Full disclosure: A review copy of Topiary was provided by Renegade Game Studios.
Still here for games with random themes, and this is certainly out there. Topiary pits you as rival … shrubbers? attempting to impress guests at your botanical garden with your mastery of botany and other plant-related arts. Sure, the other shrubber’s planted a T-Rex, but you planted an even larger one right in front of his out of casual spite. As any self-respecting shrubber would do. Will you be able to come out on top …iary?
Mmm. Not sure if I’m going to stick with that pun.
Anyways, setup is dead simple. There are 8 different kinds of tiles, each numbered 1 – 5:
If you’re playing with 2 or 3 players, remove all tiles of one type. Pick whichever topiary displeases you. Otherwise, shuffle them up:
Place them in a 5 x 5 grid, face-down, and deal the players each three of the remaining tiles to form their starting hand.
Let every player take pieces in their chosen color:
- 2 players: 8 people tokens
- 3 players: 6 people tokens
- 4 players: 5 people tokens
You can set aside the scoreboard and the score tokens for now:
Now flip over the center tile and you’re ready to begin!
A game of Topiary takes place over several rounds. In each round, you take two actions (the latter is pseudo-optional):
- Place a Visitor. You may place one of your people along the edge of the grid, either along a horizontal or vertical line (or diagonals, though good luck sorting that out). Try to keep them facing a line of tiles numbered smallest to largest.
- Swap and Flip a Tile. You may take any tile on the board that’s currently face-down and pull it into your hand. You may then place any tile currently in your hand into the board, face-up. As previously mentioned, you cannot take a face-up tile into your hand, so don’t do that.
Play until everyone has used all of their visitors. Then you score! I find it easiest to score the third thing first.
The most important part of scoring is the idea of line-of-sight. A tile is considered “visible” by a visitor if every tile between that tile and the visitor is lower in value. This means if you have the ordering 1 – 2 – 3A – 5 – 3B (where A and B are arbitrary distinctions), 3B is not visible by a visitor looking at 1, and 3A, 2, and 1 are not visible by a visitor looking at 3B.
Anyways, let’s score:
- (The Third Thing) Score Your Hand: For each tile in your hand, if you have at least one of your visitors that can view a tile of the same type but a higher value, score the tile in your hand’s face value. This means that keeping 5s in your hand is worthless, since there are no higher tiles.
- Score a Visitor: Each visitor scores the face value of every tile that they can see. This means for a row 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5, a visitor on the 1 side will score 15 points, and a visitor on the 5 side will score only 5.
- Score Bonuses: Within a line of tiles (horizontal, vertical, or diagonally), if 2 or more tiles of the same type are visible to a visitor, score an additional point per visible tile of that type. Naturally, a topiary is more impressive if there are multiple cascading topiaries … of the same type. I’m like, 76% sure that’s how that works.
Anyways, score your visitors and the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Topiary scales pretty nicely with player count, in my opinion. I will say that the drafting variant doesn’t hold as much water at three players, as there’s kind of no point in looking through just the extra tile that’s left after you deal out tiles. That’s a pretty small thing, though, as it’s good at any player count. I have no strong preference, here.
- You’ve got to weigh when to block others and when to help yourself. Bonus points, obviously, if you can do both simultaneously, but if someone’s got a 2-3-4-5 of one tile type in front of them and they’ve (foolishly) left the space immediately in front of them open, you’ve got to drop a 5 and break up that madness before they score a preposterous number of points.
- In the same vein, it’s usually not a bad idea to place a 1 or a 2 in front of you. That lets you potentially set up for some combos down the line, which hopefully will score you a bunch of points. Just try to play smart, rather than place arbitrarily.
- Don’t spend too much time messing with one player in particular. As with games like this and Carcassonne, if you’re playing offensively and you ignore one player, that player tends to win pretty handily. You need to try and balance your aggression if you want to be successful, which is both an extremely delicate exercise and also very difficult to do well? Generally that’s why I prefer those kinds of games at two players. That said, this game is fast enough that it doesn’t matter to me, as much.
