Small World accessibility teardown


Small World (2009) – 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

Game of the Year 2012 Edition

Introduction

Small World is a fun, if somewhat unchallenging, game with several interesting and innovative features.  It’s reasonably good – we gave it 3.5 stars in our review as recognition of its fundamental okayness.  I appreciate that’s not an endorsement likely to make you reach reflexively for your wallet, but there are many people who like the game much better than I do.  You are free to be influenced by whoever you like in terms of consumer guidance.  It’s fine.  They’re only feelings – they’ll heal.

But let’s say someone has convinced you that this is the next game you should be adding to your library – would you be able to play it?  Let’s find out, together.    Our relationship is fragile right now – we need to do this as a team.  Take my hand.  I know we’re in public, but just… look, all you have to do is… GOD WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS??

FINE LET’S JUST DO THE TEARDOWN.  I’M NOT CRYING YOU’RE CRYING.

Colour Blindness

Colour blindness isn’t a hugely significant issue, although it can make recognising different areas of the map a little difficult:

Colour blind map

They’ll all look the same when I’ve razed everything to the ground.

This is primarily a consideration for ease of scanning though – you can look a bit closer at the design of the areas to see what they are.  This is only going to be an issue too for certain race combinations – humans for example, or those with the forest power.

Close up colour blind

Has there been a drought or something?

Each of the racial tokens has its own distinctive visual design, although it’s not necessarily easy to make this out at a distance.  Colour is a useful prompt for this, but not the only one.   This tend to be more of a problem when a race has gone into decline – the tokens are flipped into a more greyscale palette when this occurs.  It’s not visually inaccessible as such, just a little more awkward than is comfortable to easily make out.

Decline tokens

The Rise and Fall of Spirit Hill Giants

Overall though, these issues are not overly problematic and we recommend Small World in this category.

Visual Accessibility

Much of the game works through the manipulation of unit tokens – the only difference between these is visual, and they’re quite small so it can be tricky to work out exactly what you’re looking at if visual discrimination is limited:

Box of units

Teeny tiny terrors

However, you are dealing with piles of these at a time and there is a tactility to the way stacking works.  The base rule for conquest is ‘two units plus one for every other token in the region’, and everything is handled via stacks.  Mountains, which are a more difficult terrain type, get mountain tokens placed on them.  Fortresses have a token, and each unit has a token of its own.  If you stack them up on top of each other, you can tell by feel how big a stack you’ll need to conquer.  This will sometimes be modified by racial rules, but provided there’s someone there to tell you what terrain you’re currently examining (assuming that’s not possible to work out by other cues), you will know what the final calculation should be.

There’s an interesting tactility to the tokens too:

Tokens

Tactility of Tokens

I appreciate that this is an aesthetic, rather than accessibility, consideration but it’s nice that some of these can be determined by touch alone.  You couldn’t tell heroes, dragons or holes in the ground from each other, but the rest of the tokens all have a different physical design.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t extend to the currency.  All denominations are exactly the same form factor and exactly the same size.

The game uses a non-standard die for reinforcement, but it can easily be substituted for an accessible variant.  Treat rolls of one, two or three as the reinforcement count, and everything else as a blank.

The largest problem in terms of accessibility is in how much visual scanning you need to do to maximise your opportunities.   Knowing the arrangement and disposition of your enemies is an important part of playing out your turn, and knowing the disposition of your own troops is critical in ensuring an effective defense come re-deployment.   Some opponents may have special abilities that discourage certain defensive setups, and you’ll need to be able to tell which of your territories are at risk.

As mentioned above, the stacking of tokens means that you can easily count how many troops you have in a region, but it won’t be so easy to know which regions hold your troops.   Assistance is going to be required with this, or patience as an assistive aide is employed.

The markers you get for your troops are solid and well contrasted, but they employ a symbolic language that may be difficult to decipher:

Symbolic language

We’ve found a new Stargate combination, general!

As such, a degree of cross-referencing against the documentation is going to be needed to work out what each racial combination can do, although that’s facilitated by the reference sheet that every player has available.

Small World is likely playable, with care, for those with minor to moderate visual impairments.  If anything more severe is to be considered, the playability is likely to be dependent on the number of players.  The maps become progressively larger and busier the more players are involved, and there is a point where this will tip into inaccessibility.  For two or three players, it’s likely possible to play by holding the game state in mind – it’s not overly complex.  For any more, the sheer number of regions, troops, and combinations of races and powers to consider will likely be beyond reasonable ability to remember.  As such we offer a tentative and conditional recommendation for Small World in this category.

