Tiny Epic Galaxies (2015) – 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.

Version Reviewed

English First Edition

Introduction

Tiny Epic Galaxies may come in a little box, but it’s got a lot of heart.   Despite some minor problems regarding mitigation of the randomness and the power of cultural hegemony it is a joy to play and one of my favourite games sitting on the shelf.   We gave it four stars in our review, and spoiler alert – it will go higher with the expansion.  We’ll get to that in time.  However, this is a game with a gimmick and that gimmick is embedded in the name.  Tiny Epic Galaxy presents itself within a small box and with tiny components.  That’s bound to have accessibility implications, right?   Fire up the warp drives, we’re going to explore every inch of this game until we get to the heart of the dark matter.

Colour Blindness

There are certainly problems here, but they are reasonably straightforward to mitigate.   There are five colours of ship in the box, and all of them share a degree of palette overlap with others.  For a five player game, or situations where multiple categories of colour blindness must be considered, there will be players who have to inquire of the game state to know which ships belong to whom.

Colour blind ships

Into the black. The blue. The green?

However, the only place this really manifests as a problem is when it comes to planet actions.   Ships are used to indicate colony progress along the orbital track, or used to trigger special planet powers.   Tracking this can be done with replacement tokens without too much difficulty although there are some implications when it comes to galaxy upgrades and stacking tokens to indicate shared progress.   Those with monochromic vision will have a much more difficult time here, although the extent to which you need to know who has what progress in a planet is limited.  Mostly you’re just interested in where you are in the race.  The implication of what powers will be available to work in conjunction with what’s already available to a specific player is something required of more competitive games.  Mostly planets are coveted for their victory points rather than their synergistic powers – their activation after all is dependent on having a die available and the optimal circumstances being observed.

The primary issue here if using replacement tokens is that the explicit link between progress and additional ships is broken on the player mat.  This isn’t a big deal, but it does mean that players need to remember they should pick up a new token when they pass the necessary threshold in advancement.  Usually the ships are sitting right to the side of the power track to tell you that.

Other than this, there are no particular colour blindness issues that must be taken into account.  All progress other than on the planets is located on a player’s individual mat, and colour isn’t used as the sole channel of information for any other game state.  Everything is iconographically coded appropriately.

We’ll recommend Tiny Epic Galaxies in this category, but compensations will likely be required in large games or scenarios where multiple degrees of colour blindness must be taken into account at the same time.

Visual Accessibility

Despite its name, many of the components in Tiny Epic Galaxies are of reasonable size.  The cards for example are pretty much of standard poker dimensions and convey clearly structured information with well contrasted icons in reliable locations.   The dimensions of these are quite tight because there is a lot of information presented, but you’ll only have a small number of these to consider at any one time and they are removed and replaced quite slowly.   Conquering a planet needs several of the appropriate die actions to handle and as such it’s common for the ‘observable universe’ to remain static for many rounds at a time.

Card

Information dense

The dice are reasonably small, but not excessively so.  The larger problem is that they are non-standard and are rolled, re-rolled and re-cycled in complex ways.  Play with accessible replacements requires the construction of a lookup table and as many as seven accessible dice to ensure fluidity of play.   Neither of these are ideal solutions though.

During the last academic year, myself and m’colleague were teaching a module called User Centred Design at Robert Gordon University.  One of the keystone approaches we took with it was through a technique I have taken to calling ‘Cardboard Prototyping’.   Rather than get students to design paper prototypes of standard desktop and mobile applications, we got them to do it with board-games.  We put them in groups, explained the rules of games, and got them to try them out with their own homebrew implementations.  When they were comfortable with how the games played, we got them to tear up a random component from the game and replace it with one of their own design.   It was a phenomenally successful approach, certainly in comparison to the drier material I had delivered the year before.  It completely encapsulated everything that people need to understand about the process.  It’s low fidelity.  It’s iterative.  And it’s something you should feel comfortable with destroying to explore more of the design space.   We did this with Skull, One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Love Letter to great success.  We also did it with Tiny Epic Galaxies because it had an online kit for putting together a paper prototype.  That was considerably less successful.   There’s a point where ‘low fidelity’ becomes ‘too low fidelity’ and I think we hit it with TEG.  This was also my first exposure to the game, and while I thought it had some nice ideas I can’t say I really enjoyed it all that much.  I was happy to define its value as primarily pedagogic – as a data point in the limitations of paper prototyping.

Dice

Which one was the four?

