Table of Contents
|HMS Dolores (2016)
|Meeple Like Us
|Player Count (recommended)
|Bruno Faidutti and Eric M. Lang
In our review of HMS Dolores we told a story of a title that drew from the rich mines of game theory but ultimately lost the value of the output along the way. While I have certainly had fun with HMS Dolores, in retrospect it seems that it was mostly because of what I did to act against my own best interests for the purposes of injecting some treachery into proceedings. We gave it two stars in our review, although before writing it we’d set out to give it more. Sometimes the simple act of collating jumbled thoughts into a (hopefully) coherent narrative is a valuable exercise in and of itself.
Our views though are just that – our views. You’re not in this post to find out what we thought of the game. You’re here to find out who can play it. Is HMS Dolores a wreck in the making? Let’s go down to the beach and find out.
Each of the sets in HMS Dolores are identified by colour, but also by distinctive artwork on the front. That’s useful, because the colour by itself isn’t enough to clearly identify some of the goods unless you’re paying close attention. The colour difference between jewels and tableware for example is not particularly pronounced. You’ll be using the art to disambiguate as much as you’ll be using colour.
The shield icons on the different cards also have a different profile – these indicate value but also show to which set an item belongs. Again though they are not particularly easy to discriminate especially in cases where it would be most useful. The tableware shield bends inwards, the jewels one bends outwards, but that’s a subtle distinction that doesn’t aid in identification at a distance if that is going to be necessary.
But again, the art on every card is distinctive and as such colour is only ever a secondary channel of information. We’ll strongly recommend HMS Dolores in this category.
There isn’t a lot of visual information in the game – there are seven different kinds of sets, a few special wrecker cards, and a dawn card that indicates when the game is over. Cards are only distinguished by their art and icon, but this is a game where the nature of gameplay restricts the need to have a full read of the table. You’ll only ever be conducting negotiations with two players – the one to your right, and the one to your left. Any deal is going to be made up of four cards, and all you need to know about that deal is how it affects the relative standings between the two participants.
As such, you can obtain a full appreciation of the state of play either by visually scanning your relative sets or inquiring as to how the sets will change. It’s a little clunky, but perfectly possible. You can ask ‘What are your totals’, ask ‘What are my totals’ and then ‘what are the totals in the offer’. At that point the game becomes entirely conversational until it’s necessary to indicate your response to the offer. Even for those for whom total blindness must be considered, play with verbal support is likely to be possible given how restricted the game state is with regards to your decisions.
However, what this won’t permit is to meaningfully engage in the theatre of the other deals unless everyone adopts a protocol of narrating the offer and what it means. That in turn might focus players towards things they may not have noticed simply by bring their existence to mind. If everyone is doing this all the time, it needn’t be too much of a risk but it’s likely to influence the flow of the game. Similarly, a player asking for assistance with particular questions could unintentionally skew the outcome. Really though that’s the kind of thing players should be doing anyway. The only difference here is in the intentionality of influence. ‘How many jewels did you say you have?’, could be an innocent piece of mischief making or it could lead to an unanticipated change in player behaviours.
Given all of this, we think there is a playable version of HMS Dolores that can be adopted by players of all severities of visual impairment, but it isn’t cost-free to employ. It needs everyone to agree to a rigorous policy of narration. It also places a considerable memory burden on a visually impaired player with regards to appreciating the different possible outcomes from a deal.
We recommend HMS Dolores in this category.
The negotiations are reasonably simple and the rules are generally straightforward. However, to achieve the greatest effect for your score it’s necessary to aim for a degree of balance across your sets. Tied sets count for your largest and smallest sets, so if you have five of one and five of another you’ll get ten points. If the sum of your highest set is also your lowest set, they count for that as well. Achieving balanced loot is difficult because it involves being very particular in what you pick with random offerings, and you have only partial control over how a deal is going to go down. Numeracy required is thus quite high because it requires symbolic manipulation of the value of your sets along with how you can best achieve your scoring goals. Getting a card that is worth three might be less useful than getting the same card that is worth one, and that is deeply counter intuitive. If necessary, the specific value of cards can be ignored in favour of simple counting of sets. That doesn’t eliminate the need for careful balancing of cards across sets but it does reduce some of the arithmetic complexity with minimal impact on the game.
