by Jed Pressgrove
In Nico Prins’ Topsoil, you play as a farmer with only 16 tiles of soil at your disposal. Each tile can accommodate one type of plant, and for the best score, you must keep the same kind of plants next to each other. As in so many puzzlers (from Tetris to Dr. Mario), the goal is to avoid disorganization, which inevitably leads to a cluttered screen and failure. What separates Topsoil from its predecessors is an underlying sense of peace that typifies the pleasure of interacting with the natural world. This serenity flows through the entire game despite being juxtaposed against the randomness of nature that spoils one’s best-laid plans.
Topsoil is a game of turns. During each turn, you must set in place three randomly generated plants, then you must harvest crops. Harvesting is how you score points. Plants of the same type can be removed with a single harvest, provided that the plants sit either above, below, or to the side of each other. The more plants you harvest in one turn, the more points you score. Certain plants are worth more points, but such plants take multiple turns to grow and can only be harvested when fully grown. Thus, they take up precious real estate as you attempt to keep the garden tidy and organized. But if you plan carefully and get lucky, you can achieve a series of successful harvests, and when you pull up a bush or tree or flower that has a bird on it, you not only receive extra points but also get to hear chirping and wings flapping — signs of simple life that beg to be appreciated in a game without a soundtrack.
Every satisfying harvest comes with a price, though. Each time you remove crops, the color of the soil changes. Evoking terms like the “circle of life,” blue soil turns into yellow soil, yellow into green, green into blue. So in addition to trying to position similar plants by each other, you must think about how harvesting can affect the probability of your survival as a successful farmer, as you cannot harvest, say, three adjacent pine trees if they are on differently colored soil. Because each turn requires you to set in place three randomized plants, your game is over if you only have one or two empty tiles left at the beginning of a new turn.
The cycle of Topsoil becomes more unforgiving as you advance, mimicking how the real world becomes more complicated as you get older and how nature has plenty of tricks up its sleeve (as sports analysts often say, “Father Time is undefeated”). At first, you only have to organize three types of plants, which means you can more easily cover up mistakes. The 16-tile board is made up of four columns and four rows, so at the beginning of the game, it’s mathematically impossible to have a four-tile row made up of four different species. After a few turns, however, the game gradually introduces new plants, forcing you to think of how placing a single plant may prevent you from aligning a group of uniform crops on like-colored soil.
Topsoil can seem especially unfair when it randomly gives you a disproportionate amount of plants that take multiple turns to grow. How can you plan when tiles upon tiles are unusable as seeds take their predetermined number of turns to transform into something that can be harvested? Still, Topsoil is never frustrating, thanks to the lack of a time limit, the lack of music that ramps up when you get close to failure, and the delightful “plop” and “tick” sounds that accompany even the paltriest of harvests. Topsoil is a mature puzzler where incoming failure mirrors my dad’s cold but comfortable refrain, “Everyone’s gotta die.” You can start to see the end in Topsoil well before it happens and at your own pace — disappointment tempered by calm knowledge and soothed by the order of the natural world.