Sanctum (2019) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameSanctum (2019)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.41]
BGG Rank1911 [7.18]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Filip Neduk
Buy it!Amazon Link

Version Reviewed

English edition

A review copy of Sanctum was provided by Czech Games Edition in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Introduction

We liked Sanctum a lot. While noting it has a couple of significant problems in its combat systems and its upgrade path feasibility we also gave it a four star review because it’s very satisfying to play. It’s Diablo in a box. It’s a board game with the soul of a rogue-like, like playing Nethack with dice. I think CGE have a great game on their hands here and I hope our review inspired you to at least check it out if you get the chance.

The cool thing about Sanctum is that it is a game of two parts. One is the relatively easy levelling process where you take your character and commit bloody murder for gems and gear. The other is the viciously difficult final boss battle where you face an enraged Demon Lord with little hope of surviving.

In many ways, it’s like the boardgame of Meeple Like Us. Sanctum has had its easy ride in the review. Now it’s time for the boss battle against the remorseless and unforgiving accessibility criteria we have set forth in our site structure.

Grab your dice Sanctum, may the odds be ever in your favour.

Colour Blindness

If there ever was a colour scheme you should avoid as a matter of course, it’s red/green/blue. All the standard categories of colour blindness suffer here. Protanopia and Deuteranopia are both red-green colour blind conditions, whereas Tritanopia is a flavour of blue-green colour blindness.

Unfortunately in Sanctum the RGB colour scheme is used for the monster cards:

Sanctum and Colour Blindness

To be fair, the monsters you encounter are thematically linked to colour and level. A level one red card is a kind of imp, a level two red card is a kind of ogre, and a level three red card is a kind of – I don’t know, cursed minotaur. Technically then they’re double coded, but given the similar stances and profiles you can see for each monster I don’t think it’s enough. Confirmation from the table will be required.

Loot, Colour Blindness and Sanctum

Colour is also a problem for your gems:

Colour blindness and gems

As you might imagine, this makes the game massively problematic in this category. Picking cards based on what they let you do with your equipment and gem pools is a significant part of play. On the loot cards a different style of gem icon is used for the colour but it’s not distinctive enough to be easily differentiated at a distance. Fortunately the colours chosen for the background there are more easily discerned than for the gems themselves.

In other words, a lot of the game is technically doubled coded but in a way that doesn’t actually help enough for players with colour blindness. And gems, which tightly link between cards and player abilities, are impossible to tell apart except by colour.

We don’t recommend Sanctum in this category.

Visual Accessibility

A lot of the key information presented in Sanctum is done so inaccessibly. The dice requirements on monster cards are notable for their lack of contrast and their loot drops are shown in a tiny icon in the corner. So much of the card is given over to the art, which is odd in a game with so little uniqueness in that department. Close up it’s not a problem, but when you’re picking one of five monster sets from across the whole board it’s more of an issue, particularly when relating those sets to the abilities you have and gems you need.

In the plus column, a lot of your character’s game state can be determined by touch, although with an awkward reliance on sight. You can tell you have used an ability for example – you cover it with an appropriate stamina or focus token to activate it. You can tell when abilities are still to be unlocked – they will have gems on them. You can tell which of your special abilities have been unlocked because they will be represented as cards. Similarly you can tell where you have gear coverage and potions – it’s all represented in a tactile way.

What you don’t know though is what your abilities do, what kind of tokens they need to activate, and what the specifics of the equipment are. And for abilities in particular, covering them up with a token – even a translucent one – makes it difficult to plan ahead because it obscures the actual payload effect underneath.

Verbalisation of game state is feasible here, although it will ask a lot from a sighted player. The options you have for selecting monsters can be easily, although cumbersomely, articulated. Similarly for the options players have for modifying and manipulating dice – it’s easy to list what they are, although reminders will be needed round to round. However, so much of Sanctum lies in an efficient allocation of dice and abilities on the basis of the gems and gear they unlock. Making those kinds of decisions is likely to be swamped in the sheer amount of information. It’s all straightforward in indvidual elements but they’ll need to be listed in large quantities.

On the plus side, if visual impairments are less significant then things get considerably easier because the actual data on each card, once it’s up close and on your board, is relatively easy to make out. Numbers are well contrasted against their containing activation squares. If close inspection is a feasible possibility, then it’s only the range of monsters on the table that are likely to be problematic and that’s a much more straightforward proposition.

