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.
Colt Express is fun but rapidly overstays its welcome. It doesn’t so much have a rating as a downward rating curve that is currently sitting at three stars for us – with greater familiarity, we would expect that to dip farther. However, it’s a Spiel des Jahres winner and as we often say you should entirely disregard our opinion if you like the sound of the game. Enjoyment is so subjective that we wouldn’t dream of claiming you should take our views remotely seriously. However, accessibility is a somewhat more objective measure. Does Colt Express manage to steam ahead here, or are we looking at the precursor to an embarrassing derailment? Let’s find out – yeehaw!
Yep – in a 2014 title, we’re still dealing with a careless disregard for the implications of colour blindness. It’s such an easy thing to deal with too and that makes it doubly frustrating. Before we get to that, let’s begin with the good.
There is only one part of the game where colour is the only channel of key information, and that’s in bandit position. Everything else either uses graphically distinct art or doubles up on the information through redundant channels. Gems, purses and strongboxes for example all have their own visual design, and each of the card decks individualises the action with the relevant character.
That’s not true of the bullet cards, but that at least is a problem that need not interfere with game flow. It’s more of an issue when it comes to putting the game away and is easily resolved provided at least one person isn’t impacted by colour palette clashes.
Now on to the problem.
There is no category of colour blindness that won’t have some problem here, and this issue is critical to play. The position of your bandit on the train is the single most important piece of game information you have. Not only is it often the case that you can’t identify your own bandit you may not be able to tell which bandits share a carriage or which are valid targets for an attack. True, much of that is situational anyway, but knowing who is where is important in knowing the risk that special attacks pose or in knocking score away from an assumed runaway leader.
As an example of this at work, look at this train here. This is showing a dedicated Deuteronopic view of the game state with all six players represented. Who is where?
Difficult, right? Now imagine that’s the only real thing that determines whether your plans are going to come to fruition or not. It’s not that the game is unplayable because you can always ask about the state of play or adopt one of the other conventions we recommend (alternate tokens for example). It’s just that it’s bad, and there’s no reason for it. It’s not even that it’s just inconsiderate use of easily available meeple colours – these are of a custom design and could have easily have been provided in a colour blind sensitive palette if anyone had thought to do it.
As such, we do not recommend Colt Express in this category although if you seriously want to play you’ll be able to make the usual modifications. It really shouldn’t be necessary though, not in a 2014 title and especially not in a Spiel des Jahres winner. These games are high profile, they really need to adhere to the highest standards of accessibility. Colour blindness isn’t a new issue, and it was certainly a known problem long before we started this blog. There really is no excuse.
The story of visual accessibility is somewhat more promising. The cards make use of large graphical representations of the actions to be undertaken along with a symbol in the top-right corner of the card. These are visually distinctive, and relatively easy to differentiate if some degree of visual discrimination is possible.
Journey stage cards are a little more problematic incorporating as they do a symbolic language used to represent the ending event that is to occur. These include some symbols with a significant degree of visual overlap. The stage slots too sometimes make use of subtle visual design to indicate how cards are to be played – usually they are quite distinct, but when it comes to playing two cards back to back it may not be obvious when viewed with limited ability to pick up visual detail. If any sighted player is available, they can provide a running overview of what’s to be done. ‘Okay, we all play our next card face down’, or ‘This stage has alternating face up and face down cards, and terminates in a swivel arm that will move everyone on the roof to the caboose’.
Fortunately, the largest part of the game state is simple enough to understand and represented in a way that can be identified through tactile means. If even limited visual discrimination is possible, the nature of the setup should permit a reasonable understanding of what’s happening in the game. Bandits are either in a carriage or on the roof, and large meeple figures are used to indicate each bandit. These are vibrantly coloured to aid in visual discrimination but of course this will be of limited use if a visually impaired player is also colour blind.
This visual clarity is reduced somewhat when it comes to identifying what loot is available in rooms because these tokens may be obscured by other tokens or meeples. Overall though this part of the game offers a relatively high degree of accessibility.
