Escape from Atlantis Accessibility Teardown


Survive: Escape from Atlantis (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.

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.

Changelog

Version Reviewed

English fourth edition (30th anniversary)

Introduction

We liked Survive: Escape from Atlantis well enough – it got 3.5 stars in our review.  It’s fast, it’s punchy, and it offers a ruthlessness in competition that might be surprising given the family friendly reputation.  Will it survive this teardown though?  Let’s climb in our little boats and find out.

Colour Blindness

It doesn’t do a great job of dealing with colour blindness – there are four colours of meeple, and all categories of colour blindness will experience an issue of palette overlap.

Colour blind meeples

You all look alike to me. Does that make me racist.

A big part of the game is working out where your meeple are and developing an optimal strategy for shepherding them to safety.  This comes in to movement, tracking of meeple value, working out who has control in a boat, and almost everything else besides.  That’s going to be hard to do effectively if you’re not sure which meeple belongs to whom.  To be fair, the colour overlap is not 100% but it’s closer than I would like.

Colour blind meeple

I’m not sure which of these is mine, so I’m just going to kill everybody.

There’s a limit to how much information you’d give away as a result of asking what colours meeples are, but really that’s not good enough.

Under each of the tiles you destroy there are action markers that tell you what should happen next.  These are coded green for instant, and red for delayed.  As you can imagine, that causes a problem especially since the same art is shared for many of these:

Colour blind tiles

Do everything all the time

To be fair, the tiles do have other visual markers and if they have the same art one will have an additional icon in the bottom right to differentiate.  However, for some tiles you’ll need to refer to the manual to identify which is to be played when.

It’s playable with care, so we offer a tentative, albeit grudging, recommendation.

Visual Accessibility

It doesn’t do well in the category of visual accessibility.  To be fair, the three kinds of tiles all have a different tactile feel, which is nice.  It doesn’t work at all in context though, because those tiles are all going to be kept in a hex map of other tiles.  You can’t really go feeling about without risking upsetting the state of the map.   Some visual markers too are perversely poorly differentiated, such as the outline for where the starting hexes should be placed:

A slightly thicker black line

This is the boundary of the island

What the hell is that?  I have problems seeing it myself.  Why on earth would you go for ‘a slightly thicker line’ to mark out something as important as the island boundaries?  Why not go for bright white?  There must be some weird design aesthetic consideration behind it, but it’s hard to justify in any circumstances.

The meeple have no differentiation to them other than colour, although the choice of colour is at least reasonably bright.  However, when we look at the numbers on the bottom we have a significant contrast problem for the yellow player:

Contrast problems

Your arse is difficult to make out, yellow

Between the white and the yellow we have a contrast ratio of 1.35:1, and we’d be looking for a minimum of 3.5:1 for this kind of text.   True, this is only a problem if you’re the yellow player.  Assuming that you don’t have four players with visual impairments presumably it won’t be a problem for the player with the best sight to be assigned the yellow meeple.  That kind of arrangement is always going to be substandard, though – games should be accessible by default, not as a result of negotiated compromise.

Some of the action tiles you get are poorly differentiated in the art-work.  The difference between a shark and a dolphin is limited, and only the border permits you to easily tell the difference between instant and delayed actions.   The icons in the bottom right corner of delayed tiles are likely going to be difficult to make out for anyone with even reasonably minor visual impairments.

The nature of the game too is an exercise in threat assessment – working out where all the different creatures are, where your meeple are in relation, and where the boats are.  There’s a lot you need to take into account, and in the time it takes for your turn to come around a very substantial portion of the map may have altered.   Creatures leave and enter the game on an ongoing basis, and the movement rules combined with the action tiles mean you can’t rely on them staying in even an area of effect from turn to turn.  Some tiles permit creatures to move to any space on the game-board without passing through any of the intervening hexes.

When dealing with yellow meeple, it can be difficult to see them against the colour of the safe island.  The contrast against the sand isn’t ideal either.  That’s not just an issue for the yellow player, but an issue for anyone taking a tactical assessment of where the best place to move may be.

The game makes use of a single die, but it’s non-standard – it shows the various creatures that make their way into the game, and a lookup table is going to be needed for this if someone is to make use of their own braille or over-sized dice for play.  It is a d6, which means that existing replacement dice should otherwise work fine.

We don’t recommend Survive: Escape from Atlantis in this category.

