NMBR 9 Accessibility Teardown


NMBR 9 (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.

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Version Reviewed

English/German edition

Introduction

NMBR 9 is so close to being genuinely great that it’s a little frustrating that it doesn’t quite manage it.  Never mind – life is an endless stream of crushing disappointments and we all just need to come to terms with that.   The good news is that you can actually make a better version of NMBR 9 yourself with only a few tweaks, and that alone is the reason it’s likely to remain happily on my shelves for some time to come.    It’s a three and a half star game that you can make four star with a little effort in your very own home.  The question we still need to answer though is whether you would be able to enjoy it in all its abstract numerical glory.    What are the odds?  What are the numbers?  Let’s find out.

Colour Blindness

Colours are used to identify different digits but convey no uniquely identifying game information.  Each number is very much its own icon, after all – while the cubic style of the art sometimes makes it difficult to make out the specific numeral, the box insert helps considerably with assigning relative value.  With familiarity, even this minor issue will become insignificant.

Colour blind digits

This is the laziest episode of Sesame Street yet.

The cards too make use of colour, but these map tightly on to the shape associated with each piece.  In any case, regardless of colour blindness (short of monochromacy) the colour choices still simplify the selection of pieces, just not as much as might be hoped for some people.

Colour blind cards

Cards against Numeracy

We strongly recommend NMBR 9 in this category.

Visual Accessibility

This is a game that absolutely could be played by touch alone.  The box insert is fabulous and because you’re dealing with digits in ascending order you can easily find the tile you need by starting at the top left and working across.   The only limitation here is that someone will be needed to read out the numbers on the cards if total blindness must be taken into account.  Even that’s relatively easy to solve with an external tool.   There are twenty cards, and each digit repeats twice.  If you can randomise forty numbers and have them spoken aloud, you don’t even need the cards.

Box insert

A good box insert is very much part of a game’s accessibility.

Most of what you’re doing with pieces in NMBR 9 is trying to find out the highest place they should go for the tile value.  Low numbers go low, high numbers go high – you need to engineer a circumstance under which that’s going to be possible.   As such, with fingers alone you can find valid candidate areas and even make sure that a placement is valid according to rules – you can feel the joins between numbers that tell whether a tile can go where you intend.

In terms of game design, it’s fully playable by even those with total blindness.   There’s no reason it couldn’t be fully accessible in this category.  Unfortunately it isn’t.

The problem here is that while you could theoretically play it by touch in reality it is almost impossible to do so because of how light the pieces are and how easily they are knocked out of alignment with every minor adjustment.   The front of the pieces is glossy and smooth, and as such even a hefty sigh can move them a few millimetres.  Everything from placing a piece to feeling for the composition of the base runs the risk of upsetting what rapidly becomes a very fragile structure.   I’ve had parts of my game state move out of alignment by doing nothing more than placing a piece on top of them.  The game requires a constant curation process of ensuring everything remains neat and ordered.

Misaligned tiles

Small misalignments add up

Consider the picture above.  It’s easy enough to make out where things are and where they lie, but notice how ragged the alignment has become.   The seven is resting on the eight, but not cleanly.  All it takes is two pieces to be imperfectly aligned for a foundation to seem fine while being entirely invalid.  Each piece must be adjacent to a piece at the same level, and must have a foundation that covers every one of its squares.   You need to be making sure that everything is straightened up regularly, or mistakes will creep in.

You can be forgiving here and say ‘We won’t worry too much about that’, but then the second major problem manifests.  Identifying valid placement, especially holes in the structure, will need players to dig a finger in between pieces that are only lightly connected.  Locating the break between one piece and another too might involve feeling underneath other pieces, and that is almost certainly going to upset things.   Even fully sighted, it’s difficult to keep this neat.   I once dropped a piece onto my edifice and spent a good five minutes trying to repair the damage.

Lots of misaligned tiles

Look at that mess. Clean it up this instant!

That’s not to say it’s an impossible situation here – just that this a game that could be fully accessible to the totally blind with a different approach to components.  Rough, frictive material would have been much better than the glossy, slippery tiles we have.   Those with less severe visual impairments will likely fare considerably better, although that’s going to depend on the contrast between the pieces and the table upon which the game is being played.  Gaps in your coverage are a key element of game state, and being able to identify these visually really helps in locating valid placements.   Binocularity of vision is important too, as is the ability to make out potentially small seams between multiple tiles of the same value.   You can deduce composition of such connections from the size of a mass of colours, but the easier this can be done the better.

Again, there is nothing in NMBR 9 that means it need be at all inaccessible to visually impaired players.  The reality of the situation though is that physically exploring the game state will almost certainly change that state in the process.   It’s not a game that lends itself well to play with sighted support, either – the pattern matching and recognition is where all the fun is.  We’ll very tentatively recommend NMBR 9 in this category because with intense care, and perhaps with someone there to tidy up changes in game state caused by physical exploration, it can be fully playable.

