Mr Jack Pocket (2010) – 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.

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Version Reviewed

Multilingual edition 2012

Introduction

This is a small box with a lot of heart – so much heart that if you stabbed a knife through it you’d kill Davy Jones.   Despite the implications you might pick up on from it being a travel game, Mr Jack Pocket doesn’t scrimp on the components and delivers a tense and interesting puzzle that plays out in around fifteen minutes.  We gave it three and a half stars in our review because at its best the experience is electric.  Was that enough to convince you to buy it?  Let’s find out if you could reasonably expect to play it.  Hold on while I get my magnifying glass, throw on my best Deerstalker hat, and eat this candy pipe I bought from the local sweetie shop.

Our sweetie shop really needs a more progressive policy on deterring children from smoking.

Colour Blindness

We have a clean bill of health here – while colour is used to indicate suspects, each of these is also accompanied by a piece of unique artwork reflecting their appearance and profession.

Colour blind whitechapel

I can’t look at this without hearing the Eastenders theme play

When fixing line of sight, colour doesn’t matter – all that matters is tracing a line from an investigator to a suspect on a tile.   Really, the individuals in Whitechapel are thematic contrivances, and the colour of their tile doesn’t matter at all.  This is true of the cards too, which adopt distinctive art for each individual:

Colour blind cards

Which one is Pat Butcher?

Action tokens too make use of colour but don’t use it as the only, or even primary, channel of information.

We strongly recommend Mr Jack Pocket in this category.

Visual Accessibility

The design of the game is such that the visual accessibility of components is rather high, but there are features of gameplay that mean visually impaired players are still going to encounter problems.  First, let’s discuss the good stuff.  The suspect cards are large and thick and meaningfully different both in terms of art and in colour scheme.  These are likely to be visually distinctive if there is any ability to differentiate colour or light.

The tiles too are large and thick, and contain really only two key elements of information – the suspect to which they apply, and where the intersecting streets are for calculating line of sight.  The contrast is reasonable, but not optimal – however, the layout of the tiles is regular and that lends an additional discriminatory factor here.  It’s not a case of identifying icons or symbols against a backdrop, but instead identifying straight patches in the centre lines of the tiles.    On close inspection, this is not likely to be a problem.

Close up on tile

Contrast isn’t optimal, but you know where you need to be looking for things.

The individual action tiles are not especially visually accessible, nor are the turn counters, but the information these carry is limited and it’s easily verbally represented.  ‘You have four options – rotate, move, Sherlock, Toby’.  Similarly with turn information, ‘we are on turn four and I have three hourglasses in front of me and two suspect cards’.

The more problematic stuff relates to the core game mechanic of determining and manipulating line of sight.  This requires a player to not only be able to visually parse a board for key points of flexibility but also to assess this several moves ahead, and likely without an easily consulted visual representation.   And this needs to be done for three separate investigators.

This is going to make things difficult in several areas:

  1. If a visually impaired player is playing the role of Mr Jack they will need to check the sightlines for three investigators, mentally compile a list of suspects that are visible, and then indicate whether any of them are Mr Jack. Inquiring too deeply about which suspects are seen by investigators will likely leak game information, which will likewise influence future decisions.
  2. If a visually impaired player is selecting actions, they’ll need to hold a mental model of the state of the game and how it is going to be impacted by future actions.  This is primarily a cognitive cost that we will return to in the intersectional section.  However this is an issue that is deeply linked to visual impairment – it’s just going to be much more difficult for visually impaired players to make meaningful decisions.
  3. When calculating sight-lines, these will change from turn to turn. Mr Jack Pocket is a game of spatial reasoning, and the puzzle of gameplay shifts every with every single action.  Not only that, the layout of the game will also regularly change.

And of course, the game is going to be all but unplayable to anyone that must take into account conditions of total blindness although unlike many games there are a few easy options that could help.  The pathways on each tile are not secret, so making notches on each would allow a tactile clue, and it would even be possible to add tactile identifiers to suspects and cards.  However, this kind of modification is outside the scope of our teardowns and as such we can’t really take it into account in the scoring.