Combined with this, there’s a surprisingly high memory burden that goes along with remembering the choices you have available – not in terms of the three actions you can indicate, but in terms of how they intersect and what that might mean. There are six possible combinations of actions and the choice you make is going to depend on the relative cost that goes along with your opponent’s possible choice. Fluency in making decisions and deals depends on your ability to internalise what these do and they’re not necessarily very intuitive. For example, both players picking ‘first pick’ means everything gets discarded and each player loses a set of goods. Both players picking ‘fight’ just means everything gets discarded. Why should one be so much more severe than the other? It doesn’t naturally follow that both players choosing the most aggressive action should have only the second most severe consequences for duplication.
A reference chart is provided in the back of the manual, but it would have been much better if every player had a reference card of their own. A player consulting a reference chart too closely is indicative, perhaps, that something less than forthright is about to go down. Even if you assume that someone is just assessing the risk of treachery on their opponent’s part that can greatly change the risk and reward ratio for the second person in the deal. If you think someone thinks you’re going to betray them it’s likely to change your own view as to the right course of action. Suspicion in this scenario can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That then leans into the most significant cognitive cost – working out whether the deal offered is the one that is optimal for your opponent and assessing the extent to which that perception of optimal value is shared. Someone may wish to torpedo a deal that would work for them just to make your own sets less profitable. Here it’s necessary for a player to assess not only the outcome but also the likelihood of the outcome happening as agreed. As discussed in the review the structural flaws in the game mean that often players aren’t really incentivised to cheat each other. It’s still important to know the circumstances where they are and how likely that is to impact on the deal being made. Coupled to this, it’s important for players to remember how previous deals went down and how their negotiation partners acted in those exchanges. You don’t make so many deals during the course of the game that this is especially difficult – you could make a note of it on a pad if needed – but it does influence how viscerally someone experiences betrayal if memory considerations dull the impact.
The special power cards are largely optional, but if they’re involved in the session they significantly alter the flow of the game (they can be played at any time, not just on your turn) and the effect that turns have. You only mix a number of these into the deck in every game, so you can either omit them entirely or choose only the most cognitively simple of these.
We’ll tentatively recommend HMS Dolores in this category – there are problems for those with memory impairments, complexities for those with fluid intelligence impairments, but the game itself might be appropriate depending on the specifics of how accessibility requirements manifest.
Well, it’s a game about negotiation and backstabbing – that’s often a problem in this category. It’s especially a problem here because of how finely balanced the most lucrative scores are – they depend on value of goods being maintained and nothing upsetting that which is most highly valued and that which is least highly valued. If you agree to a first pick that the other player will permit, you can find your entire plan demolished by them going for a first pick too and forcing you to discard a set. Sometimes the optimal move for a player in HMS Dolores is to cut into your score, and that can be done in a wide variety of ways.
Consider the sets in the image above – – this player is sitting on twelve points because their lowest set is three and they have two different sets of that value. Imagine then an offer where we are presented with a card that will upset our scoring and another that will not. Our negotiation partner is presented with two cards that don’t impact on us at all.
I say to you ‘Hey, let me have first pick – I’ll take the plates from your side, you take the jewels. That way you won’t upset your balance, and I get the thing that works best for me. For that, you need to choose peace ’
‘Okay!’, you say enthusiastically. ‘You’re the best!’. You said that because you’re too trusting. I am going to screw you buddy, because that’s what I do.
You reveal your actions, and instead of choosing first pick I went for ‘peace’. We both chose peace which means we get both the cards on our side. I get a plate and a bottle of wine, you get plates and jewels – the problem is that you went from having 3/3/6 to having 3/5/7 and the net result is that you’re now on ten points rather than twelve. Your two lowest sets are no longer in balance, you see – you now only count the lowest of them.
Those aren’t often the decisions you’re making in HMS Dolores because it’s rare that an offer and a deal line up in that way. It is though what can happen on occasion and you need to be able to roll with that. The prisoner’s dilemma is all about being forced to make decisions with an uncertain degree of veracity in an agreement. Occasionally you’ll find your trust is punished by betrayal, and often it’s because you simply couldn’t be trusted to trust.
