Meeple Circus (2017) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameMeeple Circus (2017)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityLight [1.40]
BGG Rank748 [7.20]
Player Count2-5
Designer(s)Cédric Millet
Artist(s)Angelina Costamagna, Mathieu Leyssenne and Sabrina Tobal
Buy it!Amazon Link

Version Reviewed

English edition

Introduction

There’s something mesmerising about a good dexterity game – the best combine flow-inducing difficulty and agency that can be magical in brief bursts. Meeple Circus is a great dexterity game, and that’s why it got four stars in our review. We have good reason though to be cynical about how well it’s likely to do in an accessibility teardown. Games of this nature have been historically been problematic here and Meeple Circus has a whole pile of its own quirks and curiosities that make it a compelling case study. It’s got a tightrope to walk here, so we’d best stop talking and get to it. These tigers aren’t going to tame themselves.

Tiger taming on a tightrope? That would be the best circus act. I’d brave at least one, maybe two, clowns to go see that.

Colour Blindness

Most of the components in the game are identified by their tactile profile as opposed to their colour. The only significant place where colour is likely to be an issue is in the applause track due to the palette chosen for player score cubes.

Colour blind cubes

Each player also gets a circus ring of a matching colour, but this is only used as a playmat and doesn’t convey any colour-based state information a player need track. The score of each player is public knowledge and there’s no harm that comes from a colour-blind player inquiring of the score if necessary. It shouldn’t be necessary of course, but it doesn’t have a major impact on the game. Other tokens could easily be substituted provided they’re relatively small.

For the components you manipulate, it’s only the three different kinds of performer meeples that use colour coding to convey game information. For the headline acts there are stickers you can attach in the style of Terror in Meeple City to help disambiguate. The standard performers have no accompanying stickers, but these are drawn from a palette that is unlikely to be a significant problem for most standard categorisations of colour blindness. It’s still not ideal though for those that have non-standard manifestations of the condition.

Colour blind performers

We’ll recommend Meeple Circus in this category.

Visual Accessibility

In any real-time situation accessibility issues across the board become much more significant. That’s especially true when the tempo of certain parts of the game are set by other players – it’s not simple to have variable time limits that are both respectful of accessibility needs and individual player capacities. That’s an issue here in Meeple Circus.

One of the problems we discussed in the review with regards to how you can score well for unadventurous arrangements is actually something of an accessibility boon.

Building high towers of performers is difficult because of how fragile a structure can be – as with Rhino Hero it’s a challenge to assess where you can apply additional weight. That’s a function of how the structure is built. It’s not possible to simply feel for this because you’ll just end up sending everything crashing to the ground. You need to be both responsive to the way the structure shifts as you add new elements and mindful of what stabilising components you may have in reserve. The game is fully tactile in that respect but the problem is one of a form of ‘accessibility uncertainty’. The act of observing the structure is going to change its position.

Measuring an acrobat height

However, that’s not quite as true with smaller, broader structures. Some of the components you use have a degree of stability built into them and these can be employed to create some of the scoring patterns sight unseen. Horse on elephant for example is straightforward even if you then add an acrobat on the top. That brings some of the game mechanics into broad accessibility because you can score reasonably well by focusing on less risky strategies. It’s unlikely though, with all the compounding problems we have yet to discuss, that a visually impaired player doing this would score competitively.

Less feasible though is anything involving fine position of elements such as balloons, barrels or beams. More problematic for those playing with visual impairments too is how easy it is to knock over previously constructed arrangements while trying to orient another. That also has to be done in relation to a pile of components that will need to be differentiated partially by touch so as to properly select what’s needed. These are relatively easy to tell apart although the human performers have a less distinctive tactile profile. There’s no difference between blue, yellow and red except for colour. The ringmaster and the strongman both have unique meeples for shape but the others are all cast from more or less an identical form factor. You will though only have one of those at a time and if you use the provided stickers you will feel a difference in texture between those and your more workaday performers.

Bear in mind that it’s also necessary to do all of this with reference to public expectations, and while there are only four of these they’re precise in how they need to be executed upon. You could give more leeway here but it’s still going to be difficult for a visually impaired player to accomplish high scoring arrangements especially when props need to be reused between expectations. This is going to be a factor for a whole range of visual impairments that often don’t come into play here – for example, binocularity is hugely important for being able to properly assess depth and the angle of deployment that goes into the placement of pieces. And again – to a time limit.

