14 August 2018
Don’t hedge your bets on this great little abstract game
Gardening may seem like an unusual theme for gaming, but some recent releases have given players a chance to exercise their green fingers. There’s Cottage Garden, from Agricola designer Uwe Rosenberg; Lotus, by husband-and-wife team Jordan and Mandy Goddard; and now Topiary, a tile-laying game that sees players competing to create impressive collections of hedge sculptures.
Its action revolves around a five-by-five grid of facedown tiles, each showing a different type of carefully crafted hedge art. You’ll start the game with a hidden hand of tiles and a collection of coloured meeples, representing visitors to the garden. On your turn you’ll place one of your visitors on the edge of the grid, aligning them with its rows and columns. Then you’ll choose any tile on the table and either turn it face-up, or replace it with another from your hand.
You’ll gradually reveal a little more of the garden with each passing round, placing a variety of topiary designs: dinosaurs, swans, whales, elephants. Larger sculptures obscure smaller ones, and you’ll gain points for each one that your meeples can see from their positions at the end of the game.
It means you’ll be able to place tall tiles to block your opponents’ lines of sight – an aggressive move that feels great, but won’t endear you to your fellow gardeners. You’ll constantly have to choose between building scoring opportunities for yourself, or wrecking them for your rivals, carefully considering whether what looks like a high-scoring move could inadvertently open up opportunities for your opponents. With more of the grid revealed on every turn, the decisions get increasingly complex as you play.
It’s a constantly evolving puzzle, and what’s most impressive about Topiary is the way it generates tricky decisions using such a simple set of rules. It’s a tight, elegant design that’s straightforward enough to appeal to your non-gaming friends, but it’s also engagingly brainy, rewarding an ability to adapt to the changing state of the game. It wins extra points for including wheelchair users as meeples, a welcome inclusive touch that also adds some visual character.
Things do take a slower turn at the end of the game, though, when you’ll calculate your final score. It’s not a complicated process, but working out the points gained for each of your visitors takes a little light arithmetic, and it means that Topiary doesn’t quite hit the same levels of simplicity as other newbie-friendly titles like Splendor.
It also comes in a box that’s easily twice as big as it needs to be. It’s straightforward and fast-playing enough to be an ideal grab-and-go option to throw into your bag on the way to a game night, and it’s a shame that publisher Renegade has missed the opportunity to release it as a compelling small-box title.
But this is a family-friendly game with a subtle cerebral edge. It’s got plenty to please new or more experienced players and, with a built-in tile-drafting variant that reduces randomness and shifts the emphasis towards more considered planning, it promises to have an evergreen appeal.
It’s quick, simple and intuitive, but Topiary combines a tricky puzzle with an element of ruthless competition. It mixes fast-flowing gameplay with brain-teasing appeal, and it revels in ruining opponents’ carefully-laid plans. Who knew gardening could be so vicious?
Designer: Danny Devine
Artist: Danny Devine, Jeff Oglesby
Time: 15-30 minutes
This review originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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