Hive (2001) – 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

HUCH! English/French/German edition 2015

Introduction

Hive is almost certainly a game that offers virtually endless depth and variety to the right kind of person with the time to invest in developing the necessary mastery.  That person isn’t me though, and really the only insect related thing I want to master is getting rid of them from my vicinity without having to look at or touch them.   We gave Hive two stars in our review, acknowledging that it’s very likely a better game than the score would have you believe.  You do need to be willing to persevere though with a game that isn’t much fun for those that haven’t built up the necessary skills.  Let’s say you are though – can you fire up the steam press and usurp the queen Bea?  Let’s find out yew laaaaag.

Colour Blindness

Colour blindness isn’t an issue really – it’s all but impossible to mix up your pieces and those of your opponent because the base colour of the tile is diametrically different.  This will be true of all categories of colour blindness.

Colour blind tiles

Get the bug spray!

There are some minor palette problems when it comes to distinguishing pieces from each other – for example, spiders and grasshoppers, or beetles and soldier ants.  Or grasshoppers and soldier ants, depending on the category of colour blindness.  However, each of these has its own iconographic design – with familiarity, this will cease to be a problem.

More colour blind tiles

They all look like things that need to be squished

As such, we offer a strong recommendation for Hive in this category.

Visual Accessibility

Well, it’s a mixed bag in terms of visual accessibility.  On the positive side, the pieces are large and pleasingly tactile.  On the negative side, while they are recessed they’re not identifiable by touch.  Again on the positive side, the pieces all have striking and well contrasted images that represent the insect.  On the negative, they’re still insects and any given mass of thoraxes and mandibles is not necessarily going to be especially easy to tell apart if visual acuity is low.

Close up on tile icons

Different, sure – with similar silhouettes

To be fair, each has its own distinct colour which will suffice to differentiate them, but if colour perception is also impaired this may not be a suitable solution.   We’ll address that in the intersectional accessibility section.

Your pieces form the hive, and the hive is going to sprawl, and change, as the game is played.  There are important rules of positionality that need to be taken into account when making moves.  You need to be able to perceive adjacency, and the possibility of adherence to the movement context.  There is a general rule that must be observed, which is that you can only move a piece if it can slide out cleanly, and that’s not always going to be easy to determine if visual impairments must be considered.

Tactile interrogation of the game state is certainly possible, because while the position of pieces can be upset they are large and sturdy and resistant to casual disruption.   That’s good, because some of the pieces move in ways that do require a fair degree of overarching appreciation of game state.  The grasshopper leaps over to the next available gap in a straight line, and the ant navigates around the perimeter.  Those need the player to be able to see what the movement patterns will involve, and where they’ll end up.  Spiders too move three spaces exactly, and this sometimes ends up with them resting in a surprising location because of the way spaces are defined.

Overall though, the game is likely broadly accessible to those with minor to moderate visual impairments.  If dealing with total blindness the lack of tactile identifiers as to pieces is likely to be too great a barrier to reasonably overcome.   It’s not even as if asking an opponent will be very useful because the game at its core is one of evolving and changing spatially explicit positioning.   Effective play requires the ability to parse that state and meaningfully decide on how to change it.

We’re going to offer then a tentative recommendation for Hive, with that tentative qualifier becoming less relevant the more minor a visual impairment may be.  The game has made considerable effort to be visually accessible, with its large tiles and well contrasted imagery – it is the nature of the spatial gameplay itself that is the problem.

Cognitive Accessibility

Hive is just too deep a game to offer much hope in this category.  It’s not that the rules themselves are complex, but the many intersecting parts on an ever changing board creates a considerable cognitive barrier.   There is much nuance in gameplay that is dependent on piece positioning, and the game impact of any given move might be subtle.  Sometimes the effect of a move will only be obvious four or five turns down the line, and considering your position in the game is one of thinking several moves ahead.   The cognitive challenge then is comparable with that of chess.

For memory impairments, the only information that needs to be memorised is the move patterns of each of the pieces, and while these doesn’t have the complexity or conditionality of chess they still represent a problem.    There are various special conditions and exemptions too that must be taken into account:

  • Pieces cannot be placed adjacent to a piece of an opponent’s colour, except for the first turn.
  • Pieces cannot occupy the same space as another tile, except for the beetle
  • Pieces can move in their usual pattern unless this would separate the hive, or unless they are pinned by a beetle.
  • The game continues until a queen is surrounded, unless the same position has repeated over and over again.

All of this has to be taken into consideration along with the freedom to move rule which limits movement to that which can be done with a sliding motion   As I say, it’s not especially difficult but none of these movement patterns or special conditions are indicated on the pieces.  The pieces themselves don’t even have reminders other than visual iconography as to what they are.

