Retro Review - Top Of The Pops By Palitoy (1970s)
Antony Brown is a games analyst and inventor who writes regularly on board games. His Retro Reviews take a nostalgic look at games of the past. This article looks at Top Of The Pops, a board game by Palitoy from the 1970s which took its name from the iconic BBC TV programme.
Do you remember the days when you huddled around a radio in the playground on a Tuesday lunch break to hear the brand new chart? Were you around when millions regularly tuned in to watch Top Of The Pops every Thursday evening and when music could only be enjoyed with the hiss, crackle and pop of vinyl? If so, then this inaugural Retroactive Review is dedicated to you because it’s a retro-look at Top Of The Pops, a board game from the 1970s celebrating the pop charts.
What makes the game such a nostalgic gem is that both the depicted record deck and graphic design were state of the art when the game was published in the first half of the 1970s. It now looks like a museum exhibit and it actually is one, being part of the Childhood Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum. There were no iPods, mobiles or even desktops back then – just power cuts, union walk-outs and green shield stamps. And how music tastes have changed. The in-thing then was glitzy glam rock and disco but just around the corner was the angry shout of punk.
If nothing else Top Of The Pops boats one of the most elaborate spinners in board game history. The traditional game board shows a record deck but this merely provides the visual context for the vinyl record spinner. The board as such is the Top Ten Chart, which is made from card rather than game board. The other components are sales discs (including silver and gold discs), recording contract cards, record release cards, two sets of events cards – chart news and radio plug – and pop act tabs. The latter are card strips that are moved up and down the Top Ten Chart according to sales. The tabs depict fictional singles and pop acts, all using irreverent humour such as Feel The Quality by The Textures, I’m In A State by Vicky Delaware and the anachronistic Good Golly by Lee Marmalade (Robertson Jams withdrew their golliwog mascot from TV advertising in 1988 and finally withdrew it altogether in 2001). The playing experience can be greatly enhanced by replacing the original pop act tabs with ones depicting real acts and singles from the era – more on this later.
The game is simple to play and is virtually all luck – so this may put off the more serious gamer – but it is enjoyable nevertheless. The object is to be the first to sell a million singles by managing four acts. Players must first collect a recording contract and record release cards. Only then can an act accrue sales cards in preparation for a chart entry. Once in the chart acts generate sales and the game becomes competitive as players battle it out to climb the charts while forcing opposing acts down.
There are some decisions to be made but these are rarely tactical. Even the spinner determines the timing of chart entry, which is a significant part of the game because each time an act enters the chart sales are accrued by all acts already in the Top Ten. This is how the bulk of sales are made.
We created a computer model of the game to simulate the playing of thousands of games in the time it takes to through a die. We found that the 4-player game lasted, on average, 43 rounds (i.e. 43 turns for each player) but for the first seven rounds there is no chart activity at all. This means that for the first ten minutes or more, players are busy spinning to get a record released. It would have been better to forego these protracted and tedious preliminaries because the best part of the game is the interaction in the Top Ten Chart. According to the computer analysis a typical game will see a maximum of six or seven acts in the chart but on average there are only three. This was confirmed by our playing experience and is a disappointment that the game designers should have attended to. Even allowing for the fact that the game was aimed at children, there was a kernel of a good game here.
Nevertheless, the point of my Retroactive Reviews is not to highlight the best bygone games but rather to browse through our cultural past using the board game as our guide. Even though Top Of The Pops appears not to be an official game of the legendary BBC TV programme (even though it is quite a flagrant use of the brand name), it does provide an echo back to the days when vinyl singles sold by the million and the captures the excitement of records moving up and down the chart.
To get a real nostalgic kick out of the game make your own tabs using some of your favourite acts and hits. They’re easy to create, and almost all picture covers can be downloaded from the Web via a simple image search. And why not really indulge yourself: create a playlist of the 16 songs, insert the iPod into your docking station and reminisce over a bottle of wine with friends – it makes for an enjoyable gaming experience.
On my copy the price label is still affixed to one side of the box – the game originally sold for £4.50. This would be around £40 today and, given the rudimentary components, it shows the price of games today would be dramatically higher if most production were not outsourced to the Far East. If you’re lucky, as I was, you may be able to pick up a copy on eBay for around £5. This is considerably less than the £100 you will have to shell out to a dealer for Chartbuster, a more traditional board game about conquering the charts published at around the same time. But be warned: one dealer is asking £150 for Top Of The Pops which recently slipped into one Top 20 list of the most expensive board games.
Quite apt, really.
Verdict: If customized with real hits, this is a nostalgic, fun game for any greying pop picker.