|Meeple Like Us
|Jordan Goddard and Mandy Goddard
Lotus is a stunningly beautiful game with a cover that is so striking that I committed to buying it for its sheer aesthetic appeal long before I even knew what the game was. It’s a friendly looking game. It looks approachable. Nothing about it is remotely intimidating. When you look at the box of Lotus you think you’re going to be spending a half hour doing nothing more than being engaged in an impossibly charming session of flower arranging. Maybe there are points, who knows? A game like this is surely more about the spectacle than it is about the sparring. There’s surely no need to worry about competition or bad feeling with a game like this. Just look at the cover. Come closer. Yes, come closer. Sniff it. Doesn’t a nice, fresh board-game smell wonderful? This smells wonderful. Run your tongue over the cardboard, maybe it tastes as good as it looks …
BACK UP, BACK WAY UP.
Don’t fall for this. Lotus is deeply deceptive with the ephemeral trappings it peacocks in front of you. If Lotus was a flower it would be a Venus Flytrap. It lures you in with a sweet nectar before it snaps its leafy jaws shut around you. The whimsy here is designed only to get you close enough for it to sink its fangs into your precious skin. Lotus is a genuinely cheerful game but that’s a small comfort when you’re lying on the ground bleeding from a dozen bite wounds in your back. Remember, even hyenas enjoy a good chuckle.
Sometimes it’s the nice ones you most have to watch.
Perhaps there’s nothing genuinely misleading here. Nature is beautiful and so is Lotus. It’s a very pretty game of very pretty flowers. However, Nature is also hard, unyielding, and deeply cruel. And so is Lotus. Nature doesn’t care for your feelings – it cares for your fit to the environment. All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small… are caught up in battleground, where the weak will surely fall. So it is with Lotus. The prettiest flower is only so because that is what most effectively attracts the bees to its pollen. The ugly flowers – they die. Superficiality is a survival tactic.
Actually, I have no idea why flowers evolved to be attractive, or how important bees are in the natural lifecycle of plants. I’m a city boy. If it doesn’t come as part of a pre-packaged soup pack I have only passing interest in vegetation and even less knowledge of its particulars. So maybe I should abandon this pound-shop David Attenborough technique and just get to the game, yes?
In Lotus your job is twofold. You want to control flowers by having the most dominant claim over their pollen. This you do by playing cards of your own colour to the plant in question and by placing your limited supply of ‘guardian’ tokens to solidify your authority. In each turn of Lotus you can take two actions from a slim menu of three – exchange two cards, play one or two cards to a flower, or place or move a guardian. If you control a flower when the final card of its set is played, you get either a substantial point bonus or you can collect one of your three fixed power-ups. Those give you more – more cards in your hand, more cards you can play at once, and more guardians you can play to the flowers in contention. The person that played the final card to a set collects up all the cards and gets a point for each of them at the end of the game.
Every turn you’ll draw back to your hand limit either from your own special deck or the face-up cards that have been dealt out from the neutral wildflower deck. Those give you a bit of control over what plants you can attempt to finish, but they don’t give you additional control.
The game continues until you run out of cards from any player deck.
Those are the rules. Now let’s talk about the game.
The tension you are constantly navigating here in Lotus is between the ways that you can ‘win’ a flower – by control, by completing, or in the ideal circumstances by both. Each player has a hand of petals they’ll be carefully hoarding with the intention of setting themselves up to steal the blooms away from all the others. You’ll all be doing that constantly. Each flower has to be approached tentatively and carefully so as to avoid giving your opponents an opportunity to snatch it. Imagine spending a sizeable portion of the game incrementally placing petals only for someone at the last moment to say ‘Thanks, I’ll take it from here’ and claiming it for themselves. You don’t want that – you want to make sure that anyone coveting a flower has to work for it. Ideally, work for it long enough that you get to be the vulture that deprives them of its perfumes.
This paranoia with regards to over-extension leads to what is perhaps world’s most tentative take on competitive botany. It’s as if these were flowers that, through a quirk of natural selection, didn’t so much grow petals as they grew serrated kitchen knives. Every single card you place is done with all the careful consideration of a claims adjuster assessing a doubtful insurance document. This is a game where you seriously need to weigh up the benefit of the seemingly trivial distinction of playing two cards once or one card twice. Sometimes your best move is to desperately stave off the moment when you have to commit beyond the point you’re comfortable, and that sometimes involves playing as inefficiently as the slim rule-set will permit. Lotus relies on the effective deployment of what is effectively a Poker slow-roll.
The problem here that lies in front of you is that flowers are only ‘controlled’ by the most tentative definition. What looks like a flower you have entwined in your embraces through an unassailable love affair might only be a single turn away from being seduced over to your opponent’s garden. As such you’re only ever going to be comfortable in placing those petals that don’t permit your opponent to steal the flower away. In case you’re wondering what that means in practise, it means you are always forced into a position of discomfort. You can only feel secure if you can play and complete a flower in a single swoop, Otherwise you’re almost certainly going to approach the playing of cards with a level of fear-laced reluctance you might otherwise reserve for exchanging pleasantries with strangers in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. Sure it’ll probably be fine but what if it’s not?