The game uses d6s, so accessible alternatives are possible. Players will need up to five of those though as well as one of a different style to indicate the special ‘character class’ die you will pick up as time goes on. Most people won’t have six accessible dice available though, and if they’re needed it will make the rolling dice portion much more complicated given how you have to manipulate and spend them in complicated ways for the larger fights.

There’s a little bit of tactility in tokens in that you can tell things by classification – you can tell apart a gem, a focus token, and a potion. The problem is that you can’t tell them apart within class – you can’t tell a focus from a stamina, or a focus potion from a stamina potion.

We don’t recommend Sanctum in this category. I think the game is technically going to be playable for someone with severe visual impairments. I just don’t think it would be fun for them or anyone assisting.

Cognitive Accessibility

There’s a lot of arithmetic in Sanctum. Some of it has been converted into token manipulation, which is a great way of reducing the cognitive load, but you can’t get around the fact that the combat needs a lot of adding and subtraction and shifting. More, it’s not just doing a sum but rather constructing a series of sums in your head and then picking the one that most efficiently provides the correct solution. There’s a big difference between using a -3 and using your ±2 and your ±1. They might both let you turn a six into a three, but the latter requires the sacrifice of a lot more efficiency. You may have ten or so modifiers you can apply to dice, all of which are one-use until you rest, and using them well is key to success. Similarly with damage mitigation – knowing when to spend two tokens to block one damage as opposed to one token to block two is important. It’s not always the case that ‘the cheapest option is best’, and a lot of these decisions need to be made against the probability of future dice rolls.

And then… the actual shape those sums take is dependant on a player choosing a monster set from an offering on the table. That requires an ability to pick enemies on the basis of how appropriate they are for the dice you have and the skills and gear you want to unlock. Unless you’re making notes in a pad or such you’ll need to hold potentially dozens of possibilities in mind at the same time and sort between them. Worse, you’ll often need to partition these sums in your mind – if you have five dice that need to be allocated to two monsters, then that’s more still that needs taken into account.

It’s a lot. There’s a powerful synergy here between game systems and it needs to be respected.

Also, while Sanctum is mechanically elegant it’s not exactly simple to play. Each phase of play is clearly defined and follows a structured progression but there are a lot of steps to take and a number of nuanced rules that need to be followed. For example, the rage token each player has lets them flip a dice to a desired number, but that ability only resets in the future when they have monsters left to kill and no dice they can allocate. Playing and tracking rage is important. Other classes have skills that impact on the structure of turns, such as the outlaw being able to regenerate focus or to choose a die that doesn’t need to be rolled. One character lets you treat gems as focus. Each character introduces new sophistication into the turn structure that needs to be managed, and that requires their styles to be mastered. They don’t play very differently but familiarisation is required.

Some reading level is neccessary when it comes to enacting character skills and demon abilities, but it’s not excessive and it could be handled with support from the table.

For those with memory impairments alone there’s better news – everything you need to play the game is set in front of you. That’s great in that you never need to remember what happened before. However, there are a lot of tokens and actually comprehending game state can be more difficult.

We can’t recommend Sanctum in either of our cognitive accessibility categories.

Emotional Accessibility

This is a tricky category because it is entirely dependant on mindset. It depends on whether one can have fun with the journey, or whether one needs to reach the destination.

The final boss battle in Sanctum, as I have said many times, is brutal. Death is more common than success and unless you build your character out in a particular way – perhaps not even a way you can accomplish given the randomness of gear and gems – you will not survive to the end. Sanctum isn’t a cooperative game – everyone in the end wins or loses on their own. As such, it’s possible to end up being the only loser at your table. That can be grim.

However, if you go into play with the mindset that death is far more likely, and you just enjoy seeing how well your character does in the final battle, it doesn’t really matter. You can adjust the difficulty of the final level by changing the length of the card row but that’s not the solution you might hope for in this category. Winning because of a nerfed boss doesn’t feel as rewarding as winning ‘fairly’.

So again it comes down to ‘how much do you need to win?’.

Other than that, the main game itself is forgiving to the point of it almost being a flaw. You can rest safely regardless of how many enemies are following you, and that puts all your abilities back into contention. Damage output of most enemies, even later on, is usually lower than your ability to mitigate it. There are some times where players might beat you to a piece of loot or especially valuable monster, but they’re never incentivised for doing it. It’s really a series of solo adventures that just so happen to be carried out consecutively.

