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Time To Hedge Your Bets – Topiary Review

I’m not normally one for the kind of childish (yes) humour (hmm…) that is found out there on the vast puerile pond that makes up most of the interweb, so if you are looking for double entendres about trimmed bushes and so on then you will need to hunt elsewhere.  If you just giggled then you certainly fall into that category, so off you trot, and I’ll deal with the grown ups here.  Let the proper review commence!

Topiary – puts the edge in hedge!

This may sound strange, but there is a series of hedges in a garden in Dorking that has been trimmed to look like a steam locomotive and its carriages.  The garden lies off the road, so you would only get to see this piece of magnificent carving if you happened to walk past it, but it is one of those totally pointless but yet triumphantly defiant things that I remember every now and again when I need reminding of just how odd people can be.  According to Topiary, the new game by Danny Devine, it was the Romans who started the whole turning-trees-into-shapes thing, and it has remained an interest of quirky horticultural souls ever since.

Topiary Board Game

T-Rex or Tree-X?

There is something really rather charming about the box for Topiary, because it features a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a bird on its back and what might just be a squirrel looking up at it.  Evolutionary incongruities aside, one would normally fear for the safety of the bird and squirrel, expect that here they are totally safe because the T-Rex is actually a tree, albeit one carved into the shape of this ferocious eater.  Other animals flit around the edges of the box, safe in the knowledge that they might at worst get hit by a twig rather than ripped into pieces by an apex predator.  You know what, it is warm and cuddly and I like it.

Access to all!  Meeples for everyone!

Topiary’s box itself is not particularly large, but is still oversized for the game’s components.  There is a scoreboard, tiles, meeples, and a simply folded set of rules, and that really is it, but everything is of decent quality, even if the scoring markers are very small indeed and liable to be knocked quite easily.  It is probably a good idea to keep the scoreboard out of the way of flying digits during the game itself.  The meeples, however, one set in each of four colours, are definitely worth a mention, for not only are they of different designs, but the green ones are wheelchair meeples, no less.  I actually gave out a little gasp of delight when I first saw this – Topiary’s garden is wheelchair friendly, and whether it turns out to be a good or bad game, this is a fine touch.

Topiary Board Game

The meeples are fun and inclusive.

The tiles are a decent size, moderately thick without being hefty, but still with the feel that they should stand up to a decent set of plays before they start to fray around the edges and need their extremities pruned.  They depict eight sets of trees, each of which is in five different sizes, and the simple aim of the game is to place your own meeples around the edge of a five by five grid of these tiles so that they have the best view of this lovely, calming garden scene.

Want to see the park?  It’s a gradual revelation!

The scene would be lovely and calming if that were all there was to it, but that simple premise is undermined by a couple of wrinkles that make Topiary what it is.  For a start, apart from the central tile the five by five grid is constructed face down, so the game begins with almost nothing in view, and it also does not require a mathematical genius to work out that not all the tiles will be used in each game, even with players beginning Topiary with three tiles each in hand.  Lastly, as becomes apparently oh so early in your first game, Topiary is as much about obstructing the views of other players as it is about ensuring that your own sight line is unblocked.

Topiary Board Game

How does your garden grow?

Get all the lovely trees lined up in ascending order of height along any row, column or diagonal and with one of your folks to view them and you can pat yourself on the back for gaining a whole bucket full of points, more if you have multiple trees of the same type, and that grail of the single-type ascending view will net you twenty points at game end.  More likely, though, players will be scrabbling around for six points here and seven points there, because a tree of the same height as the tree behind it will block it from view, while a larger tree blocks anything smaller behind it from sight.

Got your trees in order?  You can count on them!

Let me give you an example.  Leaving aside bonus points scored for multiples of the same type, a row of different trees with heights 1-2-3-3-4 would score ten points if viewed from the left (as the first 3 blocks out the one immediately behind it), but only four if seen from the right (as the 4 blocks out everything).  Placement therefore needs to be considered (incoming pun!) from all possible angles (I thank you!), but in another little twist, Topiary does not require you to place a tile on your turn.  You must place a meeple, certainly, but you then may place a tile.

