Spell Smashers accessibility teardown

Spell Smashers (2018) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameSpell Smashers (2018)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.33]
BGG Rank4139 [6.82]
Player Count (recommended)1-5 (1-4)
Designer(s)Christopher Chung
Buy it!Amazon Link

Version Reviewed

English edition

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

Introduction

For me, Spell Smashers is an instructive case study in the idea that ‘When the Gods wish to punish us, they first grant our prayers’. It’s almost exactly a game I asked for someone to make, and yet all I feel when playing it is frustration. There’s just too much stuff that I don’t want to do getting in the way of the good stuff. We gave it two and a half stars in our review. Be careful what you wish for.

Any word game that comes the Meeple Like Us way is going to end up being excoriated for sins that other sites don’t even consider flaws. That’s just the way of preferences. It’s entirely possible you read our review and ended up more excited to play Spell Smashers than you were before. So the second scouring we do on the site is the more important. Let’s see whether or not Spell Smashers is accessible enough to be worth a recommendation here.

Get the iron whip with the extra rusty spikes, I’m going in.

Colour Blindness

Colour blindness isn’t a problem in Spell Smashers. What you work with primarily are letters, and those have no colour coded information to go with them. The different damage types of each letter are indicated iconographically, and while colour is used to differentiate it’s not used exclusively.

Colour blindness and Spell Smashers cards

The most notable area where colour is an issue, although not an actual problem thanks to double coding, is in the potion tokens. There is a colour overlap issue for some categories of colour blindness, although not to the point it’s going to impact on play to any significant extent.

Potions and colour blindness

Even the cards that you pick up have icons in the centre that get around any potential colour clash issue.

Colour blindness town

We strongly recommend Spell Smashers in this category.

Visual Accessibility

Word games aren’t ever going to really excel here, but Spell Smashers does as well as could be hoped for in a lot of its components. The letter cards for example have a huge font, are well contrasted, and are clearly structured. They’re as readable as they could feasibly be.

Cards

That’s less true of the monsters you face, because their trait information is very small and easily obscured if the setup isn’t careful. It’s all easily verbalizable and there won’t be so many different enemies that you face that it’ll be a problem, but it is something to bear in mind.

The good news there is that using money to indicate monster health is a great way of offering a tactile indicator as to how good a word you’ll need to construct to defeat it. Actually assigning money to the monster is a little tricky for those with visual impairments because the fonts are not very clear and the numbers are quite small but close inspection will be sufficient in most circumstances.

Close up on monsters

The quest cards could have benefited from using smaller icons and larger fonts, but you only have two of these you’re worrying about at a time.

Perhaps the most awkward part of regular play is discarding cards, because there are three separate discard piles (vowels, consonants and wounds) and managing this can be awkward if the iconography isn’t clearly visible. Cards do have a fixed orientation though that makes this simpler.

So, for those with the ability to deal with cards through close inspection it’s a reasonably positive performance.

It’s not nearly so rosy for those for whom total blindness must be considered. In the end you’re having to mentally parse seven cards with differing damage types to create a word that is powerful enough to deal with monsters and achieve quest goals. A massive amount of additional cognitive load is placed on players that cannot see and manipulate the hand of cards in front of them even if everyone plays with open hands for the purposes of accessibility.

We’ll offer a recommendation overall in this category, with the proviso that those with total blindness will likely be able to play the game but at a notably increased cost in cognitive overload.

Cognitive Accessibility

One of the things I remarked to Mrs Meeple while playing is that you really feel the lack of a tile rack when playing Spell Smashers. One of the amazing cognitive prompts in Scrabble is the ability to easily partition up a set of letters and rearrange its composition. It lets you ration out your letters in a meaningful way. Having your letters represented in a hand of cards, as opposed to the tiles, adds a considerable layer of cognitive cost to playing Spell Smashers over Scrabble… and that was already a ‘don’t recommend’ before we added in any of the extra complexities of using words as weapons.

However, I think the complexity of Spell Smashers is actually less significant than that of Scrabble in terms of cognitive depth. Scrabble requires a lot of forward and sideways thinking about the consequence of word placement – such as the risks of putting an I next to a triple word square. Spell Smashers doesn’t require any of that, and all its additional rules regard optimisation of damage output rather than strategic effectiveness. It’s definitely more complex to match damage types to monsters than it is to spell out the words themselves, but I think that’s easier than finding a word that overlays onto a Scrabble board in a meaningful and safe way.

