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Iota is a difficult game to play and not just because of its challenging and emergent placement rules. It’s just hard to visually process a game state that snakes over your table like a overlong chameleon with an erratic emotional connection to an overstimulating environment. Every card is part of a clue-set with regards to the state of the next, and that means you’re not so much looking at a coherent board as you are series of passive aggressive riddles. Still, it’s a very enjoyable game – far more enjoyable than its diminutive tin would suggest.
We’ve got a different puzzle we need to map out today though.
All those colours, shapes and wildcards– what does each of these elements imply about the accessibility of the game? Let’s work our way through the trail until we arrive at the only possible conclusion.
I’d go so far as to say Iota is functionally unplayable if anyone involved is colour blind. Colour is one of the three ways in which cards can differ, with the other two being number and shape. The palette chosen is likely to be an issue for all categories that we consider here. The extent to which it is an issue will vary with severity as is always the case, but there are few scenarios in which it’s going to work out to anything other than ‘very not good’.
The problem is twofold. The first is that your cards are held privately. You can’t really play with open information without radically changing the game because everyone will have a better idea of where your next plays are likely to go. The second issue is that lines must be constructed according to very precise rules where the previous cards set limitations on the next. Being able to tell if the next card has to be red or green, or blue and green, or yellow and green… that’s not just an occasional requirement, it’s pretty much constant and has to be assessed against dozens of lines in dozens of orientations at any one time.
No textures or patterns are provided on the cards to ease in this – it’s colour and colour alone. Generally, we don’t recommend people ‘mod’ their games – it’s our view that games should be accessible out of the box as far as is possible. However, even if you were willing to do that there’s an issue – there’s a lot of cards and adding an iconic representation to accompany colours is going to layer just one more thing that players need to think about in play. That’s in a game where colour is vital because of how strikingly it differentiates otherwise identical cards. Colour permits assessment in the aggregate in a way icons wouldn’t. You’d need to individually texture each card and there are other games that don’t ask as much of their players before they are playable.
We’re giving Iota one of our rare F grades here.
Visual accessibility is another troublesome area. The game is, I think, completely unplayable for anyone for whom total blindness must be considered. I shy away from making a claim like that in most circumstances that because the ingenuity of people should never be underestimated – if people want to play an inaccessible game there’s a good chance they’ll find some way to make it happen. I don’t see at all how that’s possible in Iota without a truly vast amount unpleasant awkwardness. The problem here is that lines, until they are completed, represent slots into which variously shaped cards can go. Sometimes they are invalidated because it’s not possible to complete them – when they intersect with other partially completed lines, for example. Most of the time though they exist ‘in potentia’ as lots to be completed and any game of Iota is going to contain hundreds of possibilities where a card might go.
Any two cards together begin a line, so every card is either part of an existing line or the possible start of another. Where in-hand cards should go is completely up to players within the placement constraints. Sometimes the best place for a card to go is nestled into a nook of other cards so it can take advantage of double line scoring. In addition to this, the state of play is essentially an undifferentiated grid that is almost impossible to meaningfully verbalise. Consider the game state shown above – five lines have been played and already a description is virtually meaningless in terms of guiding people towards meaningful decisions. You can describe it, sure, but not in a way that makes it cognitively parseable in a manner that would convert into actionable play.
Iota is therefore not at all suitable for totally blind players. For visually impaired players, the situation is only slightly better. The game does permit investigation with an assistive aid, and at any one time a player only has four relatively simple cards in hand. However, while examining the ‘board’ will yield some useful information with regards to state and validity it will only be as a snapshot. There are often subtler intersections. Again, consider the game state shown above – if a player extends to the right of the green three square at the left end, then the second card will also need to be compatible with the line it’ll meet coming downwards from the yellow one triangle. That has a massive impact on what would be sensible to play from a hand. More than that, it would be important to know that you couldn’t extend that second line towards the bottom because there is no valid card that can be placed. That also has an impact on what you might wish to do. Checking close up will yield some information, but not the nuances that will generally lead to the most impressive scoring.
Being able to get a sense of the layout of a game is often useful, because then you can fill in the blanks with close inspection. Here though it’s all so precise and meaningful – there is no part of a line that can be ignored, and no part of the game state that would be safe to discount from consideration. It all has a profound impact.
The thing is, Iota is deceptive in this regard – if all we consider is the basic unit of a line, visual impairments will not prevent play in a technical sense. That is – take a card and place it in the emerging layout. Iota is like a crossword where the clues all shift around the answers though, and I don’t think play at any level of competence beyond the most basic levels can be expected from visually impaired players. There’s just too much of the decision space bound up in the context of visual information for that to be realistic.,
We don’t at all recommend Iota in this category.