Cognitive Accessibility

Strictly speaking there’s no reading level required for playing Small World, but that’s only if you can remember the various powers and races.  The symbolic language used for prompts on this are not particularly easy to understand.  One suspects they are aide memoires rather than a logical language in their own right.

The game expects a degree of numeracy, although it offers a physicality to conquest that can substitute for this.  You can stack up tokens, put them up against another stack, and if your stack is the same size or larger then you win the battle.   This won’t always be true, such as when dealing with special racial powers, but those situations can be handled with group support.  Totaling up victory points at the end of each turn is a matter of simple arithmetic, with a few modifiers here and there based on powers.   For example, humans gain extra points for claiming farms, and races with a pillaging power gain an extra victory point for each non-empty region they conquered in a turn.   The level of numeracy required is not high, but the specifics of calculation will change from turn to turn and from race to race.

The rules of the game are reasonably simple, although the exact way in which they should be interpreted for any given race and territory combination may be a little less transparent.   There are no races that have a passive bonus that impacts defensively though, which simplifies this intersection.   Nonetheless, there is a lot of conditional complexity that comes into play and it can change as the game goes on as races go into decline.  Even races in decline can behave differently – ghouls are treated much like any other active race when in decline, and spirits do not count towards the usual ‘can only have one race in decline’ provision.    Certain combinations will have far-reaching effects that exceed the sum of their parts – for example, when dealing with spirit ghouls.

The game flow though is consistently enforced, and is made up of conquest and re-deployment.  However, the sequence of events may become a little more muddled when dealing with declining races, as this instantly changes the state of play for assigned regions, and ends a turn.  It then introduces a buying step into the normal conquest and re-deployment game loop.  It’s not extremely complex, but it’s possible that you’ll need to make sure everyone playing understands the full implications of the decisions they make. The game has a fixed number of turns, and the impact of a wasted turn may be considerable.

The game could be made more cognitively accessible by removing some of the races and powers from play – it would cut down on the variety of the game, but it would still meaningfully simulate a ‘full’, albeit edited, version.    For players where arithmetic may be difficult, it’s possible to remove the powers that impact on the calculation of victory points or conquest.  For those where altering game-flow may be difficult, there are some races and powers that change rules that can be omitted.   A certain level of minimum variety is required to ensure there are enough races to gracefully handle decline, but this does not need to be excessive.

With modifications, we think Small World is probably playable with care for those with fluid intelligence impairments and generally playable with those with memory impairments.

Emotiveness

Small World neatly solves the problem of player elimination in games such as Risk through its innovative decline mechanic.  The cost of declining is not insignificant, but it’s also fun to pick up a new race and start conquering anew.  The natural tempo of the game is such that declining is either going to happen at the same time as another player, or when the new race would give you the momentum of conquest.  You may end up cashing in a powerful race for one that’s not very exciting, but the choice of six races at a time limits the potential impact of that.  The end result is that being pounded into oblivion comes with its own interesting upside.  As Tom Lansdale remarked in his comment on the Small World review though you have to also bear in mind going into decline is a horrendously boring way to spend your turn.

Small World is at its core a game of competition, and it utilises a very passive form of conquest that gives defenders no role in the proceedings.  Once you’ve set up your re-deployment, that’s what’s going to stand until your next turn.  As a defender you never inflict casualties on your attacker, and there is no way to stop yourself losing a region if your enemy has a numerical advantage.  The various fortress enhancements you can get as part of racial bonuses don’t really have a lot of game impact, and often feel too fragile for what they’re supposed to represent.

The reinforcement die too adds a certain sense of arbitrary unfairness for defenders, especially when it’s attached to a berserker race.  On average, the die will add a single unit to a stack but the die is rolled before you declare a territory to attack.  As a result, they are hugely skewed in the attacker’s favour.  If you roll a zero, you can direct your attention to a weak region.  If you roll three, you can take a territory you otherwise would have been unable to claim.   We’d recommend requiring the attacker declare the target territory before rolling the reinforcement die – not only will this eliminate the ‘path of least resistance’ conquest, it will add the thrill of a narrow escape if the defender avoids being conquered.   We recommend this mostly when dealing with issues of potential emotional inaccessibility, but it’s not a bad house rule for general consideration.