However, it’s still a word game and that means vocabulary is important. Spelling is important. Numeracy is important, and in relatively complex compounds. Given the way that word length contributes to intiative, the best player will often be the one reaping the greatest rewards by choosing the choicest prizes. If you always get first choice, it means you’re always getting the optimal outcome from the offering of the board. Only the person that kills a monster gets its trophy, and thus its permanent letter. Having more letters means bigger words which means greater chances at higher initiative. As with Scrabble, this is a game that requires everyone playing to have a roughly equivalent vocabulary and ability to use it at speed. In that case, a lot of its cognitive complexity scales to the capabilities of the players.

Spell Smashers is, rules wise, considerably more complex than Scrabble and that’s going to have a corresponding impact on how accessible it is. Having to mould words to quest requirements and weapon conditions is probably the most significant of these. It forces players to use a random hand of letters to construct words that meet conditions that may branch out in multiple ways. If I want a word that uses more than six letters to activate my weapon, but also a word that uses two or more of my trophy cards (to satisfy a quest), that becomes a major challenge when it has to be done at the same time as beating up a centaur.

There are synergies that emerge in Spell Smashers, but they tend to work incrementally based on gathered trophies. Seeing the potential in your current play depends on whether you gain initiative, whether you can kill a monster, and whether someone is going to come along after you take your shot and steal it from underneath you. Playing strategically over the long term requires building an inventory of letters, and that may necessitate a degree of decoupling your short-term goals from your long-term benefit.

In the end, I think Spell Smashers comes out roughly in the same place as Scrabble in the cognitive accessibility stakes. We can’t recommend it in either category, although you could home-rule a simpler version that doesn’t have quite so much going on.

Physical Accessibility

The main physical inaccessibility in play is going to be in holding a hand of cards and trying to manipulate it in a way that allows you to partition off cards for later use while reordering the rest. In this respect, players using a card holder are likely in a better position, cognitively speaking, than those doing in-hand manipulation.

The counterpoint of that though is that the reordering of cards in a card holder is almost certainly going to cause problems. There’s so much of it needed, and cards are so much more cumbersome than Scrabble tiles. It’s certainly possible for someone else to do that on behalf of a player with physical accessibility concerns. However the role that serendipity plays in constructing good words means that it won’t ever be a true replacement for them doing it themselves.

Other than this, the game does support play with verbalisation. ‘Play my third, fourth, and fifth cards. With my monster tokens I can make the word ‘Meeple’, which I will play against the quirky fairy’. Selecting quest and gear cards, where you get a choice of one from an offering of two, can be done with assistance. Choosing weapons from your available options is similarly straightforward to do.

Where Spell Smashers is likely to be somewhat problematic, in that it will require some house-rules, is in how it handles simultaneous action. We discussed the issue of out-of-sync word making in the review, but here it’s even more significant. The player supporting someone with physical accessibility concerns will also, probably, have their own cards to be thinking about. They either favour themselves and then help, or help then try to catch up themselves. Someone, in that circumstance, is going to have to be the centre of a table’s attention while they work out a word under the additional pressure of knowing they’re the blockage stopping the game proceeding.

We don’t recommend Spell Smashers in this category.

Emotional Accessibility

One of the big issues in many word games is that clever vocabularies can be a problem. If someone plays out the word ‘Whimsical’ and you play out ‘Door’ then it’s easy to feel like you’ve embarrassed yourself. Spell Smashers sort of resolves that problem by creating the circumstances under which small words can actually be much more effective than big words in terms of damage output. However, it’s still a case of quantified effectiveness. You might score better with ‘door’ than someone else did with ‘whimsical’, but if you don’t… well, you just embarrassed yourself in two different axes.

This won’t be an issue for a lot of people, but if you’re playing with someone that is conspicuously showy about their vocabulary (a thing of which I am often accused) it may not lead to the most enjoyable experience. The measure here is going to be whether someone is going to be judged on their words as opposed to the result of the words played. That’s true whether someone is going to be smug about their long words, or if another person is going to take the use of interesting words as a personal insult. When I was a child, bullies used to ask if I had swallowed a dictionary before they launched into some more physical assault. Some perfectly smart people, and I don’t get why, seem to take the expression of a nuanced vocabulary as a personal insult. Bear it in mind here, because in Spell Smashers words will hurt.