Overall then, we don’t recommend Mr Jack Pocket in this category. For all the distinctiveness of the tiles, there is just too much information only presented visually that our belief is it would be frustrating to play even in situations where it is technically possible.

Cognitive Accessibility

You are not going to get far in a game of Mr Jack Pocket without being able to pull off some fairly deep cognitive activity.   Technically speaking all you do is manipulate tiles and choose between four actions.  The issue is that choosing between those actions is deeply nuanced.   We’ll get to that, but let’s quickly knock off some of the other common considerations.

There is a small degree of expected numeracy for the Mr Jack player, and it’s limited to arithmetic.  Some of that arithmetic though is hidden, based on alibi cards gathered as a result of play.   The number of hourglasses on the cards the Jack player has in their possession should be kept secret, so it’s not just numeracy but secret numeracy.   This isn’t a major issue, but one to take into account.  There is at least almost no literacy required for play, with even the suspect names being useful identifiers rather than core information.  ‘The pink suspect’ conveys just as much information as ‘Madame’ does.

Game flow is reliable, but the weight of turns is irregular.  On one turn you play the first and fourth actions.  On the next you play the second and third.   The different emphasis of order makes each turn play very differently, and radically changes the nature of decision making involved.    The generation of random tokens too changes depending on who’s turn it is – on odd numbered turns they’re thrown in the air, and on even turns they’re flipped over.  That in itself means that there is a need to handle tokens with a degree of care so as not to mistakenly change the action pool for future turns – no fidgeting or forgetting.

There are no particular deep synergies in actions, but there are chains of actions that can be especially powerful when carried out together.   These are situational, and it’s not possible for a player to learn what they are in advance because it all depends on the currenr state of play.  Being able to identify and leverage these chains is important – not just in terms of your turn but in preventing an opponent taking full advantage of their own turn.

Two game actions are conditional based on who is playing.  The alibi action works differently depending on who has picked it.   If Mr Jack picks the joker action, he can choose not to make a move.   Otherwise it’s eliminating a potential suspect from the pool.  This is something each player will need to remember as they play.

All of this though is relatively small compared to the real cognitive cost of the game – picking a sensible action.  That requires deep thinking to do it well.  You need to consider not just what the action does, but what actions it leaves for your opponent; what actions they’re likely to pick; what they’re likely to do with those actions; and what action you’re likely to be left with in the end.  Let’s look at a simple worked example – we’ve thrown the counters up and been left with the following actions:

  1. Rotate
  2. Sherlock
  3. Watson
  4. Swap

And let’s say this is the Whitechapel we begin with:

A map of whitechapel

Mock-ups for the next season of BBC’s Sherlock

We’re the investigators.  What do we do?  Well…

If we take the rotate, we can at least make sure that a tile can’t be rotated away from one of our investigators.  But we can’t assume that we can rotate, for example, the top left tile to work for Sherlock.  Sherlock has to move and we might not be the ones to move him.    The same issue comes into play when we consider Watson.  Even if we do line things up properly, Mr Jack can choose ‘swap’ and move one of the tiles somewhere we don’t want.

What if we pick Sherlock? At least then we can control his motion – he can move one or two spaces clockwise.  We can move him one space and then he’ll see two suspects looking towards the bottom of Whitechapel.  But then Mr Jack might rotate that space, or perhaps swap it with another one. .

Okay, what if we move Watson?  That way we’ll know Sherlock will move at least one or two spaces, and nobody else will move.  Then Mr Jack might rotate the top left square so Sherlock has line of sight, knowing that nowhere he moves will permit him to see a suspect.  Or perhaps he’ll do the same thing with a swap, perhaps swapping where Watson is for a square that is sub-optimal for both.

FINE WE’LL DO A SWAP THEN, GOD.  Except then whatever we swap Mr Jack can rotate and then use one of the characters to move it where it can’t possibly see a suspect.  And then leave us to move the other one, knowing we can’t do anything with him.

Oh.  My.  God.

