Century: Spice Road (2017) – Accessibility Teardown

Context of Document

This is not a review of this game. You will find the review linked in the introduction.

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then please stop reading now. This will not be the blog for you, and we have no interest in debating with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.

Version Reviewed

English-only first edition

Introduction

Century Spice Road is an excellent game: we gave it four and a half stars in our review.  Whether it’s a Splendor killer, a Splendor complement, or a Splendor irrelevance is more difficult to say for sure but you’ll have a lot of fun finding out for yourself. If you can play it, it’s our advice you should go out and buy a copy right now. But there’s more to a Meeple Like Us recommendation than how well the game plays.  We also need to know how accessible it is.  Let’s make our way along the Spice Road and find out.

Colour Blindness

Unfortunately, Century: Spice Road does not score well in this regard. Colour is used as the sole channel of information for identifying the four different spices, and those with Protanopia and Deuteranopia will find it very difficult to distinguish between saffron and cardamom.  That’s in terms of the cubes and in terms of the symbols on the transformation, production and points cards. It’s also not that easy to differentiate between cardamom and cinnamon.    It’s possible to do, but not at all convenient.

Colour blind cubes

A different taste in every dish

As all four types of cubes are needed for every game, this isn’t straightforward to rectify.  You can’t swap out for example one meeple token for another. Even if you replace all the cubes of one colour for different tokens from another game, it still doesn’t solve the problem of the symbols used on the cards.  You could use a full range of different tokens but the card symbols cannot easily be substituted.  The order of the symbols on the points cards is always uniform: turmeric, saffron, cardamom then cinnamon. However not all cards require all types of spices to acquire them, and trading cards similarly often only have 1 or 2 types of spices on them.  It is hard to resolve this. Asking about the spices on a particular trading card or points card will leak information about your possible intent and strategy.  The cards get moved leftwards whenever one is acquired by another player, and so you can’t easily memorise what each card requires without constantly updating your mental game state. Continually asking about each card for every turn would prevent leaking state information but would remove a lot of enjoyment from the game.

Colour blind cards

Something translates into something

With this it’s important to note that all the colours do manifest differently for all categories of colour-blindness – the problem is that the adjacency of the palette often adds a considerable degree of overload and uncertainty as to what spices have which colours.   If the spices had been represented using a suitable palette this could be easily solved. For a little more money, the tokens used for the spices could have been shaped differently so that there were multiple channels of information to indicate the types of spices. As with Concordia, this would have also had the benefit of leaning more into the theme and increasing immersion.  For the cards themselves, a future edition of the game should absolutely make use of icons as well as cubes to differentiate spices.

Colour blind victory point cards

Just throw some spices at a card until you get it.

Century: Spice Road is unfortunately not recommended for those with colour blindness.

Visual Accessibility

Let’s start with the positives, and there are many. There is no text on any of the cards other than a number used to indicate the amount of victory points awarded.  The font size on those is large and well-contrasted against the background art. The coins are nice and feel very different from the cubes, permitting tactile differentiation between those elements.

The instructions card uses a sans serif font except for the opening blurb which is in italics and hard to read. The headings are capitalised and no underlining is used. The contrast on the instructions card is high, but the font size is too small – it looks to be 9 or 10 points rather than the accessible standard of 14 points. However, the rules could be read using a magnifier and, asides from the introductory blurb which is superfluous to gameplay, there are no dense paragraphs of text.  The rules make make good use of bullet points, numbered steps and white space.

There are eleven cards set out in play at any one time: five points cards and six each of the trading cards that handle production, conversion and upgrading.   The area which must be viewed is compact. If there are issues of monochromatic vision it may be hard to distinguish between gold and silver coins, but if someone else sets up the game then that information can be deduced through their location.   While the cards they are attached to might shift, the location of the coins themselves won’t.

The coins are nice and weighty and are pleasingly tactile. Unfortunately both gold and silver coins are the same diameter and with the same imprints making them indistinguishable by touch. Changing the size of one type of coin would have improved accessibility, or using a different image on the different types of coins would have had the same benefits.   A future edition of this game could look to the standards set by accessible coinages to permit ease of differentiation.

The caravan cards can also be problematic. The symbols for where to place your spices are generally against a busy background and with low contrast they can be hard to distinguish. This however is only a problem if you have other issues which make it hard to remember the hand limit for spices, or to identify how many spices your caravan currently contains. It doesn’t matter if they are neatly lined up or not, but you do have to firmly adhere to the maximum of ten and an orderly placement helps a player to do that.

Most of the game state is open and, if visual impairment is not complete and not combined with issues of colour blindness or monochromacy then it is likely possible to play Century: Spice Road with use of visual aids and support from the table. We tentatively recommend Century: Spice Road in this category.

