Sentinels of the Multiverse


Sentinels of the Multiverse (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

Playing Sentinels of the Multiverse is a little like stepping into the pages of a weird, alien comic you’ve never read – full of friendships and rivalries that have a deep, time-encrusted history of which you’re unaware.  It’s a lot of fun, although not without its flaws –we gave it 3.5 stars in our review.

So the question is – if you want to play it, can you?  Let’s find out!

Visual Impairments

Colour blindness isn’t an issue that strongly impacts upon play – all of the cards contain other identifying information, such as numbers, text or relevant symbols.  In that respect, it’s a clear pass.

Colour Blind Markers

Easy to make out, but no easier to understand.

It’s a game though that is so well expressed in terms of its artistic aesthetics that you’d lose something significant in playing with colour blindness – you wouldn’t get the best view of all the great art that is scattered throughout it.  Mechanically, the game would be fine but a lot of the immersion comes from putting together your own unspeakably thrilling super-hero epic, using the art of the cards as your visual storyboard.

Colour Blind Characters

You lose an awful lot when you can’t make out the colours.

You’d need to make your own choice as to whether the mechanics of the game are enough, or whether the aesthetics are too important to lose.    We’ll give it a recommended, but with that significant caveat.

Colour blind cards

I’m not sure anyone would really want to play a game with urine coloured cards.

For other categories of visual impairment, the story is less positive.  The cards are full of densely cropped text in a font that is too small to comfortably read for most.  More, the number of cards and the synergies between them mean that you need to be aware of the text and context of each card in every hand across the game.  Each player may have ten or so cards in play and in their hand, while the villain may have another half dozen, with the environment contributing a few more.  It’s not just a case of knowing what’s in play either – to meaningfully set up collaborative opportunities, you need to know what other players have available and how that relates to what you can contribute.   The contrast between text and background though is reasonably good, so if your impairment doesn’t prevent meaningful scanning of the game environment, it may still be playable.

For the damage tokens, we encounter a familiar issue – they are all round, and are all the same size.  There’s almost no signalling tactility that a blind player could use to assess the damage on their character, or on the other targets in the game.   This is a solved problem – countries have been making accessible coinage for decades, and the principles are 100% transferable to game tokens.  We see failure in this again and again though, and it’s very frustrating.

The deeper issue though is the same as for those with colour blindness – you can’t discount the importance of the art in play.  Unlike many things, gaming is as much about the feel as it is about the function, and it’s impossible to deny that you’d lose much of the nuance of immersion by not being able to see and appreciate the art.  For all the fun I had playing it, I’m not at all sure I would have been quite so keen to get involved if I saw it without its clothes on.

We don’t recommend SOTM for those with significant visual impairments.

Cognitive Accessibility

In terms of cognitive accessibility, SOTM shares a lot of the same features as Suburbia.  It has a deceptively simple game-flow that becomes drastically more complicated the further through the game we go.   The only way in which it is meaningfully different is that the complexity curve is far more irregular – in Suburbia, complexity compounds ever upwards as time goes by.  In SOTM, certain villain cards will forcibly reduce complexity by compelling players to discard their hands, or cards they have in play.  While this does reduce complexity in the short term, it does mean that it’s not even possible to rely on the complexity being there.  What’s in place for one turn may not be there in the next, and so adopting strategies to easily remember the game rules are likely counter-productive.

This is compounded by the fact the cards are very text heavy – each card contains lots of tightly cropped, relatively complex text that explains the impact it has on the game.    Many of these have conditional effects, such as ‘if the player has a card of type X, do Y’.   Some of it is triggered, such as ‘at the start of the environment turn’, or ‘at the end of the villain’s turn’ or ‘ongoing until the start of your next turn’.   None of the text requires an especially high reading level, but understanding how it applies in a potentially very complex game state is far more challenging.   It’s perfectly possible, and indeed quite likely, for instructions to break down into something like the following:

‘You’re doing one damage to any three enemies of your choice, in the order you choose.  You get +1 to your damage for this turn because of the buff Legacy played earlier.  The villain is at -1 damage at the moment, but the card you are playing states it is irreducible damage so they can’t absorb it, except they’re currently immune to divine type damage which is what you are dealing.  However, while they wouldn’t take damage it would mean that if they try to attack anyone else they’ll attack you instead until the start of your next turn, which might be useful given the health of everyone else.’

Seriously, I took that from an actual combination of heroes, villain and environment based on just three cards that could well be in play at any one time.  That kind of thing is what must be considered every single play based on all the cards that are currently out there and active.  It can be mentally exhausting regardless of cognitive impairments.

