Yamatai (2017) – 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

  • 8/10/2017 – Added a bit to the section on colour blindness.

Version Reviewed

English first edition

Introduction

Yamatai is fine – it’s a largely unremarkable title that combines decent game mechanics and a lack of ambition into something you’ll enjoy playing and then forget about almost instantly.  We gave it three and a half stars in our review but if you found Five Tribes too intensely aggressive in its expectations you might well find Yamatai to be a more pleasant experience.   We’ve covered all that in our review though – now we need to get into the interesting part of how accessible the game is.   Let’s see if Queen Himiko is still smiling by the time we get done with our dark work.

Colour Blindness

Excitingly, we are behind the times here – the topic of Yamatai and its colour blind support has already been well discussed and addressed on Reddit.   I was very happy when I saw this thread because it underlines in tangible ways how much this topic matters outside of the personal obsession of a lone weirdo academic.  However, I was also disappointed (but not surprised) to see that it descended into a typical Reddit hurricane of anger because People on the Internet are the reason we can’t have nice things.  Boardgamegeek also has a few threads on the topic, of which this one is most worth reading.

But yeah, here’s your spoiler alert – Yamatai is absolutely terrible for the majority of people with colour-blindness.   It’s a shame too because it starts off quite well.  It uses a distinctively accessible palette for player markers and buildings which, while a problem for people with monochromatic vision, offers sufficient differentiation for the largest majority of players with colour blindness:

Player meeples

Looking good so far…

It makes use of pattern information on the culture tokens, and while these sometimes look very similar close inspection can be used to tell one apart from the other even when colours are of unreliable utility.

Culture tokens

Not too shabby…

It really does look like an effort has been made to design the game with colour blindness in mind until you see what happens when look at the ships you’ll be placing as your primary activity during the game.

Colour blind ships

Great Scott!

I know, right?   Bear in mind this is a game about matching colours of boats to tokens in order to claim them and the points they represent.  As you might imagine, colour is the only channel of information used on those tokens and it is not clear at all which colours are needed.  I say this too as someone without colour blindness – I often find it difficult to tell for sure the difference between brown and black on the tiles.

Colour blind tiles

It’s all going horribly wrong!

And on your player mat:

Player mats

I think you get to interpret this in the most favourable way regardless.

You might think that in context that this isn’t a problem, but you’d be very wrong.  This is what the board looks like if viewed through a colour blindness filter:

Colour blind ships on the map

Gnh.

Those with the comparatively rarer Tritanopia will likely be able to assess board state, but everyone else is going to have a devil of a time doing the necessary game interpretation and pattern matching that is core to the experience.

Colour blindness again

I claim everything.

To repeat the quote from jdavidh97 that I used for the Five Tribes teardown:

External lighting conditions have a massive impact on how the colours appear too – basically, Yamatai is a game only for those with full chromatic vision and good lighting.    Tritanopes will have an easier time of dealing with the colour palettes, but really they shouldn’t have to deal with anything.  It’s 2017.  TWENTY SEVENTEEN.   There is zero excuse for this still being even a minor issue, much less one that makes the game completely unplayable for those impacted by colour blindness.    Someone in the BGG thread says:

There are five different colours of ships and six different colours of token. I can’t think of any 11-colour combination that would work for all kinds of colour-blindness. They even had to duplicate colours for the player pieces.

That seems reasonable, perhaps but:

  1. There is an eleven colour palette that is colour blind accessible, and there’s even one that goes all the way up to fifteen. 
  2. The actual solution is to supplement colour information with iconography.

Yamatai gets our first straight up F in this category.

Visual Accessibility

I’m not going to say Yamatai is impossible to play for people with visual impairments but I will say that I think the effort involved would suck an awful lot of the fun out of it.  However, there are some features in the component design that deserve note even if they don’t add much to the accessibility of the visual information.

Coins with central cutouts

A nice idea, poorly implemented

First of all, the coins have a neat thing where the hole in the centre is differently shaped depending on the denomination.  Now, that’s not as good as the coinage itself being different shapes but it’s better than nothing and it would have been great as additional tactile information for players.   Unfortunately it’s too small to offer reliable discrimination between coins especially since visual impairment often manifests along with nerve damage (such as in diabetes).   As such it might not be the case that fingertip sensitivity is high enough to take advantage of the differing shapes.  This though is an accessibility approach that would work better with larger holes within another context, and as such there’s scope for it being leveraged elsewhere in other games.

