Railroad Ink accessibility teardown

Railroad Ink (2018) – Blazing Red Edition – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameRailroad Ink: Blazing Red Edition (2018)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityLight [1.45]
BGG Rank1003 [7.28]
Player Count1-6
Designer(s)Hjalmar Hach and Lorenzo Silva
Artist(s)Marta Tranquilli
Buy it!Amazon Link

Version Reviewed

English edition

Introduction

Railroad Ink is a game that is made up compelling parts, but it doesn’t cohere together in a way that made it feel particularly impactful to me. We gave it three stars in our review – I don’t begrudge anyone’s affection for it but I’m never going to be able to justify more than half-hearted and heavily conditional approval. It’s a perfectly fine game that is unfortunately standing in the place of where an amazing game should be. Such is life.

Anyway, if you care about that you’d be off reading our review. Instead you’re here to find out if the roads and train-tracks of the Railroad Ink landscape are accessible. Well, let’s grab an on-ramp and find out.

Colour Blindness

Colour blindness isn’t a problem in play. While I can only speak certainly for the Blazing Red edition, this is almost certainly going to be true of the blue edition since they share a hefty chunk of design and content. The only thing with impact that changes between them is the specific palette.

The dice are clearly differentiated even when using the expansions, and you’ll never use both sets of expansion dice at the same time.

Railroad Ink colour blindness dice

The board likewise has no information that is conveyed with colour, and the majority of how it ends up looking is entirely a result of your own doodling.

Railroad Tycoon colour blindness board

We’ll strongly recommend Railroad Ink in this category.

Visual Accessibility

As you might imagine, this is going to be a problem area. The game depends on players drawing reasonably legibly and not obscuring their own earlier work with a stray arm or jumper wiping against the surface. Dice are reasonably easy to verbalise (rail corner, three way highway junction and so on) and they can always be rotated and flipped so there are relatively few specifics that must be dealt with. The problem is that they need to be slotted into a board that will exhibit increasingly complex network effects as time goes by.

However, players are aided here by the fact that they work with a completely blank slate – a seven by seven grid with no identifying features except for the type-restricted exits. Marks in each of the cells of the board must be legible by type – road or rail, and sometimes this will include stations, crossroads and adapters that go from one to the other. These at least can be drawn without worrying about scenery or other complications.

A handy reference of all of these is presented on each board, and this actually serves as an accessibility aid for those for whom close inspection is possible. ‘We have two twos, a four and a five’ would allow the player to look at their own personal lookup table and cross-reference that with their board. For those with minor visual impairments this may be enough to bring the game into playability. However, that’s true only of the base game – there is no equivalent lookup table for the expansion dice on the player board.

Local reference for dice

While there’s no player interaction (and thus no need to worry about what other people are doing) the complexity of an individual board is likely to be significant and ‘smudgy’ as time goes by. Consider the image below for an example of what an end-game grid looks like in the base game:

Complex board

The spaces that are available as time goes by become ever more restrictive – new routes must make valid connections, must start at an exit, and ideally must terminate at an edge of the board. The best place to put stations and crossroads will vary depending on the impact that it has for the geography of the board. Since there are points available for working in the centre there is likely to be a considerable degree of busyness that emerges over time.

Lava dice

The above image shows a board using the lava dice expansion, and one thing that’s problematic about that is that lava often comes with tracks that can be placed along with the lava lake itself. That creates tiles that contain two different things. Thus, even bleed between individual cells may become a problem. You’ll note too that each cell has a tiny number written in the corner – that’s to ensure auditability and to make sure that routes from previous rounds won’t be mistakenly adjusted.

Contrast with the provided pens is good, as can be seen in the image, and there’s nothing else aside form the board and the dice to deal with. The provided pens though are not particularly fine nibbed and this has an impact on how much freedom you really have to draw your routes.

For those with more severe visual impairments, including total blindness, the story is much bleaker still. The dice are non-standard (although verbalizable) but the requirement to hold a meaningful mental representation of a seven by seven grid is a massive cognitive burden. Especially when expansion content and special tiles are taken into account. Verbalisation of the board is possible but in every meaningful sense is likely to be useless other than as a way to provide someone a set of options from which they might select. That style of play would mean that larger scale and longer term strategising would be impossible. In other word, you can play Railroad Ink as a kind of narrated ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ but you really wouldn’t want to.