All of this is a consequence of how cluttered and contextual the state becomes as the game goes on, and that in turn has a big impact on game flow.  The usual flow of the player turn is ‘play a card, play a power, draw a card’, but any of those stages might be made different as a result of cards in play.  For example, Hostage Situation in Metropolis prevents hero cards being played.  It can be removed if every player at the start of the environment turn chooses to discard one of the cards in their hands.  IF they remember that’s a thing they can do.

Hostage situation

The great thing about the Metropolis area is that it makes your heroes behave like heroes.

The game does come with reminder tokens to help manage this complexity, but as mentioned in the review they’re not very useful for conditional effects.  There’s also there’s no real way to organise them to serve simultaneously as an easy visual reminder of ongoing effects *and* a prompt as to what card is implementing what state.  It’s a good effort, but in the end it only adds something else to manage, mismanage, and eventually forget about.

The synergy of rules too is one of SOTM’s most compelling features – it drives almost all of the real creativity the game permits.  That creativity is highly dependent on the way cards relate and interrelate, which again requires players to understand how what they play impacts on what other people play.  Some synergistic plays require the pain-staking construction of a card context over multiple turns and multiple players, at every stage investing careful consideration into whether the game context has changed sufficiently to require a re-evaluation of strategy.  Since it’s collaborative, players can quarterback another player to help deal with that kind of complex decision making.  That may be an acceptable ‘accessibility’ fix in occasional circumstances, this kind of play is absolutely core to the game.   If players can’t cognitively navigate these card relationships, they will have to play the game at an extremely shallow level.   That can be enough, if the superhero theme is sufficiently engaging to keep someone interested.   However, bear in mind that these aren’t the superheroes that anyone will be familiar with.  The theme by itself may not be sufficiently appealing to keep those with severe cognitive impairments playing simply for the wish fulfilment.

We don’t recommend Sentinels of the Multiverse for those with cognitive impairments.

Emotiveness

As a collaborative game, many of the emotive triggers are softened because everybody wins or nobody wins.  Except, not quite – the game does feature a limited form of player elimination.  If you lose all your health, you flip the card over to a much weaker version of your superhero, without a hand of cards to manage and play.  Instead, you get to make use of buffs for other players.  Some of these may actually be more useful to collaborative play than anything you may have had in your hand, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re meaningfully out of the fight.  At the end though, the win goes to the team, not to any individual player – everyone contributed right to the end.   That’s a nice feature.

Some of the villain cards though are almost designed to invoke frustration, particularly those that undermine the building of effort.  It’s possible to lay out four or five cards over a series of turns, passing up opportunities to do short-term damage in exchange for the kind of long-term sustained bursts that will change the course of the battle.  And then, just before you get to unleash your immaculately engineered engine of destruction the enemy plays a card that forces all your equipment back into your hand, or into your discard pile.   The reward for your effort is to be set back to square one – that can be rage inducing.

This isn’t helped by the fact that most of the enemies in the base set are genuinely challenging.  Save for Baron Blade, who is best considered the ‘tutorial’ villain, all of the others have card synergies that can be extremely difficult to overcome if they’re drawn in a particular order.  It’s possible too that all you may have available in your own hand is a pile of situational options, none of which are at all appropriate given the current game state.   There’s a built-in fix in that you can choose to miss your card and action playing stage to draw two cards, but that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes you just can’t do anything interesting on your turn.

However, for all of this the game’s challenge is surmountable, and failure rarely feels genuinely arbitrary.  There’s always a way to look at what happened and say ‘Ah, we need to do this better next time’, or ‘I need to make use of this card better’, or ‘If we had a better damage dealer on the team, we’d be able to deal with the minions more easily’.   It’s rare that you face a combination of things and think ‘Well, there was no way I could have played that better’.   The opportunity to see flaws in your strategy and think about how better to deal with them avoids many of the stress triggers that might otherwise be associated with the game.

We’re prepared to recommend SOTM in this category.

Physical Accessibility

There are a lot of cards in the game, and in your hand, but the convention that Mrs Meeple and I have adopted in our play-throughs is to simply lay them on the table in front of us.   This does enable quarterbacking, but as I mentioned in our Pandemic teardown it’s not actually an issue for us.  However, a set of standard card-holders would suffice if you wanted to avoid that particular problem.  Other than this, there’s no direct physicality that is actually required of any given player – card play is limited only to drawing, discarding and moving cards from one place to another.  Damage tokens are small and fiddly, but can be added or removed by other players without any meaningful game impact.

However, the range of cards and number of decks means it usually needs to be played over a fairly big area.  There’s room for optimising this through adjacency of seating – there is no contiguity to the game state that must be enforced.  This is useful, because you do need to be aware of what everyone else has been doing to give maximum effect to your own turn.   However, with a large number of players with a complex combination of heroes, villains and environments, this might not be entirely possible.