The second largest part of the game state is the action card pile, but this is primarily going to be a memory exercise for everyone involved. Players can narrate their action as they play to ensure no-one is disadvantaged – that might even be worth doing in general, because it would add a considerable degree of flavour to proceedings.
Overall, we’re prepared to recommend Colt Express in this category.
I have no doubt that someone who wants to become good at Colt Express can, and as such it’s a game that has the potential to be cognitively expensive to master. Or at least, master as much as the systems permit. In the review we made mention of the difference between missed plays and misremembered plays. It’s worth spending a little time unpicking that.
Missed plays are those when the information needed to make a meaningful and useful decision was not available at the time it was made. For example, Cheyenne moves into a room with Doc. If Doc was able to be responsive, he might punch Cheyenne to make sure that the punch he thinks is coming goes instead to another player. However, the action has already been committed and it’s not possible to change it. That’s a missed play, and is a fundamental element of the hidden information that makes its way into a round of Colt Express.
A misremembered play is one that follows from a lapse in understanding of one’s own activities. For example, when you forget the last card you played or play another card without remembering how it’s going to interact with previous things you’ve done. Foe example, when you move from carriage to carriage forgetting that you’re going to have movedthe Marshal into your only viable destination. Or when you or steal from an empty room because you forgot you hadn’t moved in this round. This is primarily a consequence of the explicit decoupling of action from outcome – the ramifications of what you have done are in the future.
Colt Express is cognitively expensive as a result of both these categories – to compensate for missed plays, a player must become skilled at reading other players and assessing intention. That requires building a mental tree of possible actions a player can undertake, moderated by what they’ve already done, and assigning a probability to each before committing to an activity based on that analysis. Even the best players won’t be reliably successful at this, but probably successful enough to get noticeable benefit out of the effort. That’s a fluid intelligence expense with heavy memory dependence. More than that, it becomes more combinatorically expensive the more players are active. You need to hold in your mind what everyone is doing and how it impacts on everyone else. And more than that it depends on how the impact on everyone else is likely to upset your own plans.
It’s certainly not impossible – the game is simple enough to permit this understanding of cause and effect with practice. It is though cognitively demanding. Compensating for missed plays is going to depend heavily on ability.
If you’re happy just playing for the fun of it, without trying to execute a great masterplan, there is still a considerable burden placed on avoiding misremembered plays. Even focusing only on your own little patch of the carriage needs situational awareness of what’s you’ve done and what’s being done to you. The logic of playing cards depends on how well you’re holding your own state in mind, and that’s a function of memory. The rules make no mention of being prohibited from looking through the schemin’ pile to check on previous actions (honouring face down cards of course), but while this would reduce the burden it wouldn’t eliminate it.
All of this said, I think it’s very easy to over-estimate how necessary this is to enjoying the game. As a strategic experience, Colt Express is peculiarly shallow. Even if you manage to pull off the aforementioned masterplan it’s as much about luck as anything else. Someone throws a punch at someone that was going to throw a punch at them, so that second person throw a punch at you instead. You can’t really do much about that so you’re still heavily reliant on serendipitous game state. That’s bad if you want to demonstrate your mastery over a game, but it is a great equaliser if all you want to do is have a laugh watching meeple bandits having an anarchic punch-up. That’s where all the juice is anyway, and it doesn’t need you to play cleverly. It just needs you to make a decent effort with what limited information you have. Playing randomly won’t do much to add fuel to the fire, but even just playing with vague appreciation of the game state will go a long way to making for a memorable brawl.
As such, while Colt Express seems to put a lot of cognitive pressure on players, much of that emphasis has a limited impact on the real outcome of play. As such, we think it can be played by those with cognitive impairments provided everyone is willing to just see what happens.