For the third act cards, some of them explicitly play about with conditions that would impose new difficulties or exacerbate existing ones. For example, ‘Pinch your nose and say honk-honk’ every time an acrobat is placed’ needs someone to be able to tell meeples apart in a way that physical patterns need not require. ‘Clap your hands each time an element is placed’ may result in positional information regarding piece placement to become dislocated from its context. ‘Create your circus act while covering one eye with your hand’ may be the difference between playable and completely unplayable for some visual impairments. Those obviously can be removed from the game if this is an issue, but that’s less possible for the act two cards. These often show specific performer arrangements with visual information only, or require placement of a component in a specific arrangement that may be difficult to pull off.

We don’t recommend Meeple Circus in this category, but for low level visual impairments or games where the emphasis is going to be on the simpler kinds of placements we suspect it is somewhat playable with care, to a low level of expected achievement.

Cognitive Accessibility

Effective use of props requires an economy of position and a reuse of components. That in turn requires a considerable degree of spatial intelligence because aspects such as orientation and rotation must be honoured. That’s if you’re looking for a game of optimal scoring, but whether or not you can even accomplish that is going to be bound up in a physical dexterity context.

In each round you’re looking to replicate a minimum of four patterns (defined by the audience expectations) along with perhaps a headline act and the performative aspects of the final act. The rules of the game are simple because mostly what you’re doing is dealing with the physics of real life and that’s something that can be understood on an intuitive level. Some degree of literacy is required, but it’s not high for the most part. Mostly it’s an exercise in allocation and pattern matching and that is done with reference to the physical components in front of you on the table. There’s no real synergy of game systems but there can be a synergy of game components – a beam placed on the back of two horses for example is a much stronger foundation for larger structures than a beam on the back of one. Again, this expects only a largely intuitive understanding of day to day physics.

The game flow is reasonably consistent except for the last round – for both rehearsal phases the action is undertaken in parallel but for the main performance everyone goes in reverse score order. The additional requirements of the performative aspects of the game can be quite cognitively expensive because they might be conditional (if this then that) or add a low-level cognitive burden to every action a player undertakes. In such circumstances it would be possible to house rule a satisfying variant where you simply play without the act three tiles and just do a third rehearsal. You’d lose a considerable amount of the fun of the finale. The inherent satisfaction of stacking components on top of each other will be as much fun in the third round as it is in the first.

Scoring can be relatively complex from a numeracy perspective as it may involve certain patterns being scored multiple times, or a component being used in multiple different patterns like shown below.

Three meeples on the ground holding two upside down meeples on top, with a beam across the feet of the second row.

Here, the central blue meeple is used in scoring two instances of the purple expectation. Depending on how generous you are prepared to be, the yellow meeples used for the purple scoring might also score for the orange expectation. This is in addition to the three innate points you’d get for the blue meeples and the two innate points for the yellow meeples. The best scores in Meeple Circus come from finding ways to use your components to double up on scoring opportunities.

However, I don’t want to overstate this – as I mentioned in the review I think it’s the wrong tack to think of Meeple Circus as a game where the goal is to earn points. Instead, it’s best experienced as a lightweight game of spectacle. As such, you can certainly enjoy Meeple Circus even if you don’t ever manage to score a single point. I know, because I have done exactly that on occasion.

Mostly the complications for this game come in terms of fluid intelligence – there’s no secret or hidden state in the game and as such aside from the issues we discussed with regards to the act three tiles there’s nothing specifically problematic from a memory category.

We’ll tentatively recommend Meeple Circus in the fluid intelligence category and recommend it more enthusiastically for those with memory impairments.

Emotional Accessibility

For all its fun and frantic energy it’s hard to deny that Meeple Circus can also be intensely frustrating at times. A high scoring masterpiece can become a jumbled mass of zero points with nothing more than a misplaced sneeze. Certain parts of the game are designed to create circumstances under which you effectively sabotage your own score. The acrobat rules in particular give you opportunities to earn considerable numbers of points but the higher you build the more chance you’ll end up with nothing.

Meeple Circus is actually a very challenging game if you want to aim for the best arrangements of your pieces, and as we discussed in the review it’s not very good at proportionally rewarding you for invested effort. You can end up with fewer points for more work than other players. Since it takes time to put together adventurous structures you’ll also probably miss out on the speed tokens in the process. Score disparities can be considerable, and the structure of the final round creates an odd perversity of incentive. The live performance is conducted in reverse score order, which means that the last player essentially sets the bar for the next player. As such, the player that’s already in the lead can simply aim to win by a point which means the pressure is largely off of them to excel. Aiming higher always comes with the risk of losing everything.

