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Review: Reiner Knizia's Topas

Sebastian Blanco
Sebastian Blanco|March 26, 2010 11:00 AM
We don't mind it when iPhone versions of board games differ from their realspace counterparts, but the Topas app ($2.99) takes the basic ideas behind Reiner Knizia's 2009 game Topas and twists them into a mash-up of Tetris, the standard line-up-three-of-a-kind video games, and dominoes. The dominoes thing was in the original, but the video game vibes are all new.

Is this a good thing? Well, it kind of is. We like the variety that the app brings to basic Topas, but we don't understand why it was apparently impossible to carry over original gameplay from the physical card game. Even the game mode that comes closest to the card game version – weakest link, which is very similar to the card game's solo play – changes one minor rule. As to why, we have no idea. Still, Topas offers a decent amount of challenge and fun in an attractive package – maybe slightly overpriced in the App Store's admittedly low-cost ecosystem – for people who like their puzzle games to sparkle.

Keep reading to find out more about how Topas works and doesn't work as an iPhone game.


The Game

If you were to buy the card game version of Topas, you could play solo or with up to four people. What would you be doing in each game? Taking cards off of the draw pile and laying them out like dominoes onto an imaginary grid. Each of the deck's 36 cards has two parts, with one, two, or three gems in each half of the card (but never the same number). The gems come in two of four colors (blue, red, yellow, and green, all with different shapes to help the colorblind) and, again, the same color is never represented on both halves of one card. Following these rules, all 36 possible combinations of cards are present. The game is a card/tile laying affair with three important rules that keep things under control:
  • Each new card must touch the network built off of the starting card
  • You can't lay a card that doesn't conform to the grid (i.e., no diagonal placement)
  • You can't add a card to the grid if it would create an unbroken line of more than seven gems of a particular color
Each player gets to lay down seven cards and then the round is over. You write down the score after each play. You score points by extending a line of gems with the same color, horizontally or vertically, and score one point per gem in the line you added to. An "expert variation" allows for huge scores by taking those sums and multiplying them together if both sides of the card extend a color line. With 36 cards and four (maximum) players laying down seven cards each, it's clear that you won't see every card in a complete game. Not knowing exactly which cards will be present in any particular game is a typical Knizia design move, and it's a welcome one. After seven cards each, you see who got the most points and call it a wrap.

Playing solo is a little different, with one player going through the deck alone. You play eight cards in a round, one by one, over four rounds. Thus, you use 32 of the 36 cards. The goal is to score the most points in each round because it is your lowest of the four scores that counts. Rules for the card game version can be found online. They are only available in German (PDF) because the game has not yet been released in the U.S.

The App

To make the transition from cards to app, Ludicious Games has added the rule that you can't lay a tile that would not fit on an arbitrary 6x6 grid (couldn't the game zoom in and out, like Hive does?). Also, the "expert variation" is in effect at all times. Aside from the new grid, Ludicious has created three game modes for the iPhone's small screen: color, arcade, and weakest link.

Arcade mode brings a Tetris feel to the game. You score points just like in normal Topas, but every time you reach exactly seven gems in a line, those squares (i.e., the halves of the original cards played) disappear, opening up more space for more tiles. The more you clear, the more you score. When no more tiles can be placed, it's game over.

Weakest Link mode is just like solo play in the original game, but your final score is the second lowest of the four rounds, not the lowest. I'm not sure why this little twist was thrown in, but there you have it.

Color mode is the best of the bunch. Here, you're going to go through the entire deck. The challenge is to get the highest score with the severe limitation of only being able to score ten points in each color at a time. If you want to get the 11th red point, you need to rack up ten points in each color first. Once you've gotten the forty points, then the board clears and you go again – and again – until all 36 cards have been played. If you're the competitive type, then watch out: the top scores are posted to Agon Online, and the current high score is 193 points. Well done, AH-ah, whoever you are.

Actually, the high scores for all the modes are noted on Agon Online. The Arcade mode's top scores are astronomical, which shows that some people out there seriously love playing this game. We grew quickly frustrated, though. The main problem with Topas is the gesture input used to rotate the pieces. Imagine that you coded this app. You've got the grid, and the card to play appears underneath said grid. If you want people to be able to spin the piece around so that it lays on the grid in just the way that they want it to, how would you do it? We'd probably have you tap the piece to get it to rotate into the correct position, and then drag it onto the space. If you decided that you wanted to have it orient in a different direction, then we'd have you drag the piece back down and tap again, maybe. Ludicious Games, however, came up with a solution that is so cumbersome that it really makes the game hard to recommend, even for Knizia completists. They have you grab the card to be played with one finger, and tap somewhere else on the screen to rotate it. No, we're not kidding. It makes playing the game one-handed pretty much impossible (very uncomfortable, at the very least). We were not amused. The help/rules section is also a little bit confusing. In describing the way that scoring sums can be multiplied, it says "gain points equal to the product of aligned gems." That is technically true, but it's not totally clear.

There are two good things about the app: your iTunes music keeps playing when the app's sound is turned off, and the graphics are simple and easy on the eyes. Overall, Topas is a decent game. While board/card games and iPhone apps are different beasts, we would have liked to have seen Ludicious keep the basic gameplay of the boxed version intact, while adding the video-game only options like Arcade mode. With this oversight, the troublesome tile rotating method, and the stiff competition from other games priced at $2.99 (Plants vs. Zombies, we're looking at you), we can't wholeheartedly recommend Topas. It's not a bad game, it could just be so much more.