James Nathan: Länder Toppen!

Länder Toppen!
Designer: Matthias Jünemann
Publisher: Drei Hasen in der Abendsonne
Players: 2-6
Ages: 8+
Time: 30-45 minutes
Times Played: 8 times with purchased copy

Top Trumps began in 1968 and originated from a game known as “Quartet” or “Kwartet”. (Pal, never thought you’d be reading the history of Top Trumps today, did you?) The present rule set is essentially War (yes, that old chestnut), but with cards that have different possible values depending upon what category is chosen.  A category is chosen, values from the top card are read, and the winner takes the spoils, places them on the bottom of their deck, and picks a new category. There was also “Ace Trumps”, that basically added cards that had a trump suit and a super trump. There was also a tournament in 1976 where you could win a flight on the Concorde.  Oooooh.

I came to want to play Länder Toppen! because of its nature as a trick taking game (of sorts).  I’m open to a broad interpretation of the genre, and have a soft spot for another exclamatory trick taking game, Romans Go Home!  I didn’t think Romans! was a trick taking game at first, but when I viewed it as a programming trick taking game where you’re simply planning which cards will go to which trick at the start of the hand, the game really appealed to me.  

Länder Toppen! sort of melds the two.  

We haven’t reviewed some of my favorite games from the last few years, so I am occasionally taking a step back to share some thoughts on one of those games; that’s what this is.

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Länder Toppen! is a take on the “let’s compare statistics in a specific category” genre of cards games.  Here, unlike Top Trumps, you have a hand and you’ll be planning which card to use in which category (rather than the next card in a deck); play lasts a certain number of rounds; and, well, there’s a scoring system other than “who has all of the cards”. 

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The game uses a deck of 120 countries (including one condominium, in the international law sense) and some wild cards. (Also, I apologize this review will use spoiler tags for reasons I’ll get to later). You have a slip of paper 6 columns wide for the various stats, and you’ll be placing cards above and below to indicate highest and lowest in various categories – area, population, GDP, life expectancy, etc.  It varies by player count, but you won’t be placing cards in all of the 12 slots.

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After all players have placed their cards in a slot, reveal and resolve one at a time.  OK, who played a card for largest area, and what do you have? The player with the card for the country with the largest area takes all the revealed cards and adds them to their score pile(s).  You have a face-down stack you’ll score (1 point each), and you will have several face-up stacks that you may be able to score (1 point each, if you do). When you take cards, at least one goes face down; at least one goes face up; you can decide on the others.  The face-up stacks are organized by the continent listed on the card, and only the player with the most face-up cards in each continent will get to score those cards.

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After that winning player has divided up the scored cards, move onto the next category of cards to reveal.  Once each of the 12 have been scored, deal out new cards, and play to a number of rounds specified by the player count.

(I glossed over a couple things, but you get the idea.)

My Thoughts

Um, that’s it?  Yeah, but that’s just like the rules, man.

The hand management is tricky. The decisions are sometimes meaningful: “I have [_____]! I can likely win largest area, but if I play [_____] for area, I might be able to win population with [_____] instead.”  “Wow, [_____] has a low GDP, but they also do not have a good life expectancy….” The decisions are sometimes miserable (as a compliment): “[_____] is a middle of the road country (as it relates to the categories in this game) and will never be a winner in any of these categories – where can I put it….”

What struck me in my first game was the unexpected moments of unbelief – you go into a category that you feel confident in, only to have another player have the card for [_____].  And, as a trick taking structure, this is interesting – it is like you don’t know the range of the cards. You can’t introduce the game saying “There are X cards in each suit and they range from Y to Z”, and so when somebody pulls out Z+1, it’s a great moment of surprise because you didn’t know that number could exist.  It’s not often you learn a new number.

But both the hand management and the range is what may prove to take the shine off of this one for me.  As you use most or almost all of the cards in a game, some are becoming automatic – I know to put [_____] as lowest GDP, and I know to put [_____] as lowest elevation, and I know not to put [_____] as largest area because someone will inevitably put [_____], [_____], or [_____].  That’s not all the categories, and that’s why I still like it, but it does eventually dampen some of my love for it. (And that’s why I feel compelled to not name names.)

Here’s a picture of me in the 4th or 5th grade.

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Anyway, the point is, that wasn’t the only world geography shirt I wore each week.  There were multiple. And when I was younger and I would ask my parents too many questions in the car, they bought me an almanac to shut me up.  Then I read them geography facts and numbers from the book instead of asking them questions. Which is all to say I love the theme of this game, and so it hurts a little when other players reveal their cards in a more rote manner – I get excited to reveal my card “I’ve got [_____] at [_] celsius!”, but when other players just say their number, or just toss the card to the winner without saying their number, it’s just a big wet blanket.  But I don’t let them take my joy.

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Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Dale Y (somewhere between 5 and 10 plays) – so this game was introduced to me around the same time as Destination X , and I had competition in the geography game genre for awhile.  Both of the games started out well for me, but both have seen their rating drop with repeated plays – they were both I love it to start, but now are both “Like it”.  

Länder Toppen is still fun mostly because you simply don’t know where those middle range cards will end up, and you’ll occasionally win a category that you weren’t expecting to win with a card that you feel is completely average.  That generally leads to all sorts of hoots and hollering, well, maybe a few seconds at least. But – many of the cards become fairly obvious plays as you learn the ranges of the categories. It’s still fun to play, and I still learn a few facts I may not have known each game – but the surprises are becoming fewer and further between, and it makes each game slightly less captivating.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still play it.  And I’ll definitely play it over Top Trumps – because that’s the love child of this game and War. And I hate War.

Jonathan F. – I greatly enjoyed my first few plays.  It was after that where people looked at their hand and knew a few were likely winners and played them automatically.  So I would call it an enjoyable activity and a good game where you have to do the best with the cards you are dealt, but given that it is not sequential play, it is hard to feel ‘smart’ in the way that some sequential play trick takers can let you feel.

Joe Huber (15 plays) – Since I’m in the unusual position of being the most enthusiastic supporter for this game, I should really add some comments.  Yes, one does get to know the ranges (and particularly the extremes) better over time – but with a few exceptions, I didn’t find a lot of surprises in the first place, and didn’t find that to be the key to the enjoyment of the game.  If that _is_ what you most enjoy, it’s no surprise that it wears out over time. If the fun for you comes from trying to improve your chance of winning the game – there’s actually a lot more to the game, in my humble opinion. There are categories that tend to favor certain continents, and as the game progresses you can focus in on particular continents (and ensure that you don’t give up valuable cards to your opponents).  This can lead to playing countries not in their best fit – but in a fit likely to generate countries you need to take the majority in their continent. Doesn’t always work – or even help – but that’s the luck of the deal. This remains my favorite release from 2016.

Dan Blum (several plays): I agree with Joe that knowing the cards doesn’t necessarily decrease enjoyment of the game. I still like it. However, there is enough potential for bad beats and general other randomness that it I can’t love it.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it! Joe H.
I like it. James Nathan, Dale Y., Jonathan F., Dan Blum
Neutral.
Not for me…

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