We’d say many people could play it without special support.  We also think it’s likely that almost everyone could effectively contributing it if playing in a mixed-group.  Provided at least one person can physically manipulate tokens and cards, it’s easy to verbalise instructions.  It’s recommended, then.

Communication

Like most co-operative games, SOTM is a game of communication and high-level strategy.  This introduces considerable communication issues for those that may find speaking or hearing difficult.  Given the relative complexity of planning too, it can be an issue for those that don’t speak English as a first language – the mass of text on the cards is an additional complication for this potential group of players.

Plays are best discussed in terms of synergies, and will sometimes involve several consecutive rounds of play and have backup plans in the event of particular cards being drawn  from the villain deck.   However, for such strategies to work they must be consensual – people need to understand why they are playing cards that are personally detrimental if they are to be convinced it is all to the overall good of the group.  That requires a little negotiation, and an ability to clearly articulate potentially very complex card contexts:

‘If you play that card there, you’ll become immune to this kind of damage, which is what our enemy is currently putting out.   You’ll take some short-term damage, but the villain is doing three points of that kind of damage at the start of each of our turns anyway, so we’ll go from taking 15 points of damage to 3 over the whole group.  The villain also has a reflective shield, which means that if we attack we’ll each take another 3 points of damage for our first attack.  If you take the hit, we’re looking at about 10% of the damage the team would otherwise take.  When it gets to my turn, I’ll heal you of the damage you took’

That kind of negotiation requires the ability to explain short and long term goals, make offers and counter-offers, and relate the short-term impact of a card to longer term strategy.  It can be tricky, even if communication impairments aren’t present.  It’s especially difficult if they are, because some of these concepts will have no real world analogues, and if people want to check your logic you’ll need to find a way to communicate things like ‘Gene Bound Shackles’.

However, we do acknowledge that communication issues are likely to be a solved problem in any given group that knows each other well enough to play games together.  We just want to flag up situations where the type and extent of communication may be a problem.  We’ll tentatively recommend SOTM in this category, but you should consider whether or not it’ll be appropriate given the people you’ll be playing it with.  It won’t work for everyone, but you’ll need to be the one to decide if it’ll work for you.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

First the good stuff.  SOTM does a pretty good job of having a decent gender split – of the base game, four superheroes are women, five are men, and one is an alien of indeterminate gender.  The game could do better in its internationality, but it does at least stretch to an Egyptian (Ra), an angel from heaven (Fanatic), a New Zealand Maori (Haka), a time travellers (The Visionary) and an extra-terrestrial (Tempest).  It’s hard to deny though it has a hugely American slant – all the other heroes hail from somewhere in the USA.   There are also no people of colour in the whole roster.   This changes with the expansion packs, but the base game doesn’t have a lot of diversity.

But even where it does reasonably well in terms of intention, the execution is problematic.

While SOTM does have a decent gender split, it also serves to perpetuate that peculiarly comic book tradition of representing women in extremely anatomically dubious poses.  Not only poses, but also with outfits that are explicitly revelatory around the chest, thighs or midriff.  Even Fanatic, the avenging angel, is wearing boob-plate that probably isn’t standard issue in the heavenly choirs.

Women in Sentinels

Look at the heroics on her, right lads?

There is some equal treatment here – Ra is naked from the waist up, and Haka is impressively bare chested.  But here we encounter the common misapprehension that having both men and women in these kind of explicitly sexualised poses is good enough.  The men here are presented for male wish fulfilment.  And so are the women.   The men are in power poses, showing mastery of themselves and environments.  The women are showing off their dubiously large breasts and flashing their flesh in a way that surely gets in the way of day to day hero work.  Basically, any time you see a cleavage window or bare thighs or breasts barely contained by flimsy material it’s time to reconsider your portrayal of women.   There are even a few cards where you can’r help suspect the random bit of debris was intended to instead suggest the presence of a nipple, as with Citizen Dawn below:

Sexualized character cards

Bare legs, tiny waists, huge breasts. That’s inclusivity for you.

 

And while SOTM does have some reasonably interesting representations of different ethnicities, they aren’t exactly very sensitively handled.  Haka is a representation of a noble savage, basically a form of the Magical Native American trope.   And, while we have an Egyptian god in the roster, it turns out from his backstory that he was actually an American (again) that just so happens to be the embodiment of Ancient Egyptian Mysticism.   I’m not going to yell ‘cultural appropriation’ here, largely because I think that’s too shrill a claim that is used too freely in modern society.  I will say though that it seems somewhat mean spirited and anti-inclusive to have the only Egyptian guy in the team actually be a white American.

