Though carbonated drinks have, somewhat surprisingly, been around since the 1700s and flavoured fizzy beverages date back to at least the 1800s, it wasn’t until mass production processes were pioneered in the 20th century – with the manufacture of drink bottles and caps themselves playing a part in this – that the foundations for the modern ‘pop’ market were truly put in place.
Top Pop is a tabletop board game by Talon Strikes Studios, set in the 1960s in America, when a large number of competing – and, in many cases, still familiar – brands were pushing their fizzy wares to eager consumers across the nation, taking advantage of powerful marketing methods, mass distribution and the aforementioned increases in production scale.
The game itself sees players drawing and playing city cards, creating stacks of bottle caps – representing their marketing efforts – on different cards and claiming cards if they have the highest stack of caps on them at the beginning of their turn. There’s a lot of options for players on each turn, with a decent amount of strategy and very little in the way of luck – with gameplay at times feeling a lot like a puzzle. There’s shifting stacks of different coloured bottle caps being played, claimed and then passed back to players over the course of the game as players win cities and keep them in a pile to be scored. Scoring at the game’s end – which kicks in once a player has earned six city cards – rewards players for collecting a variety of cities and is another aspect in which players must be paying close attention in order to be successful.
For a game which, on the surface, appears to be quite light and friendly, Top Pop is surprisingly competitive and full of important, not always obvious, strategic decisions that have to be made over the course of any given turn. The production values are high – though in the prototype version I received, the stackable bottle caps were instead coloured wooden discs – and the visual design is colourful, thematic and appealing. The parodic soda company designs are perfect too, with these adorning the colourful, well presented and (given the relative complexity of a turn and the wealth of choices available, as well as the setup of the game not being entirely straightforward – it changes depending on the number of players taking part) absolutely essential player aids.
Yet it’s hard to fight the feeling that the gameplay – while being satisfyingly unique from a mechanical point of view – just feels a little too abstract for the theme. Though players are supposed to be marketing their sodas in different cities using their caps to represent their efforts – and their cap being on top of a stack representing their popularity in that city – it doesn’t ever convince that the given setting fits these mechanics in a logically thematic way. No doubt the theme will feel stronger in the final version with the stackable bottle caps, but even then I’m not convinced that the game’s setting is well represented by the – admittedly clever – mechanics.
Still, Talon Strikes Studios have gone the extra mile in the presentation of Top Pop and that’s great to see; not only does it fit a competitive and mechanically unique – if slightly abstract – game into a relatively small package, but it also does so with a good sense of style. The creators have also included a bewildering number of game variants which allows players to adjust the basic format of the game as they see fit, which will no doubt keep interest high in the long term for those players who enjoy Top Pop.
With Talon Strikes Studios planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign for Top Pop in July on Kickstarter, you can register to be notified of the launch here. If the game’s unique brand of fizzy drink supremacy sound like it’s up your street, it’ll be well worth being ready to pledge for your copy once the campaign is live.
Many thanks to Talon Strikes Studios for providing me with a prototype copy of Top Pop for this article.
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