Santorini (2016) – 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

First version

Introduction

Santorini, like the island for which it is named, is a sparkling jewel.  And like a jewel it only becomes more entrancing the longer you look into its reflecting facets.   We gave it four stars in our review but I’m convinced that if you make the effort you’ll undoubtedly find another half star in there to reward you for your faith.  Like many abstract games that emphasis cerebral consideration over emotional excitement, Santorini takes patience and dedication to master.   It’s a game that is deeply tactical, but also intensely tactile.   Is it a potentially accessible inclusion in your game library?   I’m your accessibility Minotaur, and it’s time to butt heads against the teardown.

Colour Blindness

It’s absolutely fine – Santorini is at heart a two player game and while there are three and four player variants you’re going to be playing with between four and six workers regardless.  The colours of these exhibit no colour clashes for most categories of colour blindness.  Those with monochromatic vision though will have problems since colour is the only channel of information used to indicate ownership.   However the pieces are entirely thematic and you can replace them with whatever you like as long as it’ll fit into the blocks for positioning.

Colour blind worker

We are the Meeple

The building blocks have no colour information that is meaningful.  They’re white blocks with an occasional rounded blue dome but it is the shape and form of the block that matters rather than the colours.  The only other components in the game are the god cards, and these make use of unique art, prominent header text along the top, and don’t use colour as the only channel of information.

God cards

Cards against Divinity

We strongly recommend Santorini in this category.

Visual Accessibility

The tactility of this game very nearly permits play by the fully blind.  Individual worker tokens are split into male and female figures, and you can differentiate which of your pieces you’re working with by touch.  One has a hair-bun at the back that tells you which is which.  The issue is that there’s no way to tell apart a worker of yours from a worker that belongs to your opponent.  This is a problem that’s relatively easy to solve with alternate tokens so in that respect this is a game of perfect information where all that information can be assessed by touch.  That’s not true when making use of God cards, but the information contained within those is only needed at the start of play and can be easily verbalised.  ‘You can build twice’, for example.  In any case, the game of Santorini is perfectly playable and fun without these being used.

Santorini board

Fingers will take you a long way here

Now, it’s important to put some context on this – the pieces you have are very light and tremendously easily disturbed.  While it’s certainly possible for someone to get a full understanding of the board state with touch it’s very careful work to do so and not upset the game as it sits on the board.   However, you can jury-rig something on a tablecloth or such since the pedestal is ornamental – it gives you a five by five grid, but you can easily replicate that in any form you like.  As long as the pieces don’t slip from where they’re placed (a high friction surface would help there), it’s fully playable.

Or rather, it is in theory.   There isn’t a huge amount of game state and parts of it can be relatively easily discounted in the short term depending on worker location.  You’re still tasked with building and blocking pathways to the third floor of a building, and being able to perceive the board with full visual binocularity really does help there.    Some God powers exist though that can shift the balance of power so as to limit the difficulty of playing well without sight.  Pan’s power for example permits a player to win by jumping down two levels and this adds a more flexible win condition that requires less careful planning and plotting of pathways.   I’m not sure I’d recommend it too enthusiastically for a fully blind player, but I think it’s almost certainly playable with some careful jigging of the rules.

For players with less severe visual impairment, our recommendations can be a lot less tentative.   Any game that is playable for the fully blind is going to be more so for those with some degree of ability to differentiate light and shadow.  The unusual degree of physicality to the Santorini board supplements visual information tremendously well.   There’s a lot of state data that is best obtained visually, but no information that is only obtainable with sight provided your opponent(s) can describe the impact of god cards.

We recommend Santorini in this category, but bear in mind it becomes a different kind of game – one of memory and mental path-finding as opposed to pattern matching.

Cognitive Accessibility

Santorini’s rules are very simple and unlikely to be a problem except in severe cases of cognitive impairment.   You move and build.  You can climb up one space.  You can climb down as many spaces as you like.  First to the third floor of a building wins.   That’s all anyone needs to be able to understand in order to play correctly.  Playing well is a very different thing but there is an intense malleability of win states already embedded into the god powers.  There’s nothing to stop you making the win state whatever you want it to be.  While you lose a lot of the depth with an easy win condition you still retain a meaningful amount of the joy that comes with constructing this genuinely lovely board.  This is a game that is extremely well suited to house rules and the implementation of cognitively accessible variants.

The base game then, with some modifications, is very likely to be fine for most players.   The inclusion of god cards might alter that considerably, but there’s a lot to like here too.  For one thing, the manual separates these out into ‘simple’ and ‘advanced’ gods, and you get a lot of opportunities to eliminate whatever complexity you think is beyond the capability of the players.  Some Gods genuinely do alter the game in fundamental ways, and in combination they create entirely new experiences that are can very cognitively challenging to evaluate.    You can remove those ones though from the decks without serious game impact.  Remember too that god powers are entirely optional so if this is a step too far then you don’t have to use them at all.