That is ONE TURN.  It needs you to consider thirty-six potential rotations, over 360k possible swaps, and a moving context in which Sherlock moves between one and two spaces, and Watson moves between one and two spaces.   That is your solution space, FOR THAT ONE TURN.

And it’s even worse than that, because those tokens get flipped next round so you know what actions are coming and in what order they’re going to be allocated to each player.

Make no mistake, the cognitive expectations here are sky-high and tightly bundle fluid and memory requirements in a way that makes it impossible to unpick one from the other.

As to the question of whether you need to do this, then… well, yes.  Unless two players are playing completely randomly, one player that is carefully considering their moves will absolutely devastate a payer that isn’t.   You need to really throw yourself into the puzzle to have any hope of finding enjoyment.

We strongly recommend you avoid Mr Jack Pocket, in both categories of cognitive accessibility.

Emotional Accessibility

Mr Jack Pocket is a game of cat and mouse, and while it doesn’t have the depth of something like Chess, or even Hive, it has many of the same emotional triggers.   This is a game of profound mental competition – you’re directly matching wits in a way that doesn’t really offer many opportunities for blaming loss on anything other than your own abilities.

Coupled to this is a distinct undercurrent of enabled frustration in play.  Good play in Mr Jack Pocket has a touch of Judo to it – you use the momentum of your opponent against them.   Let’s say someone throws Sherlock two spaces clockwise, and then you use a joker to move him one space farther into uselessness.  Or someone engineers a circumstance to line up a perfect sightline only for you to move an obstacle in the way.  That’s the game, but it vividly conjures up the mental image of someone in a fight holding someone at arm’s length while they flail wildly at empty air.    That’s almost certainly going to be infuriating at times, especially if emotional accessibility issues must be considered in play.

The nature of the game too means that skilful players will dominate the game, making progress toward their own goals whilst effortlessly preventing an opponent doing anything.  It’s perfectly possible that you’ll spend multiple turns as an investigator staring at nothing but blank walls, or the entire game as Mr Jack watching your human shields worn away to a nub.

I was going to write something here about the theme, given how it’s all about tracking down a notorious serial killer – but I don’t actually think the game mentions Jack the Ripper in any of the material.  That may be a lens that I myself am applying to the game, not one that it explicitly brings to play.  In which case, what troubling or upsetting material might be present is that which you bring with you.

Overall, we’ll tentatively recommend Mr Jack Pocket in this category, but bear in mind – you probably want to pair up people that can simultaneously be good winners and good losers, more so than in many other games.

Physical Accessibility

The bulk of physical interaction in play comes from moving and rotating tiles and the occasional collection of tokens.  The game board is sufficiently small that you can almost certainly arrange all the components in a comfortable radius if physical movement in the arms is possible.

For other kinds of physical accessibility, you’ll need to rely on verbalisation – this is possible, but not explicitly supported.  The grid is 3×3, and there are no grid identifiers to show which tile is which.  Since there aren’t many it’s perfectly possible to jury-rig your own co-ordinate system with nothing more than a few sheets of paper.   Even if you don’t want to do that, a 3×3 grid can be rendered into unambiguous references as long as the orientation is agreed.  ‘Top left’, ‘middle right’, ‘bottom centre’ and so on.   Otherwise, all the physical interaction with the game can be handled by the other player.

Except, it’s worth mentioning the interesting system of generating random actions for the investigators.  This is done by throwing the tokens up in the air and then seeing how they land.  Basically it’s like flipping four coins at the same time.   This is simultaneously something you can easily leave up to another player, and something you might not be entirely comfortable doing.   Unlike a dice roll it’s quite easy to ‘fake’ the toss here.  There’s also a simple subconscious pressure that goes along with not wanting to mistakenly hurl tokens into a ceiling fan or ricocheting off the roof under the cupboards.  It’s an interesting system, but one that is more gameable than many forms of randomness.  Trust in your opponent is going to be key here if you’re unable to do the throwing yourself.

We’ll recommend Mr Jack Pocket in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

The manual defaults to masculinity, but in a game called Mr Jack and starring Sherlock Holmes and Watson it’s difficult not to.  There’s even a fair bit of that in the review for the game we posted here, although I hope it’s all around the conception of Mr Jack as a living entity.