We’ll offer tentative recommendations for both categories of cognitive impairment here, but bear in mind that the success you can expect from a session of Colt Express is going to be significantly dependant on group composition. If someone is playing to win while everyone else is playing just to see what happens, it’s likely to be frustrating for everyone. Otherwise, too much is required to avoid even just misremembered plays that we’d advise those with cognitive accessibility needs to avoid the game.
Colt Express manages to make failing funny. That is a hugely important element in a game like this where hidden information is a key element of play. However, as usual that’s highly dependent on an individual’s ability to go with the flow of emotional traffic. You have only limited control over what’s happening on the train – enough to feel like your decisions matter, but not enough to feel that you’re the major arbitrator of the results. That’s a tricky balance to pull off, and the extent to which Colt Express manages it is going to be variated by individual temperament. I think given the cheerful anarchy of play it’s likely to be fine in most situations, but bear it in mind.
A fair degree of ganging up is permitted by the game mechanics in theory, but in practise targets tend to be based on convenience more than malice. The time between making an attack and carrying it out means that everyone may have moved in the meantime. As such you’re often simply picking from a short-list of people that may not have even been contenders at the time of committing to the action. While a player might end up being riddled with many bullets from many sources, it’s most often a result of an accident of positioning. It’s difficult to take anything too seriously as a result.
Score disparities can be significant at the end of the game, especially since some characters are notably better at gathering loot than others. Cheyenne for example punches purses directly into her pocket, whereas Belle cannot be targeted for a fire or punch action while another bandit is in the room. That makes it easy for her to slip in and out of carriages, looting them clean while other bandits are in a brawl. The gunslinger bonus helps a little in this respect since it awards $1000 to the player that has lodged the most bullets in other bandits. Contention over that award is likely to be fierce and there’s nothing to stop Cheyenne or Belle working towards it along with their looting. Again though, it’s a good idea to not put too much emphasis on scoring because as Baz Luhrmann says, ‘your choices are half chance. So are everyone else’s’.
Overall, we recommend Colt Express in this category.
Yeesh. Not only is this game almost completely physically inaccessible to someone with even moderate impairments but it is also borderline inaccessible to everyone else too. The 3D of the train is a great design gimmick and adds a lot to the aesthetic of the game. However, trying to move the figures between carriages, pick up loot, drop it in other carriages, and move from roof to car is awkward. The quarters are pretty tight, and sometimes you may have two or three meeples in there that you need to navigate. There’s just not enough room in the carriages to comfortably do the kind of manipulation that is needed every single round of the game. Things will get knocked over, and knocked out of the carriages. In the process you might reveal game information that should be hidden – such as the value of purses and jewels.
For most players then this is going to be a chore, not just for the usual players impacted by issues in this category. It’s such a problem that I considered making it a major element of the review – it actively gets in the way of the fun in a way that is wall to wall detrimental.
You’re almost certainly going to want one player responsible for this, and probably the one with the smallest fingers. Even that’s not likely to make it particularly easy – you might even need to employ chopsticks or knitting needles for especially crowded setups. That is a ludicrous thing to have to say.
Assuming you have such a player handy, the game does lend itself well to verbalisation with the assistance of a standard card-holder. You do have a secret hand of cards, but they’re very simple and they all get played to a common stack which is then flipped over and executed. When making decisions during the stealin’ phase, it’s as simple as either identifying a target or a direction. When running on the top of the train things are a little more open, but still as easy as saying ‘move three to the left’.
But man, those train compartments. They’re so bad that even though the game is fully playable through verbalisation we’re still going to recommend people with physical impairments avoid Colt Express. Even if only for how frustrating it’s going to be for the player taking on the lion’s share of moving pieces through the train.
There’s no reading required for play, and no need for communication during the game. Yelling ‘yeehaw’ when jumping from train car to train car is entirely optional. As such, we strongly recommend Colt Express in this category.
There’s a good mix of ethnic diversity here, which is great – Django is black. Tuco is Hispanic (and looks very much like Danny Trejo, which is also cool), and Cheyenne is a Native American. There are two women and four men, which is a ratio sufficient to pleasingly honour the demographics of the time whilst offering meaningful choice to players of today.
