Tigris and Euphrates accessibility teardown

Tigris and Euphrates (1997) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameTigris & Euphrates (1997)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Heavy [3.52]
BGG Rank71 [7.71]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Reiner Knizia
Artist(s)Bascu, Christine Conrad, Doris Matthäus, Tom Thiel, Ricarda Thiel and Stephen Graham Walsh
Buy it!Amazon Link

Version Reviewed

Fantasy Flight English edition 2015

Introduction

We gave Tigris and Euphrates four and a half stars in our review. It’s a stern and uncompromising game that happens to a masterclass in picking the right level of abstraction for the experience you expect to have. It’s absolutely not going to be for everyone, as empty a phrase as that is. No game is for everyone. This one though is not for a very particular group of people – those that want to feel like they are substantively in control of their own destiny. In Tigris and Euphrates you can be forced into a complex, debilitating and destructive war just because an opponent decides it’s time for you to fight someone. They don’t even need to take part! That makes it a difficult game to process for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons.

As you might imagine for a game of this nature then we have a lot to talk about. Let’s get started and explore our own personal fertile crescent.

Urgh.

Colour Blindness

Four dominant colours are used in Tigris and Euphrates – red, green, blue and black. You might recognise that as ‘a combination likely to be problematic’. Luckily each tile comes with distinctive art and while that doesn’t necessarily make the game state easy to parse at a distance it does ensure that colour isn’t the sole channel of information for the bulk of the game state.

Colour Blindness filter on tiles

Even when tiles spread over the board this isn’t necessarily a massive problem – some extra checking is required by the art is reasonably easy to differentiate at a distance for players with decent eyesight.

More problematic are the monuments, because these come in two colours and these have no way of being differentiated other than colour. You’ll have them in combinations and for a few manifestations of colour blindness they’ll look like they have only a single colour. For example, consider the bottom left monument for those with Tritanopia. That’s actually green and blue except you’d never be able to tell.

Colour blindness and monuments

This is a reasonably significant problem, but there will only be six monuments at play at most and they won’t move once placed. It’d be straightforward to make a note of what points they generate. If though ou then start consulting this too closely there’s a fair chance it would make everyone else around the table, particularly those currently benefitting from the monument, a fair bit jumpy.

Colour blindness and leader tokens

Leader tokens for each player have a unique profile, and this is great. They also make use of the same colour scheme as the tiles and under certain circumstances that’s going to be a problem – again, primarily green and blue for Tritanopes.

These could be replaced with other tokens without too much impact on the game other than aesthetic, but it’s unfortunate. Those with monochromatic vision will likely find the additional burden placed by referencing monuments and leaders makes play inconveniently lethargic.

We’ll tentatively recommend Tigris and Euphrates in this category. There are definitely colour blindness problems but they can be worked around and the worst manifestations are most likely to impact those with the rarest forms of colour blindness. Still not great though.

Visual Accessibility

Visual accessibility is likely to be a massive problem. The game does offer some tactility with leaders, wild points and monuments. The board however is busy, complex and highly nuanced in its interactions between the tiles. The way this information needs to be parsed too is often very complex.

Consider when a war is triggered – knowing the order in which to execute battles depends on how all of my tiles are going to interact with all of yours. I need to know your strength on the board (public information at least) and my own. But also I need to know how winning and losing battles will impact on our relative strengths because it is massively important to the decisions I make. More than this, I want to know how they might work in combination – for example, ‘what happens if you lose your blue then red tiles’ and ‘What happens in you lose your red then blue’. Coupled to this you need a good understanding of relative strengths of empires as they get closer to your borders. You’ll also want to be able to tell where they are weakest and most fragile for effective use of catastrophes. Every pattern of board state is its own unique puzzle. Three blues and a green might be a wildly different scenario to a green and three blues.

Part of the problem here is that the game state is not meaningfully verbalizable. Every single part of it might be important, and the specificity needed to explain the implications of any action is significant. Empty spaces, tile combinations, tile patterns, proximity to monuments, proximity to kingdoms, size of kingdoms, disposition of kingdoms… it’s all vitally important at some point even if it’s not all important all the time. Knowing when it matters is not at all straightforward.