In the cognitive accessibility section I stressed that it’s important that people play with roughly equivalent vocabularies. I’ll say here that it’s also important people play with similar philosophies about vocabulary.

That said, the design of the game does obscure a lot of the issues a more ‘raw’ word game like Scrabble introduces. For one thing, there’s a degree of psychological cover to be found in the fact that different players will have different trophies, will have accumulated different wounds, and will have different gear. You’re not working with a word by itself, but rather an ecosystem of opportunity built around a set of letters. There’s also no PvP element that means players can use your own words against you later.

We’ll recommend Spell Smashers in this category. The circumstances under which it are likely to be problematic are very specific. And if you actually have friends that are pressuring you into using smaller words to protect their own sense of self worth… maybe get better friends.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

The cover of the game shows a reasonably diverse roster of characters although as is usually the case it’s difficult to draw many conclusions about representation when you’re dealing with fantasy races. We’ve seen a lot of that pretty recently with people arguing that Orcs in D&D are built on racist tropes and denigrate black people. You might be correctly identifying a negative association between a fantasy race and real world ethnicity. What you’re also saying is ‘Orcs make me think of black people’ and it’s really difficult to credibly unpick projection from that kind of analysis.

All of this is basically me saying ‘I don’t want to get into the area of claiming fantasy races have meaningful things to say about racial stereotypes’. When it’s obvious, it’s obvious. When it’s not, it’s dangerous.

Anyway, the box of Spell Smashers is fine and the manual doesn’t default to masculinity, using instead the second person perspective.

Box

Spell Smashers is available for around £35, and supports up to five players. According to BGG it works well at all player counts other than five, and that would track with my own experience – I suspect at the full player count it’s likely to drag itself out beyond the point of fun. Still, having the option means larger groups or families aren’t disadvantaged.

We’ll recommend Spell Smashers in this category.

Communication

No formal communication is needed during play, but what is required is a comprehensive command over the language in which you’re playing the game. You’ll need to be able to deal with words being challenged, be able to recognise when you should challenge other words, and construct meaningful words from letters not of your choosing.

We can only tentatively recommend Spell Smashers in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

We already don’t recommend Spell Smashers in several of our most common intersectional categories, so there’s not much to talk about here. An intersection of a visual impairment and a communication impairment is probably the key one to discuss, because a lot of our section on both requires information only available in the other. If the cards aren’t clear, it’s important to be able to articulate your needs as well as be able to comprehend what guidance is provided. That could be a significant problem in situations where that’s not straightforward.

Spell Smashers has a very variable playtime, lacking as it does any formal time limit on the construction of words. It also don’t lend itself well to house-ruling such time limits giving the discontinuous nature of interaction. The game itself states it’ll be over within sixty minutes, but I think that’s optimistic and works on the assumption of smaller player counts. It’s not necessarily the kind of game I’d say that is likely to be an issue for comfort or convenience, but it easily could be. Dropping out of play is something that can be easily supported with house rules, but is not convenient if players are opposed to working out a solution on the fly.

Conclusion

In the background of the site there’s a spreadsheet that calculates averages of recommendation grades and let’s me identify which games are more accessible than others. It does this by converting letter grades into numbers and then summing them up and dividing. With that in mind the best I can say is that Spell Smashers is more accessible than Scrabble. It has a ‘local number’ of 69, nice, against Scrabble’s 66. Higher is better. It’s a C+ average versus a C.

Spell Smashers, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessA
Visual AccessibilityB-
Fluid IntelligenceD
MemoryD
Physical AccessibilityD
Emotional AccessibilityB
Socioeconomic AccessibilityB
CommunicationC

So that’s at least something of a recommendation – if accessibility is your key requirement, Spell Smashers is on average likely to be a better call than Scrabble. But when you get into single digit levels of difference the margin of error is basically ‘whether I was in a bad mood when assigning the grade’.

I have referenced Scrabble a lot in this teardown because the core activity of each game is broadly equivalent, at least on the surface. For the sake of three points of improvement on accessibility though, you lose a full two and a half stars of game. We’re passionate, ceaseless advocates for Scrabble on Meeple Like Us. If you come for the champ, you better come heavy. If you take a shot at the king, you’d best not miss.

Sorry Spell Smashers. I wasted a finger of my monkey paw wishing you onto my game shelf, but I’m still going to be sticking with Scrabble for the foreseeable future.


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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