Belle and Cheyenne are both considerably more sexualised than the men, which is unfortunate. Not quite as unfortunate though as Belle’s infantilising power, which is that she’s so beautiful other bandits don’t want to punch her. On the other hand, Bell is still tough as nails and equally good at kicking ass and taking names, so at the same time it’s all thoroughly empowering.
Belle’s power can be seen as somewhat subversive – it’s probably the single most powerful ability in the game, and can easily be interpreted as a cynical bit of psychological manipulation on her part. I’ve seen numerous comments here and there about sexist and racial stereotyping in the rest of the characters (particularly Cheyenne and Django) but my own view is that you need to dig quite deep to make the case. Reasonable people can disagree here – HistorianLA in the comments for example has some interesting thoughts on this. However, as usual I fully expect y’all can come to your own conclusions on the issue.
At an RRP of £28, Colt Express gives a lot of value for the money – it’s as much toy box as it is board-game, and it supports six players without breaking a sweat. To be fair, it doesn’t handle the lower-end of player counts nearly as gracefully – you need at least four bandits in the melee for it to be much fun. That means if you’re playing two or three players at least one person is going to have to double up on playing bandits. That’s… pretty confusing, although not entirely unpleasant or deleterious to the game outcome. It’s just quite intense.
We recommend Colt Express in this category.
The tactility of the train is a great aid for the visually impaired, but that’s going to be lost if that coincides with a physical impairment. The train can be very long, and as such if one is expecting to be able to physically check for information it depends on the extent to which that is comfortable. Similarly, given the intensely tight constraints within the carriages even minor physical impairments such as tremors will reduce the feasibility of this. That would leave only visual identifiers – if visual impairment in this case is linked to colour blindness the game likely veers into the territory of inaccessibility.
Colt Express makes use of hidden hands, but these are neither large nor complex. Everyone shares the same basic set of actions and so there’s little gameplay information leaked if someone needs a reminder on what each action does. The complex outcome of cards (such as targeting) are handled openly during the stealin’ phase – at this point, no gameplay information is lost if someone needs guidance with regards to the outcomes. As such, the usual cognitive/visual issues we consider in these circumstances are not a problem.
Some of the cards, particularly those relating to journey stages, have symbols on them to express termination actions. These are neither particularly visually accessible nor obvious in their meaning. If cognitive and visual impairments intersect, the role of handling these will need to go to a player able to make out the meaning either from memory or with consultation to the manual.
The game plays briskly, running to around 45 minutes in normal play. Dealing with the painfully awkward manipulation of game elements adds a bit to that, which would only increase with accessibility compensations. If trying to play well, or doubling up on bandits due to low player counts, those 45 minutes can be tiring. Otherwise, the game is reasonably low impact and low stress, and short enough that it is unlikely to exacerbate issues of physical, cognitive or emotional discomfort. If a player must drop out, it’s easy enough to simply stop considering their character in play or have someone else take over and double up. The relatively short playing time though should mean this isn’t required in too many situations.
We often say on this blog that ‘good accessibility benefits everyone’, and here we see the other side of the coin – ‘inaccessibility is bad for all of us. The physical train that is such a visual delight in Colt Express also makes it frustratingly awkward to play. Inaccessibility can be a genuine gameplay problem – for Colt Express, that problem is for everyone.
Otherwise it’s a game of mixed blessings – the colour design is shocking for such a recent and high profile title, but the rest of the game is generally accessible (with caveats) in each category.
We gave Colt Express three stars in our review, noting that it makes a much better first impression than a lasting one. There’s just not enough in the game to keep your interest once the novelty of the cheerfully erratic violence wears off. Still, it’s a Spiel des Jahres winner and you wouldn’t be out of line trusting the SdJ judges over us. There are few people that, in the right group, won’t be able to play Colt Express. We’re of the opinion though that the effort might outweigh the benefit for many.
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