The problem for you is that it’s devastating to lose a flower because the spoils are ridiculously high for claiming it. To rub your face into it Lotus gives you two ways to lose and they’re both horrible. For some flowers you might only get three points for completing it but in the process give an opponent five. That hurts, but not as much as it would hurt for them to complete the flower themselves and claim both prize pots. Likewise, an opponent completing a flower that you control just underlines how close you were to scooping up the whole lot of rewards. Sure, you get the lion’s share of the benefit if it was a small flower but it still somehow unaccountably feels like a loss. Similarly to Hanamikoji, Lotus is a game where even the person you think just beat you can feel aggrieved at the outcome.
The more resources you commit to a flower the psychologically harder it’ll be to lose it because essentially you lock up a lot of your momentum in each play. Each of the guardians you allocate to a flower isn’t exerting its influence anywhere else and you only have two (or three) at any time. Even just moving a guardian from one flower to another feels like a failure because it comes with the same frustrated ambition as a failed invasion. ‘I came through, and I shall return’, is all you can yell at your opponent as you watch your hard-work undermined by the sheer inevitability of their slow but incremental progress.
You can’t just create flowers willy-nilly you see – if a flower type has been started that’s the one you’re all fighting over and that too often puts you in a precarious position. You might have the cards that would let you claim it but what would you be permitting your opponents to do with a fresh new flower? Sometimes it’s better to have flowers that act as tempting, valuable honey-pots just so you have at least some control over the situation. The shared unease that surrounds a fraught prize can be an asset of its own – a kind of ‘neutral zone’ that can keep the peace exactly until the point someone else makes an unexpected incursion. When a flower is claimed its guardians are returned to each player’s pool and maybe that’s exactly what will lose you the other flowers you’re trying to control. It’s not so much an uneasy truce as an uneasy equilibrium that will be disturbed violently when it’s most in the interests of someone to push the whole thing over.
Inevitable what this becomes is a game of carefully curating a flower with the kind of suffocating possessiveness that will just end up killing the thing you love. Your own need for control is what brings other people sniffing around your garden, and in the process of trying to protect your interests you tend to find you let other things pass you by. People don’t pluck flowers, they steal them. They’re not gardeners. They’re thieves and it’s all but impossible to feel more charitable than that when you’re being denied the harvest you so righteously and diligently tended. It’s like you gave the best years of your life to tend a beautiful rose only for some passing yahoo to yank it out of the ground without a moments thought. ‘Cool flower, bro’, they say as they sniff it once before throwing it to the ground. ‘I love nature, me’
The risk of that happening breeds a paranoia that seeps into every action players take with regards to the open draws from the wildflower deck. You see someone slipping two of a particular flower into their hand and your first instinct is to make a sprint to complete it, to hell with the risks. But it’s hard to know whether that’s someone playing with live ammo or just firing blanks. The ostentatious collection of a wildflower can be as much theatre as it is anything else. Since your hand limit is an aggressively constrictive five (at best) though it might be better to assume any action is potentially hostile. Might be.
This all adds up to a game that is intensely cut-throat despite its gorgeous art and pastoral pretentions. That’s very satisfying. However, it also comes together in a game that never strays out of the relatively safe and uncontroversial soil of its comparatively unadventurous design. It’s a pleasant game but I can’t say it ever manages to rise meaningfully above that. It’s more enchanting than it is entrancing. The simple games that we tend to effuse the most about on Meeple Like Us are those that deliver depth of experience as well as an elegance of game systems. The psychological show-downs in Lotus are certainly interesting the first few times but they rapidly lose their ability to surprise. You are rarely truly gambling in Lotus – you’re merely waiting for the right time to cash in on a large pot. The only question is ‘who will get the pot first’ and in the end that’s more to do with the flow of cards than it is the players involved. It’s never not a good idea to nab a flower and as such your decisions are mostly based on convenience rather than anything more complex. If you have the cards you need, the decision is trivial. The only thing that keeps this from being an intensely solveable game is that you don’t know when those cards are coming.
Essentially luck becomes the driving factor of success in a game of Lotus. The only cards where you get any choice in selecting are the neutral wildflowers. They’re useful and all but they don’t actually give you any additional control over a flower. You’ll more often simply be drawing cards off the top of your deck hoping to get the ones you want. If you don’t have the cards you need, well – it’s a game about completing sets of cards at the right time and the right way and there’s not much you can do to lay out a strategy beyond ‘hope the next draw gets you something more useful’. It’s this luck element that ensures that you’re always being pushed out of your comfort zone during play but that’s an unsatisfying and unreliable way to force interesting game states
Lotus is certainly a good game and stunning to look at. It’s not however one that I think gets better with cultivation. There isn’t an endless garden to explore here – it’s a self-contained window-box. It’s pleasant to look at, rewarding to tend, but in the end an experience too limiting to really give you a chance to bury yourself in rich and welcoming soil.