Reflecting upon it after the class, it’s clear where you find the disconnect between TEG as a game (as it comes out of the box) and TEG as a paper prototype.    We played the game with standard dice and a lookup table and it added such a considerable cognitive burden that the entire game became much less fun.   Students playing it remarked they found it confusing to try and allocate actions when they were mediated through a lookup table, and as such they made mistakes with strategy or over/under spent their resources.  Nothing of the experience really held together as a result because the fun was lost in the administrative nightmare of cross-checking the standard faces of a die against the game actions.

For some games in this genre of dice chucking it’s not so much of a problem – Elder Sign and CV as two examples use die faces as targets rather than moving parts of the machine, and as such lookup tables are awkward but not necessarily a deal-breaker in and of themselves.  The need to recycle a small set of dice in and out of rotation is more of an issue, but the cognitive cost isn’t as severe because you only need to map a die face to a number.  Within Tiny Epic Galaxies you need to map a die face to an action and then that action to an outcome.  That is a whole extra level of redirection.   I know this is mostly an issue of cognitive complexity but it is specifically related to the need for a lookup table and I’ve observed it having a significant effect on players without any visual impairments.

Player mat

We’ll be fine as no-one finds the plans to our death star

Coupled to this, we have the incredibly dense information presented by the player mat.   The mat is exactly the size of two cards side by side, and is thick with important data that changes on a regular basis.    The good news is that most of the information is easily handled by some other form of tracking such as a pad of paper or coins.   There’s little that you explicitly need the board for – it tracks energy and culture and galaxy level, but otherwise you could get rid of it and that would be our recommendation for players with visual impairment.

As you might imagine, those for whom total blindness must be considered are going to have an even more difficult time with the game systems, but with effort I suspect most of the game systems can be rendered into a verbal format that could be realistically held in memory.   It’s not an approach I would recommend though.

Interestingly then it’s not the size of the components that present the key inaccessibility here but the Yahtzee style mechanisms that we’ve already seen cause problems in many games in the past.  We don’t recommend Tiny Epic Galaxies in this category, but it’s not the Tiny part that influences that rating the most.

Cognitive Accessibility

The accessibility issues here stem again from game design rather than component size.  There are however many reasons why we won’t be able to recommend Tiny Epic Galaxies in this category.

First of all, there is an ongoing need for literacy when it comes to assessing planet powers.  They each have a description that explains how their special abilities work and effectively leveraging these powers on a permanent and situational basis is an important part of effective play.   You’ll accumulate a number of these over the course of the game, as will other players, and these create a highly configurable context for play that shapes and reshapes the value of the dice you roll.   Some of them permit a degree of fungibility of die faces, permitting you to use a die of one type to accomplish an action properly associated with another.  This means that as time goes by not only are the desireability of dice changing, a degree of effective literacy is needed to understand how and why.

The provision of planets in the observable universe too changes over time, and these might substantially alter the options available to players.  By landing a ship on a planet players can trigger an associated action on a situational basis, and this might require other dice to be spent in a particular order to make it worthwhile.   Unlike in most Yahtzee games, it’s not just the faces rolled that matter – it’s the order in which they are activated.   The difference can be massive.  Upgrading and then moving a ship versus a move and upgrade might be the difference between having a ship to move and a colony colony to trigger or nothing at all happening.

With all of this the game state often becomes quite complicated.  Players need to track the culture and energy available to their galaxy, as well as that of everyone else.  Culture in particular has a massive impact on play and knowing who has culture to spend greatly influences the value of actions that can be undertaken.   On top of this you need to know where each ship is on the colony track, who has the dice pool and planet powers needed to progress their colonization agenda, and who has the power to deny or regress progress of others.   If you want to stand a serious chance of claiming a highly contended planet you need to be sure you can invest the necessary die rolls into it before your competition.

The following system, while borderline genius, also creates intense cognitive complexity by making game flow exceptionally malleable.  On one die you might just collect some energy.  On another you might trigger a colony action that results in someone else triggering a colony action that directly impacts on what you’re doing.   You might find everyone has a go when you activate a die, or you might find nobody has a go.  Someone might execute an action that renders all your future actions futile, and they’re doing it on what is supposed to be your turn.    Some actions too even cascade – there’s a colony action that lets other people follow, for free, the action you just took.  That means you might trigger a colony action, someone follows, and then everyone follows that action.  Someone might then use their own colony power to trigger the action on the first player’s board which would allow everyone to follow again.

Some of that complexity is due to the way in which planet powers synergise and alter the rules.   Most planet powers are straightforward but some of them permit use in this byzantine Inception style ‘follows within follows within follows’.   Pulling off clever plays in Tiny Epic Galaxies is at least in part driven by your ability to see the opportunities presented by the emerging game state, and that’s cognitively expensive.