The board does have high contrast, and so those with minor visual impairments are likely to be able to divine some degree of meaning from the combinations of colours. Whether it’s going to be enough to deal with the sophistication of decision making is harder to say. At a minimum people would need to be able to identify regions of tiles, their owners, the number of both, and how those would impact on the disposition and strength of leaders in the event of a war.

On top of this, each player has a screen behind which they keep their hidden tiles. These will yield themselves easily to close inspection using as they do colours and art to differentiate themselves. However, each player is also responsible for dealing with the points they have accumulated. Large denominations of points can be differentiated from small denominations by touch, but the different kind of currencies all share a common form factor. You’ll likely accumulate dozens of points in each and even for a sighted player it can be sufficiently disorganised behind your screen that it’s difficult to know precisely where you are in the scoring without taking the effort of counting. The different kinds of currency are at least vibrantly coloured which will make visual identification easier but they’re also very small.

Hidden token types

For those for whom total blindness must be considered, I would say consider this game all but totally unplayable without massive amounts of additional effort.

We don’t recommend Tigris and Euphrates in this category.

Cognitive Accessibility

There’s a lot going on in Tigris and Euphrates as our review undoubtedly indicated. The rules, while not onerous, are reasonably complex. There’s a lot of contingency and conditionality in the logic. For example, you only get a point when you place a tile if you have a leader of that type in a kingdom, except kings can claim all colours of tokens. You need to connect two temples to collect a treasure, but only green leaders can do that. Wars are based on number of matching coloured tiles in a kingdom, rebellions are based on adjacent temples. If you collect a treasure you can pick whatever one you want unless you can take from a corner temple. Leaders are removed in wars or rebellions, as are their supporting tiles except not always. As is often the case no individual rule is unreasonable but the combination of them creates a game that is tough to learn.

Tough to learn, incredibly tough to master, and really this is where the main cognitive cost comes in. Tigris and Euphrates is a game where every single action may be the difference between success and failure. One carelessly placed tile might trigger a war or a catastrophe that leaves you unable to defend against others coming in and carving up your empire. Once you are put on the backfoot it’s difficult to regain balance, although incredibly satisfying when you do. The need to balance competing goals against a game state that can be incredibly competitive stresses decision making – both in terms of short term tactical goals and the longer term strategy of play. Wars are something for which you need to prepare several turns in advance and they can come upon you from nowhere and from unexpected directions. The consequences there can be massive, and sometimes you don’t even get any agency in dealing with things. The game state is in other words incredibly complex, and full awareness of the entire board is necessary to play well.

The game requires no literacy, and numeracy is stressed primarily with tokens. However, basing the score on the worst of your various currencies lends a texture to the numeracy that undercutes its otherwise simple nature. You increase each score in different ways, and it’s possible to have lots of points and still come second to a player that doesn’t have nearly as many. The intuitive numeracy of ‘I have more points than you’ doesn’t hold here. It’s a comparison in a more complex decision space. This is especially an issue since to improve your score you need to work out how to improve your holdings in that one specific currency.

The tile draw is skewed towards temples (there’s more of them than anything else) and much as with Scrabble there’s a large benefit in being able to assess the probabilities of the tiles people have in their hand. Much of the unexpected shifts that come in a war are down to the mismatch between your assumptions and the tiles a player has hidden behind the screen. Similarly with tracking the points people have gained – those with good memories will have a large advantage over others because the information is technically hidden but you see it being altered. When someone gains a wild point you can deduce what that means if you’ve been paying attention and can remember, even roughly, the points the have accumulated.

Game flow is reasonably consistent, but you can be thrust back into the thick of the action by the activities of other players when it comes to wars and revolutions. You play down two actions, finish your turn, and then suddenly for some reason you’re fighting a war you didn’t start. That can be confusing and jarring. Wars and rebellions too have a tendency to massively disrupt the regular flow of play because they are so much more involved than usual turn activities.

