On Top Trumps – Gem or Pebble?
Top Trumps, as a game, is probably as simple as they get. You start with a deck of specialist cards, each with six statistics listed on them. You deal the deck out between all the people playing, and each hold your deck in your palm so you can only see the top card. The first player reads a statistic out (for instance in Dinosaur Top Trumps they may read out “Weight: 20,000”) and all players compare that statistic between themselves. The person with the highest number in that statistic wins. They collect all the cards, put them to the bottom of their deck, and then it is their turn to go. The winner is the person holding all the cards at the end of the game.
Recently, whilst sat at an airport, I had the joy of playing Top Trumps again. I won’t go into how that situation came about in much detail – the simplest explanation was it was an impulse buy in a WH Smith – but what surprised me was how much we actually enjoyed playing. There are so many games we played as children (Monopoly, Cluedo, Game of Life) that have fallen by the wayside as we have got more into games as adults. We have played them and they just haven’t lived up to the expectations of modern times, yet Top Trumps was different, and it made us smile.
I think this comes down to a few reasons. Most notably is speed, as the classic games do tend to drag on a bit now, however, I think there are a few comments to be made about Top Trumps to help explain both its popularity and unpopularity to this day.
Top Trumps isn’t entirely a luck based game. Yes, there is some luck involved in having decent cards; however, most cards are middle of the road on most things. Some top the scale on one or two statistics, but these are balanced out with weaknesses elsewhere. Thinking back to my childhood, I seem to remember one or two “super cards” (I suppose we could call them “Top Trumps”) in each deck. These were great at five out of six statistics, but these could still be beaten. So, there was a small amount of luck there; however, after seeing the deck two or three times you get a feeling as to which cards are good or not. You get a feeling as to which statistics to choose to get the best result.
This simplicity is something that is also a curse to the game as well. It can sometimes feel like just choosing numbers and comparing (like a kind of snap with statistics); however, this is where the theme comes in.
Top Trumps uses, what is fondly called on BoardGameGeek, a “Rock-Paper-Scissors” style of mechanic. In other words, I say something, and it is up to you, as my opponent, to beat that. The sheer simplicity Rock-Paper-Scissors and its prominence in the game has meant that Top Trumps is now considered its bastion. Other games that come along and use that mechanic at their core run the risk of being compared to Top Trumps, however fair or unfair that may be. Games like Oddball Aeronauts, for instance, uses it as a core mechanic and as such the phrase “this is like a more complicated version of Top Trumps” has come out of our mouths on more than one occasion when we have played it in the past.
There are hundreds and hundreds of Top Trump themes. The game has been around since 1968, and this is one of the great strengths it has from a sales/marketing perspective as well as ensuring at least one version of the game is relevant to whatever hobby you may have.
These are, needless to say, hit and miss. Through doing a bit of research, it is actually really difficult to find out what the original pack was, however, I believe it was a horror theme, providing an alternative to the old game of War. This may be wrong, so please feel free to correct me in the comments if you do know what the original pack was.
One of the largest strengths of Top Trumps, however, is as an educational tool. Around the mid-1980s (from what I can tell, again with limited research ability) the cards started to include a blurb on them as well, and this helped them transcend from standard game to educational tool. It is this I believe has helped with the longevity of the game. We weren’t just playing a card game about dinosaurs at the airport, for instance, but even as adults we were learning. We were transported back to being kids again and filling our brains with knowledge. For instance:
I had never even heard of the Oviraptor before, and that was really interesting to come across in a simple card game. We can see the size of the dinosaur as a bit of additional detail, with a blurb describing basic information. There is even, in this case, a carnivore/herbivore scale and information about where the fossils were found. In the Dinosaur Top Trumps deck, there is even a speculative card thrown in to show what dinosaurs may have looked like had they continued to evolve and not been wiped out. This is a nice touch, if not kind of irrelevant to the card they placed it on.
One final point to make, is just how easy Top Trumps is to pick up and play. Ultimately, Top Trumps is a game designed for kids to be able to enjoy with ease, and thus it is a really simple game for adults as well. This, to some extent, helps contribute to the nostalgia aspect of it.
That being said, I can never imagine bringing it to a gaming evening. It is the perfect little game to waste a bit of time at the airport; however, it is like insisting that people listen to The Beatles just because they were the first band of their kind. Ultimately, it was one of the first games of its kind, certainly one of the first to monopolise so quickly on the card game market with so many different versions to play; however, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been improved upon since.
Instead, we are seeing aspects like the mechanics in Top Trumps make their way into larger or wider games. The combat mechanics in Scythe and Blood Rage come to mind, being games where the combat is happening in front of you based on the power of your miniatures, only for cards to supplement the combat in a rock-paper-scissors/take that style.
Top Trumps is, after all, far from a perfect game. It is not even on the perfect scale. It is more the exploration of a singular mechanic than a full game in itself, and, a game between two adults, can take freaking forever. That being said, it is still kind of fun.
With that in mind, Top Trumps has helped pave the way for the development of a lot of games, having its mechanics built on and explored over the years for better and for worse. For that, it deserves our respect. It can still be enjoyed by adults, even though they are no longer really the primary market. That being said, it needs to be seen for what it is. It is the exploration of a mechanic. It is light. It is fluffy. It is little more than snap with statistics – however, it is also an educational tool. It has its good points, and it has its bad.
So, with that final rambling thought, I am going to bring this article to a close. Top Trumps – gem or pebble? Is it something that still shines or something that is dull and probably belongs in the bin? I’ll let you decide.