The final act too puts a considerable amount of pressure on individuals to be in the spotlight – this is great because it adds a degree of audience appreciation (and perhaps heckling) to what they do. It also means that people might feel under an unwanted amount of tension to engage in the performative aspects. You can choose to omit some of the more difficult of these, and this is fully supported in the rules with the identification of ‘fun’ and ‘technical’ challenge icons. You’re still going to be building your live act in front of everyone though and not everyone likes being the centre of attention especially when having to do a kind of charades at particular timed intervals. ‘Mime eating a sandwich between the first and second cymbal clashes’ as an example.

Meeple Circus is a game where score disparities can be high because calamity is only a misplaced piece away. You might have an act worth twenty points. In attempting to reach around a precarious human pyramid to place an easy two-point side act you could bring the rest crashing down. When the buzzer goes, you might find all that effort yields you nothing. It only takes one round like that for you to lose any chance of winning, and two rounds can leave you very far short of the winner. It’s safer to play conservatively, but not nearly as much fun. You do have time to undo mistakes while the timer is running, but that can be easier said than done. That said, there’s no direct player interaction and no ability for players to interfere with the progress of others except in the tile draft. There’s no player elimination and everyone gets to have the same amount of fun even if they don’t necessarily end up with scores to match.

We recommend Meeple Circus, just, in this category. In a po-faced game these issues might be more significant. It’s hard to take them too seriously though in something so unabashedly joyful.

Physical Accessibility

Unlike some dexterity games, this is something that would be mostly appropriate for those with gross motor impairments – there’s no need to circle a table looking for a perfect angle of attack on a shared game state. There are though some third act cards that require physical actions such as taking a bow, standing up and blowing kisses, or ‘bouncing out of your chair’. Those all put stresses on large scale motor control but they could be omitted from the game and it would be playable without too much negative impact.

However, for everyone else this is a game that is likely to be broadly unplayable in any meaningful sense. The pieces are awkwardly shaped, erratically weighted, and need to be placed in very precise combinations with often very specific orientations and arrangements. Some patterns are easy to make, others are incredibly difficult. High scores are available mainly as a result of reusing components and it’s incredibly easy to knock over everything you’ve done in attempting to accomplish even the easier shapes. Some of the third act cards here require charades or require other physical gestures that exacerbate physical accessibility issues. As with above, these could be removed from the deck. The third act cards can even be ignored entirely if you just want to focus on the stacking of components.

But that again brings us back to the key problem – fine grained motor control is absolutely mandatory for play and verbalisation is not an appropriate compensation strategy. The fun is in the placement of components, not in the narration of where they should go.

We don’t at all recommend Meeple Circus in this category for those with fine-grained motor control issues, although those with larger scale mobility issues may still be able to play.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

Meeple Circus got my hackles up right from the first page with this bit of absolute bollocks:

Male pronouns used by default

We talk about this idea of ‘defaulting to masculinity’ a lot on Meeple Like Us. It’s honestly not just us that gets annoyed as the twitter thread that we sparked off in response to this comment shows. It’s bad enough when this kind of thing is accidental or unintentional. It’s galling when it’s used as some kind of appeal to clarity. There is no cognitive difference between using he or she in a manual. People don’t suddenly become confused, although they will on occasion become weirdly upset. The claim here isn’t that the male pronouns have been used to assuage the more regressive chauvinists in the game’s audience though. This statement as it is expressed is nonsense in a way that pretends the choice is between male pronouns or tortured unreadable prose. The implication here is that they are nobly saving you from ‘He or she takes his or her component and places it atop his or her structure in a way that gets him or her points that he or she can add to his or her tally’. Sure, that’s not very readable but that’s not the only alternative and we all know it.

A much better approach is to use gender neutral pronouns because they are more inclusive. They capture men, women and those that are neither or both or any other gender identity. In circumstances where text is confusing because of the adoption of gender neutral pronouns it’s because the text is badly written, not because the pronouns themselves are less readable. What a statement like this does is say ‘We know that people have a problem with male pronouns, but we honestly could not care less and we’re going to fob you off with a bullshit explanation as to why’. At least if you are going to take the stance of intentionally using male pronouns, be honest about it. Don’t abnegate your choice here with an unconvincing justification. It’s patronizing, and it insults the intelligence of your audience.

Gnh.