Cognitive Accessibility

There is a considerable degree of numeracy that comes with scoring but the numeracy required for fluid play during the game is very low.  All that’s needed is an ability to count because in the end the strategy is the same – place bigger numbers as high as you can.   There are value pivot points in the game possibility space where there is a shift between numbers as optimal scoring and numbers as optimal foundation.  A one placed high in the last round is better than a one placed low, even if normally ones are best used for foundations.   Knowing where that point emerges for each number during the game helps but it’s not critical to doing well.   More than anything else, NMBR 9 is a game of tile laying and the aspects of explicit numeracy that go into the rest of it that are easily handled at the end by a single player for the whole group.   As long as everyone knows which numbers are bigger, it should be fine.  Even in that case, the box insert helps provide a visual reminder.

Game flow is completely reliable, and not only is everyone going to be doing the same thing they’re going to be doing it with the same number.  As such, even if the ability to recognise numbers is low you can still play correctly simply by taking the same piece as everyone else.  There is no hidden game state at all, and no randomness in play that isn’t shared by everyone.   That ensures that nobody need feel confused or uncertain about what they’re supposed to be doing, even if what that means in terms of the game outcome isn’t obvious.

However, as a game that is intensely about tile laying and the spatial relationship of numbers it’s important to appreciate just how critical an element this becomes.  When you take a tile you can freely rotate it (but not turn it over) to see where it fits, but part of the challenge of the game is building a foundation strong enough to support the larger numbers that will appear.    There’s no great need for efficiency here, but the more tightly you can bind a structure together the more chances you’ll get for scoring.  Gaps in placement cause significant issues in setting up opportunities for that.  As such spatial intelligence becomes a key feature of play, and that is going to be bound up in a memory context.   You need to remember the numbers that are left to come, and also approximately how they are shaped.  You can look in the box for that, but then you need to mentally fixate a number in a series of candidate location on the board to decide on the value of your current strategy.   The rules don’t permit anyone to take future tiles out of the box to test this out, although of course you can choose to relax this rule if you think it necessary.  You can absolutely play this reactively by fitting tiles where they seem to make most sense without worrying about how they contribute to a grand plan.  You’re not going to score highly with that approach though.

All of this matters though if you want people to play well together and be able to meaningfully compete.  Really though the fun in NMBR 9 comes from the tile laying itself.  Getting a good score is validating, but I have played solo games of this where I didn’t even bother calculating it.  It was just nice to make a 3D arrangements of numbers within fixed rules.   The only thing other players do in this respect is set the baseline for what constitutes ‘success’ with the card draw.  You can easily de-emphasise scoring and still have fun with this as a group activity.  Similarly, you can all collaboratively work towards a single massive structure and score it as a collective.  By setting yourself a baseline of a score and then attempting to beat it each time, this can be a challenging co-op game that supports players of all cognitive ability.

We mentioned in the review how easily NMBR 9 lends itself to modifications – like Santorini, the simplicity of its rule-set means it’s very easy to scaffold an experience that balances cognitive accessibility with gameplay challenge.  As such we recommend it in both of our cognitive categories but bear in mind you will likely need to take some time to refine it for your own specific group requirements.

Emotional Accessibility

NMBR 9 is a completely solitaire experience – you will never be in a situation where anyone stops you from accomplishing your best given the tools you have available.   There’s no contention over tiles, and no randomness other than that shared by the table.  If someone draws a nine, you draw that nine too.   Luck still matters, but it’s a shared pool of luck.  If a draw is worse for you than it is for others, it’s because of decisions you took earlier on.   That can be great, because you never have a poor dice-roll cause you problems.  It can also be bad because bad dice rolls sometimes permit an excuse for poor play that can be face saving.  You can’t hide from your outcome in NMBR 9.  After all, everyone had exactly the same tiles that were drawn at exactly the same time.  The only difference is where you chose to place them.

The exact flavour of problem caused there is going to be different from group to group, but to a certain extent it’s going to be exacerbated by the often significant score disparities that emerge.   It’s entirely possible by the time an eight or nine makes its way out of the deck you’re not in a position to make use of it while someone else is.   The difference of a single tile placement might be between twenty seven (or more) points and zero points.  As such, the scores tend to be wide ranging and again – if you scored more poorly than everyone else it’s because of the structure you built.    The nature of play in these kind of games means that your mistakes come back to haunt you – there’s a failure cascade often built into this Tetris family of titles that ensures that one mistaken placement will keep causing you problems for the long term.  A single gap in an otherwise flawless foundation will keep preventing you from making profitable use of large amounts of real estate for the length of the game.  You have no way of fixing that.

We’ll recommend NMBR 9 in this category, but there are some issues here that you might have to take into account if playing it in ‘full competition’ mode.  For some people, their role in the game might be to set the lowest boundary for what constitutes a score and that’s rarely fun.

Physical Accessibility

All of the issues I discussed in the visual accessibility section are present here, and with greater emphasis.  Placing pieces sometimes requires them to snap together, and even slight difficulties with fine motor control can end up demolishing painstaking progress over the course of the game.   If the issues are with larger scale movement such as walking, it’s not likely to cause any problems.  Issues related to hands, arms and fingers are almost certainly going to result in far more frustration than fun.