That means HMS Dolores is also a game of bluffing and lying, because to convince someone you’re going to offer the deal as agreed requires you to navigate some tricky social territory. It’s not just that they need to believe you, they also need believe that you believe them. Seriously, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is incredibly clever but it does make for some treacherous content in this section of our teardown.
The various special power cards too explicitly layer in a ‘take that’ element but they are at least a known threat because you saw when people grabbed them. You need to be aware of their existence, wary of their potential impact should they be played, but they won’t come out of nowhere. However, they can radically upset negotiations and the scoring context. For example the ‘theft’ card allows you to simply take a good from someone else’s personal area. Convoy lets you add a fifth and sixth card to an offer which can radically alter the risks and rewards to both players. Whirlpool lets you change the order of cards in an offer, and so on. You won’t necessarily know which of these cards are likely to appear but they’re part of the standard negotiation and you’ll know to look out for them.
Given the slightly odd way the scoring works, it’s inevitable that scoring disparities might be high and in surprisingly unusual ways. A player with three small sets might very well have more points than the player that won the vast majority of negotiations. You get to attempt to throw a spanner in a carefully balanced arrangement if you like, but it’s not necessarily always in your best interests to do so.
There is a strong emphasis on communication and negotiation, but on the plus side it doesn’t suffer from the same problems of other social games where people are trying to make you out as a liar – they’re just trying to make you think they aren’t. We’ll tentatively recommend HMS Dolores in this category.
The only physical activity involving components is arranging cards in sets, but these are played open and there’s no need for anyone to hide anything that’s happened. As such, it’s not going to cause a problem if one player handles this on behalf of another.
The most problematic aspect here as you might imagine is the need to indicate intent through the ‘rock paper scissors’ style of revealing intention. We saw this before when we talked about Rock Paper Wizard, although there it was significantly more troublesome because it involved more complex shapes and an explicit direction in which the shape should be projected. Here, all that’s needed is a simultaneous reveal of one of three options and that makes the task tractable with some modifications even in situations of severe physical impairment. In fact, I might recommend some modifications to this generally – simultaneous revealing of a hand gesture is a fraught task that is subject to unintentional (or even intentional) cheating. At what point does an open hand becoming a clenched hand correspond to someone changing their mind and what is just hiding the decision until it is properly revealed? Solutions such as hiding a hand behind one’s back or doing a ‘1 2 3 reveal’ system are all problematic here because synchronising physical gestures without one having the potential to leak information to the other is difficult.
Verbalisation isn’t a solution here, but cards or even written instructions can be. In three and four player games there will always be a third party in the game that isn’t part of a negotiation, and so agreement can be struck by both players indicating intent to that person do they can reveal the outcome. In a-two player game you can simply place written intent to a side and reveal them at the same time. The negotiation is conducted verbally in any case, only the explicit reaction on the part of a player need be indicated physically. It translates well into a whole range of different systems of indicating your intention.
Perhaps surprisingly, we’ll recommend HMS Dolores in this category.
There’s no formal need of literacy in terms of game components, but negotiation is a major part of the game. You need to talk people into giving you the cards you want, and into believing that you’ll stick to the deal you’ve agreed. You don’t need to worry about people actively trying to talk over you because you’re working in a two-person dyad each time. However, the sophistication and fluency of deals might be considerable, as might be the case you need to construct to make them seem sensible. On the plus side there’s no time limit, and the complexity of deals can naturally scale to the table. If the players around the table can communicate in the normal course of daily activity they should find it no more complex to handle the deals in this game. If that can’t be assumed, expect a baseline level of difficulty that may push the game into inaccessibility.
We tentatively recommend HMS Dolores in this category.
The art on the box, save for that reflecting the designers and artist, is entirely ungendered. Even the cards from the game shown on the back of the box have no characters displayed.
Most of the art in the game follows this trend, although some of the special power cards do show characters on them. There are seven characters with identifiable genders, and only one is (perhaps) a woman. To be honest, I have no idea if wrecking was an overwhelmingly male pursuit. Given how paper thin the theme it’s not really a defence against the lack of demonstrated diversity in any case.
