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TOTEM from TACTIC games company has at first look a very simple game mechanic. It is also a simple game mechanic at the second, third and fourth looks etc .... But a simple game it isn't.

It is played on a 10x10 grid board, though the spaces are coloured circles rather than the usual squares - it is still a grid though. There are four different colours Green, Yellow, Blue and Red and each circle has a colour ID icon for anyone with colour blind difficulties. 

 

There are four cards which determine the current blocking colour (I'll get to that in a moment) and the colours of the cards and the colours on the board are identical. The player's pieces, each player has four wooden Totems of roughly the same shape and size, are coloured close to the colours of the cards but under house lighting the Green and the Blue look quite similar, the Red and Yellow are easily distinctive from each other colour.

On each of the four edges the central four circles are surrounded by the game colours and it is on these spaces that the players position their Totems at the beginning of each game - each colour starts in the same 4 places every game; Red opposite Yellow and Blue opposite Green.
I would have thought that the player's Totems would begin one on each colour but surprisingly that isn't the case here.

Red Circles are on: Green, Blue, Red, Blue  (No Yellow)
Yellow Circles are on: Green, Yellow, Red, Yellow (No Blue)
Blue Circles are on: Red, Yellow, Blue, Green (one of each as expected)
Green Circles are on: Green, Blue, Red, Yellow (one of each as expected).

 

A player's turn is moving one of their Totems orthoganally (or as the rules say, in whatever direction you want except diagonal) for as far along a straight path as they wish. The exceptions being that they must stop in the space before the first circle they reach that has the same colour/symbol as the current colour selection card. The four colour cards are shuffled and one turned over at the beginning of the game, this will be the current blocking colour. As the game progresses players may land their Totems on the 'Special' places (the dark circles showing crossed arrows) and when this occurs they can change the colour card by drawing one of the remaining three (remember one is in play) and that becomes the new blocking colour - then the three cards left are shuffled ready for the next change.

 

The idea of the game is to get all four of your Totems across the board to the other side - there is nothing that says they have to land on the opposite colours start spaces, though this makes for a harder and slightly longer experience in playing.

Some of the first moves can be almost to the other side in one move - for example one of the lines of circles in the Blue/Green edge has only one Yellow circle and that is the start space for a Blue Totem. As long as the Yellow card is the current blocking colour then whoever is going first of Green or Blue can move right across the board to one space before reaching their objective. One is blocked by the Yellow circle (in the Blue section) and the other is likely blocked by the Green Totem standing on the Blue space (in the Green section) that has yet to move - if it has already moved and traveled sideways then the Blue Totem can go straight across the board in one move and is 'home'.

 

Totems cannot go past other Totems nor land on the same space and neither can they go over or land on the spaces of the same colour as the current colour card.

Games usually end up in a cat and mouse type situation with players trying to block each other whilst manoeuvering their other Totems towards the gola edge.
Totems are moved one per player per turn but the same Totem can be moved in consecutive turns, there is no rule that says each Totem has to be moved before the first moved can be moved again.

 

Due to the randomness of the blocking colours and the different tactics used by different players it isn't a game where you can determine a winning strategy that continually wins. It isn't as complex as Chess but it does have an essence of similar strategies. You often have to sacrifice a 'good' move so that you can land on the Special Space to change the current blocking colour. We like the idea that you cannot have the same blocking colour twice in a row - the current card is not put back into the 'deck' until after a new colour has been chosen - but there is still a fair amount of luck, 3-1 odds on getting the colour card you want. If you get that lucky draw you can block other players from moving one or more of their Totems.

Overall this is a game that can play as easily with players who take their time as with those who don't fully consider their moves each turn and in advance. If you play in a cavalier style, in a fun way just taking the first move you see, like children often do, then the game is a fun, random-based challenge. If you play with intensity then it has all the mind games of Chess, Go! and so on. 
Totem costs around €16.00 

© Chris Baylis 2011-2015