Other tokens in the game are easy to tell apart by touch for the most part – mountains are different from culture tokens, culture tokens different from coins (as a result of the central hole), and coins are different from sacred ground tokens.  Unfortunately, while you know you’re dealing with a culture token there are seven different kinds of these and they all share a tactile profile.    The difference between each other, and the normal tokens and the mountain tokens, is only indicated visually.

Culture tokens

Cultural Hegemony

But all of these are minor issues compared to the central visual accessibility challenge – meaningfully assessing the state of the board.   It’s easier than in Five Tribes because there are comparatively few points you need to assess as the start of a chain of ships.  However, certain powers need you to have a full command of the board (for swapping two ships, as an example) and the only way to assess tiles for their ease of collection is a visual parsing exercise.

The game board

A very busy board

Knowing which colour of ship you want to start your chain from needs you to identify where chains can begin, and then assessing where you want the chain to go and in what order you drop ships.   You can easily set an opponent up for an easy win if you do this carelessly  The information you need is not presented in a form that lends itself to representation in a form other than visual – it’s not possible for someone to simply describe the board as an example.  For a large portion of the play experience the game is going to be closely inspecting each of the different parts of the board with an assistive aid to see what’s possible and the risks involved.   That puts additional cognitive burdens, explicitly as a result of visual inaccessibility, on a game that is already quite ‘thinky’ – you need to remember the opportunities you investigated.

A symbolic language is used on the components to help ensure language independence but this is primarily illustrative rather than descriptive.  You’ll be constantly referencing the back of the instructions regardless of the readability of the symbols, and the font used makes that more challenging that it should be.   That’s an issue that will go away with familiarity, but that familiarity will take a great deal of frustrating effort to develop.

Difficult to read font

This isn’t the greatest font.

We strongly advise players with visual accessibility needs avoid Yamatai.

Cognitive Accessibility

Unsurprisingly, this is a problem area for all the reasons you probably expect.   First of all, the expectation of numeracy is high and in conditional ways.   The value a building has depends on the specific token you collect, plus any adjacency bonuses for religious structures, plus a point if it’s built on a mountain, plus whatever coins you might generate as a result of building grouping.   This means that evaluating a location for placing a building is a numerate act and placing a building on one of what may seem identical locations can result in significant differences in the score generated.  Numeracy is involved too in evaluating specialists for victory point and coin values; for trading boats and maximising the benefit of trades to the player; and calculating victory points, sometimes with multipliers and special conditions.  The sophistication of the expected numeracy isn’t particularly high, but it’s a constant requirement in play.

No literacy is required but the symbolic language used isn’t at all helpful for most players – constant reference to the manual will be required especially when dealing with the eighteen possible specialists.   In that case, the description of effects is written and they’re not particularly easy to remember or associate with the symbols.

Symbols on specialists

Good luck with this.

The game state begins simple, but rapidly becomes very complex and sophisticated.  The placement of a single ship might be the difference between winning the game or losing and understanding how to assess risk and reward is a challenging task.  That task is part pattern matching, part situational awareness, and part ability to creatively apply fragmentary tools to accomplish particular ends.  Specialists for example have individual use, but often have much greater synergistic impact if wielded together.  As such, the effectiveness of two unrelated specialists used in isolation might be far less than two compatible specialists used together.  That is going to be situational though and relies on players having their own mini cottage industry of interlocking effects.   You might for example have a specialist that lets you perform two trades in a turn, another that lets you turn two boats into a gold boat, and a third that lets you sell gold boat for five coins.  What those three together let you do is buy two boats for two coins, trade them into a gold boat, and then sell that gold boat for five coins.  Every turn.   A fourth specialist there effectively turns that into a free victory point every turn as long as the game goes on.  As you might imagine, this has a powerful impact on the game economy, on the relative value of ships, and on the impact of game length on everyone.   It also needs you to develop a play style and strategy that maximises the benefits you have engineered.

Game flow is mutable because the order in which each player takes their turn depends on the fleet token they took in the last round.   As such it’s possible for a player to go first in one round and last in the next, or for someone to take two turns back to back, and so on.   There’s conditionality too within turns because buildings may or may not generate standard adjacency bonuses depending on their type and the specialists a player may have available.   It’s not as simple as ‘take your turn and place a building’.  One turn may be very different from another.

