Table of Contents
|Name||Shadows in Kyoto (2017)|
|Review||Meeple Like Us|
|Complexity||Medium Light [2.00]|
|BGG Rank||2604 [6.94]|
|Buy it!||Amazon Link|
Parts of Shadow in Kyoto were beautiful enough to compel a purchase, but I can’t say the game as a whole really merits much affection. It relies too much on superficial depth when in reality you’d have as much success flipping a coin except at the higher-performing ends of human intuition. Two and a half stars seems fair in that context and lo and behind that’s exactly that’s what it got. Perhaps we’ll be more enthusiastic as we drill down into the game’s accessibility profile. Your guess is as good as mine. My guess is as good as yours. Let’s flip this coin and see where it lands.
On its side?
Colour blindness is something of a problem. Strictly speaking the game is fully colour blind accessible given how each of the different colours has an icon to go with it – it’s certainly playable, but you lose a lot of easy board state identification when the colour palettes overlap.
You can see this more clearly in the location cards used for movement:
You can definitely cross-reference different types of cards against the board, but instead of being able to use colour and icon some players are going to have to rely on icon alone. The board doesn’t shift between games though and familiarity will ease this over time. There’s also an issue of sorts when it comes to the meeples:
In this case though you can (usually) rely on telling them apart by the presence of a number – if you can see the number, the chances are high that the meeple to which it is attached isn’t yours.
I don’t want to overstate this though – a better palette would have been ideal, but no information is ever actually lost. Colour blindness is not a barrier to play, but it is something that will slow down the flow of the experience. The best accessible games use a good palette and backup icons. Shadows in Kyoto relies on icons alone for its colour-blind cues and as such it’s a missed opportunity.
We’ll recommend it, just. It would have been so easy for us to have reason to be more enthusiastic though.
The board is reasonably small – a five by six grid. The position of individual meeples can be ascertained by touch, and to an extent there’s a tactility about ownership in that they are asymmetrical and you can tell which way they’re facing. For opponents, you shouldn’t know their value anyway and as such it isn’t a problem (in most cases) that this is provided only visually.
However, this isn’t enough to provide a full state of the game since you do need to know the value of your own pieces and the value of any revealed pieces. For the latter that can be inquired of by the table – generally speaking pieces with revealed values are left face up on the board and become open information. However, you can’t simply ask of your opponent as to the value of your own pieces since that has to remain completely secret and any tactile identifier applied is going to have to be equally hidden.
This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker though – in all cases you have the entire back side of a meeple and there’s nothing to stop physical materials being attached. A player could easily make up an accessible variant of this using some combination of felt dots, non-stick squares, and the provided stickers. Since there are only six meeples that a player need manage, it’s feasible too for someone to simply memorise where they are. That is provided there is no compounding cognitive impairment.
The board represents a larger issue, being as it is a grid with important colour-based information. This then intersects with a series of secret cards that permit movement as per their face value.
That’s a major problem although playing with open hands of locations at least wouldn’t represent too much of an issue as a variant. However, in the circumstances in which that’s not possible I’m not sure you’d lose anything of value by simply ignoring the location cards entirely. They don’t add much of real interest to gameplay other than constraints that cannot easily be deduced by the other player anyway. Just let people pick a piece and move it in one of the permitted directions. At best you could say the location cards give a certain plausible deniability. That comes in when pretending a fake agent can’t make the key move they otherwise would (for example, moving a real agent into the back row which you’d do to win the game). I doubt in most cases that’s very convincing anyway, and it could be replaced by a mechanism such as ‘You can’t move to the same colour you picked in the last turn’. Tactics cards are too important to discard in this way, but there’s nothing to stop those simply being one-use powers you can spend whenever. In any case, there are many fewer of those to worry about and accessible workarounds are possible.
For a player with some ability to differentiate colour information, this variant might not even be necessary.
We’re prepared to make a recommendation here, but again only just. Bear in mind that recommendation is based on some modification of the game. If everyone wants the authentic experience with the location cards it will require either the ability to differentiate location and tactics cards with an assistive aid, or extensive workarounds with a substantial deck of cards.