Cognitive Accessibility

The rules in Century: Spice Road are very straightforward. You have only one action per turn, and each turn you can do only one of the following:

  • Play one of the cards currently in your hand to produce, upgrade or transform the spices already in your caravan.
  • Purchase a trading card from the six available. The leftmost card is free but the second and subsequent cards have to be paid for by leaving one of the spices in your caravan on each of the preceding cards.
  • Trade in the requisite spices from your caravan to procure one of the five currently available victory points cards.
  • Rest and take your played cards back into your hand.

Of these, none necessarily put an excessive burden on cognition. If you want to play well though choosing the optimal transformation cards to purchase can be quite cognitively taxing.  This will depend on the points cards available and what production and transformation options you already have available to you as well as how important particular spices are to have.  If playing competitively you might also need to take into account how you can deprive your opponents of what they need. Strategy can be quite deep and this requires a fair degree of fluid intelligence. However, you can have a fun game even if you don’t identify optimal strategies.

Game flow is straightforward. There is only one action per player per turn, and no conditional rules that interrupt this usual game flow. You do need to remember to move cards left to fill in gaps when one is purchased, but one player can take control of rearranging the game space. The game is also largely one of perfect information in terms of what is currently available to select.  All cards available for purchase and as rewards are face up on the table.  There is therefore very little burden on memory in this respect.   However, the paths that a player might take to produce spices depend on what cards they have purchased, and that’s held in a secret hand.    This, except in fiercely competitive situations, will have a limited impact on your gameplay – you’re usually more focused on your own needs than your opponent’s opportunities.  You also need to remember to pay for trading cards with spices if the one you wish to purchase is not the leftmost card, but that’s about it in terms of memory requirements. You can see in your caravan whether or not you have enough spices to make a purchase or to acquire a points card.  You can guess at what cards your opponents are likely gunning for by their spices, and those too are visible at all times.

Scoring requires simple arithmetic. You do need to remember (or check the rules) to find the value of the gold and silver bonus coins, but otherwise it’s just a case of adding numbers together. There is no general or specialist knowledge required in order to play this game.

Overall, we recommend Century: Spice Road in this category.

Emotional Accessibility

Century: Spice Road doesn’t have a lot of direct player interaction. You can’t for example take cards off other players, or steal their spices or the victory points cards they have acquired.  There is however a lot of indirect competition for trading cards and victory points. The game can also get tense and frustrating too if an opponent spends ages weighing up their best move.  Optimisation gets harder to figure out as the game progresses and properly harnessing efficiency is what gets you the points before your opponents.  A delay of a single turn might be the difference between getting the best card and ending up with a caravan full of temporarily useless spices. Unlike Splendor, it’s rare to run out of spices of any type even in five player games but the currency you can run out of is time.  That skews people towards taking each turn seriously, with the resultant impact on calm.

There is no need for bluffing or lying in the game as the spices you are acquiring are visible to all players. In fact, you can play the game without speaking at all. It’s probably easy to work out what victory points card an opponent is currently working towards though, and if they are always chasing the same one as you it can feel a little as if you are being vicitimised. After all, they do have four others to direct their attention towards.   There’s a bit of a Nash equilibrium in play here, and competition over the best cards is simultaneously very common and not necessarily in everyone’s best interests.

Tensions can ramp up as the game progresses and players have purchased multiple victory points cards. The game ends on the round where a player purchases their sixth victory point card in a two player game or their fifth in a game with three or more players.  This can create moments of despair in the final stages of play.  Imagine if you have only one or two cards, and your opponent with four is about to pick up their fifth before you can acquire another – that happens quite often.  Point disparities at the end can be very high as a result. If you only got two cards to the winners five, a disparity can easily be over fifty points. That always come down to how you played.  Maybe you spent too much time building your engine by purchasing transformation and production cards without leaving yourself enough time to fully make use of them. Or maybe you forgot to keep an eye on how your opponents were progressing as you accumulated ever more spices you’d never be able to use. For a particular mind-set it can be hard to interpret this as anything other than a personal failing. Such large points disparities can potentially lead the loser to feel stupid and angry for their under-performance.  This game will not work well with certain kinds of emotional and behavioural disorder.

However, the games are fairly quick and a ‘best of three’ or even ‘best of five’ strategy is feasible to alleviate this – as long as the loser doesn’t consistently lose by large margins and the winner is gracious without being patronising.   There are circumstances in Spice Road where being a good winner and a good loser is made more difficult by the game itself.

Overall, Century: Spice Road receives a recommendation in this category.

Physical Accessibility

There is a fair bit of hand management that goes into the game. On your turn you will need to do one of the following:

  • Play a card from your hand and change the cubes in your caravan based on the card you played – either collecting more cubes or swapping cubes of some colour for the same or different number of cubes of other colours.
  • Transfer cubes from your caravan back to the central stores and pick up the requisite victory points card, possibly including a gold or silver coin. You then shuffle each of the cards to the right of it along one space and turn over the next victory points card
  • Pick up the leftmost trading card and add it to the cards in your hand or card-holder. You then shuffle all the other trading cards left one space and reveal the next available trading card.
  • Place spice cubes on each of the trading cards to the left of the one you wish to purchase, pick up and add the desired card to your hand, then shuffle each of the cards to the right of it left one space and turn over the next available trading card.
  • Pick up the cards you have played and add them back to your hand

Asides from the last option, all of these require a fair amount of physical flexibility. The game space is however quite compact so it is physically accessible for those who do not have hand or arm tremors.  One problem though is that while the bowls provided by the game are a lovely addition in terms of component design, they also make it very difficult to fish cubes out.  They tend to slide up the interior of the bowl, or bob around like croutons in a bowl of soup.  Their use however is entirely optional.

