Nusfjord (2017) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameNusfjord (2017)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium [2.86]
BGG Rank376 [7.61]
Player Count1-5
Designer(s)Uwe Rosenberg
Buy it!Amazon Link

Version Reviewed

English second edition

A review copy of Nusfjord was provided by Asmodee Nordics in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Introduction

We liked Nusfjord a lot. Its design is clever in a subtle way, encoding some darkly comic capitalism hidden within a palimpset of relatively sedate Norwegian agriculture. You may spend the game hiring specialists and erecting buidings, but there is a drum-beat signalling your inevitable end beating away in the background. ‘The grave beckons’, the game whispers to you, ‘So don’t waste a moment’

It’s possible I’m reading too much into it though.

Anyway, a four star review doesn’t mean that we’re done with our analysis. We go deeper than that on this site. The next task is to tackle the accessibility of the game. What better use of my limited time on Earth than this?

Don’t answer that.

Colour Blindness

Nusfjord does have a problem in the colours it presents players, but it doesn’t have much of a reliance on colour information in general. Really it’s an issue in two parts of the game – working out who took an action, and working out to whom a share belongs. First, the worker discs:

Worker discs and colour blindness

It’s really frustrating to see games released as recently as 2017 still making this same rookie mistake. Red, Green and Blue are all colours that are a problem for people with colour blindness – none of the categories we look at escape without a problem.

Similarly with shares:

Colour blindness and shares

For worker discs it’s probably not a significant problem because all that matters to you as a player is that an action has been taken and thus you’re blocked from it. It matters little who took the action because as far as your planning goes it’s relevant only in its effect. You can look at someone’s board to tell the important information.

That’s different for shares though – knowing where the income of fish goes is important in evaluating how many resources each player will have. Knowing where your fish goes is a key bit of tactical information. There’s no point buying shares off a player that can’t afford to meet their existing obligations. It’s easily resolved by asking ‘Who own those shares’ but it shouldn’t be so.

So, the game is accessible to people with colour blindness but it still shows a cavalier disregard for colour blindness as a condition. We’ll recommend it, but only just.

Visual Accessibility

It’s, fittingly, a textured story here. There’s a lot of tactile information on your board. You can tell the number and type of boats you have (because they all have different lengths) and with familiarity that will be enough to work out your haul. Your board uses physical strips to indicate forests, and doubles them up to indicate how dense the forest is.

Buildings and elders are represented by cards that have a different gloss to them so you can tell their presence even if you can’t tell their contents. They all have reasonably straight-forward effects and there won’t be so many that it’s impossible to commit them to memory or make a note in some accessible format. Only occasionally for some of the more complex building types does it matter where they are on the board. Some buildings (such as the church or the extension) award points based on their adjacency to other buildings, but there aren’t a lot of those.

Different kinds of tokens are used for fish, for wood, and for money.

Different tokens

All of that is great, and there are a number of other positive features for those with visual impairments. Everything from distributing fish onto physical shares to the discs that indicate actions… it’s all giving a lot of information to even players that are dealing with total blindness.

It’s also a game that doesn’t need you to obsessively worry about what others are doing – the only way you have to impact on players is through the medium of the shared action board. You may want to prioritise your actions there based on what you think other players are likely to do, but there’s rarely a significant tactical complexity that needs to be taken into account. Look after your own house and you’ll be fine. Mostly.

However, all this needs to be tempered by the fact that elders and buildings all have unique effects and there are quite a lot to choose from.

Buildings available in Nusfjord

The central action board has a set of effects that are quite constrained and they will be easy enough to commit to memory assuming no cognitive impairment. The game comes with three independent decks of buildings though, and only a subset of each will be used in any given game. As a result, memorising the full breadth of what Nusfjord will permit is likely infeasible. Importantly, this is a game of assessing the opportunities for synergy within the elders, the action spaces, and the buildings. If you need to accomplish a particular action, there may be a magical incantation available if you can just work the board in the right way. That will be difficult to do if compound effects need to be verbalised. Just as an example using the image above, perhaps you are lacking a fish and so you can’t build a boat. It’s the second last action of the round and so you’re currently looking at not being able to get the haul you deserve and need because you can’t get the fish and use the shipbuilding action before the next phase of the game.

What you could do though is buy the holiday resort with your second action and get a free fish. With your third action you then take the constructor elder, which gives you two fish and lets you trigger his action immediately. Boom, you get the fish, and the elder, and the ship just in time for the next haul. Pretty sweet, but you need to be able to work out those opportunities from the board and I think that will be much more difficult if you can’t easily read the effects and consider them in isolation and in combination.

That said, it doesn’t seem like a game that would be impossible to play with sighted support, especially if everyone at the table is willing to offer tactical or strategic advice on request. We’ll tentatively recommend Nusfjord in this category.