I think you’d have reasonable grounds for complaint in terms of how well represented genders and ethnicities are in the game, and that’s a shame because it’s a concept that could have so easily have led to some really cool and positive portrayals for interesting superheroes.  It’s an ideal environment to look at empowered women and minorities.   Coming from, for example, the TV show Jessica Jones to Sentinels of the Multiverse is a little like stepping into an unwelcome time warp.

Cost wise though, it’s a good deal for the amount of playability it contains in the box – the base set has four environments, four villains and ten heroes – that’s a lot of potential new combinations as you try and hone your strategy.   There are expansions too, but these are a less appealing prospect given the relatively high cost for a few decks of cards.  It’s a game that does assume you’ll be buying more and more of the sets, given how the base set box even contains the card separators for each of the heroes that you’ll encounter later on.   At the time of writing it’s deeply discounted to a reasonable £30 on Amazon, although at the RRP of £45 we’d be less likely to recommend it.

Perhaps SOTM is best considered as a cautionary tale in inclusivity – it’s not enough to aim for a gender balance, or for a few scattered representations of ethnicity.  What’s more important is to consider what you hope inclusivity will achieve.  You want people to feel as if they’re part of the hobby, and that means ensuring that when they look at game art and assets they can see people like themselves as part of it.   I can imagine young women in particular looking at Sentinels of the Multiverse and dismissing it in the same way most dismiss the sexist portrayals of women in the comics that inspired it.  It is, unfortunately, not recommended in this category.

Intersectional Issues

Let’s tick the usual suspects off here, because most of them aren’t a major issue.   Hand-sizes can become quite large, because while there is an equilibrium of playing and drawing early on, some card powers allow for extra draws.  It’s not uncommon to have seven or eight cards in a hand, with the possibility for more as time goes by.    For those with cognitive and physical accessibility issues, being able to compare each card against an increasingly large supply across a group of players can be difficult even if card holders are employed.  Playing open hands however does allow for other players to support in decision making and understanding of game state, but at the expense of enabling quarterbacking.  Meaningful agency always resides with the player though, and even quarterbacking can be alleviated by insisting on a ‘tit for tat’ when it comes to ‘taking one for the team’.  Negotiation can be a useful part of SOTM in the way it isn’t in Pandemic – the intimacy of named characters with their own personalities facilitates this to an extent.  You feel an ownership over your little hero.

The complexity of the game state, and the fact it stretches over many decks, can create intersectional issues for those with cognitive and physical impairments – being able to inspect each deck for each played card can alleviate memory problems, but if this is compounded by a difficulty in getting close enough to see the cards it can be a major barrier to effective play.

However, as with Pandemic it’s a game that has good support for dropping in and out, because open hands allow for other players to easily play someone else’s turn while they are taking a break from play.   It’s even possible to meaningfully keep track of at least the flow of the battle too if people say out loud what’s happening – the game lends itself to state representation through story-telling in a way that many games don’t.    ‘ZAP, and with that super punch I knocked the mobile defence platform into the stratosphere!  Let’s kick him inna fork before it comes back to earth!’  or ‘Oh no, he’s called in the Blade Battalion!  They’ve just swarmed around Wraith and she’s in a bad way – we need to make sure she’s protected!  Legacy, can you help here?’  Even if not playing, it’s easy to feel included in the action if everyone gets into the spirit of narrating the overblown theatrics of the story the cards are telling.

Conclusion

Did Sentinels of the Multiverse make us angry?  You won’t like us when we’re angry.  Let’s throw it into the Meeple Like Us nuclear reactor to see if it develops superpowers:

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

That’s not ideal, but what does it come up with in the radar chart?

Fittingly, it has a radar profile that looks a little bit like a superhero logo.  I call it ‘the blue jay’.

radar chart

Radar chart for Sentinels of the Multiverse

One of the difficulties that comes with making a beautiful game, and Sentinels of the Multiverse is a beautiful game, is that so much of its appeal becomes linked to the aesthetics.  It’s hard to meaningfully recommend it to someone that couldn’t really appreciate the evocative theme, even if those with colour blindness could actually play if they really wanted.

It gets a clear pass in terms of its emotive impact and its physical accessibility, but everything else has problems.   The most disappointing issue though relates to the socioeconomic accessibility, because it seems as if at least an effort was made – it was just made in a way that actually made the problem worse.  Some might argue that the game is simply reflecting (and perhaps even parodying) the prevailing mores of its inspiration.  I would argue that there are more effective ways to make the portrayal of women in comics look ridiculous without exacerbating the problem.  Board games have the potential to be a genuinely inclusive hobby – it is always disappointing when particular titles let the team down.

That said, we gave SOTM 3.5 stars in our review, because there’s a lot of fun in there for the right kind of person.  If you feel like it’s the kind of game you might enjoy playing, then go right ahead – there’s a lot to like in the game, even if there’s a lot to dislike in terms of its accessibility.

 

 


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