On its simplest, most technical level Iota is a straightforward game. So straightforward you could be mistaken for thinking it’s utterly trivial when the systems are described. To start off with a positive I can say that there’s little benefit that comes from having a good memory with regards to effective pl ay. The game state shows everything you need to know except which cards are still left in the draw, and there are duplicates of all of them. The fact hidden hands are involved, and that those hidden hands can be shuffled back into the draw deck, means that you can never really know what’s left anyway unless it’s all on the grid. By that time, you’re too deep into the game to effectively leverage that information.
The problem is that both cognitive faculties are intensely stressed by the nature of the game state rather than the rules of the game. It’s not complicated, but it is intensely complex and interdependent.
The playing of a line is a narrowing of the possibility space, but it’s odd because this doesn’t actually reduce the cognitive costs. Every time you look at a line you basically need to mentally re-evaluate its meaning. Two cards create a line, and every card added after that means working out if a placement is valid. Consider the two intersecting lines below – what card is needed to complete the three-card line?
And that’s an okay question, right? It’s a yellow two triangle, because all the numbers are two, they’re all different shapes and the only one not used is a triangle, and it’s yellow because they’re all different colours and yellow hasn’t been played yet. But the thing is, unless you can fix that ‘blank space’ in your mind as a yellow two triangle you’ll need to work it out every time you look at it… and there will be dozens and dozens of lines in a full game of Iota. I’m going to take the unusual step here of linking in a BGG image for the purpose of analysis:
I’m going to point out several features here. The leftmost bottom card is a wildcard, and the interesting thing about a wildcard is that it gains a fixed value when it’s placed. It’s not just a holder for a theoretically possible value. In the specific context of this game state it’s a yellow circle with a value of one. It has to be, it’s the only possible card that would be valid. That means that the line it creates with the blue square to its right require all of the cards there to be different in all three categories. And every time you need to add a new card, you need to obey that wildcard. But look how much game state there is – you don’t have the spare cognitive capacities to store that information, especially because there are other wildcards you need to take into account. The one at the far right for example is a green cross with a value of two, and that took me a good five seconds to work out. Every single time you consider a card in your hand you basically run an algorithm across each line to work out if it’s valid and you’ll almost certainly fail on occasion.
Steve, in the comments for that image, points out ‘the green row in the centre has two fours in it’. I’m amazed that’s the only screw-up.
And, for the purposes of avoidance of doubt – it’s difficult enough if cognitive impairments don’t have to be considered. Play tends to slow down like an old computer crunching through a big dataset as it reaches the end because there’s so much cogitation required. I suspect if anyone looked deep into my eyes during the last turn of the game they’d just see spinning hourglasses. It’s not even as if you will be able to discount lines that can’t be completed, because you likely won’t remember which ones those were. You’d need to come to that conclusion afresh every time you revisit the game state.
All of that argues strongly for our grade here, but for completeness let’s talk about the other things we usually do.
There’s no need for literacy – the game is completely language independent. There is though a strong need for numeracy which dovetails with tactical decision making. It’s worth making a low value line if you use up all your cards because of the doubling effect, and that doubling effect is for a turn not for a specific line. The cards you play down are the sum of all the intersecting lines in which the card is placed, and that can result in compound arithmetic. Playing the game well requires leveraging the quirks of scoring when it’s most to your benefit.
There’s no real synergy to worry about, although placement of intersections is hugely important. The game state sprawls significantly but no single part of it is overly difficult to parse – it’s just in the aggregate it becomes difficult to comprehend. No general knowledge or knowledge of trivia is required of play, and the game flow is always consistent.
We’re going to have to give Iota our lowest possible grade in both of our categories of cognitive accessibility.
Well, it’s nice to finally have a category where we can be positive. The only thing anyone can do to you in Iota is deprive you of a space you wanted to play a card. However, if you’re completing a line there will only be one possible card that could do it and the chance of both players having that same card, at the same time the line is available, in the same turn of the game, are vanishingly small. It’ll happen, but not often. You can never block a player out of the game because a new line can be started anywhere by playing down a single card – the only real emotional issue is that it can be frustrating to draw cards that don’t have any good home in the game. However, passing your turn and redrawing usually comes with limited effect since the difference between a good turn and a bad turn can be hundreds of points. There’s no real harm that comes from not playing a low scoring card in favour of trying to get something better. You’ll have that delay repaid by orders of magnitude if the draw is kind.
Points differentials can be huge – hundreds and hundreds of points if someone gets lucky. However, you play down so many lines and the manifestation of these kind of optimal scoring scenarios is erratic and unreliable. The sheer number of turns acts as a powerful normalising effect on this kind of thing. It’s rare, but possible, players will lose by hundreds of p oints. Even without that though differentials can still be quite high.
