Top Pop Review

Top Pop will be on Kickstarter July 13th. Photos are from a pre-production prototype. Art isn’t final, etc. etc.

There’s a boundary surrounding every game, a demarcation in the minds and experiences of the people playing it (or at least me). It’s sort of a suspension of disbelief, but not quite. It’s related to theme, but not synonymous. It’s a way of describing types of immersion. It’s the game’s possibility space. I call it the border.

Once you see and understand the border the game changes. No longer are you thinking in the game’s terms, buying into the artifice. Instead your thought process shifts into a more mechanical space. You start thinking in numbers and odds and with a confident knowledge of all that the game could throw at you. When you haven’t yet discovered the borders of the game you can still be surprised by what it can throw at you–a card you haven’t seen, or a strategy you haven’t considered. Once you understand the border your engagement and surprise comes from your opponents, or from the randomizing factors in the game. Until you see the borders you explore; once you’ve witnessed, measured, and taken account of them you begin to master. The best games excel in both cases.

For most games I start to see those edges and understand what the game is packing after a handful of plays. With Top Pop it happened in the middle of my first play. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but a curiosity. The thin veneer of theme disappeared almost immediately. I hurried through my understanding of how the mechanical gears interacted with each other and started to analyze the player’s relationships with those gears. 

In some ways this is a blessing because Top Pop presents some interesting mind games. Here’s the gist: each player is trying to take control of different cities across the US for their soda franchises (that part’s unimportant). They do this by having more bottle caps in that zone than anyone else when their turn begins. So it’s area control where you not only need to take the zones you want, but hold them. Sadly, you don’t have much control over the holding–that’s determined by your opponents.

It’s a self-balancing game, then, where players need to have a good idea of who is doing best and make sure they don’t run away with it. Such games can work, but they can also hang on a knife’s edge. Top Pop is simple and open enough for people to recognize the game state fairly easily. 

The incentives are weird, though, and compelling. On your turn you must place a new location card either in front of yourself or an opponent. If you place it in front of your opponent you get an extra bottle cap. If you place it in front of yourself you might get more caps later on. This is because if someone wins a location in front of you, you get the caps they used to win (losers of any particular clash always get the caps they spent back), unless you’re the winner, in which case the caps go back into the bank.

So ideally you’d like everyone else to place and fight for locations in front of you, but you have no control over that unless you forfeit a cap per turn to place a location in front of you yourself. You’d also like to win battles, to, you know, score points, but in order to do that you need caps, and caps in particular colors. In order to beat someone’s stack of caps you must place a taller stack that contains a cap of the color of the person you’re surpassing. 

This often creates a no-win situation where you need to place a new location in front of the player who is winning so you can get a cap of their color to keep them from winning more cards, but doing so will give them more caps in the long run. The best way to get out of that scenario seems to be to avoid it in the first place.

Sometimes Top Pop has the elegance of a Knizia classic. Other times it ties itself into so many knots that it grinds to a halt. Reading the game state is so critical to even decent play that each turn progressively gets longer as the caps start to pile up.

The most awkward part of Top Pop, however, is with the scoring. Hidden scoring has always been a bit of a contentious issue among board gamers when the scoring is also trackable. The point is to bring an additional layer of informed uncertainty to the game, and that’s admirable. If everyone plays along and keeps track of who they think is doing well generally it can work. But for those who want to be competitive it’s a nuisance. Because all of the information is trackable you need to either spend a lot of effort memorizing the scores or take notes in order to play your best. I know a number of groups that have a rule that such information is always open and publicly available.

This presents a problem for Top Pop, as public scoring reduces the end game to a series of concrete calculations, fizzling it out. Private scoring only works if the participants aren’t too involved. And it’s hard not to be involved. You only score a particular location if you have claimed the most cards from that location. Knowing what everyone has scored can very easily be the difference between that card you’re eyeing being worth points or none at all. The entire situation feels less than ideal, and I don’t know if there’s a good solution for it.

When Top Pop soars it creates those wonderful moments where you’re not only playing against your friend’s moves, but also what you suspect they’re planning to do. I’ve found myself remembering gems like Modern Art and Inis in those moments. When Top Pop falls back down to earth it becomes a calculating grind. Nonetheless, despite its faults, I find it intriguing and somewhat quirky. Perhaps not a game I’ll return to often, but one I’ll remember as I continue analyzing and writing about the inscrutable art of game design.

Score: 6/10

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