For those with memory considerations all the information you need is available in front of you but players benefit considerably from having a consistent strategy in mind throughout play.   Effectiveness in Yamatai depends on seeing opportunities and chaining together actions to take advantage of them.  That in turns needs players to hold a model of the future state of the game in their mind.  That’s not needed to play, but it’s needed to play well.  The problem here is that this is a game where people will spend a lot of time thinking about their turns, and that adds a significant modifier to how difficult it will be for anyone to hold a short or long term plan in memory.

In terms of accessible variants, the laying down of boats in particular ways is reasonably satisfying but it lacks the sense of catharsis that accompanies a game like Carcassonne.   As far as I can see there is no cognitively accessible variant of Yamatai that retains any meaningful portion of the gameplay.

We strongly advise players with fluid intelligence impairments avoid Yamatai, and don’t recommend it for players with memory impairments only.

Emotional Accessibility

Yamatai is a game where the competition is primarily over limited resources with comparatively few opportunities to mess with other players.   In Five Tribes, the sheer churn of the board is an emotional accessibility issue of its own but here the state of play is far more placid.  If the board is a particular way at the end of your turn it’s going to be meaningfully the same at the beginning of the next.  Boats will have been added to it, but aside from an occasional swapping and sliding of ships everything will be as you last saw it.    You can certainly beat someone to a resource, or a fleet tile, or an island.  You can’t though malevolently or accidentally undo progress or interfere with plans too often or too readily.

It is possible though for players to carelessly set their opponents up for high scoring moves, and that can be frustrating when it comes about as a result of misreading or misunderstanding game state.  Good play requires a considerable degree of consideration and players that rush to judgement will find themselves punished as a result.   That’s an issue compounded by the often ponderous nature of turns.  This is a game where you need to think through ramifications, and usually you can’t do that during your downtime alone.   It is the state of the board as it arrives in front of you that you must meaningfully contemplate.  As such the nature of play can breed situations of impatience and this can easily lead to annoyances with the downtime.

Have I mentioned that this is a pretty game?

Score disparities can be quite significant but there are plenty of paths to meaningful scoring and it’s never the case that someone can be locked out of doing well.  If someone is dominating buildings then specialists become a viable option.  If specialists are in short supply, money can make up the shortfall, and so on.   However, this is a game where you do need to play well to score well and there aren’t a lot of ‘pity points’ that come your way.    One useful feature here though is that while the boats you place remain where you put them, there are fleet tiles that permit a good amount of ability to undo mistakes.  You can swap things around, slide things along, and regain access to culture tokens that might have otherwise gone unclaimed.  Similarly with specialists, you can build capacity in the things that work best for your style and can maximise the benefit of compensatory strategies when you’re being locked out of your preferred scoring approach.   That’s important because while it’s difficult to gang up on any individual player it’s not impossible, and some game mechanisms (the sacred grounds for example) can be explicitly targeted at the obvious ambition of a specific player.

All of this said though this isn’t an aggressive game and what competition exists is mediated through a layer of abstraction.  We’ll recommend Yamatai in this category.

Physical Accessibility

There is fine-grained motor control needed to place and manipulate ships, and this is often being done within tight constraints and ungenerously proportioned spaces.   You’ll usually be working with one, two or more ships at a time and it’s necessary to drop them in a precise order to properly action a turn.

Map spaces

So tight

There’s also regular traffic of coins, a constant need to refresh the fleet tiles, and the physical management of specialists.  That tends to be a space issue because in front of you there will be a player reference mat, your collection of buildings, your money, and also a growing rag-tag collection of middle-managers that are represented in large, solid tiles.   The more specialists you have, the more your own personal part of the game will sprawl.  It never becomes too onerous, but more than once during a game I’ve had to shuffle things around because it’s a big board that takes up a lot of table space and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for my components.

There’s a degree of stretching over the board needed to reach far off parts, and the issue there is that the boats are just resting on it – they’re easily dislodged and not easily restored because of how complex the game state becomes and how many ships are being used to represent it.   It’s not enough to put them back as best you remember it – one single misplaced ship can change the entire direction of the game.

In such circumstances we turn to the ease of verbalisation, and it’s not a positive story here.   It’s easy for someone to indicate their fleet action and which specialist they want to acquire or use, but that’s where convenience ends.   Waterways and islands are not named, no co-ordinate system is provided, and there are few if any meaningful landmarks to which you can refer.  A number of mountains will be scattered around the map and these can serve as points of reference in a pinch, but it’s not ideal because sometimes they’ll be distributed in a way that leaves one part of the map over-represented and another part without any.  Landmarks that are unreliably distributed create referencing problems of their own.