We’ll tentatively recommend Sanctum in this category. Just make sure everyone knows, going in, that they should expect failure.

Physical Accessibility

There’s quite a lot of token manipulation in Sanctum, and a lot of card manipulation. The main board is odd in that it is made up of very few spaces and yet will become very busy. As players progress on the board, new cards are dealt out for selection. They’re difficult to pick up off the board too, and they need to be arranged in a way that both highlights which monsters belong to which sets (while showing all their key information) and in a way that leaves the main spaces of the board uncovered. You could certainly do that off board, but even in that case the spaces for each character are very small. The support of a physically abled player will undoubtedly be required.

Sanctum board

Similarly when managing a local board – gems are moved up through your abilities and into your pool, and focus/stamina tokens moved from your pool onto your abilities. One heavy nudge of the table on which your board is sitting and it’ll act like a randomiser on your character – at least as far as their levelling goes. Cards get very small spaces for tokens to be placed and they may have multiple options which means you can’t just drop a token on a card and call it dones. It has to be clear to which ability it has been assigned. All this means if someone is reaching over a table to help someone with their board they’re going to give themselves a lot of opportunities to mess up game state.

The game does permit verbalisation since everything is easily describable, but that doesn’t necessarily make this game all that much more playable since a lot of what you do is assess options. It really helps, like fiddling with tiles in Scrabble, if you can physically explore your all your alternatives.

We’ll tentatively recommend Sanctum in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

I imagine the use of a fierce looking demon on the front of the box will be offputting to some parents given how contentious Dungeons and Dragons has been over the years. Your heroes in the game are balanced between men and women. You’d never be able to tell it from the sculpts but there’s also a degree of ethnic diversity in there although the extent of it is up for debate. There is otherwise little art in the game that depicts any recognisably human figures. The manual makes use of the second person perspective throughout.

Sanctum box

Sanctum has an RRP of approximately £42 which is actually on the affordable side of the modern spectrum of board game costs. Production value is reasonably high and you get several modular setups. It supports two to four players well, and while it isn’t the simplest game you could break out for a gaming group there’s a reasonably low skill requirement to have fun.

We’ll recommend Sanctum in this category.

Communication

There is some small need for literacy during the game but as long as one player speaks the game’s published language they can interpret for others in the limited number of circumstances it matters. There is otherwise no formal need for communication during the game.

We’ll recommend Sanctum in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

We don’t recommend Sanctum in a lot of our categories so this becomes a short section. There is no intersection of which I can think where we don’t already recommend people stay away.

Sanctum lasts for about an hour and a half, and this could be sped up considerably if players trusted each other enough to play without observation. It’s a very solo experience of play and thus there’s no need really for play to progress in anything as formal as turns. That may be necessary in some circumstances because the heavy calculation of the game can be tiring and there’s no obvious way that the game could be ‘saved’ without leaving it set up.

However, dropping in and out of play is mostly possible to do without serious difficulty. The length of the board is based on player count, and this is important because it puts a limit on how much equipment players will be able to collect. In the event this leads to someone achieving an unfair advantage it’s easy enough to offset this at the final level with a more challenging battle.

Conclusion

I confess my hopes weren’t high for Sanctum when it entered this dark abyss before the cursed cathedral. It went up against the Dark Demon Lord of Accessibility without actually levelling up properly and it ended up being punished as a result. Some problems here were avoidable, others are structural. But regardless of the cause, we don’t have much to say here that’s positive.

Sanctum, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessD
Visual AccessibilityD
Fluid IntelligenceD
MemoryD
Physical AccessibilityC
Emotional AccessibilityC
Socioeconomic AccessibilityB
CommunicationB

There is thought a lot of subtlety in these grades. In some sections I’ve made a distinction between ‘can’t be played’ and ‘won’t be fun to play’. That latter judgement is one that is even more subjective than many that you’ll find in here and you’d be well within your rights to assume I know nothing about what you would enjoy.

We gave Sanctum four stars in our review. It’s a very fine game that I hope achieves considerable success for CGE. We unfortunately can’t endorse its accessibility profile – wall to wall it’s a problematic game. If though you think it’s something that you could play I think you’d be doing yourself a solid if you gave it a try.


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.

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