Flash Point Accessibility Teardown

Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2011) – 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.

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Version reviewed

English Second Edition

Introduction

Flash Point: Fire Rescue at its best crackles with energy.  Every turn is full of tension.  A roll of the dice can be the difference between a cake-walk and the fiery incineration of all your hopes and dreams.   At its worst, it can be the most pedestrian of days at the metaphorical office.  We gave it three and a half stars in our review.  It’s good, but not it’s not great. The game has plenty to recommend it though – let’s find out if accessibility is one of those things.  You’d better bring your hose because it’s gonna get hot.  And bring your axe too.  Sometimes it’s just fun to chop stuff.

Colour Blindness

Oh look, it’s our old fiend – the palette problem:

Color blind firefighters

Who you gonna call?

Every category of colour blindness exhibits a palette clash, and the colours are the only identifying information that indicates fire-fighter is which.   However, it’s not necessarily a significant problem – Flash Point is a co-operative game and as such you don’t leak any information when inquiring about the colour of individual tokens.

Colour blind on cards

ARE YOU OUR MUMMIES?

It is going to have an impact on game flow though, because the position of a fire-fighter and their speciality is hugely important in working out how best to marshal your limited actions.   It will be necessary, with larger player counts, to either make use of some other identifying token (meeples, for example) or to add a degree of ‘so, here is where you’ll find this specialist’ meta-organisation to your strategy discussions.  Not a deal-breaker, but perhaps a flow-breaker.

Colour blind in context

We’ll all look the same when we’re charred to death anyway

Even this will only be true with larger player counts, although finding an acceptable mix of colours may be challenging in environments where multiple categories of colour-blindness for which simultaneous compensation is required.

We’ll still recommend it in this category though.

Visual Accessibility

Flash Point is a game of situational awareness, and that situation is going to extend throughout the entire map.

There is a huge amount of spatially explicit information of which you’ll need to be able to keep track.  Identifying firefighters is one of them, but there’s a pile of situational context – the presence of smoke and fire, the location of hot-spots, hazmats, victims, doors and damage.   Across fire-fighters too you’ll need to be paying attention to banked action points and the location of specialist roles in relation to emerging situations.

A pile of tokens

Quick! There may still be meeple alive under there!

That’s a lot of information you need to be able to ascertain with a visual scan.  Again, Flash Point is co-operative and co-operative games tend to work better in this respect since they encourage sharing of game state and strategy.  A lot of times though you’ll be asking ‘so, what does that actually mean?’.   You can, to an extent, memorise the game state but it evolves rapidly and with modulating tempo.

The board is broken up into quadrants, but really the only time that comes into effect is when you make use of the deck gun.  That’s good, because there are parts of the map where the quadrants are not well contrasted:

Poorly contrasted

It’s getting hot, hot, hot

There are other problems exemplified by the image above.  The hot-spots are tiny, and easily knocked about the map.  The squares all have their dice values printed on them, which is great, but they’re not very easy to see when they blend into the background, and they’ll often be covered up by other tokens.  There are directional signals on each of the squares – these are used for placing POIs when the game is in progress.  It’s a lot of information contained in a very small section of the map, set amidst a densely crowded foreground of visual clutter.

More significantly, very few of the tokens have any real tactile differentiation. The fire-fighters are all identical save for their colour.  The open doors and closed doors are indicated by flipping a round token, as are the smoke and fire symbols.  Both of these are roughly the same size.  Hazmats too are indicated by circular tokens, as are the victims.  There’s a lot of state information presented and manipulated by flipping and there’s no hint as to what is what in the heat of a game if you can’t see clearly what each token represents.

The game makes use of a d8 and a d6, but they have completely standard faces.  As such, they’ll work fine with accessible variants.   You do roll them a lot though and the co-ordinate system you make use of will need you to properly intersect a row and column based on the faces shown.    That might be awkward to do if the printed dice combinations are too small to pick out.  And then when you do find the square the exact impact of what happens will depend on what’s already present and what’s adjacent.

In other words, the game has so much information that needs to be taken in at a glance that it creates a significant barrier to visual accessibility.   The nature of damage inflicted on rooms too means that you can’t even rely on the spatiality of layout – a room may bleed into another room based on accumulated damage.  The fire is never truly contained in a single location, it can always escape into the next room.

