|Name||Sheriff of Nottingham (2014)|
|Review||Meeple Like Us|
|Complexity||Medium Light [1.66]|
|BGG Rank||276 [7.22]|
|Designer(s)||Sérgio Halaban and André Zatz|
|Artist(s)||Lorraine Schleter and David Sladek|
|Buy it!||Amazon Link|
I may have given away early how much I love Sheriff of Nottingham. It got four and a half stars in our review after all. I’d fight for it. I’d lie for it. Walk the wire for it. I’d die for it.
That though is not entirely what we’re about here at Meeple Like Us. We’re not just about smuggling apples, but smuggling knowledge! That turns Sheriff of Nottingham from a game about violating customs and excise policies but more like being a spy. I promise you Sheriff I have eight accessibilities in this bag. You can search it if you like.
We’re hoping for something more than mere game quality here.
The only thing better than a great game is a great game that everyone can play.
Is Sheriff of Nottingham that game? Let’s find out!
Colours are, as usual, a problem here.
Just look at the character markers for one thing – that’s a train-wreck of a colour scheme.
The character markers aren’t a big deal, but it does make the bags difficult to distinguish:
This also need not be *too* much of a big deal, provided you’re careful when the bags are played – as long as nobody just throws the bags into a pile, and plays them instead relatively close to where they are sitting (or hands them directly to the Sheriff), it’s still possible to play easily enough. More importantly, the cards themselves have colour-blindness issues:
Some of the illegal goods that come to market are recoloured versions of other goods – for example, ‘green apples’ which are illegal and ‘apples’ which are not. Good luck telling them apart by colour if you are colour blind. Similarly with cheese and ‘Gouda cheese’ – they have different art, but not *so* different that you won’t trip up. Contraband and legal goods have different borders, and these remain visually distinctive – but that’s only a slim amount of differentiation compared to what everyone else has available. Illegal goods have different names and these are printed on the cards, but then you need to remember which kind of apples, which kind of cheeses, and which kinds of breads are legal goods and which aren’t. It’s playable with colour-blindness, albeit with care.
For those with more severe visual impairments, the story is a little nuanced. It’s hugely important to be able to tell which cards are which, and the game is inaccessible out of the box. However, it’s a game that could be modded to be blind accessible. In the review, I mentioned there were an awful lot of cards – that’s true, and it would be frustrating to add braille labels or other tactile identifiers to every one of them. But, it would be relatively easy (if you were willing to deface the game a little) to cut little identifier notches into them. Top for legal, side for contraband, as an example. This would give the Sheriff a slightly increased chance to identify what’s in a bag, but the bag itself would moderate the ability to discern it. More importantly, it would let blind players tell which goods were in their hand by feel, meaning that they were able to fully participate in both the market loading and inspection phases.
Coins are different sizes, but unfortunately have no other tactile identifiers that would allow for ease of identification. They’re just cardboard tokens though, and it would be perfectly feasible to play Sheriff of Nottingham with actual currency. Maybe even preferable, although that doesn’t justify the lack of care and attention given to the tokens. It’s unfortunate really – Sheriff of Nottingham is a game that could easily be 100% blind accessible. The fact it’s not isn’t due to the difficulty of game design or the complexity of visual information. It just hasn’t been done, and we shouldn’t be willing to stand for that in the games that we play.
Beyond the cards and coins, everything is played through conversation and interrogation – obviously, body language and facial tells may be difficult to distinguish for a blind of partially sighted player, but that particular issue is one faced in daily life all the time. It’s a faculty that’s already well trained via day to day experience.
Out of the box, we couldn’t recommend Sheriff of Nottingham for those with visual impairments. However, modded with a few relatively simple changes, it could become very playable for even fully blind gamers. But again, we emphasise – there is no reason at all this game couldn’t have been accessible from the minute you open the thing up, and it’s unpardonable that it isn’t.
You are well served in Sheriff of Nottingham if you can do at least some measure of long term consideration regarding past play – a good chunk of it comes down to the way the person has played previously. If you’re the Sheriff, did they sneak something past you last time? If they did, how will that impact on how they play now? Will they play it safe, thinking you’ll be wary? Or do they think that *you* think they’ll be wary? That kind of complex ‘Princess Bride’ style escalating logic puzzle is an important part in playing Sheriff of Nottingham strategically. There is though only so far it can take you. Eventually, it all comes down to how well you can read the person in front of you. Memory then *is* an issue, but not one that would invalidate enjoyable play. Making a note of what people did when you last encountered them on a notepad would give you the necessary state-based information to add a little extra layer on to how you deal with them.