Yamatai laid out with mountains

Ain’t no mountain high enough

That means that players will need to develop their own vocabulary for referencing, either with bespoke co-ordinates or spoken descriptions.    Using a row or column system is complicated by the fact islands are not necessarily obviously part of one or another.   Most islands straddle two rows or columns to a greater or lesser extent.   It’s not impossible to verbally indicate these, but it’s also not straightforward.

Having identified an island, a player must then indicate a waterway and once again there are issues here.  In ideal circumstances a player might be able to unambiguously indicate a colour of ship that is adjacent to the space they wish to occupy, but the nature of colour chaining means that ships of the same colour naturally clump together making this difficult on occasion.  In such circumstances some other form of indicating starting location will be required.

And then it’s necessary to chart out a movement that involves specific ships being dropped on specific spaces in a specific order.  This at least tends to be straightforward because the chaining system puts constraints on how difficult it can be – you can pick a direction (perhaps based on clock faces) and then just name the colours.   This becomes trickier at junction points but is still reasonably easy to articulate.

But all three of these phases are needed to indicate your intention for a move, and it’s often the case that instructions are going to be speculative because they also need to align with placement restrictions defined by available tiles.   A hard-line stance on this would say that a ship when placed stays where it is, but that’s an inaccessible approach in a game already marked by its persistent inaccessibility.

We don’t recommend Yamatai in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

There’s a lot to like here from the prominence of women on the cover to the equal prominence they receive in the specialist tiles.  A few of the women are perhaps a little eroticised, but very little of it seems to be genuinely objectifying.  Sensualisation, as opposed to sexualisation, is a tricky line to walk and it’s not really for me to say whether Yamatai succeeds in this respect.   If the key to ‘acceptable sexuality’ is for character attire to tell a story other than ‘this is a sexy person’ I think Yamatai succeeds.

Yamatai box

Ladies front and centre

That said, even if there can be useful debate on the topic it’s not the case that this vague sensuality is the universal approach to representation.  There are bad-asses and musicians, sages and sorcerers all spread across the available characters and with meaningful range in mode of dress and depiction of attitude.  I like that a lot.

Riu specialist

Valar morghulis

The player mats too offer both men and women for selection and in addition they present a range of ages and body types.  True, as a range it’s limited in expression by the fact there are only four possibilities but it’s still a good sight better than the more common ‘pick any white dude you like’.   Given the theme of the game is ancient Japan, the ethnicities depicted reflect the dominant expectations of the locale.   I much prefer for a range of choices to be presented regardless of the game, and it’s no different here.  However when you view this as a single data point in a larger context of all representation everywhere across board games it is I would say forgivable in this.  My view here is much the same as it was for One Deck Dungeon.

Tomoe specialist

Kicking ass and taking names

Yamatai has an RRP of £50 at the time of writing, and while that’s not surprising given the production quality it’s also a good deal more than I think the game is reasonably worth.  It’s also regularly available at much lower prices – I picked up my copy for £35 at UKGE and I don’t resent a penny of that.  That’s the price point I often see it hovering around.  It only supports between two and four players, but it supports each level well and has meaningful scaling built in.  While I would recommend Five Tribes over Yamatai in most circumstances I also think Yamatai is a game that is less aggressively intimidating to an audience that doesn’t consider themselves ‘hardcore gamers’.  As such, it might be an easier sell for gaming nights in situations where Five Tribes might be met with nothing but horrified, frightened faces.

We strongly recommend Yamatai in this category if you can pick it up for around the £35 mark or equivalent.

Communication

There’s no formal need of literacy during play, but you’ll almost certainly have to refer to the manual more than a few times to keep track of what the more esoteric symbols mean.   The manual descriptions of specialists and fleet tiles are written explanations, but they’re not especially complex in most circumstances.  The symbols are occasionally useful reminders but as a primary technique for conveying actual information they leave a lot to be desired.

We strongly recommend Yamatai in this category but bear in mind that that recommendation comes with a caveat.

Intersectional Accessibility

With a game that has a lot of accessibility problems the task of writing this section becomes increasingly simpler the more negative our recommendations become.   We really only need to consider intersectional circumstances where two recommended categories combine.  Here, there are relatively few and none of them have particularly specific manifestations.

