Suburbia Accessibility


Suburbia (2012) – 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.

If you like what we're doing with Meeple Like Us, please consider liking us on Facebook, following us on Twitter, and sharing our content on Reddit and your own social networks. We appreciate every thing you do to help us get the word out!

Changelog:

  • 14/04/16:  Added a couple of pictures to show impact of colour blindness.
  • 13/04/16: Added a section on socioeconomic accessibility
  • 13/04/16: Added a radar graph of accessibility at the bottom
  • 08/05/16: Added an entry for communication, which has been added to the tear-downs since the original posting.
  • 08/05/16: Updated the radar chart for the game, to accommodate the additional entry for communication.

Version reviewed

English second edition

Introduction

I’m sure you’ve all read our enthusiastic review of the excellent Suburbia, and our editorial about accessibility teardowns.  So, let’s talk about Suburbia again from the perspective of how inclusive it is.  For this, we’ll be using our own bespoke, experimental diagnostic framework to focus attention on all the bits that matter.   Suburbia is the first game to which we’re applying this, so please do feel free to let us know at dice@imaginary-realities.com what we’ve got right, what we’ve got wrong, and what we didn’t address.

Visual Accessibility

For the most part, the colour choices for Suburbia are distinctive and key information is provided in multiple redundant forms.  Certainly as far as the tokens go, it’s fine – you lose a little bit of the aesthetic, but you never lose information because each token also comes with an iconographic symbol that represents their type.  Colour isn’t use as a unique identifier for game pieces.

Colour blindness in Suburbia

An example of colour blindness in Suburbia

The only place this falls down is in the choice of player colours – mostly this doesn’t matter because each player is simply dealing with the grid in front of them.  It becomes more of a problem when considering the scoring chart.  Each player is represented by a coloured cube on a coloured track – those with monochromatic sight will find it extremely difficult to work out who is who, and those with other forms of colour-blindness (tritanope, for example) may find it difficult to tell the black from the purple, or the yellow from the red.  It’s not a huge problem, because you can just grab a few visually distinctive tokens from elsewhere in the house to represent scoring, but it is an issue you’ll need to address if confusion is to be avoided:

Colour blindness in player boards.

Colour blindness in player boards. It’s not great.

The story for those with significant visual impairment is less positive.  Suburbia is a game of spatially linked state management.  It’s also a game of complex contextual state management.  It requires a fair degree of being able to scan the board and look at areas in terms of adjacency to work out what the best placement for your new acquisition will be.   The action text on the zones is short and unambiguous, but it’s also quite small and is crammed into a single quarter of the tiles.     The shortness of the text means you could mod the tiles with braille if you were able to read that and had the necessary equipment, but otherwise your choices are limited other than relying on the players around you.

Tiles are reasonably large and generous, but subdivided into smaller sections into which all the active information goes – it all stays in exactly the same places, and with a magnifying glass or other visual aid you know where you need to look for all the key information.

However, although competition in Suburbia is only indirect, it’s a game of hidden intention – to say ‘where would be the best place for that airport to go’ is to reveal your plans for your own suburb, and to give opponents a chance to consider counter-strategies.   It’s likely if you wanted to play the game without being able to see the tiles you’d need a dedicated advisor working with you on placement, ideally one that is not taking part in the game.  However, it is a game that is primarily mental and if you had an easy way to check the state of your suburbs, and the suburbs of other players, you could fully participate in play.  We could not though recommend it to visually impaired players unless they could arrange this kind of extra assistance.

Cognitive Accessibility

There is nothing that explicitly needs to be memorised in Suburbia – it comes with player-mats that explain the process of each turn, and all state and rule modifiers are right there on the table.  However, it’s a game that does benefit from having the ability to hold a considerable context-dependent game-state in your mind.  You can compensate for this by adopting a rigorous strategy of scanning every tile on the board before you make a move (and indeed, in later stages everyone will have to do this to a greater or lesser extent anyway) but gameplay will be smoother if that’s not required.    Nothing though is lost unless short-term memory impairments are significant, and even then it’s possible to strip out some of the more cognitively demanding tiles to create a simpler game.