A point worth making here perhaps is that HMS Dolores perpetuates at least one of the common myths regarding wrecking, which is that wreckers would set up fake lighthouses in order to lure ships to the rocks. In truth there is very little evidence that this ever happened, and many reasons to believe it is a complete myth. There’s a reason that lighthouses were so carefully designed and large – the effect wasn’t easy to replicate with bonfires or oil lanterns. The game at least makes no mention of the spurious myth of wreckers murdering those survivors who made it to shore. It’s certainly true that people were killed in the course of wrecking, but very little evidence to suggest it was as part of the ‘dead wreck’ philosophy of maritime salvage law as is often the claim. There is an excellent PhD Thesis by Cathryn Jean Pearce that I can recommend for background reading on the topic. I’m not defending wrecking as a practice, of course – just pointing out a reason why people might reasonably object to the way in which it is portrayed in the game. Wrecking is part of the rich cultural tradition of numerous coastline and island regions around the world, and this game presents a cartoonish portrayal of what it involved.
HMS Dolores is a pleasingly cheap game, coming in at an RRP of £14 and supporting up to four players. Realistically it could support many more if you were willing for a shorter game – and you could bang several sets together in the style of Karuba if you wanted something more substantial. It doesn’t work very well at all as a two-player game, but functions well enough with three or four people involved. It’s hard to fault on price.
We’ll recommend, just, HMS Dolores in this category.
Cognitive impairments paired with visual impairments would intensity our concerns in both categories – many of the points we made in the section on visual accessibility were predicated on players mentally representing the negotiations rather than making use of the cards directly. Colour blindness combined with visual impairment would make discerning cards at a distance considerably more difficult. Again provided this doesn’t intersect with cognitive impairment it should still be possible to meaningfully play the game.
Verbalisation is not a strategy we consider viable for the negotiation phase, so the intersection of communicative impairment and physical impairment is not one that has any direct bearing on the game’s accessibility. If the required negotiation is not likely to be too burdensome for a communication impairment it’s not going to be meaningfully more so if paired with a physical impairment.
HMS Dolores runs for about twenty minutes, barring accessibility considerations, and while you’ll be involved in all negotiations at two and three players you’re not dealing with time limits and there are no time critical components to the game experience. There’s not a lot of down-time, but the gameplay itself isn’t especially lengthy or intense. It’s unlikely to exacerbate issues of discomfort or distress. If that does become an issue, HMS Dolores does permit players to drop out of play provided there is at least another player there to continue. Goods may need to be redistributed into the deck, but that may not be appropriate given the way it would impact on scoring and the probability of goods appearing. They can be left in place without serious game impact since they are never expected to circulate back into availability. It’s not a completely impact free change to move between player counts but those impacts are reasonably easily absorbed without serious concern.
HMS Dolores does quite well in categories you might not expect – it’s a card game that can likely be played even in circumstances of total blindness, and even the physicality of indicating an action can take a different form without breaking the game. While we’re tentative in a number of our recommendations here overall we think anyone that might want to play probably can. Perhaps with changes, perhaps with compensations, but still maintaining the key characteristics of the game.
Perhaps the most worthwhile thing though about HMS Dolores is that it made me read up a bit on Cornish wrecking to find out the truth behind some of the myths. The fact that the game is actually set in Britanny, France is something I only realised when I was too deep down the rabbit hole to get out. The myth of wrecking is dark, brutal and gothically romantic but in real life it was never quite as grim and ruthless as the modern conception makes out. Luckily HMS Dolores doesn’t really have any significant flesh in the game here – the theme is very shallow and as such it’s not attempting to make a contribution to the discourse on popular cultural legends.
HMS Dolores wasn’t a game for us as our two-star review probably indicated. What it does, it does reasonably well. Unfortunately, what it does isn’t really worth doing – it draws heavily from the prisoner’s dilemma but misses almost everything that makes the dilemma so interesting. If you fancy it though, there’s reason to believe that you would be able to play it without too many difficulties. Twist ending though -remember that dilemma I posed way back in the review?
I already told the cops you did everything.
While you’re rotting away in a stony prison cell for the next ten years I’m off to Sunny Jamaica to engage in a bit of wrecking of my own. See you in a decade buddy, hope the porridge isn’t too lumpy!
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.