I’ve never been much of a gardener. In fact, I struggle to keep house plants alive, and the merest suggestion of freshly-cut grass turns me into a sneezing, dribbling, skin-blotchy mess. But when I saw Lotus, a card game that revolves around growing magical flowers, I was intrigued.
Designed by the husband-and-wife team of Jordan and Mandy Goddard, it casts players as rival mages attempting obtain supreme spiritual wisdom by cultivating plants. It’s not much in the way of a storyline, but it’s all you’re going to get, because while Lotus is incredibly pretty, it’s essentially an abstract set-building game.
That’s alright, though, because it turns out to be a pretty interesting one.
You’ll start the game with a personal deck of cards, each of which shows a single petal from a different type of flower. With each passing turn you’ll play some of them onto the table, laying cards on top of one another and gradually building them into beautiful blooms. Different cards combine to make flowers of different sizes, and each one takes a varying number of petals to complete – anywhere from three to seven.
You can play up to two cards on a flower as one of your actions each turn, meaning that multiple players will contribute to the blossom-building process. Finish off a flower by laying down its last card, though, and you’ll get to scoop it up and add it to your scoring pile. Each card you claim this way is worth a point at the end of the game, but while it’s the simplest way to build up your score, there are other things you’ll have to consider.
Each card you play from your deck shows at least one coloured power symbol. Whenever anyone completes a flower, the person with the most symbols on it gets a bonus – either a chip worth five points, or one of a selection of special powers including the ability to draw extra cards or to lay down additional petals during their turn.
It means that while there’s always an incentive to finish flowers, it can also benefit an opponent, and it’s here that Lotus reveals its true nature. Because while at first glance it gives off an air of serene tranquillity, it comes with a mile-wide mean streak.
Each tender, delicate orchid growing on your tabletop is actually a miniature power struggle, with players battling to boost their influence and cut off their opponents. You’ll constantly balance the benefits of adding petals to a flower against the risk of giving someone else the chance finish it off. You’ll line up perfect scoring opportunities, only to see them cruelly snatched away by your rivals. And with players able to place guardian tokens – little wooden insects – onto petals to boost their influence, it’s rarely certain who’ll gain the most from finishing a flower until someone actually plays the last card.
It’s all pretty ruthless, and Lotus does a great job of building a tense, competitive atmosphere. But it’s not the only thing the game does well. For one thing, it’s impossible not to mention its gorgeous looks, the work of artist Chris Ostrowski. Everything from the box cover illustration to the petal cards themselves looks fresh, vibrant and inviting – a welcome break in a gaming hobby often obsessed with darkness, monsters and explosions.
There’s also a pleasing sense of progression to the game. You’ll start off by making modest plays, picking up a few points here and there. But this slow-burn start doesn’t last long, and the pace picks up considerably once you and your opponents acquire a few power-ups. By the end of the game you’ll be gaining points on almost every turn, and it feels like a real sprint to the finish.
Above all, though, Lotus manages to squeeze a tonne of engaging gameplay out of a minimal set of rules. It hands you just three possible actions on each turn – play some cards, replace some of the cards in your hand or use one of your guardian tokens – but while it’s simple, it’s far from simplistic.
There are meaningful choices to make at every step. Should you build a small flower for a quick reward, or work towards a larger one for a long-term payoff? Should you add petals to a flower to ensure that you keep control of it, or start work on a new one and leave your opponents to finish it off? With the state of the game constantly shifting as players complete flowers or start new ones, you’ll ask yourself these kinds of questions over and over again.
It puts Lotus on a par with Splendor as a game that’s easy to learn and quick to play, but with enough depth to make it well worth revisiting. And just like Splendor, I can see it becoming one of my go-to games to play with family, or for introducing new players to the hobby.
It’s an impressive achievement from a relatively new design team, and it’s got me looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.
Designers: Jordan and Mandy Goddard
Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
1-4 Players, 30 Minutes, Ages 8+
£27.00 UK / $30.00 US