Players too have access to ‘secret missions’ that give them bonus points at the end if particular criteria are met.  As such, while scoring is straightforward it’s also moderated by a private component that requires player to build a strategy around achieving their hidden goals without compromising their immediate needs.   As such, to achieve these bonus points (which might be pivotal) players need to have them constantly in mind and this puts a burden on memory.  The game is playable and fun without these, but the puzzle of play is much more knowable when everyone is working to the same agenda.

We don’t recommend Tiny Epic Galaxies in either category of cognitive accessibility.

Emotional Accessibility

Numerous planet powers are directly aggressive, including such things as regressing ships, stealing energy or culture, or increasing the cost of following.   Competition too is intense over the colonization of planets – there’s no player versus player conflict but this is a cold war with a pointed edge.  When someone claims a planet they’re invalidating all the effort you may have put into it, and it’s possible that planets can be covertly claimed without your ability to stop it.  I mentioned the planet Gort in the review – it’s entirely feasible that someone can use that to transfer progress on a planet over to one you’re almost ready to claim.   There’s a lot of this kind of thing going on – you need to be able to roll with a number of mean-spirited ‘take that’ mechanics, including plenty that undo your hard-won progress.

Within that we also need to consider just how aggravating the following action can be.  You can often end up doing yourself more damage than good by activating your own dice – your position in any game is usually relatively to the position of others, and if you gain one energy to the three gained by an opponent you’ve actually slipped backwards rather than moved forwards.  That’s annoying enough even putting aside that someone is managing to better on your turn than you are.  Sure, it costs a culture but that can even be self-funding with the right ships on the right planets.

Then on to that we need to consider the unusually restrictive model of dice rolling used within the game.   You get one free re-roll and everything else costs money, and it’s punitively expensive to convert dice you don’t want into dice you do.   A pair of poor rolls might be the difference between having six good actions and two good actions.   There are very few tools available to mitigate this other than simply accumulating greater numbers of dice – that itself depends on your ability to roll what you need for galactic upgrades.

The following system here helps ease that problem, but again it depends on you having the resources available.  If you can’t fly out a ship to a culture planet you can’t gather culture.  If you can’t gather culture, you can’t follow actions.  If you can’t follow actions, you’re at the mercy of dice rolls.  It’s possible, although not common, to spend several turns of TEG not doing much of value at all while everyone else has a grand old time.

The game mechanics too permit a large degree of targeted aggression since negative powers usually involve selecting ‘an’ enemy and doing something bad.   While there’s no particular advantage to be gained from ganging up, there’s nothing in the game that prohibits it either.   There are few specific mechanisms too that permit a player to catch back up if things go wrong.  If you’re still rolling four dice and using two ships when everyone else is rolling six with four, you’ve lost the game regardless of how well you roll.   Unlike in games such as CV or Roll Through The Ages, it’s always better to have more dice – there’s no ‘bad face’ that would help limit the ability of players to continually accelerate the acceleration of their progress.

We don’t recommend Tiny Epic Galaxies in this category.

Physical Accessibility

Finally we find the category where the ‘Tiny’ part of the game has its major impact.   Everything in TEG involves the placement of small components within tight constraints, and it is ridiculously easy to nudge the board or a card in the wrong way and basically randomise that part of the game state.   For example, consider your player mat:

Player mat

So smol

One sneeze at the wrong time can end up sending your energy and culture tokens careening wildly out into the void.  Your galaxy level token is at least easy to replace since you rarely forget where it is, but the others change so constantly that unless you’re paying close attention you’ll need to pick a ballpark value and just hope everyone is okay with that.

As ships are sent into orbit around a planet, they need fine positioning to ensure that they are accurately reflecting the state of progress.  When progress is shared, it’s done by stacking one ship on top of another:

First in and… well, no idea who will be first out.

This means that when the lower of those ships change state you’re going to have to basically reconstruct the orbital track.  Planet cards may have as many as five ships in various stages of progress around the track, and could legally have another five on the surface. All of this is within the constraints of what is basically a standard playing card.  You can see how busy it gets with the card on the bottom right of the image above.

