Formats Unpacked: Top Trumps

How a card game helped us fall down pre-internet rabbit holes

Hi All,

This week we have the return of Phil Adams. You may remember Phil’s previous excellent unpacking of Tim’s Twitter Listening Party. If you missed that check it out now.

Phil is a strategist, executive producer of Out of the Ruins, and is also responsible for these fantastic love letters to lyrics. He’s also a really smart and lovely bloke who knows how to unpack a format.

Over to Phil…

What's it called?

Top Trumps (1970’s original version)

What’s the format?

A pack of cards. The pack has a theme. Each card in the pack is a variation on that theme. Example themes are Military Planes, Racing Cars and Tanks. Each card features a photograph of a plane, a tank or a car etc., plus a set of data relating to the properties, characteristics or performance of the same. The properties to which the data relate are consistent to all cards in the pack so that direct comparisons can be made.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

I was 11 years old when Dubreq launched Series 1 of Top Trumps in 1977. In the eyes of someone receiving 50p pocket money each week (back when 50p was a lot of money) the packaging - a cellophane-wrapped two-piece plastic box with transparent lid - was super-premium. They were beautiful to hold (nice heft). 

The cards were promoted with the slogan “Fun to play. Fascinating to collect.”

On your own they were the analogue version of an internet rabbit hole. They fed an inner nerd with an insatiable appetite for useless but oh so essential facts about engine capacity, acceleration, displacement and torque. In the playground they became a classic card game, with the perfect blend of skill and chance.

The pack is divided between the players. The player whose turn it is looks at their card and decides which is the strongest fact about the vehicle (it’s usually a vehicle) in front of them. They state the speed, weight, length or power of their plane, car, or ship, hoping that none of the other players’ cards can beat it on this measure. The player who has the best card for the chosen metric takes the cards from each player and adds them to the bottom of their pack. The winner of each round decides the metric for the next. The winner of the game is the player who ends up with the entire pack.

The deceptive beauty of the game is that no card is invincible. A car that has the highest top speed and the fastest acceleration won’t have the biggest engine capacity. The fastest plane (Lockheed Blackbird above) won’t have the greatest wingspan. Every card has an Achilles Heel. For every card that is a Goliath on most measures, there is a David card waiting to bring it down. The skill is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of every card in the pack. The chance element is that someone might use their rock to blunt your scissors. Who knew that the gamification of data could be so intense and such fun?

Favourite episode?

It has to be World Class Cars. The picture of the Rolls Royce on the front is still so evocative. Me and my friends lived in Wigan, a Labour Party fortress, but we were young enough to admire and covet the car without having formed the political awareness to hate the people who drove it.

Also, the number 5.8 has been embedded in my brain for forty-three years. 5.8 seconds is the 0 to 100km/h acceleration time of the Porsche Carrera, which was the best card in the pack for that characteristic. I know that stat like I know that Bat Out Of Hell is 9 minutes 50 seconds long. I’ve used 5.8 seconds as my mental yardstick for acceleration for my entire adult life. When I hear how fast some electric cars can accelerate these days, I always compare them to the Porsche Carrera.

Similar formats:

Good question. Nostalgic me brackets Top Trumps with Panini football stickers, which flourished for similar reasons in the same era. The stickers had that same combination of photographs and data, and a communal dynamic which in this case came from trading rather than gaming. Both formats had a gorgeous tactile element to them. Both formats involved the sacrifice of a significant proportion of a young boy’s disposable income.

Thanks Phil.

I’m around the same age as Phil and these were a big part of my childhood. I was a bit of a loner as a child so most of my memories of Top Trumps were around playing alone. At the time these felt unique because there we so few games you could play on your own. As Phil said, they looked good, felt great, and you would learn a lot about all sorts of things in an effortless way.

If you want to unpack a game format, or any format that you love, give me a shout.

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Thanks for reading,