Normally that would be all we’d need to discuss here, but I also want to make a note that the God cards permit some hugely effective scalability of challenge provided the difference they make to the rules doesn’t create problems.   If you want to provide one player with an advantage, you can deal them two god cards, or give yourself none, or give them an especially good card while you get  a relatively poor one.   You can absolutely scale the powers to the challenge in play, and still retain meaningful competition between players of different skills.   A lot of experimentation will be needed here if you really do want to ‘play to win’ in these circumstances, but it’s absolutely possible.   And more than this, if you do find a setup that works you can happily stick with it without worrying about further randomisation or difficulty making its way into play.   You get to choose the game you want to have.

For those with memory impairments, there are zero problems in Santorini’s design.  It’s a perfect information game and every single thing you need to know about the game is right there in front of you at all times.  The physical representation of the board too assists in lowering the mental costs of evaluating game state.

We strongly recommend Santorini in this category – playing an ‘accessible’ variant won’t have the depth and tactical complexity we discussed in the review, but it’s still going to be fun and that’s what we hope for in this section.  I’ll be honest, when I started writing this part of the teardown I expected this to be a problem category.   I was fully prepped to give Santorini a reluctant but forceful kicking – and yet, it comes out smelling of roses.  I’m constantly surprised by what these teardowns reveal.

Emotional Accessibility

Here we encounter a familiar refrain in game like this – when you’re bested in Santorini, you can’t blame it on the dice or the cards or even the starting setup.  You can blame it on a bad combination of God powers, but the standard setup of the rules for these means even that’s quite difficult.  If you randomly assign them, you’ll often get combinations where one power becomes a weakness and as such you’re at an obvious disadvantage.  When you select them yourself, that’s not a convincing explanation for poor play.

Impossible to stop this win

What are you going to do about this?

That said, this isn’t like Hive where the win comes with all the dull inevitability of a constricting anaconda.  Wins come unexpectedly because if they were expected you would likely have been in a position to do something about it.   Both players are trying to out-maneouver each other and set up opportunities for scoring without the other being able to prevent it.  That is very difficult, and even being on the receiving end of it can be satisfying.  It’s sometimes just nice to be part of seeing something impressive done, even if it was to your cost.   Santorini permits the use of pins and forks, and even the occasional imprisonment of a piece behind impenetrable walls.    Getting any of those things to work well takes a lot of lining up, and even if you’re becoming the victim of that a single careful or lucky move might flip the tables entirely.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve flourished a block with all the flamboyance of a stage magician only to find I won the game for my opponent.

Regardless though, this is an abstract battle of wits specifically pitched as something optimally a two player experience.  The accessibility here comes in how well people handle winning and losing when there’s no place to psychologically hide.  We’re still going to recommend Santorini here.  As we often do, we’ll say ‘How do people handle losing at chess?  It’s like that, but not quite so bad’.

Physical Accessibility

Here’s our problem area – manipulating the board of Santorini requires a degree of fine motor control that verges into the inaccessible for all players.   You’re manipulating workers, blocks, and the placement of workers around blocks in very tight constraints amongst a 3D structure of light, flimsy pieces of plastic.  For most people the worst that’s going to happen is that they’ll knock the entire island slightly out of alignment.  For some people, they might very well upset the entire board.   The grid sections for placement are tightly contoured to the baseline blocks, and since the board is raised off the ground you don’t even have a lot of options for being more permissive in layout.  There just isn’t room.

The basic board on its pedestal

Cramped quarters

Strictly speaking though the board is optional – as we discussed above you can placed blocks on a frictive surface and a number of these problems will go away.   There still exist issues though with buildings being knocked over, and even the placement of blocks requiring a fair degree of precision.   And of course you’ll still occasionally be digging your worker out of a dense knot of buildings to move it slightly within a different dense knot of buildings.   None of those things become easier if you use a rougher, improvised base for the play area.   Generally speaking too, we’re not a fan of saying that you should simply not make use of the more sumptuous components that come with a game like this – the tactility of play is as much a part of the experience as the rules and theme.

If verbalisation is required, Santorini can be played but doesn’t particularly support it.  The grid has no co-ordinate system, but you can express all standard actions in terms of cardinal and intermediate directions.   You have two workers of different genders, and while they’re not particularly easy to tell apart at a distance they do serve as unique tokens.  ‘Move my woman worker northeast, and then build south’.  Instructions of that kind will be serviceable but very much dependant on the ability of someone to do a fair degree of mental spatial adjustment.

There is though another problem with Santorini that makes this task trickier – key parts of the game state will often be obscured by tall buildings.   It’s common (and indeed, likely with some god powers) that the perimeter of the map will see heavier building that the centre.  If you’re on the wrong side of the board you will likely find it difficult to see things on the opposite side.   At a distance, much of the board blends into a mass of white that doesn’t lend itself well to quick assessment.  This becomes less of a problem if you’re not using the raised board, but it never quite goes away.

Obscured worker

What’s going on back there?

