Topiary is a strategic tile laying game themed around the ruthless art of competitive topiary. It is simple to play – only two moves: place a person and place a tile – which makes it easy for introducing to younger players but choosing where to lay your tiles can still be mind bendingly difficult for older ages.
In Topiary, everyone is cultivating a shared garden with the intention of shaping it so that their own visitors have the best view of a series of topiary in their line of sight. If topiary is placed carefully, graduating from shortest to tallest, your visitor will get a perfect view of them all. But if a big topiary gets placed at the front the vista is spoiled and visitors can’t see your amazing creations behind it. And so begins a game of best laid plans and ruthless hedge laying.
How the game plays:
The game consists of 40 topiary tiles- each beautifully illustrated with one of 8 simple topiary shapes increasing in size (and respective score) from 1-5. At the start of the game a 5 x5 grid of these tiles is placed faced down in the centre of the table representing the shared garden. The central tile is turned face up just before the start of the game. Players are also given a limited number of visitor meeples (for 2 player game = 8 each, 3 players = 6 each, 4 players= 5 each). There’s a maximum of 32 meeples in 4 different colours.
At the start of the game everyone is dealt 3 tiles face down. On their turn, players place one of their visitor meeples around the edge of the garden claiming one line of sight. Only one meeple is allowed for any horizontal, vertical or diagonal view. Within that line of sight, the player then choose an empty patch of the garden to cultivate (a face down tile), take the face down tile to their hand, compare it with the tiles they’re holding and decide which of the tiles to then lay face up in the garden. Play then moves to the next player. All scoring is done at the end of the game once all meeples have been placed.
Our rule variation for younger players:
The original instructions allow sight lines to include any diagonal made up of two or more tiles, but I find this is just too many possibilities to comfortably play and keep track of on the board when playing with kids. Allowing only the diagonals from corner to corner keeps it simple and gives a total of 24 possible sight lines. The original rules also state that placing meeples is mandatory but picking and placing a topiary is optional. With kids we make all the moves mandatory, partly because younger players are always going to want to pick and place tiles anyway but also because it reduces a further degree of mental strategising. I’d reintroduce the original rules if the kids were around 10+, which is the guide age on the box. Believe me, it’s mentally challenging enough to play our simplified version!
Scoring can take a bit of time to calculate at the end. Players total the scores for the topiary visible in the single line of sight claimed for each of their visitor meeples. The tallest topiary score 5 and are most visible so players generally want to lay them where more of their visitors might see them. But tall topiaries block the view of those the same size or shorter behind them. Although the smallest size topiary only scores 1, if you don’t place them in front of your meeples early on you risk opponents placing a great big hedge there and ruining your carefully created vista. This gives players lots to consider when making their move. But players also get additional points for having topiary of the same shape in their line of sight. This means you can be quite opportunistic in laying down a visitor meeple and matching topiary tiles to grab extra points. Tiles left in your hand can also be scored as long as one of your meeple visitors can see a bigger tile of that shape in the garden. To be honest, with younger kids, scoring the tiles held in hand seems like an unnecessary addition but we play it anyway.
What we love about the game:
For us Topiary is definately a game to grow into. For such a simple concept, there is a suprising amount of strategic calculation involved. But we like it because it’s quick to set up and play straightaway and usually only last around 10 minutes. The artwork is beautiful, all gentle watercolours with little details such as the hedge shadows on the score board. Our Renegade games version also comes with 4 very different meeples, including a wheelchair user. I think the theme stops it becoming more of a favourite game for N who would undoubtedly love it if we were creating sight lines in Jurassic park but he enjoys it nonetheless.
The game works well for mixed age play because it can be played either by focusing on your own goals (and inadvertantly blocking others!) or with an eye to disrupting other players. I love playing Topiary because I find it a real mental workout deciding where laying a tile might give me the best possible score and who I need to block. Meanwhile N seems to more easily find where to lay tiles of the same shape and consequently gets some higher scores than the adults. In effect we are playing the same game but with different strategies and levels of mental strain.
With the simplified rules, I think Topiary works well as a tile laying game for younger players but ages 7 or 8+ will really start to appreciate how they can lay tiles to ruin other players’ plans. While the theme and style of gameplay means it certainly won’t appeal to everyone, it’s simplicity, beautiful artwork, and ability to get brains thinking makes Topiary a great family game if you are looking for something a bit more strategic. The option to increase the difficulty by changing the rules also means it’s a game that we can keep going back to as the kids get older.