Playing Hive well requires you to hold a strategy in mind and meaningfully execute on it while being reactive to your opponent’s aggression.  All of that is cognitively expensive.  As such, we don’t recommend Hive in either category of cognitive accessibility.

Emotional Accessibility

Hive is not a game of exciting moments – it’s a game of painstaking and methodological positioning and setting of snares.   It’s a game that encourages a kind of dispassionate detachment from play.  Unlike in Chess, where a victory can come out of nowhere you will always see the noose tightening as you play.   Losses are never a surprise because they are multi-turn constructions involving you being surrounded on all sides.  That’s both good, in that it doesn’t come as an unpleasant jolt, and bad that there’s sometimes nothing you can meaningfully do to prevent it.  The nature of the ‘one hive’ system means that you are often highly limited in what moves you can make, and this can add to the frustration of seeing yourself slowly losing the match.

Primarily though the emotional issues in play come from how well players handle winning and losing.  Hive doesn’t have the social sheen of intellectualism that Chess enjoys, and so losing isn’t necessarily going to have the same sting.  However, it’s still a game that is unabashedly an abstract battle of wits.  This is exacerbated by the issue we discussed in the review, which is that Hive is really only enjoyable when it’s two people of reasonable skill facing off against each other.  Any other combination of players will create additional issues of frustration.

While Hive doesn’t have the same system of pins and forks that we see in Chess, it does have an element of irresistible momentum in certain circumstances.    It’s never quite as bad as the unbearably smug ‘mate in three’ declaration of a chess player, but there are occasions where an opponent can cheerfully declare victory several turns ahead.

Overall though we’re going to recommend Hive in this category.  Unlike many games, you’ve got a reasonably good touchstone you can use to assess its emotional suitability – how do the people in your gaming group handle a chess loss?  It’ll be roughly like that, except a little less severe in most cases.

Physical Accessibility

The sturdy pieces have excellent weight and heft, and that means they aren’t easily nudged or knocked out of their game state.   Some tile based games, such as Carcassonne, have light cardboard tiles that are easily dislodged.  That’s not an issue with Hive.  They’re big, chunky, and easy to pick up and move around.  That though is somewhat undercut by the fact all movement is through sliding, which means fine grained control will occasionally be required.  There’s nothing to stop a player plucking a piece out and placing it where they could slide it, but that’s even more difficult than the sliding itself.  Some pieces too benefit from physically tracing their line of motion since movement is often dependent on adjacency of pieces,.  What constitutes a ‘space’ is not necessarily instantly apparent.

The hive grows and shrinks as time goes by, becoming more compressed and then elongated as the game flows and ebbs.   There are never so many tiles that this becomes unmanageable, but the board has the peculiar trait of essentially ‘walking’ over the table you’re playing on.    As you move pieces from one edge to the other, you’ll change the centre tile of the game.  Games are rarely long enough except between absolute novices that the board will walk very far, but the location of the centre at the end will not be where it was at the start.

Physical interaction then is a mixed bag, being dependent on the degree you’re comfortable moving pieces around a hexagonal landscape.   For many games that would by itself be a deal-breaker but these pieces are much more amenable to that kind of manipulation.

If verbalisation is required, the game doesn’t thrive – there’s no way to unambiguously refer to pieces or locations of the board, and while many pieces will have only one or two places they can move others have free reign across the entire game state.  Pieces are never captured, and so once fully deployed you’ve got two beetles, two spiders, three ants, and three grasshoppers.

Movement verbalisation puzzles

Charge!

Consider here how you, as the white player, might move a spider.  ‘Move the bottom spider three spaces clockwise’.  That’s not too bad.  What about the grasshopper?  ‘Move the top most one into the gap south of the one it’s on top og’.  Clumsy, but not undoable.  What if you’re the black player trying to move an ant so it is just north of one of the spiders?  That’s a little bit trickier, especially because that’s only a valid move from one orientation.  It’s doable, but it’s not elegant.

We’ll give Hive a tentative recommendation in this category.  Normally these problems would nudge it into a non-recommendation, but the piece quality really does make the difference.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

Hive is a reasonably pricey game, but it does come with its own travel case so you essentially get Hive and Travel Hive in the same box.

Travel bag

Look! You too could carry around a bag of spiders!

At an RRP of around £25 you absolutely are paying for the components.  As you can see above though they do turn a game that would be clearly inaccessible in some categories into something a little more nuanced.   It’s a lot to pay for a two player game, but if you’re willing to invest the time and energy this is box that will have all the staying power of a nice chess set.

I had a friend on World of Warcraft, many years ago, that was so arachnophobic that she simply couldn’t do certain parts of certain dungeons.   The scenario that most keenly comes to my mind is that in the raid dungeon Zul’Gurub she would sit by the entrance rather than come face the high priestess of the spider god.  That was fine – I mean, she was a healer and damn good one, but we accommodated it because phobias are rarely rational.  The fact they couldn’t hurt her, and weren’t actual spiders, is neither here nor there.

