Roll n Writes are everywhere right now. While always popular, they seem to be having something of a purple patch, and rightly so as the best of them can be scarily addictive and pack a huge amount of game in a small concept. Standalone games such as Gann Schon Clever or Welcome to… have been around forever and are deservedly seen as pioneers of the genre, but recently there has been a trend of producing Roll and Write adaptations of existing big box games. These try to provide more streamlined experiences for gamers while attempting to scratch the same itch as their bigger brothers. It seems every successful Heavyweight Boardgame, from crusty classics like Orleans to the hulking behemoths like Twilight Imperium, end up with a “scribbling sibling” sooner or later, with frankly mixed success. And it’s not just the number if Roll n Writes that have increased, the scope of these games has widened too. Recent additions such as Twilight Inscription and Hadrian’s Wall have challenged the notion that Roll n Writes are just “filler” games or lightweight options as both of these are pretty meaty, and lengthy, affairs.
So into this crowded market place comes Lots: Filled In, a roll and write version of a 2020 competitive tower building game. Lots: Filled In is unashamedly a throwback to the light and breezy beginnings of roll and writes with an emphasis on creating a fun activity rather than encouraging efficiency and competition. Lots throws out much of the writing and checkboxes in favour of colouring in areas with different coloured pencils. In doing so Lots tried to inject some much-needed colour into a process that can otherwise feel, with the best will in the world, like a tax return with bonuses. Add in some Tetris-style puzzling and you must be on to a winner, right? Well, the quick answer to that is “very nearly”.
In Lots: Filled in, two to four players will compete to be the first to colour in their buildings in the most efficient way. Players will take turns to draft special dice to help colour in their buildings. At the end of drafting, each player will have two dice with different polyomino shapes on (think Tetris pieces) in different colours. They choose one die for its colour and the other for its shape. Players fill in their individual sheets, placing the appropriate shape with one of the coloured pencils. The only placing rules are that it must be placed above and touching an existing shape (so stacking the shapes) or on the first level. Also, shape cannot overlap other blocks or the outline of the building. Players take turns to draft dice and placing shapes until one finishes their entire building or until no one can take a legal turn (as they can’t draft a suitable shape) and everyone then tallies their scores. Scoring is on four criteria, including largest area covered by each colour and number of different coloured squares on each level. Points are lost for gaps in the building and the number of one square purple blocks used in the game. These are always optional to take and increase in penalty points the more you use.
An added twist is that each player takes a secret Crew card at the beginning of the game which provide a special ability they can use once in the game. This can range from an additional draft out of turn, to providing additional points in the end game scoring. At the end of the game, the player with the most points will be the winner.
Getting In Shape
So that, in a nutshell, is how to play Lots: Filled in. The game is simple to learn and play and this, along with cartoon styling and colourful presentation, clearly indicates Lots is aimed squarely at families. However that doesn’t mean that there is no strategy. As with any dice game, there is a large of luck degree involved as you can’t guarantee the colour or shape you need will come up, especially as the game progresses and space is limited. The inclusion of wild results on the dice helps mitigate this slightly. Each die has a “?” which can be used as any shape or, if you are very lucky and get two wilds, any shape or colour. The strategic element comes in the drafting, as more wily players will consider what their opponents need as well as their own requirements and draft accordingly. This adds a little bit of additional interaction to what is, essentially a solitaire shape puzzle.
Similarly, the different powers from Crew Cards are an added wrinkle to consider. While your opponent still has their card in hand you can never be completely sure that you will get things your own way. They may have a card that can overturn a draft or counter one of your decisions… or they may be sat helpless on a card which just gives extra points in the end game scoring. Part of the fun is not knowing either way.
Roll & Writer’s Block
Make no mistake, Lots: Filled in is an engrossing little game. There is a reason why Tetris style puzzle games have stood the test of time and this is no exception. It feels satisfying when you get the shape and colour you need to fill an area of your board and cross off one of the scoring goals. Conversely, if you don’t wince when you are forced to fill in a shape leaving an unsightly white gap that you know you’ll never fill… well you are a stronger person than me. And Lots never goes on too long. This is a game that is quick to start playing and will be over in under half an hour, which is perfect for a roll and write when you have some time to kill. And because the game is compact, it’s ideal to play on the go. I’ve played on the train just using the fold down trays with plenty of room to spare (using the box-lid as a dice tray, of course- I’m not insane!). And yet, for all the good things the game does well- it’s bright, colourful design aesthetic, simple rule set and smart drafting system- it is also one that rarely hooks me, if I’m honest. While I will happily play Lots if someone suggested it, It’s not one I am likely to choose frequently over other lightweight games in my collection. And once played, I rarely get that “just one more game” feeling that I do with the best roll and writes. In truth, that is the main criticism of Lots- for all the things it does well, it doesn’t do anything spectacularly and certainly doesn’t get it’s claws in you the way something like Railroad Ink does.
Part of the reason for this is that the majority of decisions made in the game boil down to three choices: which shapes to take, which colour and where on your sheet to put them. And it doesn’t take long for this to become repetitive. And where there are multiple dice showing the same choice during the draft, which happens frequently, you may not have a choice at all. While this means that the game will crack on at a fair old pace it can feel like being on rails at times. Even though you will usually have at least one choice to make- which die to use for a colour and which for a shape, in reality this doesn’t really get the gears working. The reason why the limited choice works in a game like Tetris is because there is a time limit to the decision. Here is a shape, choose how to orientate it and where to place it- oops too slow, its now stuck awkwardly on the corner piece! It’s fun because it’s tense. In Lots that isn’t the case- the only time limit is your opponent’s patience so there is no real jeopardy in the game.
Frustratingly, Lots: Filled In provides Crew cards which could have shaken things up a little but these are limited in number and scope as they can only be employed once in a game. As such cards rarely make any significant or lasting impact on the course of the game and it’s not unusual for them to go unused. While this may be good for game balance, light, quick games tend to thrive on having big moments that you’ll remember and Lots simply doesn’t provide this. The one-off abilities only tweak one element in the game and only once so it just feel a little “meh”. If the card powers could be used every round, this would turn the game into one which was truly unpredictable and therefore more interesting to replay; or if the cards had powerful one off abilities that could turn a game completely on its head then I think this would help turn a fun activity into a really addictive challenging experience. Both of these changes would definitely make the game less balanced, but would add a whole lot more fun and variability. As it is, Lots played it safe, choosing gentle and unassuming over bold and swingy game play, and I can’t help feeling that this is a missed opportunity.
So much as it pains me to say, I struggle to give Lots: Filled In a high rating, not because of what it is, which is a fun, breezy little filler game, but rather because it could have done so much more. It’s so frustrating because I haven’t had a bad game of Lots yet, and with the box being so small and neat, it is always an option if I am going away as it fits easily in hand luggage and can be played so quickly. But with so many truly great roll and writes on the market, it just isn’t likely to turn any heads and games are usually quickly forgotten. And that leaves Lots in the unenviable position of being a game that’s very hard to dislike and just as hard to recommend.