Ironically, for a good chunk of the text they actually have somehow managed to adopt a linguistic style that doesn’t actually need pronouns. It would have been just as easy to fix the text as it was to add that dumb disclaimer. Unsurprisingly much of the rest of the game adopts a similar issue of being cavalier with regards to representation. There are six human headliner acts and only one is a woman. Most, but not all, of the characters are white. The woman tightrope walker though is at least given pride of place on the front of the box. It’s not egregiously bad in other words, but man – I was primed to give the game a kicking here right from opening the box and that just made me much more conscious of things I might otherwise have let slide.

Meeple Circus box

Meeple Circus has an RRP somewhere in the £30 range, and while that’s a reasonable price the offering is somewhat parsimonious in terms of the cards and tiles it gives you. You get enough of the meeples to make interesting circus acts but I was surprised how few of the other components you’re provided. There are only six act-one tiles, ten act-two tiles, and twenty-two act three tokens. There are only thirty-two public demands, spread across four decks. It’s enough for a fun and enjoyable game but I have concerns about how long it would remain so given the very limited constraints of variation. As I say, it’s a reasonable price given what you get in the box but it seems likely that at some point you may need additional expansions to inject new novelty into the experience. That said, I’m willing to bet Meeple Circus will more than justify your investment as a crowd-pleasing game for those that haven’t had a chance to play it to death. I’m looking forward to it being a regular in my toolkit of games that make a strong first impression on newbies.

We’ll recommend, just, Meeple Circus in this category.

Communication

Music is an important part of the game, but it could be substituted with a stopwatch for most of the playtime. The problem there is that certain elements in the soundtrack become important in the live performance – audience applause, cymbals, and so on. You don’t have to play with those tiles, and if that’s likely to be an issue we’d recommend you curate the third-act stack so as to avoid the problems entirely. That would extend to the tiles that ask players to sing and talk.

Other than this, there are no communicative aspects to the game other than a small expectation of literacy. This can be handled via a small crib sheet or through the arrangement of tiles so that the special text cards aren’t actually needed. This is much more difficult in the live performance, but the specific requirements of an act tile aren’t complicated and can be easily explained at the time. They don’t have ongoing state-based implications.

We’ll tentatively recommend Meeple Circus in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

There’s a lot here that’s very conditional, and I’m going to fall back on what has become an increasingly common cop-out here. Given the tightly coupled nature of the game’s interaction profile, any intersection of issues would result in us recommending you avoid the game. Consider for example emotional control conditions coupled to the frustration of a fluid intelligence impairment. Consider colour-blindness issues that dovetail with memory impairments, and the impact that might have on tactical play with regards to scoring. The interaction issues here, as a consequence of the model of play and the time constraints within which you function, have a considerable degree of interrelation.

Meeple Circus claims to last forty-five minutes on the box and that strikes me as very optimistic. Or pessimistic. I guess it depends – for a two-player game it hasn’t lasted more than twenty minutes for us, and the only part of the game that would get longer with more players is the last act. The three player game is only a couple of minutes longer than a two player game as a result. Obviously accessibility considerations will have an impact on this, but while the game is quite intense for the time you’re actively building your act it’s not in itself likely to exacerbate or induce symptoms of discomfort or distress.

Conclusion

A lot in this teardown could be meaningfully improved with a future edition of the game, but by and large the most significant problems are derived from what has become a truism in the blog – dexterity games are an inherently inaccessible prospect in several of these categories. Still though – there are own goals here too. It can’t all be hand-waved away as a necessary consequence of the game design.

Meeple Circus, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessB
Visual AccessibilityD-
Fluid IntelligenceC
MemoryB
Physical AccessibilityD-
Emotional AccessibilityB-
Socioeconomic AccessibilityB-
CommunicationC

Meeple Circus is odd here in that it actually does lend itself to a degree of playability in problematic categories, but only at the lowest levels of expectation. Simple structures can likely be made even by those that are totally blind, and that includes things that might sound far-fetched. Acrobats on top of horses on top of elephants and so on. Unfortunately to do well in Meeple Circus requires more and as soon as you start trying to move into that area the whole system starts crashing down – literally.

We liked Meeple Circus a lot – it’s going to see a lot of use round our way because I’m going to find any opportunity to break it out for those that haven’t seen it before. It’s fun, funny, and leads to real moments of entertaining spectacle and joyful schadenfreude. If you think it’s a game that you could play we’d certainly recommend you give it a go.

 

 


A Disclaimer About Teardowns

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 this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate 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.

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