Lots Wrings a Lot From Very Little
Thomas Wells sent me a handful of junk. Weighted meeples, coins both cardboard and lightweight metal, a wooden pawn, a yellow die, a few leftover cubes, two blobs of glass, a mouse that looks like it was lifted from a knock-off copy of Root, and a plastic skull that doesn’t belong to any genus of hominid I’ve ever seen. Thanks a million, Thomas, but I’ve got my own leftover board game pieces to lose under the couch.
Except this particular handful of junk is Lots. Not a lot. Lots. The game Wells designed. It’s unmistakably homemade — or perhaps hand-scooped from beneath the couch — but I’ve become slightly captivated by the thing.
How to sum up a game that hardly has any rules? How to discuss the wide-open social spaces it traverses? When it comes to meaning, is this expanse a fertile prairie or an empty wasteland?
My wife doesn’t suffer from similar indecision. She quickly pronounced Lots a “classroom game.” Something you’d play as an illustration of principle. Easy to see why. Much of the game is about parsing value in a way that feels reminiscent of a first-grader’s math homework. Initially, the values are crystal clear. You have five stacks of colored cards, each representing a different “lot.” The validity of a lot is assessed by how it conforms to the symbol on its right. If red holds more pieces than orange, it will score equal to how many pieces it holds! If green is heavier than gray, it will also score! The rightmost lot will never score! That sort of thing.
Those values don’t remain stable for very long. First of all, you’re always adding to them. That’s where the handful of junk from beneath Thomas Wells’ couch comes in. Not only can you increase the value of a lot, but you can take one of the cards from the stack itself, securing a payout at the end of the game if that lot meets its criterion. That’s the easy part. Where it gets tricky — even unpleasantly so — is that you can return a card in order to swap two lots. Moments ago you were grappling with how to make the orange and pink lots contain the same number of pieces. Thanks to a rearrangement, you’re now faced with a brand-new equation, one that happens to be hostile to the lots you’ve collected over the past five minutes. That might not sound like many minutes, but when the entire game is over in less than a quarter of an hour, that’s a significant slice of the decision space.
The emotional result? I’d call it pensive. Apprehensive, even. There are certain differences that arise when playing Lots with two, three, or four people. Mostly what you’d expect: more control with fewer players, not as many surprises, not quite the same breadth of ambiguous social interaction to explore. But no matter the count, it lodges in the mind like some fragment of lunch in the throat. Not substantial enough to choke on, but undeniably there, and needing to be vacated. It’s breathless. Slightly panicked. When you strike upon the perfect accumulation of lots, stocked with the perfect items of the perfect weights, it becomes a question of how exactly those gains will be stripped from you.
Trying to come up with an appropriate comparison is an exercise in failure, similar to playing Lots and pulling ahead too early. In one sense it’s reminiscent of certain Reiner Knizia titles. Minimal rules, maximal empty space that could be filled with weighty silence or frantic bargaining. But this is rougher and less assured than anything by Knizia, with a trio of end states that are all too easily forgotten amidst the demands of the game’s many ambiguities. Similarly awkward is its use of weight, a smart idea that’s rarely as interesting as it could have been thanks to the heft of particular pieces. Perhaps it’s more like the offerings of Oink Games, small-box releases that lean toward the experimental. There, too, the comparison falls flat, although in this case because Lots feels wilder, less pruned. Where Oink takes cares to shave off any sharp edges, Lots is nothing but rusted razors tangled in barbwire. For better and for worse.
Here’s the inevitable question that chases these sorts of writeups: “So did you like it?” I can’t decide. The experience was singularly confounding, riddled with both anxiety and certainty, usually at each other’s expense. I would liken it to negotiating passage aboard a sinking ship’s only lifeboat, but that makes it sound too fraught; to clawing toward a free-falling elevator’s handhold, but that’s too madcap; to appraising the market values of five houses in various states of decay, but that’s too tedious. Lots falls somewhere in the middle. Rewarding and frustrating in equal measure, at least it’s given me lots to think about.
A complimentary copy was provided.