- If the center’s a 5, build towards it. If it’s a 1, you might want to safely ignore it. I find that the center value forces certain playstyles, which I’m totally here for, but I generally ignore it if it’s a 1 — there are two spots where it can be blocked by other players so it’s not super worth going for, and it won’t combo well with tiles placed after it for that reason.
- Don’t keep 5’s in your hand. Sure, you want to avoid setting another player up with a super combo, but you also will score zero points at the end of the game if you keep holding on to those. That’s not good! Don’t do that! Stop that! Etc. You do not want to finish the game with any 5’s in your hand.
- Leverage combos. This is sort of standard stuff, but you really should be playing your tiles so you have increasing lines of the same tile type. It’s worth it for those bonus points. It’s even better if you can make two lines that use diagonals or something to share a 5, thereby giving you extra points split between two visitors. Just use geometry or something.
- Blocking someone is fine, but make sure you’re blocking them smartly. You don’t want to cut someone off from a 3-point tile by placing a 5-point tile in front of them — you just gave them two extra points. But if you’re cutting off a 10+-point combo by dropping a 5 in front of a visitor, then you’re in great shape. You won’t make a lot of friends this way, but, I mean, live your truth.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Super great theme. Like I said, I’m really here for weird games, so give me your weirdest game about trying to attract people to your garden and your weird hedges. It’s wonderful. It’s also pretty family-friendly, if that’s something that concerns you when you’re looking for board games.
- The art is very good. It’s a very pretty game! I don’t own a lot of games that are particularly green, even from the boxes, other than Above and Below, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and Dominion: Hinterlands.
- Plays quite fast. Unless you have players with a lot of AP. If that’s the case, well, oops.
- Plays about the same amount of time with player counts. They do a nice job of scaling the visitors.
- If you want to play aggressively, you can, but you don’t necessarily have to. It’s likely that you can play most of the game only inadvertently blocking other players without doing so on purpose, especially at lower player counts. That’s nice.
- It seems expandable. I could see tile types or visitor abilities or events or something making their way into a follow up, though it seems like a shame to mess with a game that’s fundamentally so simple.
- Some potential for AP. Just yell at players “15 – 30 minutes”, which is the time the box says it takes to play. This will get worse as your player count increases, but that’s okay.
- Not a particularly good insert. The box is about 50% air, unfortunately. Again, not going to whine about how every game needs a vacuum insert or whatever, but it would have been nice to see an insert where the tiles don’t slide around so much. It makes it difficult to organize.
- Can feel a bit luck-of-the-draw. You’ll often have to make calls based on tiles you have in hand, and you might have gotten dealt a pretty bad hand. The drafting variant can reduce this somewhat, though there aren’t that many extra tiles to draft in the 3-player game.
- Going first is kind of rough, unless you have the right tiles. If you only have 4s and 5s in hand, your first turn is going to be pretty terrible. If you have mostly 1s and 2s, you’re in for a great first turn. That still kind of speaks to the luck-of-the-draw thing I mentioned previously, but that’s how it goes, sometimes.
- It’s got that three-player problem. It’s hard to balance games with the potential for aggressive blocking at three players if the players have variable experience levels. It means that one player often ends up being a kingmaker, much to the frustration of another player. It’s not really Topiary’s fault in particular; it’s just a problem that many games of this style and type have at three (and often more) players. It’s worst at three because the balance between any two players tends to be more delicate, in my experience.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, Topiary is very good! I’m a big fan of the theme, which naturally pushes me to like the game a bit more. The art is endearing, the gameplay is thinky and blocky without being too aggressive for me, and it’s a light, simple game that’s easy to teach and fairly straightforward to play. The scoring is a tiny bit irksome because there’s a lot of numbers to keep track of, but that’s how it goes, sometimes. If you’re looking for a nice, light abstract game to add to your collection or if the idea of cutting hedges into the shape of a T-Rex excites you as much as it excites me, I’d highly recommend giving Topiary a whirl! It’s a lot of fun.