Cognitive Accessibility

There’s an awful lot going on in a game of Nusfjord. Its economic model means everything is constantly balanced on a knife-edge of optimisation at the right time and at the right cost. Managing that by itself requires a sophisticated understanding of how valuable, in time and money, each of the actions are. I spoke a fair bit in the review about the mathematics of efficiency and how that interplays with the risk management of the game. Playing Nusfjord, even as poorly as I do, requires quite a sophisticated intuitive understanding of some complex topics.

As a simple example of that, consider what it means to put a share out into the world. A single share isn’t an especially tempting prize for another player, and so you will probably have the chance to buy it back before someone else does. But not necessarily, and the chances will shift over the course of a round as resources tighten and diminish. If I need one fish to carry out my master plan in the next round, then maybe I do want to buy your one share so I get that fish provided, by you, when I most need it. There are certain probability contraction points in the game where risk and reward undergoes a kind of multiplier and you need to be aware of them. That share at the start of the round when I have other options won’t look as worthwhile as it does when it’ll be useful in the very next phase of the game.

On top of this, the game employs some very sophisticated synergy in how you use elders and buildings. An example of that is given in the section on visual accessibility so I won’t rehash it. Suffice to say that being able to see opportunities on the board requires chaining together a series of immediate and long-term effects to accomplish particular goals that are only possible through the magic alchemy of cards. Again, given the emphasis Nusfjord puts on optimisation, it’s also the case that timing matters here. Pulling off good combinations, at the right time, with the minimal investment of actions… that’s the trick here and it’s cognitively demanding. Even something as relatively simple as managing forests on your lands needs to take into account efficiency of action and resource acquisition.

The game requires a good command of literacy. The effects of some buildings can be sophisticated – there are difficulty levels of building available but even the simplest ones require some analysis of how they work in combination with other options available.

For those with memory impairments alone there is some benefit to be had in knowing deck composition, but given how you only play with a subset of cards at a time it’s not an overwhelming advantage. The implication of that though is you also never really get a chance to truly learn how to make effective chains of action. You need to analyse cards available and work it out each time from first principles. You never know if key cards will be available in a game, or if you’ll ever get access to them. That varies with player count, but even just the random shuffling of opportunity when the game is set up has an impact.

There are some positive features though in how the game components are set up. Resource limits are clearly indicated, the turn markers provide a clear overview of the flow of the game, and the fishing haul distribution is clearly marked on each board. Other than the small issue with the decks, the components do a good job of eliminating the need for memory. However, we shouldn’t underplay the memory burden that comes from assessing buildings and elders and holding in mind a coherent strategy for play.

We don’t recommend Nusfjord for those with fluid intelligence impairments, but we can tentatively recommend it for those with memory impairments alone.

Physical Accessibility

The constraints on the boards are quite tight – there’s not a lot of room upon which to position cards, or resources. However, really there’s no need for any of the boards if you want to play directly on the table. You have a max of five elders, you work with a 3×4 grid where the top left is your resource warehouse, and your ships have a consistent size that can be used to work out your haul. It’s not ideal to play the game that way of course, but it’s possible. Given that the cards slide around a bit on the board it may be better to use a more frictive surface in some circumstances.

Some of the cards with which you play are very small, but they’re never really played as cards. You may end up with a hand of these as play progresses (based on player count and round order) but a standard card holder will be sufficient. They’re just options unique to you rather than resources you need to hold and play as the game goes on.

You will be dealing with a lot of tokens as the game goes on, and the two different parts of your board for resources have different limits so you can’t just dump them all together. You’ll have a maximum of eight fish in your warehouse, and a maximum of twelve wood in your supply. But you may also have fish in your supply and, as a result of card actions, anything from money to wood to ships in your warehouse. They’re small and difficult to count out too.

The game does lend itself to easy verbalisation – I would have liked to have seen the player boards come with some kind of co-ordinate system but you can just use rows and columns to unambigiously reference any part. Every instruction is either something you can say without confusion, or offers a redundancy that has no game impact. For example, when you say ‘Build a building’ there may be more than one building square but it doesn’t matter which one is used.

The various boards in the game can get quite busy as time goes by, but I do very much like the fact that it’s all modular so you can lay it out according to your own physical comfort and preference. That extends to the multi-part player boards. That’s such a great, simple accessibility feature and I love to see it.

We’ll recommend Nusfjord in this category.

Emotional Accessibility

Most of the interaction in Nusfjord is indirect. You sell a stock, and someone buys that stock. The effect is that they get one of your fish from that point on but it doesn’t feel quite as pointed as them simply taking a fish off of you. After all, you were paid for that share. It’s a business transaction, and it does mean that they are literally invested, up to a point, in your success. Nobody can take anything away from you unless you gave them the opportunity yourself.