Cognitive Accessibility

The game places only a light burden on fluid intelligence, but a very significant one on memory.   This is going to be a challenge for everybody if the game ‘proper’ is to be played.  You each place your putative survivors on the island in a draft system, and as part of that you have to remember where each of the high value survivors are located.  Rescuing a single six-point survivor is worth the same as rescuing six one-point survivors.  Or it would be, at least, if there were that many one-point survivors in the game.

The thing that makes this fun from a game perspective is that once you place your meeple you can’t look at them until the game is over – you never get to remind yourself.  Over time, as things move around and they’re shunted onto boats and then capsized and then they swim around it’s very, very easy to lose track of which is which.  That’s part of the challenge, and it’s maybe one of the better gameplay features of Escape from Atlantis.  It is, as you can imagine, hugely costly from the perspective of those with memory impairments.   Not only that, but it introduces a serious fluid intelligence cost for strategic play.  It’s not enough to save your own high value survivors, you want to make sure you stop your opponents rescuing theirs.  That’s a game of observation and deduction, and it requires a degree of ability to infer from patterns that would be problematic for those with cognitive impairments.  Unless you’re playing in an ultra-competitive mode though you can probably get by with the lighter fluid intelligence task of simply doing what seems best at the time.

However, the game does come with a recommended variant in which you don’t worry about survivor values, you treat everyone as equal.  As such, the winner is whoever rescues the largest number of their meeple, not the one that rescues the highest summative value.  This variant would alleviate most of the memory burden.  I’m told that this is even the norm for most versions of the game, but it’s certainly an optional mode in mine.

In terms of fluid intelligence, we have a reasonably positive story.  The game flow is consistent and predictable.  We play a delayed tile, if we want.  We move our survivors.  We remove a tile from the game (within constraints) and then we roll the die and move the appropriate creature.  That flow never changes.   The decisions we make are interesting, but they’re not complicated for the most part.  We have a budget of three movement points, and we can spend them between as many meeple as we like – somewhat counter intuitively, movement in mountains and forests has the same cost as movement on the beaches.  The rules regarding swimmer movements are little more opaque, and have spawned off a number of contentious discussions on the correct interpretation.  As long as you are consistent it doesn’t seem like it would matter which way you read the rules.

Delayed actions are reasonably simple, although some are responsive – such as the ones that prevent whale or shark attacks.  Most are played as an optional first action in your turn, and just give a little bonus or permit a direct attack on an opponent from a creature.    Creature movement varies based on type, as does the kind of impact they have on survivors.  There are only a few creatures though and the rules are printed directly on the board for easy reference.

There aren’t any complex rule synergies, or even very many conditional rules.  Scoring is as easy as counting up the numbers on the bottom of your survivors (or the number of survivors, depending on variant), but does involve a very limited degree of numeracy.   The game state is reasonably simple, although there tends to be a lot of it – even in the two player game the rules recommend playing two colours each to ensure there’s enough action happening.

Overall, we recommend it provided you are willing to consider the variant that removes the need to remember where the high value meeple are located.   Our score in the grading below is contingent upon this being adopted.   Otherwise, we wouldn’t recommend it in either category.

Emotiveness

So, here’s the thing – if you take it all in fun, Escape from Atlantis is high energy entertainment.  It’s a schadenfreude generator – a lot of the fun comes from seeing a sea serpent devour a boat and knowing it wasn’t yours.  Or it comes from capsizing a ship containing a survivor from each of your opponents.  It’s very funny.

Or is it?

That schadenfreude is a lot less delicious when you’re the target and not the observer.  It can take many turns to get a boat full of your survivors to relative safety, and on the roll of a die it could change.  You might find that effort is suddenly wasted because an opponent rolled a sea serpent and moved it into your square.  Or maybe they played one of the ‘take that’ tiles they had in hand and moved a whale from the other side of the map to capsize your boat before it made any significant progress.  Or perhaps they started to manoeuvre sharks to circle your swimming survivors and eat them one by one over the course of several turns.

Is that fun?

It certainly can be in the right circumstances.  But the thing is that in many despair generator games (Galaxy Trucker, for example) the hilarity comes from everyone being at the whim of fate.  Escape from Atlantis is direct competition.  When your boat sinks, it’s because someone made it sink.  When a tile is removed dumping you into the ocean, it’s because someone targeted you.   Things don’t happen by accident, they are intentional events.   With enough players, on average you’ll be on the receiving end of a single player’s pro-rata share of the horrors.  On average.