Topiary Board Game

10 points so far for this viewer…

Placing involves removing a face down tile in the sight line of the visitor you just placed, and either revealing it or replacing it with one from your hand, but another little twist (which we found easier to play than to explain) is that each tile in hand at the end of the game scores points as long as there is a larger tree of the same design in the garden, always remembering that not all of the tiles are used in each game.  Given that players must place a visitor on each turn, Topiary therefore plays very quickly indeed, with a total of only 16 placements with two players, 18 with three, and 20 with 4.  Once all visitors have been placed (only one per viewing spot, please) it is time to tot up the scores and work out who has managed to give their group of followers the best view of the garden.

Theme can feel odd!  But it does some good things!

Let’s think about the theme for a bit, for although this does not really bother me, it is worth mentioning that Topiary gets you to place your visitors around a garden that is yet to be topographed (probably not a word, but possibly should be), which, if you stop to think about it, is an odd little concept, likewise the fact that at the end of the game some areas of the display remain curiously blank.  If that kind of thing bothers you, then it is going to bother you.  Crane your neck past that little blemish to the view, however, and Topiary reveals itself to be a pretty decent, light and colourful abstract game, containing all the ingredients to keep most gamers coming back for more.

Topiary Board Game

The box is way bigger than it needs to be.

For a start, like the best abstracts, it is as much about hindering your opponents as it is about helping yourself, and there is some skill in choosing which way to lean.  For those of us who cannot afford to spend a lifetime mastering a perfect information abstract, the revealing of face down tiles also injects a suitable amount of randomness into the whole affair, enough to level the field slightly but not so much as to make the game feel out of control.  The simple(ish) scoring and the colourful and endearing tiles are also good for drawing people in, and I would think that the fairly simple mathematics of adding together the numbers on the tiles, together with pattern recognition, would make this a fine choice to play with children.

Starts quickly! Slows as the decisions branch out!

While absolutely fine with two, playing in only around ten minutes or so, Topiary can start to grind with more players, even with fewer placements, as each person attempts to work out what is best for their next viewer.  To some extent this is mitigated by having to place first and only then having to take the choice over whether to reveal, but players will often know exactly which tile they want to place from their hand and where they want to place it, so while the designer has attempted to even out the end-heavy nature of the game, it still slows down substantially towards the end as people work out the relative benefits of each line of sight.

Topiary Board Game

Scoring markers are tiny.

Happily, though, scoring is only totted up at the very end of the game, so Topiary neatly avoids having three players bash the leader, unless they are the kind of mathematical freaks who can keep the scores in their heads ticking over all the way through the game, in which case they should probably be outside looking at trees.  Or something.

Is it tree-mendous?  Or should you leaf it alone?

In conclusion, while not particularly deep or meaty, I must admit that I have a soft spot for Topiary (the game rather than the hobby) and think it is a solid, light design with much to commend it, and it comes with a drafting variant in the rules for those who would like their leafy Tyrannosaur to have a little more bite, allowing players to have more control over the tiles they have in hand at the start of the game.  Think of the opening of Seasons but with tiles and trees and you will be on the right track.  Even so, Topiary lacks the star quality of those timeless abstracts that I come back to time and time again.  It is the kind of game you could put in front of new players and they would get it straight away and then realise in the playing what it has to offer, but for somebody with more experience of board games, or who loves abstracts, I think that I would always lean towards something like Hive or the wonderful elegance that is Yinsh for a head to head encounter.

Topiary Board Game

The art is charming.

For lighter gamers, though, and probably for those with gaming children, Topiary is an endearing creation, but one that is possibly slightly limited in its shelf life and up against some seriously good competition in the “colourful abstract” category – Santorini, anyone?  Sagrada?  Azul if you can find a copy?  The curious, though, would do well to check this out, even if briefly.  Topiary is a little like one of those fancy gardens, in that I could quite happily spend an afternoon there wafting around in the gentle sunshine, but I doubt that I would be using my yearly membership to return time and time again.  There is nothing seriously wrong with Topiary, nothing at all, but I fear that for all its charm it may well get lost in the thicket of light abstracts that are out there in the gaming scene, and while that may be a cause of sadness, the vast number of games released these days means that even something as clean and as lean as this is likely to be passed over.

In summary, Topiary is great for players who want a quick game to play with children, or a light and fun filler, but players will have seen much of what there is to see in a few plays, even with the drafting variant.  So Topiary does nothing badly, inhabiting that middle ground of neither bad nor great, but solidly good, and at least the theme is unusual.  I think it is probably fair to give Topiary 7 out of 10.

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.