Finally, Tigris and Euphrates suffers in this category because the eventual consequences of your actions may not actually be felt for a long time. You can end up building a lop-sided house of cards because you never noticed an early decision leaves you intensely vulnerable. Imagine for example an empire where three farm tiles are all that connect your black king to your black tiles. If those tiles are destroyed your entire kingdom will fracture and leave you almost certainly unable to recover. Those may have been three tiles you laid down in the first few rounds of the game and they don’t cause problems until an hour later. Cunning players will be keeping an eye on these stress points in your play and will be waiting until the right time to apply pressure.

As you might imagine, we don’t at all recommend Tigris and Euphrates in our fluid intelligence category. We don’t recommend it for memory either, but perhaps not quite so emphatically.

Emotional Accessibility

Tigris and Euphrates bends towards conflict and there’s no way of getting around it. Your involvement in wars is not always consensual. That’s common in these kind of games. What’s less common is that the instigator of a war may not actually be involved at all. Someone can join kingdoms in which they are not invested and then leave everyone else to rip themselves apart. That player can then sweep in and scoop up rewards for no risk, taking advantage of the damage that you all did to each other. It’s a masterful strategy, and one you can’t even defend against. All you can do is be prepared for it. Even in preparation, the costs of misjudgement can be massive. You can absolutely be routed, with all your leaders and tiles wiped from the board as the result of an action taken by someone that didn’t assume any risk in the process. Brrr.

Even if that doesn’t happen you are constantly at risk of having someone undo much of your hard positioning work. On one hand, it doesn’t matter to your score – you don’t lose points for losing tiles. However, you do enable an opponent to gain points and often lots. If you lose a war where you had twelve tiles placed on the board your opponent will get thirteen points. That can be a windfall enough to move someone from last to first place if they’re points in the right colour. That colour based points system too can create an emotional disconnect between accomplishment and award. You can play incredibly well in Tigris and Euphrates and still come last if someone managed to play more consistently than you. If people in the game realise that you are lacking a particular colour they will do everything they can to make your quest to address the imbalance as hard as possible. You can easily gang up on people in Tigris and Euphrates. You can constantly undermine their efforts to rebuild after a war. You can break apart their kingdoms with catastrophes and then sweep in and take over. To play Tigris and Euphrates you need a thick skin.

Monuments too can be a problem, because they essentially add a constant pressure of points that can both draw players into conflicts they can’t win and then rub their nose in it by regularly enriching their owners. If one player has several monuments and you have none, every single turn carries with it a touch of despair. A player might get a point in every colour, or two points in their lowest colour, every single turn and that means that even matching their progress can be difficult.

We don’t at all recommend Tigris and Euphrates in this category.

Physical Accessibility

The player screen you get in Tigris and Euphrates is very flimsy and easily knocked over. The consequences of this are severe – everyone gets to see your points and likely the hidden tiles you have. Revealing the tiles that you have to commit in the event of a war means you lose the only disincentive you have for people to attack. If they know you can’t defend, there’s nothing to stop them going in for the kill. The screens would almost certainly have to be replaced if playing with someone with even minor physical impairments – they’re bad enough if nobody at the table has an accessibility consideration.

The tiles are reasonably chunky and the board isn’t especially slippery but fine positioning is required and sometimes within clusters of other tiles. Flipping over tiles to place a monument is something of a pain although it’s done only occasionally and is an irritant rather than a problem. Players draw replacement tiles from a bag which can well be an issue in this category but if an impacted player trusts another the tile draw can be done on their behalf.

Drawing from the bag

Otherwise the game requires the collecting of points (often and in varying combinations) and moving leaders around the board. It’s not an especially physically intensive game. It’s just made a little trickier than it could be by virtue of the fact there’s not a lot of room to work with on the board and nudging the game state will knock everything out of alignment. A large disruption of the board will randomise game state with all the effectiveness of a meteor strike and this is a game where the position of every tile matters. It’s not enough to get it ‘nearly right’ as that might be the difference from a kingdom being impenetrable and being very penetrable indeed. Ahem.