Overall, we don’t recommend Railroad Ink for those visual impairments, although if the impairments are reasonably minor it’s likely playable with heavy close inspection of the board.

Cognitive Accessibility

The rules in Railroad Ink are reasonably simple, and the expansions can be scaffolded in, or not, as players prefer. The base game is perfectly fine without them, and in my own view all the expansions do is add largely unnecessary gimmicks. For this though it must be borne in mind that I have only played the Blazing Red expansions and not the ones from the blue box.

No reading is required to play Railroad Ink – everything is symbolic. However, it does put considerable stresses on spatial reasoning since dice can be flipped and rotated freely and they’ll need to fit into a map of increasing complexity as time goes by. The consequences of leaving routes unfinished are not severe though and I think it’s possible to play a very satisfying and relaxing game of Railroad Ink without unduly stressing the competitive scoring aspect. House rules for scoring can easily be introduced to dial down that element of the game, and it’s even possible to play co-operatively by trying to maximise scores across all boards. Their exits all line up so you can treat each board as a subregion in the overall region. That would, I think, be an enjoyable experience but I haven’t really tested it to make sure. It would eliminate all the problems that come from playing competitively.

Those problems are primarily focused on the numeracy – this isn’t massively complex but it does require an understanding of probability, multiplication (for exits), addition and subtraction. For the expansion content there are additional rules which stress other factors such as the ability to engineer completed islands of lava or terminate routes in craters. Those create relatively complex intersections of landmark and route optimisation, but the importance of that depends on how seriously everyone is taking the scoring.

Game flow is very reliable – roll dice, draw routes. There’s no player interaction and no player powers that impact on game flow. The only slight problem here is that players can choose any order in which to draw routes and remembering which dice have been used is something of a memory burden. However, each board does come with a lookup table and it’s possible to use this to track which have been drawn in a round, and how many. Everything is on an erasable board so the whole thing can be freely annotated.

Rules have very little in the way of synergy – there aren’t many clever effects that you can bring about with route placement other than a few route segments work especially well with a number of the meteor placements. It’s very difficult to plan for that though so there’s not a lot of point in worrying about it.

I think there’s a reasonably cognitively accessible game here if played without the expansions, and a series of meaningful opportunities to create less competitive or co-operative experiences with simple, straightforward house rules. We’ll recommend Railroad Ink in both of our categories of cognitive accessibility.

Emotional Accessibility

Score differentials can be reasonably high, and those with a compulsive need for completion will likely find elements of Railroad Ink to be intensely frustrating. You will almost always have routes unfinished because in the end you’re largely at the mercy of the dice. However, there’s no player interaction and this means it’s a reasonably meditative game. When players do lose by a large amount it’s usually only once, and as a direct result of undervaluing the connected exits. That’s where the largest number of points will come from, and the impact of other scoring factors is relatively small.

We’ll recommend Railroad Ink in this category.

Physical Accessibility

Players must draw on a board with a dry-erase marker, and the sophistication of the patterns drawn, and the nature of their intersections, is almost certainly going to be a problem for players with fine-grained motor control issues. Each grid cell also has a tiny part where an equally tiny number should be written to show when it was drawn. The pens that you get are not particularly fine-tipped and the need to clearly differentiate between rail and highway links will add a burden of precision here. There’s no need for a lot of moving around or getting up to examine game state – the board is small and there’s no need to even look at what anyone else is doing. Relatively neat drawing though is core to the game.

Drawn map

However, it’s not all bad news. The entire board is suitable for annotation and this permits players to make various helpful notes to support play with verbalisation. The nature of a 7×7 grid means it lends itself well to a co-ordinate system and this can even be drawn in to the margins of the board. Available dice can be noted on the ‘lookup chart’ available on each board, and there’s no need to worry about orientation of the route segments. They can be freely flipped and rotated. The nature of the routes too will ease a lot of verbal instruction because in many cases they will limit the number of potential options. ‘Place one of the highway corners in cell B7, connecting the exit to the existing highway’. Since play is turn based, and because the boards are small and easily moved, it’s straightforward for one player to work both boards if acting on behalf of a player that cannot do so themselves.

There’s a lot of dice rolling involved, and dice roller apps will not be suitable because of the non-standard nature of the faces. However, this is only going to be a problem if there are no physically abled players at the table – there’s no special aspect of the dice, they’re just a shared pool of routes and everyone gets the same.

