I have a rule here on Space-Biff! that I take rather seriously, that I always play a game at least three times before I evaluate it. Tokyo Jidohanbaiki is one of the few times I’ll be making an exception. It isn’t a single game, for one thing. Rather, it’s a compilation of eighteen minigames, across multiple player counts, play lengths, genres, designers, and even one that requires you to own another game as a prerequisite. Fifty-four plays and another purchase in order to write about a box that I keep mistaking for gum? No thanks.
But the bigger issue is that, despite being spearheaded by Jordan Draper, an up-and-comer with a captivating eye for design, Tokyo Jidohanbaiki is also an example of why collaborative efforts so often fall flat.
As a collection of components, Tokyo Jidohanbaiki is a diminutive stunner. The jidohanbaiki itself — a vending machine — is what nerds might call a “dice tower,” except rather than mixing dice it mixes drinks. Speaking of drinks, there are thirty-six of the suckers, a blend of colors and shapes, ranging from a stubby pop-top all the way to the nearly indistinguishable “tallest” and “not tallest” bottles. There are six vest-yellow crates, each perfectly suited to prompting an aww from the more sentimental among us. Even the game’s currency tokens and cards are handsome, with a pleasant glossy sheen that I haven’t seen elsewhere.
But in one sense, these gloriously adorable components only heighten the problem. If they had existed for a singular purpose, or even to showcase a handful of Draper’s smaller whimsies, they may well have been the perfect fit. Instead, many of the collected games have little to do with vending machines, drinks, or even the components themselves. And slapping a cute title like “Melon Soda” over the top doesn’t quite cut it.
I’ll give you an example. The first title in the rulebook, “Lemon Squash,” is a flicking game. It’s vaguely similar to billiards, in that your goal is to knock down all the bottles of your color by flicking your shortest pop-top across the table. The twist is that you’re required to knock down the bottles in the proper order. Hit them down in the wrong sequence, or overturn a rival’s bottle, and you lose some of your precious yen — and, if you go broke, return all your claimed bottles to the table.
It’s a cool idea for a minimalist flicking game. I love the idea of knocking around non-aerodynamic objects and having to account for their oblong proportions. The problem, unfortunately, is that it’s played with components that feel way too small. A bit like another Tokyo-themed game that I recently reviewed, it winds up feeling too fragile, even the best-aimed flicks careening this puny cylinder off the table and underneath the couch. Nearly every entry in the collection occasionally suffers from size constraints, asking you to relocate or swap bottles within crates, an exercise in how well you can pinch small objects, but it’s the dexterity titles that suffer the worst.
Another example. “Grape Soda” sees you placing your bottles into crates and swapping their arrangement in the hopes of jumping rival bottles. Jump enough bottles and you’re crowned the bottle king, which awards a lifetime of prestige at the low, low cost of your AA chip. But once again the components don’t quite seem to fit the game. Because the grid is so constrained, it’s wildly easy to jump bottles, and the match ends with a whiff rather than a roar.
Another. “Lost Bottle” is a deduction game in which both players are trying to figure out their opponent’s combination of bottle shape and color. However — and stop me if I’m starting to behave like a vending machine that keeps swallowing quarters — there are few enough options that arriving at a successful deduction is mostly about who guessed first. What a letdown.
Look, these are clearly meant to be trifles, and I’m not criticizing them for being small and quick. Rather, the issue is one of vision. Here are these beautiful components, begging to be fitted into a single coherent experience. Instead, they’re mismatched ideas and pieces, constrained at every turn by their tiny footprint, and running the gamut from dull to barely worth the effort to genuinely interesting.
Genuinely interesting — let’s talk about some of those, because not every game in Tokyo Jidohanbaiki feels completely out of place.
The two solo offerings, “Pura” and “Pura Pura,” are both breezy little solitaire experiences. The first is about arranging cans in crates, as so many of the games in this collection are, except you’re spending yen to swap or pack away drinks between crates and the recycling cards. There are even some real decisions to be made, such as when to chase bonus yen or turn in your bottles right away. As a design, it provides appropriate limitations, uses its components well, and even lets you chuck a crate of bottles into the vending machine to mix up their order. With so many details done right, it’s unsurprising that it was designed by Jordan Draper himself. “Pura Pura” also provides a cash restriction, but tasks you with sorting bottles according to the whims of the draw deck. Similar, but with its own spin that perfectly fits the available bits.
I wish I could say the same for some of the collection’s other interesting titles. “Genmaicha,” in which you bid on ingredients in order to brew and sell tea, feels like one quarter of an excellent microgame. “Kamikaze Cans,” wherein you both protect fragile glassware and shake up carbonated cans to shatter rival bottles, is worthy of a laugh, but still feels like it could have been developed into something fuller.
With only a couple of exceptions, that’s the problem at the core of Tokyo Jidohanbaiki. As an exercise in limitations, it’s undeniably interesting, prompting its host of designers to make use of an attractive but compact set of components. Unfortunately, an interesting creative exercise doesn’t always make for good play. I suspect it would have been better to focus on a single integrated core from Draper, then spin outward to highlight the work of collaborators. Instead, Tokyo Jidohanbaiki is a looker, but doesn’t provide much of a reason for a double-take.
A complimentary copy was provided.