Similarly, cognitive loading is associated with this process, but you can play it just as a game of guessing based on the information in front of you. For all we kid ourselves about the ability we have to read people, a lot of it is just down to luck and intuition – Sheriff of Nottingham’s key accomplishment in this area is making it seem far more skill-based than it likely is. That’s not to say a skilled, experienced player won’t win in an interrogation more often than an unskilled, inexperienced player. It’s just to say that like in Texas Hold ‘Em or other games of bluff, luck plays a non-insignificant part in the outcome. Even just guessing, you’re likely to make a good fist of occasionally catching people out, which can be very satisfying.
The rules themselves are very easy to deal with – a very simple game flow that does not vary, a very well-defined game structure that is predictable in its processes, and no reading skill required. There is no serious rule synergy, or complex state-dependant hand-management. Hands are needed to be kept secret, but hands represent simple quantities of simple goods, and so despite their visual ornamentation they are actually very cognitively accessible.
That said, there is a ceiling to the level of cognitive impairment for which we’d recommend this, largely as a result of the wheeling and dealing that forms negotiation. There are necessary rules as to what is legal and what is not, and this is where the only real state-dependency in the game comes about. Deals are binding in the round in which they are being played, but not beyond that. If I offer you two copper not to open my bag, that’s a binding deal if you agree to it. You can’t then say ‘Ha, I took your coppers and now I’m opening your bag anyway’. That’s fine. But, if I offer you ten silver *not* to open my bag *next* time, I can take the silver now *and not honour* the deal in the next round. That inconsistency can be frustrating, confusing, or downright upsetting. There are some house-rule workarounds here (forcing people to always honour deals, or saying people *never* have to honour deals) but they do have a considerable impact on the atmosphere of the game.
This is a tricky one, and the recommendation will depend on just how good a sport everyone at the table is being. See, the great thing about Sheriff of Nottingham is how clever it makes you feel for deceiving the Sheriff, or seeing right through a merchant’s bluff. There are few experiences quite so exhilarating in gaming as to reach for the five silver pieces someone has put on top of their bag, and then right past to the bag underneath which you then open before they can respond. If you find contraband in there, it’s all you can do not to dance. Likewise, if you manage to convince the sheriff to open your bag of five cheeses, and rake in all that beautiful penalty money, you’d be forgiven for a moment of impossible smugness.
So, that’s a thing you need to bear in mind. If everyone takes it in good fun, and if everyone laughs it all off, AND everyone makes an effort to minimise the ‘Fooled you!’ smugness that the game brings about, then it’s all good. But…
See, it’s not really nice to be fooled, and it’s not very nice to be fooled repeatedly. If you’re finding it difficult to catch anyone else out, and they keep catching you out, it can go two ways. You can lean in to the comedy of errors and find it hilarious (such as is almost mandatory with Galaxy Trucker), or you can start to get tense and upset. A game which is explicitly about fooling each other is one that is almost by definition designed to make you feel stupid if you keep getting caught out. Even if on an intellectual level we know that’s not true, deep down you have to wonder why other people are getting it and you’re not.
The game also shares many of the problems of empathy and reading others that we talked about in our Dixit teardown – it’s a game about bluffing, intimidation and reading others for clues. If that’s not a realm in which you traditionally thrive you’re back to guessing. Above in the cognitive accessibility section, I said that guessing is likely to be a reasonably effective strategy, but it’s not a satisfying one.
It’s not necessary to actually lie during the game (you can absolutely win by playing it completely legitimate), but it’s certainly encouraged. Playing only legal goods is a viable strategy, but not quite as viable as playing *almost* completely legitimate but every so often, at the right time, slipping a little contraband into your bag. If you’re playing with people that find it difficult to lie, or for various reasons are unhappy at playing a game that almost requires it, it wouldn’t be a great choice for game night.
Basically, it comes down to this – everything about Sheriff of Nottingham is designed to make it light-hearted… except the game mechanics themselves. We tentatively recommend it for those with emotional or behavioural disorders, but not categorically and our recommendation is going to be highly contextual on the people playing. So – a note of caution has to be injected here.
Physical accessibility issues are primarily related to card management. A card holder, as we saw in the Dixit tear down, would be useful here, and more viable given how there is no need to see the entirety of each card all the time. The cards are also a more standard size, meaning you can get the whole thing into a holder:
There’s a small problem here in that the difficulty mainly comes when dealing with the bag itself. Cards need to be played secretly in the bag, and when a player is sheriff the tactility of the bag is part of the negotiation. Gripping the flap as if to open it, looking over at the merchant and raising an eyebrow – that’s all part of the armoury of negotiation that you have available to you. It’s not that you can’t play the game without it, it’s just that the game loses a non-insignificant chunk of its thematic appeal.