The reading level required of the game is very low, with all tiles having clear, unambiguous instruction.  However, the implementation of instructions within their context can be complex, involving multiple chaining of ‘if this, then this’ mental processing.  In the example given in the Suburbia review regarding restaurants and slaughterhouses, we see multiple tiles impacting on a single decision, with potentially similar tiles across multiple players having to be taken into account.  However, none of this involves a value judgement on the part of players, and as far as I am aware all operations are commutative – you won’t get a different outcome if you execute them in a different order.  This means that it’s perfectly possible to appoint a different player to calculate the impact of your turn for you – the end result for you in the end is going to be your income and reputation markers being adjusted.   Explaining why they have been adjusted in a particular way though can be cognitively demanding, and in later stages of the game is extremely prone to error unless players are careful.   The escalating complexity can also create frustration – players may be in command of what’s happening early on, but when seven or eight tiles, some with doubling bonuses, start to impact on every tile that gets played by everyone, a game which seemed tractable can rapidly become a black box.   The thing that makes Suburbia so engaging is the rules synergy, but it’s also the thing that could make it frustrating for those that feel their understanding of the game is slipping away.

There are lots of tiles, spread out across lots of players, and the game suffers considerably from enabling analysis paralysis – each turn is high impact, and a significant amount of logical deduction is needed to work out what’s a sensible play.  The consequences of bad plays can be considerable, and some plays look very desirable on the surface but end up having significant long-term downsides that may not be immediately apparent.   There’s no real way around it – the cognitive cost of this game is considerable.  Even stripped down to its bones, removing the complex chain impacts, or house-ruling some rules for simplicity of calculation, this is a game that is almost impossible to recommend for those playing with cognitive impairments to fluid intelligence.  That said, the first few rounds of the game tend to be much simpler, and it would be possible to create a Suburbia variation that focused on creating the prettiest suburb, or the happiest people.  There is a considerable amount of Zen satisfaction to be gained simply by placing tiles and imagining the suburbs you’re creating.  But in terms of playing Suburbia itself, fluid intelligence is vital.

Emotiveness

There is little direct competition in Suburbia – all your interactions with other players is indirect.  That doesn’t mean it’s not possible to play competitively – strategic trashing of tiles in the marketplace is an important tool you have in play, and you can choose to develop your own city in such a way as to trigger detrimental impact on your opponents.  All of this though happens at a distance removed and is never directly targeted – you never choose effects that impact on a single player, they impact on everyone.

It’s also possible to play a game of Suburbia in which each player is just happily building their own suburb, not worrying about anyone else – it can be a calming, relaxing game if nobody is particularly playing to win.  As such, it’s also a game in which there is limited despair – even when you manage to mess up a city, the clever choke-points on the scoring mean you can’t fall too far behind because it’s a self-regulating system.  Grow too fast and you’ll lose reputation and income, but you’ll slip back down to the point where the situation stabilises.  It’s not great to see your beautiful city become an unloved slum, but it’s only a set-back, it’s never devastating.    The path back to prosperity is always something you can find.

Similarly, there is no arbitrary impact on your game state.   There is no randomness other than what comes from the tiles pulled into the marketplace, and as such players are never repeatedly victims of a bad run of luck.   All negative impact comes from the situation which they have created for themselves, which allows for gameplay to become a learning experience.  It’s a game that offers few routes to frustration or anger for those able to understand the complex interrelationships of the game tiles.

Physical Accessibility

Suburbia is played over a large game area – each player has their own board, and there’s a score track, and there’s a central resource of tiles, money and public goals.   But importantly, it’s also a game that has no serious contiguity of that state – it’s very modular, and can be arranged in such a way that easy access to all parts can be arranged for at least a two player game.  For three or four players it may be more difficult, because as has been said before state is shared to a degree between all players, and everyone needs to know the impact of the moves they make.

That said, there is also no hidden information in the game and so no disincentive for players to explain the layout of their cities to those that may not be able to physically move themselves to check it out.   For your own moves, you only need to know how many of a particular tile a player has, you don’t need to know the layout.  Questions such as ‘How many airports do you have?’ will give you all the data you need to make an informed choice.

For the most part, the tiles are large and easy to manipulate, but the core expectation of the game is that your city will become a tightly connected grid – the player mat has slots into which tiles fit.  This requires a degree of fine-grained motor control that may not be entirely feasible, especially when attempting to drop a single tile into a space left by six surrounding hexes.  There is nothing lost though if players make no effort to line up tiles and just place them with gaps between regions.  Buying a sheet of large hex paper and using that as more forgiving slots for tiles would alleviate this issue entirely without having any meaningful impact on the game.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

The theme of the game is somewhat dry – ‘urban planning’ is unlikely to be a hook that gets a lot of people instantly excited (unless perhaps they grew up, as I did, on a steady diet of Sim City and the grim modernist architecture of Cold War Dundee),  but it’s not a theme that is likely to be specifically off-putting for any significant groups of people.    If you can hold the attention of someone past the box-art, you’ve probably got them for the duration of the game.

