Although a trademarked name in its own right, the Top Trumps brand was a victim of its own success - much like the 'Hoover' brand of vacuum cleaners, it came to be regarded as the generic name for a number of similar products, including the Ace Trump Game and A Quartet Game. The Top Trumps card game was the ultimate in coolness for every teenage boy in the late 1970s and early 1980s1. In every school playground in Britain, boys could be found competing against each other in a battle of wits, skill and chance on topics as diverse as the fuel capacity of space rockets and the horror factor of Godzilla.
Each set of Top Trumps consists of 32 cards, each with a unique reference - A1, A2, A3, A4, B1, B2 and so on through to G2, G3, G4 - based around a single topic, traditionally one that small boys are interested in (the manufacturers may have been aware of the existence of girls, but they evidently didn't consider them as a target market). The topics range from Rally Cars, Dragsters, Helicopters or Warships to County Cricketers, Olympic Greats or British Soccer Stars. Among the more bizarre are the Horror, Superhero and Western Gunfighter series - even more bizarrely, they're also some of the most popular.
Once they'd done Cars and Warships and the obvious ones, they got a bit rubbish, didn't they, Top Trumps? I mean...
'D'you fancy a game of Top Trumps Cutlery?'
'Right - I've got... Fork, that's... er... Number of Prongs - three!'
It didn't work, did it?
- Johnny Vegas, comedian.
For every set of Top Trumps, five or six criteria were identified from which the quality of each Top Trump could be determined, and statistics for each criterion were printed on each card. For a car-based set, one might find engine capacity, top speed, horse power, 0-60mph acceleration time, weight2 and number of cylinders - or for the football players, criteria like goals scored, international caps won, league appearances, height and skill factor might come into play. That's right - skill factor. The thing is, most of the original sets of Top Trumps were based on tangible statistics - factors whose authority could be backed up with hard facts. For the later and more esoteric sets, a lot of the criteria were intangible categories - ratings that had obviously been decided over a cup of tea at the Top Trumps Head Office. This probably explains why the Top Trumps craze eventually ran out of steam.
How to Play
The cards are dealt equally - or as equally as possible - between all the players. Before the players examine their cards, they agree upon a category that will determine who starts the game - the way this works is that everyone consults the top card in their pile, and the player whose card has the best statistics in the agreed category starts the first round.
The game is started by said player choosing a category and announcing the statistic for his card. It's considered usual, but by no means obligatory, to also announce what's on your card - eg 'Porsche 928S', 'Kevin Keegan', 'Godzilla', 'Fish knife' or whatever. Everyone else consults their card and announces their score in that category, and the round is won by the player whose card has the highest statistic - and the winner takes all the other players top cards, and adds them to the bottom of his personal deck with his winning card. In the event of a draw, everyone throws their cards on to the table, and everyone (or just the players that have drawn in the previous round) compares the statistics in the same category3 on their next card and the winner takes all.
A new round then begins, and the winner of the previous round quickly examines the statistics on his4 new top card, having the advantage of being able to choose the category for the new round on the basis of what's on his card. The game then continues in this way until one player is in possession of all the cards, and is declared the winner. Simple.
The trouble is, most games tend to be interrupted by the end of morning break/lunchtime/afternoon break. Or the school bus arriving at school, or else one or more of the players' home bus stops. In which case there are two options - the result may be decided on the basis of who holds the most cards at that point, or all players retain their cards until the game can reconvene. The former is probably the best option. If all players retain their cards, the probability of all the players being in the same place at the same time in the near future isn't that high. Besides, the odds are against the owner of the deck ever getting all his cards back - they may be kept due to sheer nefarious intent on the part of the other players, or merely lost due to the kind of unforeseen circumstances that tend to happen to small boys. And even if the game does ever get started again, the opportunities for cheating in the meantime are rife... whether through memorising the statistics on all your cards, accidentally 'losing' all your useless cards, or obtaining the other players' best cards through blackmail, skullduggery, or good old-fashioned violence.
It's quite a simple game. Knowledge of the subject matter - or better still, knowledge of the deck in question, whether memorized in advance or picked up during the course of the game - is usually the deciding factor. All you need is a reasonable idea of what's considered good in the categories on your card, so you can pick the one most likely to beat the others. So select your subject and your opponents accordingly. The more they know about the subject in question, and the longer they have owned the deck, the more likely they are to give you a run for your money.
Having a good memory helps a lot - just by playing with a deck a few times, it's amazing how much tactical knowledge you absorb about which are the rubbish cards, those that are good all-rounders, which ones seem unbeatable in a certain category, and most importantly the criteria on which the better cards can be beaten (that is, if your opponent is daft enough to let you see what card they've got).
There aren't many tactics that can be brought into play. Two of the more effective ones are:
If you have a card you know to be rubbish, but a great all-rounder below it, there's usually a category in which at least half the cards tend to be equal. Play for a draw and hopefully you'll win the next round.
Alternatively - this applies more towards the end of a game when you're playing a single opponent - if you have a good card below a completely useless one, sacrifice the rubbish one in the knowledge that you're likely to win the next round - it's better that you lumber your opponent with a bad card.
There is another way of playing that utilises the unique reference numbers on the cards - it's played much like Happy Families, in that players are required to compile sets of four cards, eg A1, A2, A3, A4.
Some sets of Top Trumps contained a 'Star Trump', or 'Super Trump'. This was usually a good card, although not one of the absolute best in the pack5, and if the 'Super Trump' rule was being played, that card would automatically beat all other cards in the deck except A1, B1, C1, D1, E1, F1 or G1, which would be played under the usual rules.
An interesting variation on Top Trumps was played in some schools, called 'Death' Top Trumps. In this case, the player who won the game, ie finished with all the cards - got to keep the deck.