Luckily though there are few mechanics that otherwise would be impacted – placing cards under the player market can be tricky, but the market is only an aesthetic sprinkling of theme. There is absolutely nothing lost by playing them in piles in front of you. Dealing with money can be a little fiddly, but the coins are thick, chunky and reasonably easy to manipulate.
We’d recommend Sheriff of Nottingham strongly in this category.
Well – it’s a bit of a sausage-fest. Of the six characters in the game, only one is a woman. More than that, of the six characters in the game, all are aggressively Caucasian. On the one hand, both of these things are understandable given the theme. On the other – it’s a board game, and there’s nothing stopping anyone making an effort to be more inclusive. Characters aren’t overtly sexualised, though – even the Marion stand-in is fully dressed, although it’s a shame she ended up allocated to the ‘hot pink’ character colour. A range of body types are represented on the cards (provided you want to play a guy). Not aggressively exclusionary then, but still – ‘could do much better’.
What limited language is present in the game (mainly in the manual) is *mostly* fine, although again there are occasional minor lapses. Maid Marion’s character in the text for example is noted especially to have a ‘sweet and innocent’ reputation, which strikes a slightly regressive and infantalising note even if it is justified by the theme. Your mileage will vary here.
Cost-wise, the game is a little on the expensive side (£39.99 on Amazon, although as usual at the time of writing it is heavily discounted) but you are paying for some very high quality components. Everything feels substantial, and there’s a real weight of value for what you get. I’m not sure I’d recommend it too strongly at full price, but if you can get it a little cheaper you wouldn’t regret a penny of your purchase.
A lot of Sheriff of Nottingham comes down to bluffing and negotiation – if you’re in a group with someone with hearing issues, you’ll need to make an effort to ensure key information isn’t lost. The game itself though has no inherently auditory requirements save perhaps the click of an opening bag, which is the clue negotiation has ended. That’ll come with a visual indicator too, of course – the bag being opened. As with Dixit, this likely isn’t a problem – if you can already communicate with your friends and family, you’ll be able to play this. Just be mindful that in a game of complex horse-trading, it’s easy for subtlety to get lost.
The key intersectional issues here are similar to several of the games we’ve looked at so far – the need for hidden hands (creating an intersectional issue for those with physical and cognitive issues) and the difficulty of dropping in and out of game play. Sheriff of Nottingham, like Dixit, has a hard floor on the number of players – you need three people. It’s also one in which missing a turn can be significant, especially if it means you miss your turn as Sheriff. This may put pressure on players to persist with the game even in circumstances where they are becoming distressed, because they risk impacting on the fun of the game, or the feasibility of the game continuing at all. It’s not a game where it’s easy for people to stand in for others, either – so much of the game is based on the deals that have come before, or the read you’ve got on a particular player, that a new face coming in will undermine whatever careful observations you’ve been making.
The manual makes a note that ‘Sheriff of Nottingham is even more fun when you put a time limit on the Inspection Phase’. It recommends the Sheriff gets one minute per merchant to handle the whole inspection. We strongly recommend that you don’t adopt this optional rule, since time-constraints tend to disproportionately impact on those with physical and/or cognitive issues. It’s better to let the round go a little long, in our view, than to risk exacerbating problems.
What’s in the radar chart? WHAT’S IN THE RADAR CHART, HOBIN?
It’s okay Sheriff! I’ll let you inspect my chart.
That gives us the following radar graph:
Appropriately given the theme of the game, it’s a mixed bag. It could have so easily have done so much better for both the colour-blindness and the visual impairment categories, but either indifference or oversight means that it doesn’t get the clear pass it should have. At Meeple Like Us, we don’t believe that publishers or designers should get the credit for the modifications their players have to make to a game, but if we did we’d knock the visual impairment category up to a B. There is after all a clear route to accessibility provided you don’t mind getting a little busy with a knife. By which we mean, ‘cut notches into the cards’ rather than ‘cut into the designers’. Seriously, don’t do that. Similarly with the socioeconomic category – it’s unrepresentative in its character selection, but if you are forgiving of the importance of theme you could easily accept it as justifiable. After all, beyond Maid Marion who are the famous women in Robin Hood? We gave it a B, because we don’t believe that’s reason enough to exclude people – even Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves managed to include a Moorish co-star (not entirely successfully, but bless them for trying).
A word 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.