Tokyo Highway is a 2-player dexterity, road construction board game released originally in 2016. Coming from designers Naotaka Shimamoto and Yoshiaki Tomioka, the game takes around 30 minutes to play. During this time, pillars and roadways will be built, with cars being deployed on the spaghetti junction like highway system. However, is the game firing on all cylinders or does it boil down to a sluggish traffic jam? Let’s find out!
To start the game off each player gains half of the components from the box: a set of 10 colored cards (pink or blue), 30 grey pillars, 3 yellow pillars and 15 road sticks. The initial placement sees each player place a grey pillar around a road stick length apart and place a road stick from the table up onto the pillar. To start the game off both players get to place a car on the road, described slightly confusingly in the rulebook as running a car.
From this point players will take it in turns to do 2, almost combined, mandatory actions and potential a single scoring action. By default, using only grey pillars, a player must place a new pillar onto the table. The new pillars height must be plus or minus one of the pillar before, though unless it is the final road it cannot go back to table height. For example, on the first turn the pillar before, placed during setup, was one pillar piece tall, so the new pillar must be two pillar pieces high. After this the next could be either one or three high.
Once a pillar has been placed a road stick must be placed between the previous and new pillars. The stick cannot be touching another road or overhang the edge of a pillar so at this point you might want to use the included tweezers to carefully adjust the placement of the new pillar. Once this is done, for every road that the new road is above and is the only road above, or every road that the new road is below and is the only road below, that player can place one of their cars onto the road. The objective is to get all ten of your cars onto the Tokyo Highway and the first to do so is the winner.
To make things a little more interesting are the yellow junction pillar pieces that players start with. These effectively allow players to break two of the default rules. Firstly, they can be built to from any height, not just plus or minus one, though must be on top of at least one grey (therefore are a minimum of 2 height). Secondly, normal grey pillars only allow for a single road, so one stick on and one stick off. Junctions allow for two different “off” roads. This can give the player choice when building off one route starts to become tricky.
The final rule is about the punishments received when part of the structure is knocked over during placement. Not only must the active player, whom caused the destruction, rebuild the structure before continuing they must also give to their opponent pillars equal to the number of components they knocked down. Why is this a punishment? When you run out of pillars you can no longer build and your opponent is free to construct roads and try to get all ten of their cars placed.
There is something rather special about Tokyo Highway when it comes to its elegant, sleek modern design, that starts from the moment the box is in front of you. Using very minimalist designs the game manages to be bold and striking, despite using what are effectively grey ice cream sticks for roads. The entirety of the colour pallet extends to four colours when looking at the components, meaning the cars and yellow junctions really pop from the muted grey roads. This is impressively done making the concrete boring bits of the roads actually look like a sprawling road system. There is little to distract away from the roads and cars, so the minimalistic aesthetics actually helps gamers make sense of the growing puzzle in front of them and still clearly see ideal placements.
Some players are naturally going to be better at the balancing aspects or planning ahead to maximise the number of cars they can get onto the roads. However, as with all great dexterity titles the player trailing behind can go for that “shooting the moon” approach. It is entirely possible to get three or more cards down on a turn late on in the game, but this will also come with a seriously difficult placement. Players trying for this is often what causes a downfall of pieces, but it can mean players are never truly out of contention.
The real problem for Tokyo Highway is the amount of times players will actually complete a game. Often is the case towards the end of the game, even on the potentially winning move, a shaky hand or a dropped component will see the structure below become half demolished. At this point it is extremely hard to not merely concede defeat: rather than remember where roads where, rebuild, pay the inevitable high costs of pillars and continue. This is an odd complaint to have in a dexterity game; no-one complains in a game of Junk Art or Jenga when components crashing down means the game is over. This is almost driven by the fact Tokyo Highway is as much a puzzle, working out where to place, as much as important as the placement itself. This sees players become engrossed planning out their moves ahead only for plans to be dashed as the structure falls down. When this occurs it can mean some gamers will be left with a feeling of an incomplete game as they couldn’t enact their plan.
A lot of players have been drawn in by the stunning visual appeal of Tokyo Highway but stayed to play the unusual combination of dexterity and abstract strategy. Some will certainly be frustrated when the puzzle side of the game is disrupted by the almost inevitable structural collapse. Nevertheless, that is what sets Tokyo Highway apart, and this unique blend will excite others. It would have been nice to see a more structured end to the game when larger collapses occur, perhaps a three-component strike and out rule, as it would alleviate the feeling of giving up on the game and conceding when it occurs. This being said, on the occasions when the structure doesn’t collapse there is enough to get your head around to make Tokyo Highway an enjoyable game to play.
[Editor’s Note: Tokyo Highway was provided to us by itten for the purpose of the review.]