But it’s a game that not only permits ganging up, it revels in it.  It doesn’t just allow the occasional ‘take that’, it builds it into the turn structure.    If you’re winning, it makes sense for misfortune to come your way, and while it might not be actively co-ordinated it’s certainly a very convergent form of competition.

It’s a lot more cut-throat than any other game we’ve reviewed to date.

And then there’s the theme – you’re overseeing a stampede, and people are dying.  Not only that, they’re dying in the worst possible ways.  They’re being devoured, or drowning, or being boiled alive in lava.   Sure, in the end they’re only little plastic tokens on a cardboard map, but the best kind of games are evocative beyond those limitations.  Escape from Atlantis is certainly evocative.

And then, there’s the risk of the point differential that comes from winning.  Imagine painstakingly saving five of your survivors, thinking that’s the win, and you find that the two an opponent saved have a higher point value than yours.   That hardly feels fair.   You might even end up in last place just because you didn’t track the value of your survivors well enough.   Or because just as you piloted your boat full of your best meeple into safety, some absolute bastard sends a sea serpent into the square to consume them.   It doesn’t just happen occasionally, that’s basically the core of the game.

So – we don’t recommend it, at all, for those with emotional or behavioural disorders.  There’s just too much meanness embedded in the rules, and no way other than ‘play it with kid gloves on’ to limit the nastiness.  All you can really do is decide to enjoy it, and that’s not always an option.

Physical Accessibility

Survive: Escape from Atlantis is almost comically bad in terms of physical accessibility.  It’s like a ‘what not to do’ master-class in every respect.

So, first of all it’s a pain to set up.   The tiles don’t fit together cleanly the way you might expect from a hex-based game, and no matter how you try you’ll always end up with an island that is higgledy-piggledy.  That’s true of everyone, no matter the extent of physical impairments, but then it starts to veer off into an almost perverse exercise in anti-accessibility.

Every turn, you remove a tile.  That tile has to be adjacent to the sea, and of the lowest height type that’s still on the map.  That means that you’re almost always trying to remove tiles that are adjacent to others.  And each of those tiles will likely have survivors on them.  And you’re not supposed to look at the bottom of the survivors until the end game.

So you’re lifting up survivors temporarily while you try to ease them out of the map without knocking everything out of alignment.   And when you inevitably do, make sure you don’t knock over any of the surrounding meeple because OH GOD EVERYONE CAN SEE THEIR BUMS and then you’ve just violated the only restriction the game places on tracking meeple.  Or at least, you have for the people that see it.  Bear in mind you’re trying to do this in a map that might contain 40 meeple, eight boats, and a dozen sea creatures.  You’re almost always knocking something over as part of regular play.  The positions you need to adopt to safely remove things are like something out of a Tantric sex-tape.

A tight fit

Not a lot of room to move here.

And then there are the boats.  They have little recessed slots, into which your meepls fit perfectly.  Except that they aren’t actually fixed in there, they’re just resting.  And you’re expected to be able to manipulate three meeple into each boat, again, without knocking any of them over.

Positioning a meeple in a boat

Just the tip

And these are issues that will impact on anyone.

These may sound like minor complaints, but this is the majority of what the game is.  You’ll need to do at least one of these things every turn, and often more than one.  The meeple too have an awkwardly high centre of gravity – a heavy sigh can knock them over.  I’ve seen it happen.  I’ve MADE it happen.

The game board isn’t especially large, but you do need to range over almost all of it all the time.  That’s going to be a problem if there’s any restriction in the degree of physical movement.

Often, when these issues come up I talk about ease of verbalisation, but Escape from Atlantis doesn’t even really offer a way to handle that well.  You have ten survivors, which are numerically identified but not in a way that can be used during gameplay.  The tiles aren’t identified by anything other than terrain, and the board offers no co-ordinate system.   You’re left with things like ‘The meeple that’s closest to me on the mountain tile that’s down from the two forest tiles’ or, ‘move the shark that’s two down from the mountain region in the centre and move it two spaces left to eat the blue merson‘.  It can be done, but it’s not at all elegant.

