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Fallout Shelter is about as shallow an implementation of the franchise as you can get and still meaningfully be worth the description. It’s a perfectly okay game – three stars of okay – but it feels like such a missed opportunity when far more exciting usages of the licence would have yielded much more spectacular results. It just feels like it was put together by people that understand the semiotics of the setting but have never really grasped its larger themes.
Still, you shouldn’t let us put you off if you fancy playing it. At least not in a review. What’s more useful is information on whether you can play it. That’s what we’re here for now. So let’s dig deep and hope we don’t hit a rich vein of radroaches.
Fallout Shelter shares an interesting feature with Inis in that there are loads of different miniature moulds but they get scattered between players rather than having a form factor that is specifically linked to a a particular individual. Here, it’s because each of the miniatures represents a different SPECIAL aspect, but it’s still something of a shame as it’s a great accessibility aid for players to be able to identify ownership of a piece by its look as well as its colour.
That said, it’s not actually a major issue here because of a well chosen colour palette, along with the fact that it doesn’t often matter who has occupied a space. All you really need to know is which spaces are free and how many workers you have left to place.
The board itself, or rather the card tableau, has no information that is represented solely through colours and as such there’s nothing to prohibit a colour blind player engaging with the game.
We strongly recommend Fallout Shelter in this category.
Vault information is provided only visually, and since the vault is constructed by player actions it doesn’t have a learnable layout in the traditional sense. The top floor will always be the same, but everything else is up for grabs based on card availability. The offering of cards is quite small though – only three – and as such it’s verbalizable even if the cards can be quite information dense due to the way special abilities work.
More than this, individual spaces will become ‘corrupted’ by threats, meaning that they can’t be used until the threat is dealt with. These threats are indicated by transparent cards being overlaid on top of spaces in the room. As such, knowing the arrangement of the vault is constantly complicated by the presence and removal of threats.
Your overseer board is reasonably tactile, but rather than overloading it with cubes I think it would have been better to use a cardboard slider with notches. You do get a tactile feel of your resources but it’s fiddly to put the cubes in place and remove them later, and you do that a lot during play.
The game makes use of two dice for placing threats, but they’re standard D6s and thus are replaceable with an accessible variant. The co-ordinates to which those dice refer can be deduced by feel.
As part of playing you will pick up various items that can be used (exhausted) to give situational benefits. These are selected as a room reward from a small supply, and it’s rare there will be so many that the options are overwhelming. If remembering what the options are will be an issue it’s easy enough for a sighted player at the table to summarise options. ‘You’ve got two different weapons you could use when dealing with the deathclaw. One adds two to your roll, the other adds three’.
The final accessibility consideration here is that certain spaces in the vault yield double resources if you have a dweller trained in the appropriate SPECIAL aspect. That needs a degree of board interplay that may be difficult for a visually impaired player because it involves picking the vault room with the right trigger conditions on the right slots with regard to the training opportunities available. It’s not as simple as saying ‘build a Nuka cola plant’, because each has a slightly different set of slots and special values. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but one that should be taken into account.
We’ll tentatively recommend Fallout Shelter in this category.
Knowing deck composition is a useful skill, but not one that will offer an overwhelming advantage. It’s just useful to know in some circumstances what kind of equipment remains to be drawn and in what configurations certain rooms are available. Other than that, all the information you need to play is represented on the board or in the tokens you have in front of you. There are some board synergies that need to be considered but they are straightforward – no exploding consequences but rather situations where ‘I have this training room so I can use it to double my bonus on that power generator’. Some numeracy is required when making these strategic decisions, but mostly arithmetic is handled with tokens. You collect them up in the indicated quantities and spend them equivalently. There are some dice rolls that require an understanding of probability though, and weapon items generally require some explicit numeracy to incorporate their effect. It’s not a high level though – simple arithmetic usually.
There’s some need for literacy when it comes to item cards, but otherwise all key information is represented iconographically and in a reasonably straightforward semiotic language. Green represents gains, red represents costs, and there’s an internal symbolic logic. I would have liked to have seen some reference cards available to ease in people learning the game, but you can prop up the back page of the manual like a shared card to help with that.
Game flow is somewhat complicated. More workers equals more actions, but in most games all players will be trying to get as many workers as possible anyway because worker availability determines resource availability. Grabbing control of the first player token is an important part of ensuring access to worker producing squares, but that in turn depends on whether the room is available or if it’s blocked by a threat. It’s possible for circumstances to emerge where one person gets preferential access to worker production squares and that can make turn order complex to assess and to change.
We’ll tentatively recommend Fallout Shelter for those with fluid intelligence impairments, and recommend it more enthusiastically for those with memory accessibility concerns.
The vault can get quite big as time goes by, being made up of six rooms per player, and a level per player. Some reaching over the table is likely to be needed for all players in the later stages of the game. Meeple placement doesn’t have to be particularly precise, but it does need to be precise enough that there’s no ambiguity on which part of a room has been activated.
Cubes in an overseer’s board are very fiddly – it’s good that they fit into a groove, but sockets would have been more secure, and a cardboard slider more generally accessible in this circumstance. As it stands, collecting and spending resources is more of a chore than it needs to be. Similarly with trained dwellers – you need to place them on a particular part of your board to indicate their (temporary) levelling up and they’re easily dislodged.