Spices in bowls

Bowls of plenty

Instructions are also easily verbalised. For example:

  • Take three saffron and two cardamom from my caravan, and give me the third victory points card from the left
  • Play the upgrade two card from my hand and swap two of my turmeric cubes for saffron cubes
  • Take five saffron from my caravan, and give me the leftmost victory points card and a gold coin

One significant issue though is that your hand-size does become significant as times goes by – you’ll sometimes be picking up trading cards purely for the spices people have placed on them rather than because they’re useful for you.  You’re unlikely to use all of them all the time, but some of them can be very useful situationally – you’ll likely favour a smaller subset of them but you’ll need to be aware of the utility of them all.  Given the size of the cards, this means you’ll need several card holders which will need regularly manipulated to play out cards out and pull them back in.  This is going to be difficult, but not impossible, for someone to handle on another player’s behalf.  You need to choose either lots of holders for ease of verbalisation and convenience of selection:

Big cards, but easily verbalised and visually parsed.

Or you can go for information dense which maximises the benefit of a card-holder but at a cost of of additional difficulty in manipulating the cards in and out of the holder.

Lots of cards in a holder

It’s like the internal logic of a set of traffic lights designed by Escher

We tentatively recommend Century: Spice Road in this category.

Communication

There are no issues with communication. There is no required reading level (asides from the instructions card, which is very short and straightforward), no reading required whilst playing, and no requirement to talk to any other players during the game. You can play in blissfully stony silence if that’s your preference.

Century: Spice Road is strongly recommended in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

The artwork shows more men than women, and men are more likely to be shown conducting trade.  Women are more likely to be shown carrying out more menial tasks such as cleaning or collecting spices. The images of the women are not gratuitous though – generally women are portrayed as pleasant looking but appropriately clothed and not sexualised. The manual generally uses third person “the player” though at one point it does default to the masculine stating that “On a players; turn, he must perform 1 of the following actions”. This is just one slip-up though in an otherwise gender neutral explanation.

Card art

Women of the spice road

There is a reasonable degree of ethnic diversity shown, with Asian and African individuals all represented. The ethnic diversity probably reasonably reflects the people who would have been found along the Spice Road trading route.

Century: Spice Road is a relatively affordable game, generally available for around £30 and with a maximum player count of five. Though the cubes don’t add to the theme, the components are of good quality particularly the metal coins. The game plays well as a two-player game and scales all the way up to five. It has a reasonably good cost per player, and a lot of replayability.

Century: Spice Road is recommended in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

For those with visual impairments and colour blindness, the cubes and the spice symbols on the cards will be almost indistinguishable for at least two types of spices and there is no other channel of information.  This makes the game largely unplayable. However, we already recommended against play for those with colour blindness. The low contrast between the spice storage symbols and the caravan backgrounds will cause problems if visual impairments are combined with memory impairments (making it hard to remember how many spices your caravan can hold) or physical impairments that make it hard to feel how many spices are currently in your caravan.

The game does support players dropping out: their hands can be left as is and other players can continue without them without it having much game impact.  There is no serious inter-player dependency. Games are also relatively quick (between 20 – 45 minutes depending on player count) so are unlikely to be so long as to exacerbate physical or emotional distress or discomfort.

Conclusion

Century: Spice Road is a game we would be inclined to recommend for quite a lot of people – tentatively and with caveats for many, but if the will is there the way will be found.   And it’s a good game – it’ll reward you for the effort you invest.

Colour Blindness D
Visual Impairment C
Emotiveness B-
Fluid Intelligence B
Memory B
Physical C
Socioeconomic B
Communication A

There are though unfortunate accessibility stumbles, many of which would have been relatively easily addressed.  Inaccessible for colour blindness in a game of 2017 remains one of the most surprising things to see in our teardowns – it’s not like this is a new issue, or even one with such a small impact that it can go happily unobserved.    Spice Road is not inherently inaccessible, but we’ve been very tentative with our recommendations because of the way in which it’s been produced.   There is a far more accessible game to be found in here with a little attention given.

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At four and a half stars, it’s obvious that we think Century: Spice Road is a must buy game.  As algorithmic as the game might be, it’s just a lot of fun to grind and filter spices through ever purer transmutations.   Turning a single piece of cinnamon into a veritable curry is always going to be satisfying.  If the game makes your mouth water and you think you have the stomach for it, then tuck right in.

 


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