In Tokaido, players are Japanese travelers in the olden days, taking the famous Eastern Coastal Road from Kyoto to Edo (modern day Tokyo). They are not racing to reach Tokyo first, but instead compete to have the richest experience from their journeys. This is measured by, of course, scoring points.
The core mechanism in Tokaido is the player order mechanism in Thebes. There is no fixed player order. Instead the current turn is always the turn of the player whose pawn is furthest behind along the road. Once that player advances his pawn to any unoccupied space and takes the corresponding action, you check again who is now the furthest behind. It may even be the same player again.
Every location is represented by a dot along the road. Dots with a horizontal white line are used only in 4 or 5-player games. The bowl of noodles location is an inn, where everyone must stop before the next leg of the journey starts.
There are many different location types, which are basically different ways to score points. The first time you reach a seaside location, you score 1pt. The second time, you score 2pts, and so on. When you visit a souvenir shop, you get to look at a few souvenirs available and you may buy one. You score points for each souvenir, and you score more for more variety in souvenir type. You can make donations at temples, and at game end players score points based on who has donated more than others. The scoring methods encourage you to focus on just some of them, because the more you visit one type of location, the higher the reward. This creates competition among players who have decided to target the same location type. Even when you are not particularly interested in a certain location type, sometimes you want to visit them simply to deny your opponents.
Every player gets to pick a character at the start of the game, which gives special abilities. These usually encourage players to focus on one location type, so players will have slightly different priorities from the start of the game.
You often collect cards, so there is a bit of a set collection feel in this game. That large card at the bottom left is a character card.
The core mechanism is simple, so I had no problem teaching the game to my children (7 and 8). The many scoring methods took some time to explain, but none of them are complex. The children did not fully grasp how to prioritise the different scoring methods or how to play competitively, but they had no problems with the flow of the game. They played following their whims, and did not really think a lot about the scoring, as if they really were on a road trip and they could stop wherever they please. Maybe that's the ultimate form of playing Tokaido - that's really getting into the theme. :-)
Despite the relaxed atmosphere and the pleasant artwork style, there is competition. You do have to pay attention to what your opponents are focusing on, and you do need to assess when to jump ahead to grab a highly sought after location, and when to grab spots simply to deny your opponents. The inns, where everyone must stop before continuing, also create some tension. Whenever you reach an inn you can buy a good meal, which is worth 6pts (that's a lot). However the costs differ so if you are late, you may have to pay more. Also throughout the trip you must not eat the same meal twice. If you are unlucky, you won't be able to buy a meal even if you can afford it.
I absolutely love the artwork.
The scoring markers are tiny and can be easily lost. The score track advances in a zig-zag manner which is a little disorienting for me.
Tokaido works with families and casual gamers. It's straight-forward, and the artwork is very attractive. It feels like 7 Wonders (by the same designer) in that there are many ways to score points and you need to pick a few to focus on. Actually that can be said about many other Eurogames out there nowadays. That dreaded "multiple ways to score points" phrase again. Overall it is a pleasant package, but not very memorable (other than the gorgeous artwork). I would describe it as the turn order mechanism in Thebes being expanded into a complete, independent game.