As part of the game you’ll be collecting a hidden hand of tiles you can play to impact on yourself or other players.  Since they’re tiles and not cards, a standard card holder won’t be entirely appropriate for this.  However, you’ll only collect a dozen or so over the course of a game and will find plenty of opportunities to make active use of them.   Typically they’re kept face-down in front of you, but there is often a need to hunt for the particular tile that has the specific counter-action you want to perform.  That doesn’t lend itself well to easy play for those with physical impairments.

So, we also don’t recommend Survive: Escape from Atlantis for those with physical impairments.

Communication

It’s fine here – there’s no reading level beyond that required for the manual, and the rules are simple enough that they can be explained easily and quickly.  There’s no need to refer to the manual, and no written text on any of the tiles.   You don’t have to talk during play, and indeed it might be best to play in silence lest you risk humanising the opponents you are so egregiously screwing over with every game action.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

It’s mostly fine – there’s only a little character based artwork on the cover, and it’s a man and what may or may not be a woman.  It’s hard to tell.   All the other artwork is linked to the tiles and creatures in the game.  The manual also doesn’t default to assuming masculinity.

Important Note:  The section in italics below is absolute nonsense because I missed a sentence in the rules that explains what the points mean – they’re the amount of gold being carried by each survivor, not their inherent value.  That makes a real difference in the message of the game, although I’m not sure it’s much better.   It becomes ‘people are as valuable as their possessions’.  Full credit to Scott Hooker in the comments below for correcting this and providing his take on what it changes in the game message.  I leave the text here for ‘auditability’ purposes.

However, there is a somewhat repellent philosophy at the core of the game, requiring players to adopt a cold, hard calculus of survival – that of ‘meeple value’.   You’d be on entirely solid ground to ignore this, but I want to raise it anyway.  You’re essentially going to be working on the principle that in some crises, you’re going to want to save some people more than others.  It’s actually ‘real life’ true, too – but it’s a hard and cold meritocratic stance that doesn’t really bear up to serious examination in the game.  Are the high value survivors children?  Celebrities?  Politicians?   Doctors?  Who knows.  That might be the most insidious thing about it. 

True, there’s an ‘everybody is equal’ variant as we discussed above in relation to cognitive accessibility, but that’s a variant.  I’m not sure it’s enough that the option exists given how the core of the main game is a system where you can win by saving the best people, as opposed to saving the largest number of people.  As I say, you’d be well within your rights to disregard this entirely.  It just left a bad taste in my mouth, and that’s taking into account the fact I am a genuinely terrible person.

Coupled to this, the sinking island is a scene of absolute carnage.  Sharks are eating people, whales are smashing boats, and people are stealing boats away from each other.  The game’s core philosophy is ‘everyone for themselves’.   Or rather, ‘every colour for themselves’.  You’re actually killing people with almost every action, and it might not be an incredibly comfortable experience if people take a mental step back and evaluate what they’re doing.  It’s almost like a race crime being committed with every turn – as long as the right colours survive, the rest can go hang.

It’s okay, you can say ‘you’re reading way too much into this’, and move on.  I won’t judge you.  You’re probably right, but I just calls them as I sees them.

The game comes in at a reasonably meaty £32 RRP – on the upper end of what we tend to consider as a ‘safe’ recommendation.   For that, you get a game that works well with between two and four players.  If you want more, you’ll need to buy a separate expansion for another £10.  That gives it a cost per player of approximately £5 – not bad at all, but I have my doubts as to its long term replayability.  I think it’s the kind of game that you’ll take down from the shelves every month or so, have a great time playing it for an hour, and then put it away and not think about it until the next month.   If cost is at all an issue, I think there are games that will give you much more return on your investment.

For all the discussion above, I’m inclined to think I’m being perhaps too critical of what is essentially a fun bit of disaster escapism.   There’s nothing really in the game that makes these anything other than abstract conclusions from limited data points.  And even if these were topics deeply embedded into the theme, I think you could still meaningfully enjoy it without moral qualms.  So, we recommend it in this category if none of this puts you off.

Intersectional Accessibility

Again, the largest issue is that of the manipulation the game requires – the fine movement needed to flip over tiles and manipulate meeple onto boats is exacerbated by an inability to perceive where things might be.   We already provide strong anti-recommendations for those with physical or visual impairments, but consider both of these amplified if there is an intersectional compound of issues.