As a war-game, as simple as it is, the game creates the context within which ganging up is possible.  The nature of the conquest and decline modulation means that it’s rarely true that a single player has a particular advantage in play.  This has to be assessed though in light of overall ability to generate victory points over the long term.   It’s very easy for empires to become over-stretched and unable to defend what they have claimed, but in the end that doesn’t matter – what matters are points per turn.  If a player is doing too well in that, it creates a situation that encourages other players to undermine the effort.  Victory point totals are hidden, but the production of these is transparent so you’ll have a reasonably good idea of who’s in the lead.

Score disparities can be significant, and they can often arise from a series of factors unrelated to skillful play.   Merchant trolls for example gain a bonus victory point for each region they control and can place fortifications to protect their interests.  That incentivises a ‘dig in’ mentality that minimises risk while maximising reward.   If all a player is doing is keeping themselves to themselves, they can avoid punishing military entanglements with other players and end up victorious without expending any effort.   The players that worked the hardest will sometimes not be the ones to earn the greatest reward.  That’s not bad, or even a problem with the design.  It’s just a consequence of a game with asymmetrical victory generation.   If you’re worried about players feeling cheated though, it’s something to be borne in mind.

Really though these are minor criticisms, and the natural dynamic of the decline system is an excellent way to ensure that even temporary mistreatment is fun.  As such, we recommend Small world in this category.

Physical Accessibility

The largest problem here is that the tokens are small, and must be constantly manipulated – you’re regularly stacking them up, breaking them up into smaller stacks, and then redistributing tokens from one stack to another.

When digging tokens out from the tray, they have a tendency to burrow into the grooves of the plastic. It can be quite difficult to scoop them out, and you’re rarely dealing with the stack in its entirety.  You’ll need to count them out and then redistribute them back to the box.  Except sometimes you’ll then need to get a few loose ones back out.  Sorcerers and Skeletons for example convert enemy units into tokens of your race, and so you’ll occasionally be supplementing your armies with fresh units from the tray.  Amazons have a stack of four units that need to be kept separate from the others.  As you go in and out of decline, you’ll be replacing these units and claiming new ones and it can be awkward even for someone without physical impairments.

Depending on the number of players, the size of the map may be an issue.  As a general rule, you are dealing with regions adjacent to your existing deployments, which tends to concentrate physical attention in a single area of the world.  However, some racial abilities bypass this – flying races can attack anywhere, and underworld races can treat all caverns as being adjacent to each other.   Depending on the race you’re playing, you might be ranging over a substantial portion of the map and having to do relatively fine-grained manipulation of stacks of tokens in far off lands.

Regions of the board can become very cluttered too.  It’s entirely possible to have the following in a single space:

  • A mountain token
  • A hole in the ground
  • A fortress
  • A stack of units

These in turn may be removed, or not, in a differing order.   When halflings go into decline, their holes disappear.  Their fortresses may remain.   When ghouls go into decline, their units remain but if they were bivouacking then the bivouacs will be removed.   There’s a lot of this kind of thing, and it’s not going to work well if physical impairment is present in the hand, or if the manipulation is to be undertaken at the far side of the board.

None of these things though actually require the person with impairments to be the one performing the action – there is no judgment call in how it’s to be done, it’s a straightforward logical rule that is entirely transparent.

If no physical agency is possible or feasible, then we look again to the ease of verbalisation.  In this, Small World does not particularly distinguish itself but does at least offer a reasonable proxy for unambiguous reference.    Regions have no specific identifiers, but they conform to a system of adjacency that is usually (but not always) distinct.

Map

A not so small world

For example, we might refer to ‘the forest east of the inland lake’, or ‘the grassland south of the easternmost river’ and be reasonably clear what we mean. It does require a little bit of mental agility to work out how to precisely refer to locations though and when dealing with conquest or redeployment it might be difficult to do this for complex distributions.  However, instructions such as ‘collect up all but one of my troops in each region and then distribute them evenly across all my regions’ are easily actionable.

As such, we don’t recommend Small World for those where physical accessibility is a consideration, but we do accept that it is playable with care.  It has physical inaccessibilities for all players, independent of impairments.  There are other games though that offer clearer opportunities for unambiguous verbalisation and ease of manipulation, and we’d recommend you went for one of those if you weren’t fussed about Small World specifically.

