Playing Lotus (2016)

This post is the first autoethnographic account in a research project for a future article to be titled ‘Cardboard Asia’.

Background
The lotus flower is a common element in Asian themed games where it is used to denote orientalism and mysticism. The flower, while often used to represent Chinese themes, also has a long history as the ‘sacred lotus’ in the Indian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. The lotus is, therefore, a polyvalent symbol and generic orientalist signifier. The lotus is featured in the German Der weiße Lotus (2000) that depicted territorial control in the middle ages and Flower of the Lotus (1996), which was republished under the title China Moon (1998). The German-only language version of Lotus (1998) is an award winning piece-stacking racing game with some strategical elements, which featured a red snake-like dragon on a grid layout that somewhat resembled a flowering lotus plant, a very stereotypical representation of Chineseness.

Lotus (2016) by Jordan and Mandy Goddard (Renegade Game Studios)

Lotus (2016)
The most recent Lotus boardgame first signals its ‘asianness’ representationally with the box cover that depicts a digital watercolour painting of a woman in traditional straight collar purple cheongsam with coiled buttons and green and gold embroidery, who appears to be levitating a glowing lotus flower. On the cover, the title ‘Lotus’ has a calligraphy-styled font, and the game’s designers are simply listed as ‘Jordan & Mandy’, while the back of the box has images of the game’s components. The back of the box signals the game’s Chineseness with a single hànzì character appearing next to the component list, which Google translates suggests is ‘lotus’. The game is illustrated by Anita Osburn and Chris Ostrowski, and made in China, but Lotus is published by Renegade Games studies, which is listed as a Californian company, who also publish two other popular Asian themed games Lanterns: The Harvest Festival and Honshu.

First encounter
As with most ‘boxed’ board games, the first game involves several commons experiences including the removal of shrink wrap, the ‘popping’ of cardboard tiles from the factory punched card stock and the learning of the rules. Our first game was a four player experience, with Harriet, my ten-year-old daughter, my partner Lucy, and our friend Jodie, who began reading the rule book while I search for a ‘how-to-play video on YouTube. The first game we played was an introduction to the game’s aesthetic experience that I described as ‘beautiful meanness’. Playing the game involves placing the individual flower cards on the table and completing the flower ‘sets’ of the flowers placed by others by adding the right number of cards/petals. Each of the flowers – Iris (3 petals), Primrose (4 petals), Cherry Blossom (5 petals), Lily (6 petals) and the Lotus (7 petals) – is a typical Chinese flower type. The font on the Guardian cards and points coins replicate the calligraphy style of the box cover, but the cards lack other overt symbols of ‘Chineseness’.

Each player gets two insect tokens – Yellow (Butterfly), Red (Ladybug), Blue (Dragonfly) and Green (Caterpillar), which evokes the connections to Japanese games media where bug collecting (Pokemon and Yokai Watch) is considered an honourable and worthwhile pursuit. In Lotus, the insects are ‘Guardians’, and when placed on the flower cards, they count as that player’s territory. To take a flower, the player must complete it, but to get the bonus points or special power tokens, the player with the most Guardians wins. This helped to offset the ‘meanness’ I felt in completing the flowers that other player’s put down. By building up the flowers, we emotionally invest in them, and it can feel mean when other players complete your carefully assembled Lilly or ambitiously planned Lotus. The beautiful meanness of the game became even more profound to me during our second game. In the first game, my strategy of completing flowers rather than investing Guardian tokens into them meant I won with a huge lead and prompted an immediate second game where I became the one to beat. Instead of focussing on taking the flowers in the second game I invested in achieving all the special powers, which gave me fewer points but it felt like I was experiencing more of the game than simply winning.

Final thoughts
Lotus is a game designed in the United States and made in China. It is a global product, one that is clear in its Asianness but also offering a contemporary feel to the concept. Lotus has a degree of ‘ludonarratological dissonance’ in which the gorgeous aesthetic, underlying spiritual and botanical motifs, contrasts sharply to the competitive element of traditional ‘trick-taking’ in Western card games like Bridge or 500. Board games, in general, suffer from this problem, and in the future, I’ll put together a blog post on those that work to overcome it (I’m thinking specifically of Netrunner).

Lotus is a game designed in the United States and made in China. It is a global product, one that is clear in its Asianness but also offering a contemporary feel to the concept. Lotus has a degree of ‘ludonarratological dissonance’ in which the gorgeous aesthetic, underlying spiritual and botanical motifs, contrasts sharply to the competitive element of traditional ‘trick-taking’ in Western card games like Bridge or 500. Board games, in general, suffer from this problem, and in the future, I’ll put together a blog post on those that work to overcome it (I’m thinking specifically of Netrunner).