Does your game group enjoy dexterity games that are not just about flicking discs or dropping polyomino shapes? Do you like a good theme overlaid on your abstract strategy game? Then Spice it up with Tokyo Highway.
The game was very hard to get when it was first published as a two player game that could only be found in Japan, but was released in late 2018 in America in a new, beautifully produced four player edition.
I first heard about the game from friends Jake and Danielle Bock, the voices from The Draft Mechanic Podcast, a fellow member of Punch Board Media. Jake's fascination with the route building, strategy and Dexterity skills needed to win really painted a vivid picture in my mind about this game. Luckily, the real thing didn't disappoint.
The premise of Tokyo Highway is pretty simple. Players get a set number of highways (represented by gray craft sticks) and connectors/junctions (represented by gray discs), plus, of course, their own set of miniature cars in their player color. In order, they will place the sticks on one or more discs, connecting each like a spaghetti noodle of highways one level higher or lower each turn.
The goal is to design your highway to cross over or under another player’s highway, one that has not been crossed before during the game. If you do, you get to put one or more cars depending on how many highways you cross. It sounds simple, but the sticks and cars are small, and our clumsy fingers expand as we get older (and even seem to get larger and clumsier during the game). It is no easy task to balance a tiny car on a highway that is four or five levels high without bumping into another player’s pieces.
Players will criss cross back and forth around the city, which is helpfully realized with large wooden towers representing “skyscrapers” we have to navigate around. The effect is impressive and mesmerizing, and looks amazing on the table, but clumsiness and close quarters bear a price: if a player knocks over another player’s handiwork, for every piece that falls, the clumsy player has to give the other player one of the leveling up discs from the personal supply. If a player ever runs out of discs, then they are out of the game.
Play continues until the first player places his or her last car on a highway. That can happen quickly, because there are a few ways to put down multiple cars. The most common is to cross over two or more highways, but the other one is more stealthy especially in late game situations. If a player manages to build an exit ramp back to the ground, coming of course from a one level highway, then two cars can be placed on the highway. A player needs to consider that this maneuver will end their turn, unless they have a way to branch out.
The designers have helpfully given us a way to go in different directions, providing two yellow discs that act as junctions -- a player can branch out in another direction from a yellow disc, or even raise or lower the level of the highway as much as the roads can take the stress, as long as there is at least one gray disc under the yellow one.
Friends, there are two ways to look at the production of this game. The cynic will look at this box, and declare that this is nothing more than painted craft sticks and cut wooden dowels, with some cute cars thrown in. And frankly, that is a pretty fair assessment.
But the open minded will stare with wonder at the box contents, marveling at how a designer used simple components to create something that looks amazing on the table. The star gray components look bland in the box, but when contrasted with the bright colors of the cars amidst the skyscrapers, the effect is brilliantly done. Plus the game comes with a great custom molded plastic insert that perfectly fits the highways, joiners, cars and skyscrapers.
My personal history in playing and teaching the game many times with many new groups works out almost always the same. There are lots of laughter as the pieces are laid out in the player’s area, with calls for "I can make that at home" and "Oh great, a popsicle stick game?" Then, wonderment begins to set in as the city takes shape before the players' eyes, not to mention the curious looks from an ever larger crowd that will gather around to see the metropolis rise from the game table. The end of the game almost always reveals a desire to play the game again, with exultation from the players that the components are perfect for their intended purpose.
Yes, your mileage may vary, but that's pretty much the standard response. Be forewarned.
I will admit that the $50 retail price tag at Barnes & Noble (where I believe it is exclusively sold here in America for now) seems a bit excessive for the production. With over 600 B&N locations around the country, it is safe to say that the American print run had to be at least 2000-3000 units or more. So what would a "fair" price be? Based on my conversations with players, the perceived value of the game is about two-thirds of that price.
And the game itself is not without flaws. The rule set is at the same time well done and frustratingly obtuse in important areas. The majority of the rules are clear, with good illustrations to understand the examples. Yet, there are a few key rules that are not that clear in the rules:
Players are specifically prohibited from scoring when they cross over a road that has been scored upon already, but what about when you cross under a road that has been crossed under already? The rules are not clear, but we play that you cannot score a road twice in any situation; and
Can a player go back and change one of the discs to yellow in a later turn? Where do they build from on that turn, that disc or can they lay out another disc? We play that you can go back, but warn the players that it is dangerous to do so because they can knock a lot of pieces around in the process, and we limit the building to a highway coming from that yellow disc. It suggests that that way in the rules, but frankly is not that clear.
Neither of these rules break the game experience, but are important for scoring. Unfortunately, there are not enough players yet on BGG posting strategy and rules tips to find good solid responses to these questions, but by the time you play the game, hopefully there will be. Until then, we treat this as a game where “house rules” can be just as important for fun play as anything in the actual rule set, so long as it is clear to all players at the start of the game.
BUT IS IT FUN?
Faithful readers of the Spice It Up segment of the blog know that determining whether a game is fun is not really an exercise in objective standards. You can read the above sections and decide for yourself if the rules are innovative and interesting or stale and degenerative. You can look at the box contents from the pictures posted here and on the social media networks, and comment as to whether the production quality inspires wonder or cognitive dissonance. We can even debate the rules and the endgame conditions.
But the subjective nature of reviewing a game always comes down to the personal preference of the player who reviewed the game. Is the game fun to play?
I understand that I cannot live your experience, so I won't even try. Instead, I will just tell you my experience and where I come from in gaming. I love games that provide a deeper experience than the box components appear to bring. Tokyo Highway does that in spades. It looks like a children’s toy, but on a tougher scale made for adults. And then, when players begin planning out their next moves, a realization grows that careful planning AND execution of the dexterity nature of the game is required to win this game.
For me, that realization came in the very first game as I tried to time my exit ramp to finish the last of my two cars. I was out of yellow discs, and could not get my highway down fast enough before another player ended the game. It got me thinking about when to use the yellow junctions, how high to go in the early game before coming back down, whether an in-and-out-and-back strategy of building is better than going as high as you can to cross multiple roads, and the benefits and drawbacks of trying to go lower than other players.
When a relatively small print game can make me think that much about strategy, in addition to testing my fine motor skills, with no luck in the game, and all of the information perfect and visible at all times, then that is a game that scratches a deep itch in my experience.
And let’s forget about the cold calculations and tactical decisions for a moment, because Tokyo Highway also brings out the joy of interacting with the players the entire game. Do you play games like this in a friendly fashion, where each person is cheering the other player to make intricate moves with their highways, and forgetting the score for a moment or two? Or is it more cut throat with lots of smack talk during the game as the competitive juices begin to flow? I’ll bet that in most games it is a mix of both, and that friendly competition that the game draws out is one of the best things about Tokyo Highway.
In a word, if you are looking for a good beer and pretzels dexterity game that has some cool strategic moments on every turn, that will pop on your game table and draw some interested looks during game night, then look no further than Tokyo Highway. In the big category of stacking games, Tokyo Highway is one of my favorites and one of my favorite dexterity games of 2018.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
-- BJ @boardgamegumbo