All of this said, the game is perhaps playable with considerable assistance, but meaningful play will likely focus on support activities for the most part.  Some specialists have a less ‘hands on’ role in the game, or at least can be profitably employed in endeavours that don’t require direct manipulation of the fire.  The driver can alleviate pressure by making use of the deck gun, and the image technician can save everyone great amounts of effort through identifying false positives before action points are expended in reaching them.  There is useful work to be done in having a player focused on the vehicles around the edge, and dealing with the low hanging fruit that is to be found on the periphery of the action.  Most of this requires only an abstract overview of what’s going on.  ‘The fire is raging out of control in the bottom right’, which then becomes ‘okay, is there anyone there?  If not, I’ll drive around and use the deck gun’.   Or it may be ‘There’s a victim right next to the door’, which then becomes hitching a ride on the ambulance and then making a shallow incursion before heading back out.  However, the game almost certainly will not be playable without a sighted player to handle the more fiddly elements of game-state manipulation.   These would include setup, advancing the fire, dealing with explosions, and triggering flashover events.

So – we can’t offer a recommendation for Flash Point, but we do think if you really want to play it you can probably engineer a playing context in which it can be done.  It’ll be effortful, and we would recommend other games over this one, but don’t let that put you off if you have your heart set on it.

Cognitive Accessibility

Flash Point has one of my favourite systems for creating games that accommodate different levels of cognitive ability.  It’s not pitched that way, but that’s its end effect.  It’s the provision of a simple game mode and a more advanced game mode – in this case ‘family mode’ and ‘experienced mode’.   This is a great way not only to allow you to introduce the game in a stripped down way to new players, but it allows you to meaningfully include people that may struggle with the game in all its complexity.  They even do it well here by giving non-stigmatising names for the modes.  You’re not playing ‘beginner mode’, you’re playing ‘family mode’.  It’s nice.

The family game offers a much simpler version of Flash Point.  It has a deterministic setup that doesn’t require the multi-step, randomised algorithm of the experienced game.  It doesn’t make use of hazmat material, or vehicles, or specialists.  There are no hot-spots, and rescuing a victim is as simple as taking them outside – you don’t need to worry about ambulances.  This loses a lot of the escalating tension of the experienced game, but reduces the complexity down to ‘spend action points’, ‘advance the fire’, and ‘handle explosions’.

More than this, the game also adopts an excellent kind of ‘plug in’ philosophy that lets you layer in more complexity a piece at a time until you find the level that works.   I love this as a method for managing cognitive complexity, and it completely nullifies any of the objections I’d have to a number of core game concepts.  In the end you can just leave them out and the game will still play just fine.  It might not be entirely balanced, but it’ll still be fun.   Flash Point certainly isn’t the only game that permits this – indeed, any game with the adoption of house-rules can work in this way.  It’s one of a small number though that explicitly endorse it in the manual and structure the systems in such a way as to let them be plugged in or lifted out.

Does that mean we can consider Flash Point to be hot stuff in this category?  Well…

See, this is a great idea.  I love it.  It’s well executed, and something more games should be doing.  The problem is that even the family version of Flash Point is likely out of reach for many categories of cognitive impairment.

First of all, the game requires numeracy – not much, but some.  It’s a game of arithmetic, yes but also a game of probability.  You need to have a fair idea of how likely things are to turn sour on you.   The probability angle can be managed as part of co-operative task sharing, but in order to plan out your actions you need to know how much they cost, and how many you’ll have left.  The ability to bank action points too can make this trickier, and if you’re making use of specialists you’ll also have to deal with bucketed ‘free’ AP that can be spent on particular activities.

The game state is not hugely complex, but it is of compounding complexity due to the way adjacency effects come into play, and how fluid adjacency may be.  The flashover phase in particular has a way of rapidly escalating situations, and explosions can turn tight spaces into something a little more open plan.   What the game state means can change on a turn by turn basis which creates situational and temporal complexity.

The game flow is reasonably consistent, but the effect of advancing the fire may vary from ‘placing a smoke token’ to ‘manage an explosion, along with associated shockwaves, and handle flash over’.  That’s easy enough for one person to do without everyone needing to keep on top of the mechanics.  A key part though of working as a team in games like this is the ability of everyone to be able to meaningfully anticipate what kind of activities are going to be most important.

In the family game, you’re dealing with a greatly reduced number of tokens but you’re still going to need to track doors, points of interest, damage, fire and smoke.  These all interact in varying ways based on their spatial configuration – this isn’t a synergistic relationship, but it does lead to a relatively large number of interrelating parts.

Obviously, as you layer in more game systems all of these issues become more significant from a cognitive perspective.  Cognitive accessibility doesn’t so much dip off as plummet  once it reaches a certain tipping point, because every new element makes other elements more complex to understand in their context.

