Review: Totems29 Mar 2013 0
I think it was John C. Calhoun, the hot, crazy-haired, nacho-flavored “vice” counterpart to Andrew Jackson's cool ranch, native-depopulating “prez,” who once said, “It is the will of the people of this great nation to spread forth and dot this continent with multitudinous edifices commemorating our stewardship of liberty, democracy, and super-double-great-nation-having. Preferably in the form of little green elephant statues.” Later, he added, “Seriously—what could possibly beat elephant statues? Just, like, a whole bunch. Man we're great."
The irony of this statement is that, as any fake historian can tell you, the only thing which can beat a cute little elephant statue is itself. At least, that's the deal in Totems, a nail-biter of a land-grab game from developer Timecode.
The basic premise is hyperdistilled Risk: up to four players draw animal tokens from a common pool, and place them on the various territories which make up the game's maps. Land? Grab. Yours. Got it? But, you're not going to be launching assaults against enemy positions from these chosen roosts, wearing down your opponents with surges of, uh, elephant legionaries or... foxmen, or whatever; actually, you won't be fighting in the traditional sense at all. Though there are different types of totems, all territories that are of your color net you points. In theory, if your opponent was an idiot, you could throw down a random assortment of idols. They'd all be purple (You picked purple, right? Come on!) no matter what, and as long as you ended with more than the other schmuck, you'd win.
But your opponent isn't an idiot. Your opponent is well aware of the other two idiosyncrasies that make Totems such a brilliant, baffling, bastard of a game. First: totems of the same kind, when placed on adjacent territories, function as one large territory worth extra points; the larger an expanse of, say, just hawks or only bears you can cobble together, the more points you get. Second: totems, when placed next to territories with totems of the same type, flip all those territories to the color of the player who placed the totem. All of them. ALL of them. ALL OF MY FRIGGIN' DEER COUNTRY YOU DAMN SON OF A-
And just like that, nothing is the same. What could have been an inconsequential time-waster becomes a game that's not just about managing lands and borders, but also one's own ambition. Where are you strong? Lions? Wolves? Where is your opponent weak? Deer? Snakes? You can see which pieces aren't in your hand—the question is, are those other pieces still up for grabs, or already in the dastardly, oil-baron-like clutches of your nemesis? Do they have the one piece that can undo your plan? Can you afford to expand your empire a few more acres? Or should you cap it off with a mismatched animal, land-locking it for its own protection?
Totems is instantly gratifying. Then instantly infuriating. Then instantly gratifying again. It's a game with readily apparent, easy to explain strategies that seem damn near impossible to pull off. On top of the aforementioned defensive use of mismatched totems, there's the numbers game of seeing which player will have to go last (and which piece they'll use), the use of certain pieces as throwaway blockers, and the always lovable force play—using the swap (of which you only get one a game) to get another random assortment of pieces... which essentially skips your turn since you don't put down a piece... which means I have to put down the second-to-last piece... which means YOU DAMN SON OF A-
This is a game where growth is only useful for so long, diversity is to be both feared and exploited, and size only matters if you're the jerk who gets to swoop in and steal half of Babylon with one move at the end of the game. So... a lot like actual imperialism: mass expansion, followed by atrophy, the frenzied attempt to physically/rhetorically wall off some sort of “pure” landmass (“Elephantland is for elephants ONLY. Hawks go home!”), and, more likely than not, the eventual loss of your discrete nation and the bitter realization that you colonized yourself out of existence. Or, uh, maybe you win. Ahem. And all this in under five minutes.
Now, there are reasons to avoid this particular take on manifest destiny. For a game that's literally all about the land, it could use some more maps, though if that manifest destiny line didn't tip you off, this is one Yank who was happy to see a 48-territory take on the continental United States included. Some similar real-world locales, wackier than the “Normal's Island” map and “Essentially Just A Larger Island with Some Lava” map, would help. Still, Totems manages to challenge some of the basic assumptions of strategy gaming with it's all-or-nothing take on territory control, while still being simple enough to learn in an afternoon. For that alone, it deserves to plant its standard on your iDevice's shores.