What Is Topiary?
Topiary is a fast-playing worker placement and area control game for 2-4 players, ages 10 and up. It plays in about 20 minutes and is from Renegade Game Studios. In the game, players place their visitors around the outside of a topiary garden, trying to provide them with the best possible views of the living sculptures. It is available at retail, beginning today.
As you can imagine from a fast-playing game, there’s not a lot in the box, but what you’ll find is quality — and unique. In the box, you’l find:
- 40 sculpture tiles (8 types, each numbered 1-5)
- 32 visitors (4 colors and shapes with 8 for each)
- 1 scoreboard
- 4 score markers
- 1 rulebook
The tiles are all very nice, on thick cardboard, a bit larger than a Carcassonne tile. The tiles have eight distinct styles to them, different shapes the plant life has been shaped in. These range from animals (elephants, whales, and swans), to abstract shapes and even an icosahedron. The artwork is peaceful and serene, as you might expect from a trip to the garden. The sculptures are punctuated by wildlife and have a watercolor style to them. They are very nice.
The visitors are pretty awesome. There are four types and each is a shape that I’ve never seen before. The red visitor has a regular meeple body but what looks to be a big, bouffant hairstyle. Yellow seems to be wearing a ball cap, blue has what might appear to be twists or a TWA style, and green is a guy speeding along in a wheelchair. (Slow down and enjoy the topiaries, green meeple guy!) The unique meeples are a nice little surprise and, frankly, pretty darn great.
The scoreboard is a grid that goes to 50 and appears to be mowed in a pattern that leaves vertical stripes, adding to the theme. The score markers are very small pieces of cardboard, double-sided with a “50” printed on one side for tracking score when looping around on the track. They each have a colored meeple on them, but not in the shape of the visitor meeples.
How to Play Topiary
Some of setup depends on the number of players, which will dictate how many visitor meeples each player will get and the number of tiles in play. After making those determinations, each player gets the appropriate number of visitors in the color they choose and the garden is created by creating a 5×5 grid with all tiles face-down, except the single tile in the center of the grid. Flip this one over so it is face-up. Each player gets a (secret) hand of three tiles and you are now ready to begin. (There is also a drafting variant that allows players to choose tiles when receiving the three tiles for their starting hands.)
On each player’s turn there are two actions that can be taken. One is mandatory, the other is optional. First a player must play a visitor to the outside of the grid. The visitor can be placed to look down a column, a row, or down a diagonal line of the grid. When the visitor is placed, it is important to place the meeple so that is easily apparent which direction the visitor is looking — the game is all about sight lines. Only one visitor may be placed on any sight line, but multiple visitors might be placed near the same tile, looking diagonally and either horizontally or vertically. The second action, which is optional, is to pick up one of the face-down tiles in the sight line of the visitor you just placed. Take the tile into your hand and then place a tile from your hand into that empty space. This might be the tile you just picked up and the placed tile must be face-up.
To know how to decide where to place visitors and tiles, it’s important to understand end of game scoring, which will be calculated in three ways. For each visitor you have placed, you will count the value in the upper left of the tiles that your visitor can “see.” In this respect, Topiary uses a rule similar to a GeekDad favorite from last year, Photosynthesis. Point values correspond to topiary height and a 4 will block any 4 behind it (in the sight line), as well as any topiary with a lower number. A higher number will be able to be seen, regardless of what’s in front of it. Unturned tiles can be considered to have a value of 0 and do not block any sight.
Additionally, a visitor scores a point bonus for multiple topiaries of the same type in a single sight line. Three T. Rex topiaries will score 3 additional points to their tile values. However, the bonus is only granted if the visitor can see the topiary using the scoring mentioned above. Finally, at the end of the game, players reveal the tiles they have in their hands. Players earn the face value of points on the tiles, as long as one of their visitors can see a larger version of that type in the garden. (A 5 will never score from your hand because it’s impossible to have a larger version in the garden.) Most points wins!
Why You Should Play Topiary
Even if your only exposure to topiaries is the scene in Edward Scissorshands (before he moves on to haircuts), you’ve probably been enchanted by the floral beauty of these sculptures. Topiary, the game, seeks to capture some of that beauty. In the art, it certainly does, conveying a sense of calmness and peace.
The game is simple to teach and, after setting up the game, you can be playing within a minute. There’s a slight challenge in getting new players to understand the scoring and many first timers will want to stick to rows and columns while avoiding diagonals. That’s okay, though: games go pretty quickly and new players rapidly become seasoned vets.
While you might not expect it from a short and easy game like Topiary, there is a fair amount of take-that, especially as players become more familiar with gameplay. In a four-player game, players only have five visitors to place and, if you think about it, only half the sight lines are really good. That is, once a row, column, or long diagonal is opened up by the first visitor placement, each becomes a see-saw battle about which direction of the sight line will have the best view; a high valued tile placed at one end effectively blocks a visitor from coming in from the other side. To that end, oftentimes in the games we’ve played, the last visitor or two placed ended up being defensive — dropping a 4 or 5 in front of your biggest competitor so their visitor’s view was blocked. Cutthroat topiary viewing.
Speaking of visitors, we found that placing meeples flat, rather than standing up made them less likely to be bumped and moved during tile placements — and the positions of the visitors is very important for end of game scoring. The only complaint we had was that the scoring felt like it was one degree too complicated and that it might have been improved by removing the hand scoring at the end, a home-brewed rule that we thought was a big improvement, especially since the hand scoring didn’t seem to affect games that often.
Topiary is available now from Renegade Game Studios and retails for $30.00.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.