• Game Length: 30-50 minutes
  • Mechanics: Dexterity
  • Release Year: 2016
  • Number of Players: 2 – 4
  • Game Length: Until you stop having fun
  • Mechanics: Dexterity, Route Building
  • Designers: Naotaka Shimamoto and Yoshiaki Tomioka
  • Artist: Yoshiaki Tomioka
  • Publisher: Itten

Tokyo highway has plain, unassuming cover, yet somehow the plain grey and large white letters stands out among the dozens of boxes with browns and greens promising wealth to the person who can trade their silks or spices in the most effective manner. The box is significantly larger than it needs to be, but I can’t fault it for that, it does lend itself to an impressive image on the shelf of a board game cafe (where I first played it).

The first time I played Tokyo Highway I was at a board game cafe with my little brother. He’s always wanted to do the things I do. He’s always read the books I’ve read, played the video games I’ve played. But when it comes to board games, while he tries his best, they really aren’t his cup of tea.

Saskatoon’s Friendly Local BoardGamery & Cafe

I tried to introduce Century: Spice Road to him. A simple trading game, only two players, lots of room to try new things and even some helpful pointers every now and then. He took literal minutes to make each decision, unable to quantify a value for each of the cards, often prioritizing the wrong cards and leaving the strongest cards for me to pick up for free when they get to the end of the queue. Needless to say, after a long game, I ended up crushing him. By the time I picked my 6th score card he had just managed to achieve his second one.

Having already paid the $5 entry fee, we didn’t want to pack up and leave. Tokyo Highway caught my eye. A big grey box nestled on the shelf between Splendor and The Voyages of Marco Polo. I pulled the box from the shelf, checked the back for a unhelpful summary and with a shrug dumped the contents of the box onto the table. Perhaps my brother would do better if we both were learning a game for the first time.

The rules were easy to read and explain. A mere two pages with simple and helpful graphics. While I read the details of how to win, my brother busied himself with stacking his cars on top of each other. The goal of the game is simple, the first person to place all of their cars first is the winner. You get to place a car if you ever place a road above an opponents road where there are no other roads above it, or if you place a road below an opponents road where there are no other roads below it. You place your roads (Popsicle sticks) from pillar to pillar, going up and down (you must always go one above or one below the last pillar you placed) and trying to weave above and below your opponent while they try to do the same to you. If you drop an opponents piece, you have to give them some of your construction pieces AND rebuild the game state. If you run out of construction pieces, you’re out of the game.

A bit of back story on me, I’m not know for loving dexterity games. My wife absolutely adores Jenga, and when that stack of blocks hits the table I prefer to take up knitting. The stress and anxiety the grips my shaking hands when trying to surgically remove a block from this tower is not a feeling that I ever seek to replicate.

Tokyo Highway somehow overcomes that aversion and fills my heart with joy. This is a game that makes me grin from ear to ear from the early turns all the way up to the crashing conclusion. When my turn to place my next road I relish the possibilities. Do I build high above everyone, scoring easy cars for going above? Or do I play a low game, conserve my pillars and snake close to the table sneaking under the highway when I can, sometimes causing my own demise when I try to wedge myself into a spot that I just wasn’t meant to fit.

The idea that when the intricate series of highways collapses you’re supposed to relinquish building materials and rebuild the game state didn’t really jive with my experiences. I much rather to play with the option that if you knock stuff down, then that might as well count as a loss. It doesn’t make for interesting or intriguing game play watching the player who was just embarrassed rebuild the entire structure.

From a competitive viewpoint, I don’t like it either. If someone else rebuilt my roads, but it fell on the next couple turns I’d forever be suspicious that they deliberately sabotaged my roads sending all my tiny commuters to their demise.

Part of me has to think of the thematic part of that rule. “You were not as good a builder as the rest of us, so we’re going to make you rebuild our roads too.” In any case trying to rebuild the structure brings the game to a screeching halt. This issue is exacerbated when playing with more than two players. If multiple players in a row make a mistake it can take entirely too long before the game gets back around to you.

I recently received the game for my birthday and promptly forced it upon my wife. The game started well with us both seemingly giddy with excitement that comes with having official car placing tweezers. We played one game that ended with a cataclysmic crash, sending at least 4 of my roads to their demise. We reset and played again, this time our roads were much tighter, resembling a double helix shape. We had junctions and half of my roads were high in the sky while the others snaked close to the ground, looking for any easy roads to sneak under. My wife took advantage of my strategy by managing to place one of her roads both above and below two of my own in a single move. I was flabbergasted with her mastery and skill with the official road placing tweezers.

I’m quite happy to have Tokyo Highway in my collection, and I do anticipate bringing it out during game days every now and then. I suspect it will be a hit with the kind of people who can’t make it through more than 15 seconds of rules, and it gets bonus points for looking great too. I can’t think of a single game of Tokyo highway that’s gone by where I didn’t pull a camera out and take dynamic shots of the impossible roads that make up Tokyo Highway.