Artwork within the game is almost entirely abstract and symbolic – there’s virtually nothing in here that places any kind of visual context on what you’re doing.   The box shows a man and a woman, and despite the 50s aesthetic of it there’s nothing in there to suggest any particular relationship between the characters.  They’re just there, and that’s fine.  The box art of many games is unrepresentative, but Suburbia’s very blandness gives it a pass.   There’s not much to say about the art otherwise.

There are a few terms in the game that may  trigger a few negative neurological connections.  Consider for example, the ‘housing projects’ tile.  As a term that phrase comes with some sociological baggage.  It’s not helped by the fact they give an instant massive population boost and reduce the reputation of your city for each adjacent industrial, residential and commercial zone.  It’s hard not to interpret that as a kind of ‘there goes the neighborhood  effect which is a little distasteful.  I suspect no malice on the part of the game designer here, it’s just unfortunate language choice.

Perhaps the biggest socioeconomic issue is the cost of the game, which is considerable – it has an RRP on Amazon of £65.99, although at the time of writing it’s discounted to a more reasonable £37.14.  Even that’s at the high end considering what you get in the box – it’s not as if there’s an expensive licence to service, or high-end artwork or especially nice tokens to support.   I don’t resent a single penny I spent on it, and I imagine it’s going to get a lot of play over the years.  I’d be a little uneasy about recommending it to someone where cost is an issue though.  It’s hard to point at the insides of the box and say ‘That there is what you’re paying for’.

Intersectional Issues

There are many intersectional issues that Suburbia avoids as a result of its game design.  Using no dice, and no hands of cards, means that are no intersectional issues of physicality and cognitive cost related to hand management or dice-rolling.  There are no hidden hands and no hidden state, which also obviates this worry.  There are no time constraints other than what the group themselves set.

However, the issue of board complexity is an intersectional issue because of the need players have to physically interrogate the board by looking at state that may be held in front of another player, and also to cognitively parse the impact of game state held discontinuously across a table.    There are ways around the issue, as discussed above, but they exist.

The most important intersectional issue that Suburbia’s design solves though is that of allowing players to drop in and out of the game as their own personal discomfort level alters over a session.  While individual city development may halt while a player has dropped-out, it need not impact on the other players because the previous city state is entirely on display.  If that drop-out is for the rest of the game, nothing else need be done to keep play flowing.  If the player wishes to rejoin later, it’s easy to house-rule a system that allows the player to catch up on their turns by buying a number of items from the marketplace at once – the design of the game means that while the game state won’t be identical for all players at the end of this process, the commutativity of the rules means that it’ll be similar enough.

The individual player tokens are a problem for those with both visual and physical impairments – these are very small, and require relatively precise positioning on the player-mat to represent income and reputation.  Mistakes will actually impact on the state of the game, either advantaging or disadvantaging the player depending on which point on the mat the marker goes.  It’s reasonably easy to solve this issue though either with a notepad, the help of another player, or making use of larger tokens on a bespoke player mat.

The symbolism of the tiles is simple and easily understood from context – there’s no need to memorise a complex ideographic language for gameplay.   This is good for those with visual and cognitive impairments.  Residential areas look like houses, commercial areas look like office buildings, industrial areas look like factories, and so on.   A visual short-hand is used with player tokens too – cylinder is income, so it’s represented by a circle.  Reputation is a cube, so it’s represented by a square.  It’s all used consistently too.  Some symbols are used less frequently and take part in special kinds of tile relationships, but these too are consistent and understandable from context, and when a tile impacts on these things it’ll include the relevant symbols in the action text.

Overall

Overall, we cannot recommend Suburbia for those that are seriously visually impaired, or those that have memory and fluid intelligence impairments.  You can house-rule some of the issues away, but not enough to make it effectively the same game.  For those with memory impairments only, we can only tentatively recommend.

However, we do recommend it for people suffering colour blindness, with physical accessibility issues, or those suffering with emotional issues of anger or frustration.

Those with intersectional impairments might need to consider their own particular blend of requirements, based on the grades we’ve given it below:

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

That generates the radar chart below, for those that like their teardowns to be a bit more graphical:

Radar Graph

Radar graph for Suburbia’s Accessibility

Suburbia is a game we rated as 4.5 stars, and as such if it seems like it would be accessible to you we’d certainly urge you to pick up a copy and enjoy the hell out of it.


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