Item cards are very small, but they’re open information so they don’t need to be dealt with other than flat on the table. The vault cards need to be positioned reasonably neatly and given that each player will be constructing their own level of the vault in accordance with their own preferences it’s often necessary to place cards amongst relatively dense arrangements of others. The cards need to line up well enough that you can tell when they are inflicted with threats on a dice roll, and given the sprawl of the board that may require some occasional tidying up as you go along.
The game is fully verbalizable – mostly your dwellers have no SPECIAL properties and you can assign them easily enough by giving a room name. Or, if more than one room is available, a room name and a floor. In some circumstances a player might have more than one instance of a room in their level, and in that case a column number would suffice.
We’ll recommend, just, Fallout Shelter in this category.
All of the competition in Fallout Shelter is through shared resources, and there’s no opportunity for a player to directly take something from another. Indeed, when using rooms on another player’s vault they get a free resource. If someone ‘steals’ a room you want from the offering you can still use it to no detriment.
At the end of every round of the game a series of threats are dealt out, and these block spaces from being used until the threat is dealt with. This can be somewhat frustrating because threat management is based on dice rolls and the cost of misfortune can be significant. There are items that help with the roll or give you a chance to re-roll but it’s still the case that a lot of the game comes down to ‘get luckier’ as a strategy for improvement. Some of the dice rolls are punishing, and if you have a key room locked down by a difficult enemy it can have serious repercussions for the rest of your strategy. These threats are also point penalties at the end, so you may find yourself losing just because of a series of bad rolls.
It’s possible for a player to be blocked from progress, mainly because of how important it is to breed new workers. There are only two spaces by default where that can happen, so for larger player counts they’ll likely be used up by the time the last player can get to them. The first player token can be claimed to help deal with that, but a group of players working in concert can certainly deny access to an individual. The difference between having three workers and having two is significant and the earlier you get them the larger the advantage. There’s a point in the game where if you haven’t managed to recruit anyone new to your vault when others have you may as well give up.
We’ll recommend, just, Fallout Shelter in this category. The worker issue is definitely a problem but it’s one that only occurs in particular combinations of player count and player disposition.
Much of Fallout is bound up a regressive fifties aesthetic and cultural mindset, and that’s reflected somewhat in just how prevelant the Vault Boy is. He’s all over the box, he’s represented in seven different poses for each player, and he’s on your player board. Women are shown on the cover, but only in the context of being relatively passive entrants to the shelter. In fact, aside from those the only woman I can see in the entire game is a raider threat. You might argue that there’s no corresponding ‘abstraction’ for women as iconic as the Vault Boy but it seems like slim justification given how the digital game is full of women. The manual at least doesn’t default to masculinity.
Cost wise the game can be purchased for around £35 – that’s not unreasonable although the game will quickly run out of juice in my view. It supports up to four players, and has a shallow learning curve that means you don’t need to be a hardcore boardgamer to enjoy it. The box has an unusual double value too in that it’s a Fallout lunchbox as far as anyone else needs to be concerned and so it also serves as a kind of game collectible. That’s a not insubstantial part of the reason that I bought it. Still, the extent to which that counts as a benefit depends on how much you are a fan of the franchise.
We can only tentatively recommend Fallout Shelter in this category.
There is some need for literacy when dealing with item cards, but no formal need for communication beyond that. The reading level isn’t trivial, but only a small number of effects will be relevant in any one game and they could be noted down after an explanation.
We recommend Fallout Shelter in this category.
Given the fact that vaults can sprawl considerably, a visual impairment combined with a physical impairment might result in important information being difficult to pick up. It can be solved by querying other players, but that does tend to leak some degree of exploitable intention. If you ask me if a power generator requires a dweller trained in strength what that implies is that you’ll be looking to take advantage of that when you can.
Also, given that much of the vault’s layout requires committing to memory in the case of someone having a visual impairment, if someone also had a memory impairment it’s likely that creating a coherent mental model of options would be excessively difficult.
Fallout Shelter plays reasonably quickly, perhaps twenty or so minutes per player. Given the interleaving player actions though there’s relatively little downtime and so the play-time may feel more intensive than it actually is. In the event a player wants to drop out of play, it’s straightforward enough to redistribute their rooms to the supply, or perhaps even simply leave them there if you want a game with fewer placement constraints. It’s relatively rare, once the first few rounds are dealt with, that players are limited for options and so generosity in that respect rarely influences things.
We’re giving Fallout Shelter recommendations across the whole set of categories here, although a few of those recommendations are tentative. It’s still a relatively strong performance and thus I am happy to see it.
This is a relatively unusual game though in that it doesn’t have much that’s unique about its accessibility analysis. Most games that make it here have at least something of distinction that I can reference in the final conclusion. Not so Fallout Shelter. The more data points of this nature that I gather, the more it could be argued that this project has plumbed the depths of the topic.
We liked the game enough to give it three stars in our review. Not something that got us all hot and bothered, but also not an experience we resented having. Its teardown is similarly middle of the road – nothing horrifying and no distressing blunders. Nothing about which to get excited. If you fancy having the world’s most okay gaming experience, then there’s good reason to believe it might be possible.
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.
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