However, here the use of the raised board permits a degree of rotation that another setup wouldn’t offer.  It’s possible to carefully rotate the Santorini board around to give a perspective that normal fixed boards don’t easily provide.    Given the design of the board, a ‘lazy susan’ style rotating base would have been an interesting approach although I don’t actually know if it would have been better.  I can imagine in a particularly excited state I would spin it around too forcefully and separate the towers like molecules in a centrifuge.

We’ll tentatively recommend Santorini in this category – it’s playable with verbalisation, but there are numerous problems that might not make it an ideal pick for game night if this category has to be taken into account.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

My goodness but there’s a lot to like here – plenty of men, plenty of women, and a range of skin-tones that span a fair spectrum.   As you would expect, most of the gods and goddesses are derived from Greek tradition and as such there isn’t a huge amount of variation from ‘pasty white’ or ‘vaguely Mediterranean’, but there is definitely some and presented in welcome ways.

Circe card

Olympus is multicultural

The art trends towards the cartoonish, and while some of the women are shown in provocative poses it’s usually when dealing with deities that have some degree of eroticism in their remit.  Aphrodite, for example.

Aphrodite

Hello boys

As a counterpoint, the God Eros is also shown bare-chested with a distinctive ‘come hither’ expression on his face.     Sensuality isn’t reserved for the women deities.

Eros

Hello ladies.

The women are shown in a wide range of poses and garments, and range from bad-ass warriors to meditative musicians.  The gods shown also include a few older characters, which is always a nice touch.

As far as the price goes, it’s a more problematic story.  Availability is very limited, and while I believe a reprint is coming it’s unlikely to land at a price-point that you’d expect from a game very much aimed at two players.  I got my copy for £50 at a game store, and that’s an eye-watering £25 per player.  Sure, there are rules that go up to four players but when the manual itself says ‘This is a two player game’ you should pay attention.     Santorini though isn’t presenting itself as anything other than an unabashedly luxury product – the production value are sky high and it’s as much ornamental toy as it is board game.   If cost is a factor, the purchase of Santorini is difficult to justify when games like Onitama are much cheaper and equally good.    Like a good chess set though, Santorini is something you could leave set up on a side table and brighten a room as a result.   You’re paying for table presence as much as a game and the cost has to be assessed in that light.

All this taken into account, we’ll recommend Santorini in this category.

Communication

The game is entirely language independent, and has no requirement of communication during play.   The occasional plaintive wail of ‘Release the Kraken!’ does spice up proceedings but has little directly observable gameplay impact.

We strongly recommend Santorini in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

If there is an intersection of physical and visual impairment, Santorini becomes entirely inaccessible.  While it’s possible to probe the game board for information, it requires a very tentative approach to ensure nothing gets knocked around in the process.  Despite recommendations in both of these categories, we wouldn’t at all recommend it if the intersection must be considered.   If the blocks were heavier or attached more firmly that wouldn’t be the case, but as beautiful as Santorini is the blocks are only thin, light plastic.

If communication impairments are combined with physical, cognitive or visual impairments the game also likely becomes entirely inaccessible.  The directions and build instructions you give require some spatial manipulation and mental representation – additional inaccessibilities that compound with communication are going to make that much more difficult.  Even if it’s technically possible we suspect it wouldn’t be much fun, if any.

Games of Santorini are very quick – ten or twenty minutes, depending on how tightly people are playing.  And, despite having that large raised board and lots of moving parts it’s quite quick to set up and clear away.   It’s not an ideal choice for fitting around conditions with modulating symptoms, but it’s also not a bad one.   It’s short enough, and low intensity enough, that it’s not going to be a particular issue here.   While the game is a direct head to head duel (unless playing one of the larger variant player counts), it’s all perfect information.  There’s no information you’re not supposed to have, and so this tends to ease the complexities that comes with expecting accessibility support from your opponent.  That said, it’s also a game where much of a winning strategy depends on a player not seeing your plan in construction and so you’re incentivised to not point out obvious mistakes or missed clues.  As usual, our advice is to play with people as interested in your fun as they are in their own to help alleviate this problem.

Conclusion

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting such a strong performance from Santorini.  Board games really are marvellous – as soon as I start to feel like I’ve found my comfort zone a game comes along to completely defy my expectations.    Well done Santorini.

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

Santorini too is an example of a game that I think is at the hard edge of where accessibility improvements can meaningfully be made.  The box is already expensive, and the components within it paper light.  There are dozens of them.  Even a small change in the heft of these pieces has genuine financial and logistical implications.  ‘Make all the components wood’ would certainly fix a lot of the problems, but who would be willing to pay the vastly increased price?  It’s easy for me to suggest magnets or a lazy Susan revolving base.   I’m not the one that has to deal with the economic consequences of publishing that version while still making a meaningful profit.

Santorini is a lovely game – a game with all the warmth and depth of the Mediterranean.  We gave it four stars, and think if we invested the time to truly master it we’d go higher still.  It turns out too that if you like the sound of it, and don’t mind fighting the online scalpers for a decent price, you can probably play it too.  Not necessarily the way it comes out of the box, and not necessarily in the way it might have been intended.  But you could have a lot of fun with the contents of Santorini, and the joy of discovering that is absolutely why we’re here.


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