There are creepy crawlies in this box, and while they are as abstracted from the real thing as it’s possible to be, you can’t get away from the fact that the theme might be off-putting for some people.  Myself included.  I’m not as bad as I used to be, but seeing a surprise spider hanging over me in a bathroom is still something that can ruin my entire evening.   It’s not a problem for me in games, but everyone has their own point at which they say ‘No, that’s plenty’.  The insects in Hive might be that point for some people.

Overall though, we recommend Hive here – it’s not cheap, but you do get what you pay for.

Communication

I don’t want to underestimate the acoustic pleasure that comes from the clickety-clack of the Bakelite tiles, but it’s absolutely not critical to play.  Hive can be played in absolute silence, and has no required reading during the course of a game.  All key gameplay information is presented iconographically.

We strongly recommend Hive in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

The only way that pieces are differentiated is by colour and icon design.  I know, that’s like saying ‘the only way people are different is by their name and appearance’.  However, the graphical design doesn’t have a lot of differentiation because in the end an insect is just a horrible mess of spindly limbs and chitin.   Any one configuration of those horrible components is much the same as any other, at least within a certain margin of error.  As such, while inspection of pieces will show you which is which it’s going to be a fair bit trickier to do at speed, at a distance, if there is an intersection of colour blindness and visual impairment.

Monochrome tiles

Colour is important information

It’s not as if you can necessarily just pick them up and check either – sometimes they’ll be surrounded by other pieces, or just awkwardly blocked by the insects around them.   It’s not a deal-breaker, but it is an issue.  It’s also going to be something of an compounding problem when it comes to the intersection of visual and cognitive accessibility – you’re expected to be able to remember which piece is which, and that’ll be more difficult if that process requires an additional visual inspection.

Once again we come back to the quality of the components – there’s a lot of moving and sliding of these tiles, but the effort that’s been put into the physicality alleviates numerous issues we might otherwise discuss here.   The heft of the components, and the generosity of proportions, means that compounding issues of physical and visual accessibility are limited.   Given the size, there’s no reason really you even need to pack the pieces too tightly together – they’re big enough that you can put a buffer between each, for ease of visual identification and physical adjustment, without necessarily losing game state information.

As a directly competitive game, Hive runs the risk that very competitive players may not go out of their way to point out missed opportunities or mistakes made by their opponent.   That’s fine in normal practice, but sometimes these mistakes are made as a result of inaccessibility of information.  Good accessible practice in board games relies at least in part on the social context of play – we want people to be supportive of everyone else, and competition tends to disincentivise this.    Consider how particularly fussy players in chess insist on strict adherence to the ‘no takebacks after you touch a piece’ rule.  Hive encourages, but does not mandate, a bit of this kind of inflexibility.   As usual, our advice is ‘play with people as interested in the collective fun as they are in their own’.

Games of Hive aren’t especially lengthy, but if there’s no positional advantage they may drag on.  This is especially true in games where two novices may be playing, lacking the deep knowledge of the mechanics needed to pull off the necessarily intricate chains that can meaningfully change the state of the board.   The box suggests about 20m of playtime, which feels about right, but bear in mind without a directly actionable strategy you’ll likely end up moving pieces aimlessly and just rotating around each other with no clear goal.  The game does permit though for an agreed upon draw, although it reserves this only for the condition of repeatedly encountered stalemate.  There’s nothing to say though it can’t be a more flexible proposition of just ‘this is boring, so let’s not play any more’.

Conclusion

While its components are not perfect in terms of accessible design, Hive is a textbook example of the difference that good components make to playability for people with disabilities.   If Hive had cardboard pieces, it would have failed many more tests of accessibility than it does with its nice Bakelite components.

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

True, you do pay a premium for that luxury, but everyone gets the benefit.   I have said several times, in this teardown and in the review, how much I like the sound the tiles make.   Very few games engage with the auditory tract when their design is put together.  Poker with paper money is not the same game as it is with properly weighted poker chips.  Good component design changes, and improves, the game.  That’s true even if it doesn’t change the game rules.

Radar chart

Hive radar chart

One of the things that I’ve wondered during this project is whether the economic argument for accessibility holds true for board games.  In video games and other software packages, it’s an upfront development cost that widely opens up a market – accessibility doesn’t cost money, it makes money.  With digital products though, there is no ‘per unit’ cost that must be considered.   With board-games, if you fill them full of high-end luxury components they will, of a necessity, cost high-end luxury prices.  I don’t know the ‘per unit’ economic implications of board game accessibility, not yet.  Hive though does show that you can, under certain circumstances, make luxurious component design one of your key selling points.


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