We’ll recommend Railroad Ink in this category, with a little extra tick because the fully annotatable board is a very significant accessibility aid.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

There’s no gendered art in the game, and the cover of the box shows a meteor about to slam into a train and kill everyone aboard. The manual uses second person perspective for its descriptions, and the two names used in the example text are Dagmar and Giulio. These are names sufficiently distinctive that I had to look them up on Google Images and so I feel a touch culturally enriched as a result. That’s nice.

Railroad Ink box

But hoo-boy, that business model.

Railroad Ink comes in two different flavours. Blazing Red, which is the edition I am reviewing, and the Deep Blue edition. These have different colours to the boards, and were that the only difference I’d be absolutely fine with it. Unfortunately, these are identical games that come with different expansion dice and as far as I can see there’s no way to buy only the expansion content of the version you don’t have. If you want the full set of options, you need to buy two copies of the same game. On the upside, that means you have a combo that supports up to twelve players. On the downside… what, really? This strikes me as borderline exploitative – to bundle expansions with base games and offer no other way to obtain them. One has to assume that future editions of the game will follow a similar model. It’s not an excessively expensive game… £20 for whatever edition you want. However, you need to pay £20 for four dice and six player boards you will never use if you want the full experience.

If you’re okay with only having half of the expansion content available that’s not a problem. I didn’t like the game enough to worry about it. But if you really like Railroad Ink and want to try it out in in all its glory it’s an issue. You are basically forced to hope someone is selling the dice separately on the secondary market or accept that you’re being manipulated into buying components for which you probably have no use.

As you might imagine, I don’t like this one little bit.

That said, if you do have a need for a no-interaction play experience that can support anything between one and twelve players cleanly, then two boxes of Railroad Ink will certainly work well in that capacity.

We can only very tentatively recommend Railroad Ink in this category. You’re fine if you’ll be satisfied with only having half of the expansions, but you’re gouged if you want them all.

If there’s a way to easily get the expansion dice that I didn’t notice, then please let me know and I will amend this section accordingly.

Communication

There is no formal need for communication during play, and no necessary in-text reading. Everything is handled symbolically.

We’ll strongly recommend Railroad Ink in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

The largest intersectional issue here is going to be the player count – almost everything we’ve discussed in terms of compensations works on the basis of there being an abled player at the table willing to provide accessibility support. Railroad Ink though is a game that has a solid solo mode and that’s likely to be inappropriate for many players. The fewer players available around the table the less likely it is that anyone will be able to lend support if necessary.

Otherwise, there are no significant intersectional issues that come readily to mind that can’t be dealt with on a situational basis. Even the usual problematic intersection of physical and communication impairments can be handled via exhaustive indication of options – there aren’t enough of them in a game round that this will be unduly onerous.

Railroad Ink is also a very brisk game, no matter how many people are playing. The speed of each round will be set by the player that makes their moves the slowest, but beyond that there is no impact with additional players. As such, it’s a game that works well in large groups of differently abled players and even in the event comprehensive accessibility support is required it’s unlikely to lead to a game that is unduly onerous.

Conclusion

Well, Railroad Ink is likely to make its way onto our Accessible Games on a Budget feature, and that tends to be one of our highest site honours. It has to be said though, it only just sneaked on because that business model is one I find unreasonable and exploitative. The only reason I’m not more poisonously vindictive in that section is I’m worried that I missed an option to buy the dice separately. I did look, but not hard enough that I can genuinely discount the possibility.

Railroad Ink, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessA
Visual AccessibilityD
Fluid IntelligenceB
MemoryB
Physical AccessibilityB+
Emotional AccessibilityB+
Socioeconomic AccessibilityC-
CommunicationA

Other than that and the visual accessibility issues, the design of Railroad Ink lends itself well to play by those with impairments. The fully annotatable board is a great help for this. The simple, uncomplicated design is something that can be easily modified with house-rules that would massively improve cognitive accessibility. There’s a lot to like in its profile here.

We gave Railroad Ink three stars in our review – not a game that got our blood pumping but certainly one calming and relaxing enough to merit attention. If you’re on the lookout for a good roll and write game with a lot of positive accessibility features you could do worse than check this one out.


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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