The game involves the collection of a hidden hand of action tiles as you remove terrain from the game.  These aren’t usually kept in hand though – they’re kept face-down on the table until needed.  Over the course of the game you might acquire a dozen of them, although you’ll also be actively playing them as you go along.  There aren’t enough of these that it’ll be a hand management issue for those with visual and physical impairments, any more than it would be for any individual issue by itself.

The game offers a limited ability to drop in and out.   While tiles in your hand never return to the common supply, you’ll be occupying boats with your meeple and this might limit the survivability of other players.  There’s no ability for anyone to push survivors out of a boat, the best you can do is capsize it which removes the boat from play while leaving the meeple floating in the ocean.   Even leaving the game for a few turns will leave you looking at a game state where survivability has become a distant dream.  However, it plays with a relatively brisk pace – the box suggests a forty-five minute playing time, which feels about right.  As usual, you’ll need to factor in the time impact of accessibility compensations.  It’s unlikely though to be so long a game session that it ends up exacerbating physical, cognitive or emotional distress.

There’s not much down-time between turns, because individual turns are quite nippy.  However, there’s not much to do during the downtime that exists other than watch horrible things happen, and some of those horrible things may be happening to you.  In a four player game, you can go from being on the verge of rescue to losing half your roster in a single turn, with very little you can do about it.   There are some active ‘anti-take that’ tiles in the game, but they are situational and you won’t always have access to them.  That’s an issue that may cause problems for the intersection of emotional and cognitive impairment.

Finally, this is a game where competition is absolutely baked into the bones.  If it’s friendly and fun, that’s great.  However, if everyone involved really wants to win it can create a situation that has intersectional issues.  Players won’t be inclined to offer support if it’s at the cost of their own success, won’t point out missed opportunities, and may take advantage of players that have missed positional weaknesses as a result of impairment.  Players with cognitive impairments may end up being the focus of aggressive play, and those with issues of emotional control may feel themselves goaded into making mistakes.  This is, of course, highly dependent on who is playing.  As always we advise you to always play with people that place as much importance on the group’s fun as they do on their own.  But we’d also suggest that maybe Survive: Escape from Atlantis isn’t the best game for encouraging that mind-set.

Conclusion

Well, Survive: Escape from Atlantis barely made it onto the boat before the serpent of inaccessibility reared up and ate everything in the box.

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

It’s not just that the game is inaccessible to people that have impairments.  It’s also sub-optimal for people that don’t.   A core principle of modern accessibility is that good design benefits everyone, and Atlantis is a perfect example of why that’s the case.  So much of the game would flow so much better for everyone with a different design ethos.

Radar Chart

Survive Radar Chart

For example, why is the line delineating the island hexes only a slightly thicker black?  Make it bold white.  Make sure we can’t miss that sucker.  Flip up handles in the centre of each hex may make the game a little more difficult to store and manufacture.   They would though mean we could pluck hexes right out of even the most complex configurations without causing the rest of the map to skew everywhere.    Give the meeple and hexes names to permit easy verbalisation, or employ a co-ordinate system around the rim of the map.  None of this changes the game at all, but it brings it far more strongly into the realm of effective accessibility.  True, it wouldn’t soften the potential emotional impact of highly competitive play. You can’t have everything though and there’s no reason why a game that’s about good, old-fashioned domination has to appeal to everyone.

It’s a good game, don’t get me wrong.  It’s just not a game that has a lot to recommend it in term of accessible design.


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  • Raged_norm

    What colours would you recommend for player pieces then?

  • Pingback: Survive: Escape from Atlantis (2012) – Meeple Like Us()

  • Scott Hooker

    In response to the concerns you voiced in the socioeconomic portion of your article, I seem to recall the rules stating that the numbers on the bottom of the meeples represented the amount of looted treasure the explores were attempting to carry away from the sinking island. This gives the game a very different feel, as the winning team is the one that drug home the biggest pile of gold, rather than the one that preserved some sort of arbitrary caste system. While that could kick off a whole other conversation about greed trumping the value of human lives, I take solace in the knowledge that all of the explorers were too stubborn to empty their pockets of heavy doubloons and relics to increase their odds of survival. Presumably all the empty handed “zero value” meeples made it home just fine. (But that’s just my personal head canon.)

    • Oh wow, I absolutely didn’t notice that in the rules – it does create an entirely different context for what’s going on. I’ll amend the teardown to point people at your comment. Thanks!