Tokens on a mat

Tiny Epic Tokens

It’s not all bad though – the player mat is entirely optional and you could track the key values using a pen and paper if necessary.   Fine positioning is required for placing ships, but there’s nothing stopping the person with the steadiest hands at the table progressing that state for the whole group.    Having said that, you’re almost certainly going to have problems here even if you do have a steady hand – the tokens are just so small and worked in such tight constraints that they border on inaccessible for everyone.  Dice rolls are regularly needed, but again it need not be the person making decisions that handles that.  The game lends itself well to verbalisation because each action has its own unique identifier and even the order in which they are to be triggered is given a card reference to which a player can refer. ‘Place my colony action on bay one, and my move action on bay two.  Reroll the rest’

Activation bay

Lock in the co-ordinates

As such, while this may be the part of the game where the Tiny part has its biggest impact, it’s also not the least accessibilie thing in Tiny Epic Galaxies because compensatory strategies are available.   We’re going to tentatively recommend it here, but only just.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

There’s no gendered art in the game, and the manual makes use of the second person perspective for its discussion.  The only place it doesn’t is when it talks about the rogue galaxies in the solo mode, but even then the galaxy is described as ‘it’.   Absolutely nothing I can see to worry about here.

Box art

Totally epic

Cost wise, Tiny Epic Galaxies has an RRP of around £25 and is usually available somewhere around that mark even if you need to venture beyond Amazon in order to find it.   While this may seem pricey for something explicitly being marketed on the basis of its tiny box, it’s important to realise that this is a big game for the box and there is a lot of replayability in here.   Whether you’re playing solo mode or larger counts you’ll find the experience very enjoyable.  It does grind a little at five players, and as discussed in the review the machinery of the game tends to fall apart a little in highly competitive environments.  By and large you’ll get a lot of fun out of this, for the long term, across all the supported player counts.

We strongly recommend Tiny Epic Galaxies in this category.

Communication

There is a reading level associated with play, and while it’s not insurmountable it does manifest in every card present in the game.   That means that players that do not have familiarity with the game’s language will need to memorise forty planet cards and twelve secret missions, or at least the subset of these in play at any one time.  It’s not a massive problem, but one that is ongoing where more than a simple crib sheet or one-time verbal explanation will be required.  Otherwise there is no need for communication during play.

We recommend Tiny Epic Galaxies in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

As you might imagine given the discussion above, there aren’t a lot of individual categories in which we recommend the game – that makes intersectional considerations considerably easier to deal with.

If physical impairments intersect with any other condition, including communication, we would be inclined to say that our recommendations for both veer off into inaccessibility.  That’s unsurprising, of course, given how tentative our recommendation is in the physical category.

A game of Tiny Epic Galaxies can be over in between forty five minutes and an hour for most groups, but it’s important to take into account that downtime is limited.  The following mechanic means that there’s always a reason to be interested in the turns other people are taking.  While it’s not a frantic game, it is one that doesn’t permit a lot of opportunities to take a breather during play.   However, play is not especially intense and it’s unlikely that this will meaningfully impact on issues of discomfort or distress.  Bear it in mind though.

Tiny Epic Galaxies isn’t a particularly cut-throat game, but it’s also one where it’s easy to intentionally, or otherwise, avoid telling players things that they might be missing because of accessibility complications.  For example, when following an action makes particular sense or when a planet power possessed by a player is going to come and cause them problems.   As usual, our recommendation remains that you play games with people as interested in the collective fun as they are in their own but in this case support may not be provided for reasons other than malice.  It’s not so much information is being withheld as someone might not realise information needs to be provided.

Conclusion

Well, it turns out that Tiny Epic Galaxies is not an accessible game, but very little of that is due to the ‘Tiny Epic’ gimmick.  While that does cause problems across the board, it’s also relatively easy to work around them with paper or computer tools.  The tight spacing of energy and culture tokens for example can be replaced with standard coins, and galaxy level with a paper pad.

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

The inaccessibilities presented mostly come from the game design which is simultaneously highly collegiate and extremely cut-throat.   It’s a cognitively expensive game to play well due to the need to effectively leverage following and use planet powers in the optimal way.   It’s a game that asks a lot of its players, and the many dice rolls required simultaneously make that very complicated and potentially deeply frustrating.

We gave Tiny Epic Galaxies four stars in our review, and it’s only going to go higher when we get around to reviewing the expansion.  It’s a great game that borders on excellence at its best moments. It’s unfortunately one where our recommendation has to be tempered by the intense difficulties that are likely to be experienced by players with a wide range of accessibility considerations.   If our ideal outcome is to find a great game everyone can play, it’s our worst to find a great game hardly anyone can play.  Tiny Epic Galaxies, unfortunately, falls into that latter category.   Pick it up if you can play it, but our investigation suggests that those with accessibility considerations will perhaps find that difficult.

 


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