NMBR 9 also doesn’t lend itself well to verbalisation.  I’d go as far as to say that the game is functionally impossible to verbalise in a way that opens it up to enjoyable play for players with physical accessibility concerns.   I mean, look at this:

Starting placements

Do you want a numbers game or a word game?

How might you reliably explain the precise rotation, relationship and position of a piece there?   You can come up with something in individual circumstances, but each new piece is going to be a fresh new verbal puzzle.    It turns every turn from an instruction into a negotiation.  Even from the very early stages of play you are swamped with choices for the relationship between any two pieces.  The difference between pieces being attached at one part and another might be ‘a great structure’ and ‘a terrible structure’.

As an example, let’s say you’ve got a four you want to place, and you want it to nestle between the one and the five.  You’d say something like ‘I want the four to be attached to the one and the five at the bottom’.  But there are two ways in which the four could snap in there, so you’d need to be able to describe which part of the four snaps in, or if it doesn’t snap in at all.  If it doesn’t snap in, where do you want it to go?   Which square of the four should attach to which squares of the five and which of the one?   You could jury-rig some kind of convention with a formal definition language, fixed but evolving co-ordinate space, and some standardised way of referring to specific kinds of joins.  At that point it’s easier to just play a different game, and that’s what we’d recommend.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

This is a game of positioning numbers, and as such there is no gendered art or indeed any at all art in its strictest sense.  It’s very geometric.  The manual does default to the assumption of masculinity though which shows that even games about numbers can have sociological inaccessibilities that rear their heads.   I’m especially snarky (HELLO REDDIT) about it here because if there is one family of game that really needs to do better in appealing to young girls in particular it’s games that are heavily numbers based.   What the ‘he’ in the manual does is add yet another tiny data point to the deeply mistaken societal prejudice that numbers are a boy’s thing.  It’s minor, but it’s not at all helpful.

Default to masculinity

Disappointing.

The game has an RRP of around £20.  You don’t get much of a game for that, but it cleanly supports player counts from one to four, and if you fancied larger game nights you could bang two copies together and play as many as eight.  Like Karuba, this is a game that scales infinitely in line with the number of copies you have available.    The ease of modifications and house-rules too mean that you can scale the challenge and the experience to the preferences of the table, and the speed of play means it’s an easy filler.  Given the heavy arithmetical theme it’s probably not an ideal gateway game though.  It has all the easy-going charm and charisma of a tax return, and as such it’s unlikely to get anyone excited for gaming.   It’s a title of situational rather than persistent value.

Nonetheless, we’ll recommend NMBR 9 in this category.

Communication

There is no need for literacy or formal communication during play.  Indeed, you’ll likely be so tightly focused on your own task that you won’t have much time for anyone else.

We strongly recommend NMBR 9 in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

As you might imagine, the combination of physical and visual accessibility is one that will deeply intensify our existing concerns.   Regardless of how minor either of those conditions might be, any intersections at all that encompasses fine motor control would be grounds for avoiding this game entirely.  Too much of a player’s ability to identify game state by touch is dependent on very, very careful movements.

A communication impairment along with a physical impairment would also deeply intensify our advice to avoid the game – the sophistication of verbal instructions is considerable, and short of a formal definition or a fixed language for the game I’m not sure how you’d do that in circumstances where communication is difficult.   Even if a schema could be put together, the fun is going to be rapidly sucked away in a maelstrom of bureaucracy.

NMBR 9 plays very quickly barring accessibility considerations.   The box suggests 20 minutes per game, and I think that’s erring on the side of caution.   It’s not likely going to be long enough, or intense enough, to exacerbate conditions of modulating severity.  In circumstances where a player needs to drop out of play, this can be done cleanly with no impact on anyone else.    The solitary nature of the game means that the absence of another player won’t even cause a minor tremor in the play state.  You can scale all the way down to one and still have exactly the same experience as an individual.

Conclusion

NMBR 9 is a solid little game of placing numbers onto numbers so your numbers are the best numbers.   It’s low competition, relatively high satisfaction, and leaves a table that looks like the Sudoku Killer struck again during the night.   It’s good too, and we gave it three and a half stars to indicate that.

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

Accessibility wise it’s something of a missed opportunity – it’s a game that could have been fully accessible for all severities of blindness, but the lightness of the components means that playing by touch becomes a massively fraught prospect.  Every time the game is physically investigated, you’ll end up leaving it in a different state than how you found it.   Heavier components, or more frictive components, might have helped there.

There are things here to like though – it’s an arithmetic game that doesn’t especially stress numeracy and that’s fairly unique.   It’s full of opportunities for meaningful modifications and you can house-rule it every which way and still end up with something enjoyable.  You get a lot out of the central mechanic of ever more lucrative tile placements, and by changing the focus of that experience you can open it up to a lot of people.    NMBR 9 merits a spot on a lot of shelves but if you’re looking for a more generally accessible Tabletop Tetris it’s still the case that I cannot recommend Patchwork enough.


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