We discussed in the review what I think of the core mechanism of Shadows in Kyoto. I think it creates the illusion of meaningful thought. In the end it could be played fairly well on the basis of a coin flip with regards to whether you should, or should not, attack a piece in front of you. Even taking into account the mechanisms of combat where higher values prevail there are really only two outcomes – ‘you are happy with the result’ or ‘you regret making the move’. Your opponent is leveraging a fog of war – hoping you attack when you shouldn’t and don’t attack when you should. Any proffered combat under those circumstances is a gamble. While knowledge of your opponent might help ease the odds in your favour you might very well find that your opponent is banking on you doing just that. If offered a combat I think simply deciding at random is likely to be roughly as successful as trying to figure it out. Maybe even more so, although I haven’t run the numbers. Someone should run the numbers.
While that’s an issue with enjoying the game on a strategic and tactical level, it does mean that this is a game that is probably quite cognitively accessible. Following the dizzying spirals of logic of ‘I know you know I know that you know’ is extremely cognitively expensive but in the end it’s a coin flip anyway. Simply making a decision, any decision, is likely to be fine in the long run provided that decision isn’t predictable. I don’t think that would be a fun game, but I do think it’s one that even those with moderate cognitive impairments could compete within meaningfully if the rules weren’t a barrier.
There’s other good news too – there’s very little numeracy, only the ability to seriate is required. There’s no real need for literacy, and the rules are reasonably straightforward except for the use of the special tactics cards. Those could be safely omitted – it would reduce the strategic flexibility of play but also dramatically lower game complexity. The game state isn’t especially complex, and game flow is reliable (saving again for a couple of the tactics cards). Scoring is straightforward, and there are guides on the board to help contextualise this for players.
The game also permits meaningful scaffolding of complexity. Leaders are only introduced in the ‘advanced’ game and similarly so for the one-use equipment cards. I love it when games do this but I like it especially when they use non-stigmatising language for the base game. Casting these as part of an ‘advanced’ game is a great way of doing this in an accessible way.
For those with memory impairments there might be an issue with regards to the composition of the two location decks. Remembering how often particular cards have been used will be important in knowing what options a player has for their movements. As discussed in the section on visual accessibility I honestly think they add very little to the game and could be safely omitted. Under these circumstances the tactics cards could be retained since there are many fewer and only repeat twice at most.
Overall then we can recommend Shadows in Kyoto in both of these categories, although there are a number of caveats. This is based on what some will undoubtedly characterise as an uncharitable interpretation of the core game loop – that deciding randomly is likely as effective in most circumstances as puzzling it out. It’s also based on using one of the variants we’ve discussed with regards to the location cards, and also focused on the game at its simplest level of rule complexity. With all of that though, we’d be inclined to say it would be worth a try.
Players have to hold a hand of (small) cards, but a card holder would be appropriate for this. For most cards, they can be safely compressed and overlapped although this may not be appropriate for tactics cards. Other arrangements can be made though and this need not be a major problem.
Playing the game is based around laying down a location or tactics card and implementing its move. The game doesn’t offer much in the way of support for verbalisation here – the identifiers that exist for each agent are secret and as such you can’t simply say ‘Move my real agent of strength two forward’. With only six rows and five columns though it’s easy enough to identify agents by the intersection of both even if it’s not especially convenient. For most agents you’re only going to move them one space forwards, diagonals included. Tactics cards might involve things like swapping, moving agents away from a destination space, or tunneling from one side of the board to another. Again, verbalisation isn’t specifically supported but it’s also not especially difficult to action.
We’ll recommend Shadows of Kyoto here again.
It’s a game of cat and mouse, but there’s so much uncertainty in play that it’s difficult to ascribe too much in the way of skill to success. However it’s also a game that does permit players to needle each other into action by virtue of the risks associated with inaction. That becomes especially malleable when a few agents have been taken – the cost of making a mistake when someone has already captured two fake agents is that they lose the game. If under those circumstances I move an agent all the way to the back of the board it’s basically a kind of bullying with statistics. There’s a 50% chance it’s a fake agent, and a 50% chance it’s a real agent. There’s a 100% chance a mistake ends the game though and there’s usually no way to really bet on the result confident in your own read of the situation.