That moves us on then to the usual things we consider in these sections.   Play time ranges on the box from forty to eighty minutes which is reflective perhaps of the role analysis paralysis (urgh) is expected to have.   If you’re quick and everyone knows what they’re doing it can be a nippy game but more often than not it tends towards the hour and a half mark if not farther.  That makes it quite difficult to estimate the likely impact it might have on conditions with modulating severity.   The upper end of ninety minutes isn’t necessarily excessive but the variability has a major impact.

Should it be necessary for a player to drop out of play, the game doesn’t offer particularly easy mechanisms to permit it.   Players will still be occupying islands and hoarding specialists, and the number of players in a game influences how many buildings everyone should start with.  It’s possible to reach a relatively satisfying conclusion but it’s not going to be smooth and house-ruled compensations will be required to make it happen.

Conclusion

While Yamatai isn’t Five Tribes Lite you don’t do yourself any harm in conceptualising it that way.  The game plays differently, but it has a very similar feel and momentum baked into the experience.  While it’s not as good a game, it’s very slightly more accessible and that by itself might be a selling point for those unable to meaningfully interact with its better, older sibling.

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

However, that’s relatively faint praise because Yamatai exhibits wall to wall accessibility problems that range from the largely unavoidable (the cognitive costs) and the absolutely unforgiveable (colour blind issues in a game released in 2017).   The fact that it’s more accessible in certain respects than Five Tribes still doesn’t change the fact it’s largely inaccessible.  In edge cases though it might be just enough to squeak into playability depending on the specifics of someone’s interaction regime.  The difference between accessible and not, after all, is sometimes as small as a change in font size.

Yamatai is a decent enough game that is forgettable largely because of its unambitious, unadventurous design.   It’s fun enough to play, which is why we gave it three and half stars, but for those that already have felt the electric thrill of Five Tribes it’s difficult to muster much excitement.   Were the game more accessible overall it might have had particular merit as a meaningful alternative.  It’s not though, and there’s not much we can do about that.  A second printing could make meaningful changes – there are plenty of opportunities for improvement.  Until such time as that happens, we have to simply sigh with resignation on move on to the next game on our todo list.

 


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  • LordStar

    Think there could be a bit of a change in a newer version, depending on if DOW really does want to fix it. There was a problem with the first release of the 5th Map Pack where the Pennsylvania map DIDN’T have the route scoring table (only the UK map on the other side had the scoring table), so there was no way to reference how to score the 7 train routes that come up. In later printings (like mine) they fixed the problem. But this would be a major change to the game which would be more expensive than just adding something on the board

    • Yeah, I think what they’d need to do was implement a Ticket to Ride style iconographic language to accompany the colours. That would need a significant redesign of all the assets in the game. They could change the colour scheme to something more reliably accessible (I linked a resource into the section after reading your comment) but it’s always going to be better to have redundant channels of information.

  • Arthur Wohlwill

    I played this game today with someone who was colorblind. He had the most problems with the fleet cards and the building cards. Putting two fleet cards with different ships right next to each other helped him discriminate the cards. He didn’t mention problems with the ships.

    • That’s interesting – do you know what kind of colour blindness he had?

      I clarified the section a little on the basis of this, since the situation isn’t quite as grim for those that have the comparatively rarer Tritanopia and that would be compatible with your observation. Having said that, there’s such variation even within individual categories of colour blindness that all I can really do is provide the information and the photographs and let people decide for themselves. Even that’s not ideal since sometimes people view a colour blind filtered image with colour blindness and that sometimes has the effect of shifting colours even farther. Everything in life is so complicated.

      The extent to which colour blindness manifests in a category will intensify with severity – sometimes people with colour blindness can distinguish colours in good lighting or with close inspection, sometimes they can’t. The consistency of the viewpoints expressed on Yamatai though is a warning sign in and of itself.

      • Arthur Wohlwill

        I do not know what type of colorblindness he has. He had thr mosy trouble telling the black and brown ship symbols apart. This was the first time I had played any game with him. He was a good sport about it, though. It also was a learning game for everybody but me and was very close. People did enjoy it.

  • Arthur Wohlwill

    One of the players had a stroke a couple of years ago and has some issues with fine motor control, especially holding many cards and selecting cards from his hand. Luckily, that doesn’t matter in Yamatai. He might have had one or two problems with boat placement, but it wasn’t a major issue.