Going Analog

Where video game industry veterans introduce great board games to video gamers

Art Board - Painting a city canvas in Tokyo Highway

How Itten Games uses basic components to generate a messy work of art in each and every game.

I could do a better job than this. It’s a thought that has crossed the mind of anyone who’s wasted a decent chunk of time in commuter traffic. Surely, if someone just designed this road system better, everything would run more smoothly.

Well then hotshot, it’s time to live up to those idle daydreams. Itten Games’s Tokyo Highway pits you against your friends in a battle to lay down the best winding maze of roads through an unknown section of Japan’s most famous cityscape. Don’t expect to create something perfect, though. The end result of a Tokyo Highway game is unavoidably a complete mess, but we can guarantee it’ll be one of the most beautiful states of disarray your table has ever played host to.

Art Board Tokyo Highway 1
An open field, ripe to be paved over by construction workers.

Here’s where we start: a city constructed of little more than a few sticks and a construction-truck-full of dreams. At first, Tokyo Highway’s color palette seems muted. Buildings are gray. Roads are gray. The construction blocks that hold up those roads? You guessed it, gray. It all makes sense, however, once the scoring starts. 

Successfully build over or under another player, and you get the honor of placing a colored car on the point-scoring pathway. Yes, Tokyo’s city mayor is apparently a fiend for space-saving constructions, so if you want to secure that contract, you’d best be prepared to push the boundaries of health and road safety. 

If you didn’t know it already, the saving grace of gray is that it makes everything else look damned good. As cars spring up across the expanding network, the colors immediately pop. Flashes of orange, pink, and red are eye-catching against the roads they inhabit. It makes for not just an impressive picture but an intelligible one; if you want to know who’s doing well, simply look for which colors stand out the strongest. By keeping the paint simple and clear, Itten has produced something both fetching and functional.

Art Board painting a city canvas in Tokyo Highway
Hang on, we're not sure these roads follow acceptable guidelines.

With four players, pairs of competing players quickly establish, snaking over and under one another in a race to put car to highway. Winding together like DNA helixes of the city, the two paths weave across the table before inevitably converging in a glorious explosion. When everyone meets, Tokyo Highway really kicks off. 

Scoring becomes harder as the mutual metropolis grows crowded. Players push ever higher, precariously balancing components with increasingly shaky hands. The verticality adds a new level of fascination to the game, begging you to circle the table and peer at your collaborative work from each and every angle.

Art Board Tokyo Highway end game
A glorious mess of sticks and cars.

Viewed from above, Tokyo’s Highway’s late-game resembles a Jackson Pollock painting. But unravel that seemingly mindless mesh of tangled popsicle sticks, and you’ll find that each road reveals a key decision and a delicate, nerve-wracking balancing act. 

Show a complete game of Tokyo Highway to an outsider, and they’ll struggle to comprehend what they’re looking at. But to those involved, the lines and cars form a tapestry of the game’s twists and turns, each player’s rise and -- often literal -- fall.

Tokyo Highway Art Board
Evening commuters in Tokyo.

Provided it didn’t all come tumbling down, you’ll find it tough to resist taking a picture of the finished product after each Tokyo Highway match, if only to serve as evidence that yes, you really did build something that ridiculous. 

Unlike other dexterity balance games such as Junk Art, it’s also rare for players to want each other to fail. Resetting is time-consuming, and there’s a shared desire to see the city expand for more point-scoring opportunities. It’s competitive, sure, but you’re collectively responsible for the glorious disarray you’ve created. No one wants to see it fall. Well, not until the game is over, at least. Then it's only fitting for Tokyo to receive a bit of Kaiju action...

Tokyo Highway Art Board destruction
Oh no! The city's been invaded by a green-shelled monster!

The most striking thing about Tokyo Highway is how it creates something so photogenic with such a modest set of components. As more and more releases opt for custom meeples and showy, expensive miniatures, it’s good to have Itten Games to remind us that simple doesn’t have to mean ugly. Even with just a few popsicle sticks and a handful of toy cars, a good art direction will carry your game a long, long way.

Art Board is a series in which we highlight board games that are more than just great to play; they’re also a delight to look at -- the kind of games that draw players to the table regardless of your snack supply. Whether it’s through distinct art styles, detailed components or clever design, these are the games that deserve to be admired.

Speaking of cars, if you need something to accompany your commute, have a listen to the Going Analog podcast for some board game-based laughs. We’d also love to see your ridiculous Tokyo Highway creations on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

Author bio: When he’s not losing himself as a mercenary in Frosthaven, Henry Stenhouse can be found scouring the web for the latest and greatest games, then wondering why he never has time to actually play them. Share your love of deck builders with him at @Fernoface on Twitter or drop an email to henry@moonrock.agency.