Nusfjord is a challenging game to optimise, but it’s not an especially challenging game to play. You will rarely find yourself without something of use to do, but certain critical paths to success can be blocked off by other players. Some elders for example serve to give alternate access to particular actions (building a ship or a building can be done by the constructor). If you have the appropriate elder, nobody can stop you from accomplishing a goal. Otherwise it’s only possible to do if the space is empty or there is a convenient building that you might be able to get. That’s a common feature of worker placement games of course, but an interesting aspect of Nusfjord is that the action limit is so significant that you can’t waste your time on being a dick. If someone blocks you from an action it will almost always be because they needed it themselves. Unless they are playing to lose, but don’t play with people like that.

The emphasis the game places on timing and optimisation though is a double edged sword. Sometimes you will find yourself pipped to the post at important times, or you’ll find that someone else’s optimisation impacts on you. I gave the example in the review of issuing a share, which people probably won’t want by itself. If someone else issues a share, they have essentially doubled your risk at at a time that may not be optimal. Maybe you were going to buy your single share back, but now you can’t afford to buy both so you need to pass the risk on for longer than you wanted. Again, you know that going in but it can create tensions when someone else binds their risk taking to yours.

The cost of making mistakes in Nusfjord can be significant, and early success will tend to breed additional opportunities. Being able to pick up a powerful combo of cards can allow a single player to dominate, but the game includes a kind of rubber-banding in that there’s only so much it will let you do. Sure, maybe you haul in twelve fish but it’s the shares and the size of your warehouse that determines how many you get and when. It’s difficult to get into a position where someone’s eventual victory is unassailable.

Point differences can be significant, particularly with some of the heftier victory-point buildings in play. Sometimes the point differences can be unfair, because cards may be dealt out to players and unavailable for purchase by others. If I have a church and an extension for example, building one counts towards the victory point total of the other if they are positioned properly. That’s fine if they’re both in the marketplace, but not so fair if they’re both in my hand. To be honest though I haven’t checked to see if they’re both in the same deck so maybe that specific example isn’t possible. There are others though.

These are I think minor points of worry in a game that generally only punishes you for your own risk taking. We’ll recommend it in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

The box shows only beardy men, although the manual is written in the second person perspective. And, as best I can tell, every single elder in the deck is male. The sole action square with a human character displayed is male. I didn’t see a single woman represented anywhere. Some elders are dressed in a way that certainly could be argued to show a blend of ethnicities but I would be unconvinced. It’s a very poor showing. As usual one might argue historical accuracy, but until games take that seriously in other parts of their design it’s not a particularly persuasive defence.

Elder cards

The retail price is around £45 at the time of writing, which is a little on the high side but not so high that it’s extortionate. You get a lot less game for a lot more money from a number of titles we’ve looked at here. That said, the RRP is considerably higher and so the value proposition gets less enticing the closer you get to full price.

We can only tentatively recommend Nusfjord in this category.

Communication

There is no formal need for communication during play but there is a need for literacy, and the reference manual provided for clarifications puts an even greater burden on language than the cards themselves. If playing in a familiar shared language though, there shouldn’t be a problem.

We’ll recommend, just, Nusfjord in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

Much of our section of visual accessibility relies upon a good memory. As such, an intersection with memory impairments would invalidate all of that and we wouldn’t be able to recommend the game. Similarly going the other way – one of the things the game does well is provide exhaustive representations of state but that’s only useful if visual information is something that can be effectively processed.

Games of Nusfjord are relatively quick – the manual cites about 20 minutes per player and that feels approximately in the right ball-park. It does require quite a lot of setting up and putting away though, It also doesn’t really lend itself well to a player dropping out, depending on whether or not shares have been issued. That said you could house-rule a solution to that (say – every share is honoured even if its issuing company isn’t there) and play could continue reasonably easily from that point on. Once buildings and elders have been acquired by a player they can never re-enter the supply, so the only impact beyond shares is that pressure on action spaces is alleviated. Even that can be solved by randomly assigning player action discs to empty actions.

Given the number of components and complexity of game state it’s not straightforward to ‘save’ the game other than leaving it set up.

Conclusion

The only category in which we cannot recommend Nusfjord, at least tentatively, is in fluid intelligence. For everything else there is reason to believe it could be suitable, even if that’s going to depend on individual judgement. It’s a stronger performance than I expected really.

Nusfjord, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessB-
Visual AccessibilityC
Fluid IntelligenceD
MemoryC
Physical AccessibilityB
Emotional AccessibilityB
Socioeconomic AccessibilityC
CommunicationB-

There are a lot of really good accessibility features here, and that’s had an impact on the end grades. It’s weird though that successes in more difficult forms (modular boards, usage of components, etc) isn’t matched by an equivalent care taken in the actual easy stuff – specifically, colour choice and balancing character art between men and women. It’s an odd roster of successes and failures.

We liked Nusfjord a lot and gave it four stars in our review. And while I wouldn’t describe this as a strong performance it’s certainly one that is unusually positive for a game of this nature. Our first look at one of Uwe’s ‘crunchier’ games is a pleasant surprise, so if you get a chance and think you could play we would recommend you check it out.


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.