For those for whom verbalisation needs to be considered we have a game that doesn’t especially lend itself well to this style but does offer enough distinctiveness in geography that a workaround will be possible. ‘The cluster of temples north of the river’ will be enough to identify a rough area and more precise enumeration of options can be done from there. It would have been great to see references or landmarks, but they will tend to emerge organically from play. You might even make it part of the game. ‘Place my king in the burning ruins to the left of our grand monument to Om’.

We’ll tentatively recommend Tigris and Euphrates in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

The only representatonal art of note in the game is that of a man. That said, Tigris and Euphrates perhaps shouldn’t be assessed independently here. Ra, a game from the same designer and publisher, has a very similar template for the box and prominently displays a woman instead. Perhaps representation here needs to be assessed in the aggregate.

Tigris and Euphrates box

The manual defaults to masculinity but erratically. Neutral language is substantively used throughout the text but every so often a ‘he’ or ‘his’ slips in.

The cost of Tigris and Euphrates is a wince-inducing £53. This edition is undeniably lovely – nice pieces and lots of them. Chunky plastic monuments. A nice cloth bag from which to draw tiles. Thick leader tokens that feel satisfying to place. But still… £53 and it supports a maximum of four players. It’s certainly a strong game, one that I would happily recommend people play. It’s one that I find harder to recommend people buy though. To be fair, I got my own copy for £25 from an online retailer but that same retailer is currently selling the same game for £40. Shop around and you might get a better deal, but even at its best you have to take into account you can probably get a better deal on games with a lower RRP too.

We can’t really recommend Tigris and Euphrates in this category.

Communication

Very little communication is required during play – pretty much the only thing is to indicate which leaders are to take part in a battle and in what order. Other than this the game is language independent beyond the manual. Once you’ve learned the game there’s no reason to go back to that.

We’ll strongly recommend Tigris and Euphrates in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of recommendations here so not a lot we can say in terms of intersectional issues. I would say though that we suggested that minor visual impairments need not be an impediment to skilful play in Tigris and Euphrates but that was predicated on colour being an available channel of information. Were players to be colour blind we’d be inclined to rescind even that tentative recommendation. With a combination of physical impairments and colour blindness, we’d suggest potential purchasers remain wary, Close inspection is a solution to colour blindness that may not be appropriate in those circumstances.

A communication impairment that intersects with a physical impairment will likely make it very difficult to play with verbalisation, although whether that’s true will depend on the nature of both. An articulation difficulty that combined with an inability to indicate parts of the board would add so much additional communication burden to the game that we’d advise players keep away.

Tigris and Euphrates plays in about ninety minutes, increasing to two hours with larger player counts. There’s quite a lot of downtime but it’s not reliable – you might be called back into play by someone else’s aggressive actions. It’s not like that it can be used for comfort breaks with any real confidence. It’s long enough, intense enough, and aggressive enough that it could well exacerbate issues of discomfort or distress.

Conclusion

My hopes weren’t high heading into this teardown. It might just be that the games I like tend to have difficult cognitive profiles. It seems a fair bet that if I enthuse about a game it’s probably coming out of the gate with a disadvantage. Not always, but often enough for a lot of our game coverage to be bittersweet.

Tigris and Euphrates, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessC
Visual AccessibilityD
Fluid IntelligenceE
MemoryD
Physical AccessibilityC
Emotional AccessibilityE
Socioeconomic AccessibilityD
CommunicationA-

This edition of Tigris and Euphrates is really nice, but the accessibility issues here are in terms of cost and colour scheme. I’m not sure any version could really do well in the visual accessibility stake given the complexity of the game state. Short of indentations or more luxurious dimensions of tile spaces it’s unlikely to be a huge success in the physical accessibility category. It also suffers from the unabashed meanness that comes with being able to start wars in which you have no personal stake. I love that mechanism but there’s no denying it carries with it a lot of emotional baggage.

We liked Tigris and Euphrates a lot – it got four and a half stars in our review even if it got something of a scouring in our teardown. It’s rich, deep, complex and immensely satisfying. It gives you a meaningful taste of the entire sweep of history. It’s just a shame many people will never get the opportunity to enjoy it as I have.


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.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.