24 September 2022
There’s a mole behind enemy lines
Topoum offers a somewhat bizarre thematic meld, combining the horrors of the First World War with moles. Players control competing armies of moles on the cratered battlefields of the Western Front, popping up out of molehills, flinging bombs and vying for territory. What this boils down to is a mostly card-driven abstract where you score by making lines between two of your pieces and frustrating your opponents’ attempts to do the same.
At the start of the game you’ll choose a suite of seven action cards from a selection of twenty-two – the manual suggests some combinations that work well together, which stops this decision becoming too paralysing on your first few playthroughs. These cover simple actions like attacking a mole in an adjacent hex, attacking a mole at range, or even blowing up a hex altogether. Players take two cards in hand, then five more get dealt out in a common marketplace, where taking cards from further along the line costs you victory points (or ‘medals’, as the game would have it).
The artwork and layout of the board are both great quality, with clear symbology and wooden mole meeples representing your troops. The marriage between theme and mechanics is an uneasy one, for sure – when a theme works well, it adds depth and emotional investment while helping players’ intuitive understanding of the rules.
But your basic task in Topoum – positioning moles of your colour at as great a distance from one another as possible – doesn’t really make sense in the context of war. It doesn’t feel warlike, or particularly intelligible in those terms. When doing a first teach, you almost have to say ‘okay, so we’re all moles, fighting a war – now forget that, because it’ll only confuse you as I explain what you actually have to do to win’.
It turns out simply eliminating your opponents doesn’t always help your position. In fact, since a player must always start a turn with a mole on the board, if you wipe out their last mole, you actually grant them a free placement before the turn starts, potentially helping them score more points.
Now this mismatch between your intuitive, first-glance sense of what you ought to be doing and what Topoum actually wants you to do does not mean it’s not fun. Far from it. It’s just a little roadbump, a gap between expectation and practice, that you’ll have to ride over to get to the meat of the game proper.
What we’ve got here is a neat little abstract with lots of positional play and opportunities for counteroffensives, that feels like a sort of decked-out, turbo-charged Reversi. The box is packed with options and mini-expansions, which feels intimidating when you first open it up, but the core game is simple and satisfying. Yes, you do get in each other’s way, but getting back on the board is so quick that it rarely feels mean or dispiriting. And for all the wobbliness around theme, there are some clever cards that leverage it to great effect, like the Press Support action that gives you good coverage back home and earns you a victory point per turn until someone else plays it and swings propaganda their way.
For sure, Topoum is unpolished in parts. The manual is poorly translated (and in one or two spots apparently missed during proofreading, not translated at all) which can make figuring out rules interactions a little tricky. Some variants of the game are more balanced than others – the Farmers mini-expansion, for example, where you play farmer cards to essentially call in the equivalent of airstrikes, can feel a bit random, especially at four players.
Still, if you like positional, tactical games but you crave something with personality, the core game here is solid and fun, with lots of options for keeping things fresh. If you’re after something a bit different, you’ll dig this.
PLAY IT? MAYBE
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED Gingkopolis
Topoum brings to mind the quirky positional play and sudden, game area-splitting tactics of Gingkopolis, another niche title loved by some game groups and bounced off of by others. While significantly different in terms of mechanics, feel-wise Tigris & Euphrates fans may find a home here too.
Designer: Perepau Llistosella
Publisher: Looping Games
Time: 60 minutes
What’s in the box?
- Game board
- 8 Score markers
- 18 Wooden moles
- 64 Base tiles
- 8 Obstacle tiles
- 6 Farmer tiles
- 165 Cards
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This review came from Tabletop Gaming Magazine, which is home to all of the latest and greatest tabletop goodness. Whether you're a board gamer, card gamer, wargamer, RPG player or all of the above, find your copy here.Get your magazine here
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