Communication

There is no specific need to communicate while playing.   As such, we strongly recommend Small World in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the site the introduction of alien or fantasy realms makes meaningful discussion about ethnic diversity very difficult.  In identifying certain races as potential stereotypes or ‘drop in representations; you often say more about your own prejudices than you do about the game itself.  However, it’s easier to talk about gender representation, and Small World has problems here.  The first problem here is that it’s hugely skewed to male characters, including defaulting to the assumption of masculinity in the manual.

Box cover

War is a man’s game.

And the second problem is:

Amazon

Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl

The archaeological evidence suggests that Amazons did exist, after a fashion, as a group known as the Scythians.  However they weren’t what Herodotus and subsequent ‘historians’ claimed.  They weren’t half-naked, man-hating, son-mutilating lesbians.  They didn’t cut off their breasts to make it easier for them to fire bows.    There are things that warriors of the time period had to take into account to be effective soldiers. Prancing around in bra and panties wasn’t one of them.  Sure, this isn’t a game taking itself seriously, but that doesn’t justify the sexism of the art here.  I’m not 100% sure, but is she checking her tattoo in a handheld mirror?  It looks like it.  God.   I suppose that’s supposed to be light-hearted and funny, but it just comes across as dismissive.  To be fair, the amazons are bad-asses in the game itself – but they keep the same art-work for the unit tokens which can’t help but diminish the impression.

At an RRP of around £38, Small Worlds is a pricey game.  It comes with a lot of variety though, and it has an excellent appreciation for the scalability of the challenge.  Inside that box is a bespoke map for each different player count, ensuring that it works well for all groups.  It goes up to five, which is going to be sufficient for most families.  It also goes down to two which is great for couples or parents that just want to keep a pair of kids quiet for an evening before someone kills them so help me God.

So, it’s a mixed bag.  We’ll average it out to a recommendation, with a frowny face sticker.

Intersectional Accessibility

The symbols on the race markers are an aide to memory, of sorts, but really that only works if you recall how each of the races work.  Otherwise they’re more like indecipherable hieroglyphs of an ancient language.  Those with visual impairment and cognitive impairment will likely find these more of a hindrance than a help.

Where there is an intersection of physical and communicative impairment, the accessibility problems compound.   Similarly if there is an intersection of physical and cognitive impairment.  A certain degree of evaluative assessment needs to be performed for verbalisation to be an option, and that’s not going to work well if there are impairments in fluid intelligence.

The size of the regions on the board, and the degree of clutter they can accumulate, creates an additional issue for those with visual and physical impairments.   It’s not that fine positioning is required for tokens, but rather you might be trying to manipulate tokens in a busy part of the map and the combination of these issues will make that much more difficult.

Depending on the number of players, Small World can be a nippy game of perhaps forty-five minutes, or extend to ninety minutes or two hours.  It has a fixed turn limit, but the mechanisms of making moves, declining, swapping in tokens and the like creates a highly variable game length.   For two players, it’s unlikely to be so long that it exacerbates distress or discomfort.  For five, it’s quite likely that game sessions will be long enough for this to be a risk.   There is though an easy way for players to remove themselves from the game – they can go into decline and simply not pick up a new race.  The effect will be to create a new ‘lost tribe’ in play that can be handled through the usual game mechanics.  This won’t be a satisfying way to end a two player game, of course, but it’ll work for larger groups without any need for more complicated mechanics for dropping out of play.

As a game of direct and directed competition, there is a risk that gaming groups may not be inclined to offer the greatest amount of support for ensuring other players are making the most of the opportunities they have.   It’s easy to miss things in Small World, forgetting about a special power or a modifier that you have as a result of racial composition.     Our usual advice in this scenario is ‘play games with people that are as interested in the fun of the group as they are in their own’.

Conclusion

Small World is far from the most accessible game we’ve looked at on Meeple Like Us, but it’s also far from the least accessible.

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

The only place where we actively recommend people avoid it is in the area of physical accessibility, and it’s telling that you can find any number of comments on the internet about how awkward some of the token manipulation can be.  Good accessibility improves games for everyone.  Really, Small World is likely playable for all kinds of impairments, but we’re interested in quality of play as well as feasibility.   As far as physical impairment goes we don’t think it’s likely to be tremendously satisfying.

Radar Chart

Small World Radar Chart

Small World is a game with a lot of charm, and comes with bags of variety and innovation.  We like it, but we don’t love it.  Nonetheless, if you fancy the sound of it you can very likely come to some arrangement that permits you to play it.


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