On the plus side, there’s very little need to remember anything for more than the time it takes to spend action points, and even that can be supported by placing your action point allowance on the card.  Little markers are available for banking purposes, but they work just as well as a kind of ‘debit’ system.   Broad strategy may be harder to meaningfully recall, but the co-op nature of play incentivises everyone to keep everyone else on message.  At later stages the task becomes more tactical than strategic, and forces attention on reaction to what’s there on the table.

All of this said I think Flash Point, in the family version, is likely playable with support by those with minor to moderate cognitive impairments.  It’s also likely reasonably playable with guidance for those with memory impairments.   As ever, impairments and accessibility interact in nuanced and subtle ways, and you should take into account your own specific requirements with reference to the discussion above.

Emotional Accessibility

There’s a degree of fatalistic camaraderie that accompanies losing in a co-operative game.   After all, it’s not that you were beaten – it’s that everyone was beaten, and by a game system that can’t feel smug and superior.  Probably.  That’s handy, because events in Flash Point can escalate out of control at the flip of a token.   You can’t lose in a single turn, but you certainly can set up the situation that will cause you to lose in two or three.   You’re dealing with something inherently unpredictable – rampaging fire.  As such, you can take some solace in the fact that sometimes you just won’t be able to tame the beast.

The challenge level is highly variable.  Setup and fire advancement will sometimes result in unwinnable game states from the very start.   Sometimes all you can do is concede a heroic failure, and that can be frustrating especially if there was nothing really you could have done better.  In other game a few lucky rolls might mean you completely master the situation and spend the rest of your time plodding disinterestedly from room to room.   But then, there’s always the possibility that even a soporific situation can, with a couple of bad rolls, flare up into calamity.  It can be a little tricky to keep a consistent and manageable degree of emotional investment.

These aren’t serious problems though, and in truth what they do is really underline the core thematic message of the game – you can’t get complacent around fire.  Sometimes it’ll be a walk in the park.  Other days you’ll be re-enacting the Towering Inferno with a smaller budget.  It keeps things interesting, over the long term, even if any individual game might not be very compelling.

The only thing I’d be slightly wary about here is the theme – not in terms of its socioeconomic implications, but in terms of how the mechanics inform the narrative.   The game never comes out and says it anywhere, but people and animals are burning to death in this building.  When a fire marker reaches a point of interest, the manual uses the chillingly effective term ‘Lost’.   We know what that means though, and even a fictional, abstract token burning to death is potentially a powerful emotive trigger.  The game endorses, and in some cases even mandates, a pragmatic approach to the situation that allows for acceptable losses. This too might be emotionally difficult to process.

One final thing to perhaps bear in mind is the slightly odd situation that cats and dogs are treated exactly the same as people – essentially the game is saying that saving a cat is just as important as saving a child.   That might rub some people up the wrong way.  I, however, am basically a sociopath and I think if anything you should get more credit for saving a dog than a person.   I’ve never met a dog I didn’t like.

Overall then, we recommend Flash Point in the category of emotional accessibility.  Bear these (minor) issues in mind though when considering its suitability for your group.

Physical Accessibility

There is constant token manipulation in Flash Point – you’ll be flipping things over, adding damage cubes, cascading fire, resolving explosions, moving victims with your firefighters and more.   There’s a fair amount of strategy that goes into deciding the best move to make, but in the end you’re going to need to physically interact with a dense, busy board to make it happen.  There are lots of tokens, some of them very small, spread across a fairly large board with complex spatial geography.

Generally this wouldn’t be a recipe for high physical accessibility, and that’s true here.  But, Flash Point adopts a system that permits unambiguous verbalisation in a complex environment.  Each square has a unique identifier, comprising of a black and red number to match the dice they represent.

Map with co-ordinates

Check mate in one! Man, I’m on fire today.

To go with this, the board is littered with useful visual landmarks that you can indicate to ease navigation.   ‘Move me the through the open door so that I’m just by the chess board’ is easy to express, as is ‘Move me to 3, 6’.

Actions too are easy to explain, because while there are different varieties of each they all have a semantic shorthand that works.  ‘Extinguish the fire’ implies a two point action of turning fire into nothing.  ‘Turn to smoke’ is the one point variant.  ‘Chop the north wall’ or ‘summon the ambulance to the north’.  It’s all very easy to work out, easy to express, and easy to action.