There are no take that mechanisms, no need for bluffing or misdirection, and everyone will have an equal chance to play even if they don’t necessarily get to make big scores. It’s a pretty inoffensive game, really. We’ll recommend it in this category.
The game state will sprawl aggressively, taking over whole tables if you let it. Because new lines can be started at right angles to any other card in the game it’s difficult to predict from the start where the game is going to go. The number of cards makes it virtually impossible to reorder the layout when it veers off out of someone’s reach.
Each player will have a maximum of four cards to consider at any time, and while these are small and square they’re also going to work well with a standard card holder. Their key elements of information are shown clearly in the centre as well as in each corner.
Verbalisation is possible, but far from optimal, because the game layout is large and with no easy ways to describe particular locations. Going back to the image we referenced from BoardGameGeek we can see how this might work – by referencing compass directions (the northeast quadrant) and then narrowing down in there. ‘The red line in the northeast quadrant’. Each card can then be uniquely identified unless it’s part of a chain defined by similarity rather than difference. It’s possible to have a line where all you have are ‘blue three circles’ and then players would need to indicate which card was meant. I’m not sure realistically how a co-ordinate or landmark style system could have been implemented considering the way game works. In any case verbalisation it’s feasible although it might get awkward when referencing locations far away from the impacted player.
Otherwise, the core physical interactions are holding a hand of cards (likely with a card holder), playing a card to what may be an awkwardly located part of the game (with no guarantee anyone is sitting conveniently close to it) and occasionally swapping cards from your hand back to the deck, or dealing cards from the deck to your hand. All of those can be done without direct intervention of a player with physical impairments. Scoring is done by hand with pencil and paper, but again there’s nothing to say that has to be done by each player. A designated scorekeeper is probably the most convenient way to do this.
We’ll tentatively recommend Iota in this category.
Iota is a completely abstract game, with no theme and no gendered art. The manual is in the second person perspective and makes no assumption of gender.
Iota comes in an absolutely tiny tin, and has an RRP of £12. The tin is a little fragile – it didn’t survive a flight in the luggage of an airplane even padded as it was by t-shirts and jeans. As mentioned in the review, there’s a lot of game in this tin and it supports two, three and four players well.
We’ll strongly recommend Iota in this category.
There’s no need for literacy, and no formal need for communication during play. That’s useful, because chances are you’ll be too busy working out what cards can go where to have much in the way of spare mental cycles for conversation.
We’ll strongly recommend Iota in this category.
Our ‘anti’ recommendations are very strong for several of these categories, so that does a lot of the heavy lifting in this intersectional section. As soon as any one of those comes into contact with a recommended category, it would obliterate it like antimatter. The only intersection with which we are left is that of physical impairments and communication. The lack of ease of verbalisation doesn’t sit well with a difficulty in articulation, and in that circumstance we’d advise people look elsewhere for their fun.
Despite being a small game, Iota still takes a solid half hour to play and each minute is full of intense calculation. It’s possible to end up worn-out at the end just as a consequence of trying to parse its often intractable game state. While it’s not long enough to be a concern with regards to exacerbating discomfort or distress, the intensity of its systems deserve some consideration. Weirdly, its tiny size doesn’t actually make it as portable as you might expect – while you can slip it into a pocket without concern, it will often explode to fill a large table and that means that it won’t be a convenient fit around a complex lifestyle. You need a lot of surface space to play, even if the game experience itself is quite compact.
Iota is not just a big game in a tiny tin, it’s a big accessibility profile in a tiny game. When I started writing this teardown I honestly thought there was a chance it might unseat Chinatown as the least accessible game we’ve analysed on the site. It pointed its nose at the ground and just plummeted until it managed to pull out of the dive at a critical moment.
Writing this analysis though is a reminder of one of the things we occasionally keep demonstrating on Meeple Like Us – that simple doesn’t mean easy, and that ‘low weight’ on BGG doesn’t necessarily mean cognitively accessible. Sometimes the most straightforward games ask the most of us. So it is here although there are also missteps that could have easily have been avoided with slightly more creativity in design. I’d hope a new edition of Iota textured the colours on the card to improve its performance there as one simple example.
Iota plays a bit like the world’s most awkward jigsaw puzzle, or like a five-year old created a Rube Goldberg version of Scrabble using only the wooden shape blocks their parents bought at the Learning Store. We liked it a lot, even as it left us mentally wrung out at the end. It doesn’t have a hugely encouraging accessibility teardown but if you can play it you might find you enjoy it more than you would expect.
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.