That’s likely to lead to one of two situations, depending on the people involved – it’s either laughed away as a fundamentally silly exercise in random risk management or angrily denounced as an unknowable and unfair black box. It’s both really. Part of the problem here is that if someone believes in their ability to read other people, that’s pretty much the only real thing they can draw on to make decisions. If they’re right they’ll have a massive advantage over someone that can’t. I don’t think it’s as reliable a tool as many of its proponents would claim but I can’t discount that it might be a factor in this section.
Some tactics cards permit players to lay traps, and some permit for a sudden coup-de-grace such as moving a fake agent to near the back row and then swapping them with a real agent when nobody can do anything about it. Mostly though it’s a game of relatively sedate predator and prey maneuvering and there are few real emotional triggers to be concerned about.
We’ll recommend Shadows in Kyoto in this category.
As with Hanamikoji the cast of characters here is all women. As with One Deck Dungeon, I concede that this is an accessibility issue even if I personally love to see it. While you’re not expected to be any of the geisha agents, you take possession of a commander card that represents a kind of animus for your team and none of them are men. It doesn’t bother me but we’ve seen circumstances in the past (One Deck Dungeon again) where all-female protagonists in games have been enough to turn people away from playing. My disapproval of such behaviour has no bearing on the matter – it’s an inaccessibility for some. The characters look wonderful though.
Shadows in Kyoto has an RRP of around £23, and the biggest problem there is that as a two-player only game it doesn’t lend itself well to play in a lot of circumstances. That might not be an issue if it was a game that was likely to have a lot of replay value but I’m not sure it does. I don’t regret buying it because, as I may have mentioned, I love the art. However, there is only one circumstance where I would recommend it when Hanamikoji is equally lovely, more interesting to play, broadly as accessible, and cheaper. It has a much stronger profile for cognitive accessibility than Hanamikoji, and that’s the only reason I might suggest someone pick it up.
We can only tentatively recommend Shadows in Kyoto here. At least that means the teardown does at have a little bit of texture when it comes to the radar chart. These straight-up recommendations were getting a touch monotonous.
There’s no need for literacy, and no requirement for communication during the game. We can strongly recommend Shadows in Kyoto in this category.
As a two-player game, it puts a heavy burden on at most one other player for any accessibility support required. However, the game is broadly accessible with some modifications and there aren’t a lot of real intersectional issues that come to mind. The most significant would be a combination of colour blindness and visual impairment, although even that would be irrelevant if the variant discussed in the section on visual accessibility were to be adopted.
It’s a very brisk game, coming in at about fifteen or twenty minutes per game – barring accessibility support. It’s not likely to exacerbate issues of discomfort or physical distress, and the small form factor means it would be a reasonably good game to play in circumstances where table-space may be limited.
Well – I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this teardown but it wasn’t broad approval across the board. Unfortunately, Shadows in Kyoto occupies awkward terrain here – it’s a much simpler game than Hanamikoji but aside from that there’s nothing here that would drive me to recommend it in preference.
This is a strong performance, and it’ll net the game an inclusion in our accessible game library on a budget list. Even so, there’s room for improvement – some landmarks on the board that could be used for verbalisation and a better colour palate would move some of these recommendations into more enthusiastic support. Still, there’s little about which I can seriously grumble.
It’s a shame Shadows in Kyoto didn’t impress us more as a game because this was unexpected as far as the teardown goes. I think a more charitable reviewer might have been willing to see more merit in what I’ve largely dismissed as a luck-based exercise of bluffing, and that might be something to take into account. For those with cognitive impairments there’s a game in here that seems on the surface to be considerably cleverer than it actually is and it would fill a niche that Hanamikoji couldn’t. For everyone else, go get Hanamikoji. You can thank me later.
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.