For those not happy with a strategy of verbalisation, there’s just too much stuff that you’ll be dealing with on the board to permit smooth play, and it’s ridiculously easy to knock things around.  The hot-spots in particular have a tendency to migrate if you’re not paying attention.   We wouldn’t recommend it in that situation.  However, we offer a recommendation overall because if you want to play it and can verbalise your instructions, you won’t lose anything in the process and the game has numerous design features that make it especially easy to do.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

Flash Point really makes an effort in this category.   The various specialists are of mixed gender, and there are even a few diverse faces in there – the CAFS Firefighter for example has a definite eastern Asian look about him.

Specialists

All kinds of bad-asses

The victim tokens too show a good range of people in danger:

Victim tokens

So, you’re saying men are just animals, eh? Shame on you.

Interestingly, there are more women than men in the victim tokens.  Two of what would be the male tokens are instead taken up by animals.  Oh, I can see what you’re suggesting here, Flash Point.  I’m on to you.

One thing I will say though is that not only would I have liked to have seen more diversity, there is a risk here of a subtle, and I assume entirely unintentional, message to come across here.   A while ago there was a massive reaction against a ‘super racist’ safety poster from the Red Cross:

Racist poster

When u see it u’ll…

I confess when I first saw this I thought ‘Uh, what’s the problem’?  That was until it was pointed out that every child doing good was white, and most of the problem children were black.    I’m almost certain what happened here is that the outline children were drawn, a conscious effort was made to show a healthy diversity, and it just so happened that the largely randomised choice of ethnicity showed something troubling.  As usual, I assume absolutely no ill intention here.

Flash Point doesn’t have that, but it does have black victims and no black fire-fighters.  If you were feeling particularly sensitive, and it’s not a view to which I’d ascribe, you could certainly make a case that there’s a message in there.   I think that would be an ungenerous interpretation.  It just goes to show how even well-intentioned efforts can be put together in a way that can be interpreted in an uncharitable light by some faceless Internet dick like me.

Price wise it’s a pretty solid deal – it scales from one to six players (officially two to six, but the solo game is solid) and has an RRP of £32.  That’s cheap enough for the player count and adaptive enough with the group size to fit even quite large game gatherings whilst not mandating them.   The highly variable nature of play too means that there’s plenty of recurring challenge in there, and the different roles and setup options give it considerable shelf-life.

We’re going to strongly recommend Flash Point in this category.

Communication

There’s a required reading level for the specialist cards, but it isn’t high and is easily substituted for a crib sheet or simple memorisation.  More importantly in this category is the need for the group to be able to communicate strategy in a spatially complex environment.  We assume in these teardowns that being able to engage in conversation is a mostly solved problem, and unlike games such as Pandemic the context of play is a residential area.  You’re unlikely to run into situations that aren’t part of regular day to day conversation.  That is to say, you’ll have all the words, phrases and contexts available without stretching for complex sign language or the like.  I’m not trying to imply you spend your days wreathed in flames.

As such, we recommend Flash Point in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

The presence of tiny tokens such as the hot spots is a problem for both visual and physical accessibility, but a particular problem for the intersection of both.   They can skitter around the board at an alarming rate, and can even gradually migrate around the board as a result of natural perturbations of the table.  It gets worse when you can’t really see where they’re supposed to be and can’t actually place them where they’re supposed to go.

The fire-fighter tokens are reasonably large, and the board sections are quite generous, but each section is made up of relatively tight squares which convey important spatial information.  You can’t just dump a fire-fighter into a room – the square they occupy is important. This creates additional difficulties for those with an intersection of visual and physical impairment.

The game scales well at all player counts, and can even drop all the way down to one player if someone is willing to play multiple roles.   The game isn’t long enough to really require an elegant system for dropping in and out of play, but you get one anyway.  There’s no hidden information in the game, so you don’t even need to house-rule a strategy for redistribution of information or resources.

As usual, we do have an intersectional issue with regards to play via verbalisation.  This is only possible when severe physical impairment is not combined with a communication impairment.  If this is the case, the game is likely entirely inaccessible.

Conclusion

Flash Point has a number of features that are great from an accessibility perspective, especially the way it permits cognitive accessibility to be scaled up and down depending on which game mechanics you want to adopt.  It’s not enough to get it a recommendation in that category because even the family game may be out of the reach of those with moderate cognitive impairments.  However, it’s a great system and I wholeheartedly endorse it.

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

It’s a visually inaccessible game given the number of tokens and complexity of game state.  It does well in almost every other category, and as such is likely to be something a wide variety of people can meaningfully enjoy.

Radar Chart

Flash Point Radar Chart

We liked Flash Point enough to award it three and a half stars – it’s a fun experience, with a lot of replayability,  If you wanted to play it, and could play it, you likely wouldn’t regret the purchase.  Check it out if you can.


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