See Spots Roll
If there’s any criterion we can count on Jon Perry to include in his next design, it’s that it’ll be nothing like anything else he’s ever done before. Spots, co-designed by Perry, Justin Vickers, and Alex Hague, is a delightful press-your-luck dice game. Its one commonality with Time Barons, Scape Goat, and Air, Land, & Sea is that it’s deceptively simple.
According to Spots, the only thing that can make a good dog better is some additional spots. It seems appropriate that there’s no official story here. You aren’t a dog trainer. You aren’t a dog owner. You aren’t even, strictly speaking, the dogs. As near as I can tell, Spots casts you as somebody who adores dogs. To whit, yourself. These dogs need spots. Dice also have spots. Put one and two together and you get two thousand.
At its core, Spots is about rolling dice and using them to make the spots that are missing from its dogs’ coats. The only risk is that your dogs are frolicsome and will bury any dice that don’t happen to line up with an open slot. Bury too many dice and you’ll bust, losing all your dice, both those buried in the yard and those waiting atop your dogs. Such an eventuality effectively forces you to start from scratch, with the exception that any finished dogs, those you filled with spots and then spent a turn scoring, are safe forevermore, secure in the comfort of their bespotted fur.
Easy. Simple. Straightforward. Like the rest of Perry’s adventures in tabletop game design — and digital game design too, come to think of it — Spots is uncomplicated enough for a kid to play. It would be an error to think its appeal ends there. My eight-year-old frequently requests it. Not only for the dogs, but also because she’s at the age where she’s beginning to grasp the limitless realm of probability. The other day, she noted her hesitance to roll again because the only openings she had left to fill were 4s and 5s. Even though she couldn’t explain the reason for her reluctance, risk assessment is a skill every human has a passing understanding of, even if we’re utterly terrible at parsing odds. As if to prove that truism, she then rolled anyway. And busted.
Speaking mechanically, Spots is an uncharacteristic press-your-luck game. Rather than staging its chances entirely within the span of a single turn, it asks players to consider longer durations. From a micro perspective, it might even seem underwhelming. A turn consists of picking a trick from the middle of the table. There are always six on offer, although this number wanes as tricks are selected. Eventually only two will be left. Whichever trick isn’t selected receives a doggy treat — useful for rerolls — and the remainder become available for selection once more. Apart from two standard tricks, there are four broad categories to choose from, ensuring that every session might be a little bit different. This also guarantees a careful selection: one trick for picking up treats, another for safe rolls, one for risky handfuls of dice, and a final category where the stranger abilities reside. You pick a trick. You roll some dice. Maybe you reroll them.
But Spots can be more devious than it first appears. There’s some degree of management within a turn itself, especially when it comes to parceling out your limited rerolls, but the game’s fuller state is one of careful preparation and assessment. It’s rare, for example, that your so-called opponents — I prefer to think of them as fellow canine dads — aren’t worth considering, even though their impact is limited to the tricks they’re liable to select. The reality is more complex. The two “common” tricks, those that appear in every session, allow you to reroll the dice buried in your yard or draw an extra dog respectively. Since the goal of the game is to give six cards their spots, a task that will require many rolls and at least four more dog cards than you begin with, these can’t be neglected. But when should you pick them? As soon as they’re available? Only when you’re on the verge of busting? When should you chance it all on a risky roll? When should you acquire a new dog? Which tricks are likely to be available on your next turn anyway? There’s nothing in Spots that asks you to approach these questions with any degree of caution. Crud, you don’t even need to approach them at all. But they’re there for those who want to play proficiently rather than reactively. Spots asks you to consider how your odds will bend over multiple turns, not only during the next roll.
The beauty of the whole thing being, of course, that sometimes it’s better to slip into the latter mode. Spots accommodates both with equal assurance. There’s the odds-crunching rush of playing with adults, pressing the long odds to try and complete your cards before everybody else, and then there’s the game’s sillier side, the one that gets children doubled over with tummy laughs. I’d say I’m not sure which I prefer, but the truth is that the game shines brightest with little people.
It helps that John Bond’s illustrations are so infernally adorable. There’s Doog, a cow doing a terrible job of masquerading as a dog, to the utter delight of every child trained to tell the difference between canine and bovine via image and onomatopoeia since birth. Sometimes the spots that need filling aren’t a dog’s splotches at all, instead being the eyelets of a shoe or the craters of the moon. There’s Burt, who made my eight-year-old scream with both delight and disgust, “He’s showing me his bumhole!” Kids. They’re not going to miss any opportunity to call out a dog’s exposed bumhole.
In this mode, Spots becomes less of a race and more of an amble, but that doesn’t make it any less absorbing. Even my three-year-old plays it. “Plays” it. She rolls dice and draws cards and earns treats. She feels included. The gameplay is gentle enough that she doesn’t notice that she isn’t engaging in the game’s more energetic processes. It’s a rare game that adults and kids can play together without one or the other feeling bored or disconnected. A game that adds a toddler to that list? That’s even more precious.
“Precious” is a good word for it, although I worry that’s a word that hits the ear like faint praise and sells Spots short. Make no mistake, this is an exceptional press-your-luck game. It’s just that, like Perry’s other titles, its surface simplicity belies deeper possibilities. Both are essential when considering what’s been done here. Spots is one for the ages — all ages.
A complimentary copy was provided.