The game has a roster of characters to act as suspects, and there isn’t much effort to balance the gender divide.  There are two women (Madame and Miss Stealthy) and seven men.   The art doesn’t objectify the women too much, although I’m not sure why Madame feels the need to flash her stockinged leg while in the middle of a busy Whitechapel street.   What objectification is present isn’t overpowering.

Women suspectd

M’ladies

Mr Jack Pocket is a two player game only, and it fits only a fifteen minute chunk of a day.  At an RRP of £17, you’re paying a lot for such a small chunk of gameplay.  While the game is deep and intense, it’s also not particularly varied.   I’m not sure how much gameplay you’d get out of it for the money, especially when compared to other games that are available.  The tight player constraints mean it won’t scale up to family nights, and the short play-time of any individual game means it won’t even keep the kids quiet for long.    That makes it a dubious investment in a world that contains Jaipur, Patchwork and Hive.   Each of those two-player games offers more genuine longevity for your money.   However, it’s also not as if the game is vastly over-priced – as long as you go into it with your eyes open, there’s no reason to assume it’s a bad purchase.

We’ll tentatively recommend Mr Jack Pocket in this category.

Intersectional accessibility

There is no ability to drop in and out of play – both players are in this for the full thing.  That said, at a fifteen minute playtime there’s no reason that should be a disincentive for those interested in playing it.  It’s short enough to be played regularly even with dealing with conditions of modulating severity.   It’s not long enough to exacerbate issues of discomfort, and short enough to plug up gaps in relative moments of temporary comfort.   That said, gameplay is quite intense and while it isn’t a short game you’ll likely tangibly experience every one of those fifteen minutes.

We already don’t recommend the game for those with cognitive or visual impairments, but an important consideration for those with visual impairments is that it becomes intensely more inaccessible if these intersect with memory impairments.   The threshold for this is low – simply ‘not having a good memory’ will be enough to radically impact on visual accessibility due to the branching nature of the potential game state.   We don’t recommend it anyway, but we’d be especially inclined to warn people away in this circumstance.

The intensity of the game and the degree of contemplation it can cause may be an issue when dealing with the intersection of emotional and cognitive impairments.  Attention might wander while someone else is mulling over the escalating complexity of the possibility space, and a player seeing their preferred options disappear only to be left with an act of ludic self-harm might be upsetting.   Mr Jack Pocket is a game where you get to see your own failure coming towards you and that can be difficult to deal with when someone must consider some intersectional issues.

Finally, Mr Jack Pocket is an intensely competitive game – it’s a duel.  It requires both players to be honourable.   For those on the edge of certain accessibility categories, it might be tempting for another player to ‘miss’ key information in play or not point out a mistake made due to an accessibility issue.   This is always a consideration in competitive games, but more so in Mr Jack Pocket because the game state isn’t especially auditable.  If someone says ‘You can’t see Mr Jack’ when you could, your ability to ascertain the truth of that may be limited.  As ever, play with people as interested in the communal fun as they are in their own.

Conclusion

There are many games that make rapid exploration of a complex possibility space a key game feature.  Mr Jack Pocket is, I think, the most extreme example of just how complex that space can become when a player is presented with a mere four options.

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

Much of what we have discussed here is a function of game design, and as such it’s not entirely surprising.  What is surprising is that there is very little in the game components that we have had cause to complain about.  I bought Mr Jack Pocket as an opportunity to discuss how travel games often introduce new inaccessibilities to the context of the base game.  This though is a game that doesn’t remotely short-change anyone on components.

Radar chart

Mr Jack Pocket Radar Chart

Nonetheless, this is a game of intense visual parsing and brutal cognitive branching.   As a simple consequence of the puzzle it puts in front of players it moves itself into inaccessible territory.  The same features that earned it 3.5 stars in our review are the things that it most suffered from in the teardown.  That’s often the way of things, but what is important to us is that we map the contours of the game and add its pin to our accessibility map.   Forewarned is forearmed, and that’s what we’re all about.


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