The Estates accessibility teardown

The Estates (2018) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameThe Estates (2018)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.34]
BGG Rank733 [7.52]
Player Count (recommended)2-5 (3-5)
Designer(s)Klaus Zoch
Artist(s)Daan van Paridon and Thijs van Paridon

Version Reviewed

English edition

Introduction

The Estates got a pretty rough ride in our review. It’s undeniably a well designed game, but one that leaves me so unhappy at the end of play that I just want no part of it. I’m not opposed to a streak of meanness in my game. I just don’t like games that seem to be about spite for the sake of being spiteful. We gave it one and a half stars in our review, but that doesn’t mean the game is bad.  It’s just absolutely, incontrovertibly, not a game that appeals to us. It’s absolutely fine to say occasionally ‘This thing is not for me’.

So, who is it for? Well, obviously for those that read the review and thought ‘That sounds amazing’. You folks can fill your boots, have fun! Just don’t invite me!

Maybe… just maybe… it’s also suitable for some other demographics that might not be able to pick and choose quite so liberally with their entertainment?

I start the bidding at… one teardown.

Colour Blindness

This is only a small issue because the colours are all accompanied by distinctive patterns of lines and criss-crosses. The pattern of these is indicated clearly on the ownership cards so there is absolutely no loss of information associated with colour palette. It’s that easy, publishers!

Colour blindness and cards in The Estates

You can see that even in the wilds of the game board. Where the cubes are all arranged and built up on top of each other there’s a clear differentiation between even cubes of potentially problematic palettes. For example, green and blue for those with tritanopia. It’s fine.

Colour blindness and cubes

We strongly recommend the Estates in this category.

Visual Accessibility

This is more of a problem category. The game does permit a degree of tactile investigation, but the only thing that differentiates cubes are their numbers and colours, and this is printed onto the pieces. You could investigate by touch to find out the size of a building, but not the composition of its ownership. That requires either the ability to make out colours and text, or inquiring of the table.

Tower arrangements in the Estates

Initially it won’t be much of an issue to recall ownership of buildings, and there’s no random draw of cubes mid-game that impacts on the meaning of this information. It doesn’t matter really what cubes have been covered up by others, because they cease to have any bearing on the rest of the game. The offering is set at the beginning and only six cubes will ever be available for selection at any one time. You pick them from the sides, rather than having free choice.

The Estates cube offering

Roofs have value that is obscured when they are selected, and their number is only revealed when the auction begins. There are only three building contracts, and both the cancel cube and the mayoral hat have distinctive physical profiles.

This means, technically, that the bidding phase is fully amenable to play with verbalisation provided sighted support is available. One player can list off the available cubes and contracts, and then one can be verbally selected to put up for the auction.

The problem comes in knowing what to bid, and where to put what you win.

A growing Estates board

Consider the board above. Note that large towers will obscure smaller towers, and that’s an accessibility issue that amplifies the core problem. Let’s say you are just about to take control of the a blue four. Where do you put it?

Well, you can start a new building. Four is a strongish foundation and sand pits prevent anyone building anything taller than a bungalow. If you place the cube there nobody can take your building away from you. So there? But then you can’t grow it. So maybe row one or row three? Or maybe you build it on top of the yellow five?

Which is most sensible?

Well, it depends in part on how many cubes are currently available on offer. How long will it be before any that can be selected for bidding are going to be a problem for you? How quickly do you think you can place and cap buildings? How soon do you think it’ll be before any individual row is finished? And all of that is based on the entirety of the game as it is presented to you.

A more built up estate

I argued in the review that it’s not really possible to play The Estates with any real expectation of carrying out a masterplan. The whole game pivots too violently and too abruptly for that to be the case. The inverse doesn’t hold true – it’s very easy to play poorly. A bad round can leave you with no points, no money, and nothing of value you can auction to anyone else. The best way to think about the visual state in The Estates is ‘dense’, and it doesn’t lend itself well to holding in memory because of the tight interrelationship of elements. The difference between something being a good move and a bad move might be the order in which cubes for auction get revealed in the next six rounds. It’s not that the game can’t be verbalised. It’s more that its state defines verbal contextualisation that is almost impossible to provide.

At least the cheques you use in the game are available in only one denomination.

So, we don’t recommend The Estates in this category.

Cognitive Accessibility

For those with memory impairments alone, the Estates is quite unusual in that it actually becomes easier to play as it goes along because the number of options you have dramatically diminishes. It’s a perfect information game once the setup is over, which means that we can be reasonably positive about its suitability there.

However, we absolutely can’t for fluid intelligence impairments, because the game asks a lot of everyone that sits down with it. There’s no need for literacy but it requires a considerable grasp of numeracy that is remarkable not for its complexity but for its intensity. The value of buildings shifts constantly, and buildings can go from being worth a lot of positive points to being worth a lot of negative points in the space of a single auction. They can then swing to being worth twice as many negative points as they were positive in the next. Or vice versa. It’s also a numeracy that’s tightly bound up to other players in an unintuitive way. Sometimes the way to win is to tie the fate of an opponent to yours so that they work towards completing a row in which you’re heavily invested rather than trying to ruin it.

Score then isn’t so much a function of arithmetic as it is fluid dynamics.

That then gets coupled to a closed economy in which everyone has to carefully consider the implication of every bid. It’s easy to get goaded into overbidding for something you don’t really want and then left to place it, sometimes in a way that is only to the benefit of someone else at the table. The economy of The Estates is opaque and requires considerable ability to forward plan if a single move isn’t going to be disastrous. It often happens in the Estates that the person that most benefits from a cube being bought doesn’t want to be the person that pays anything for it, and that’ll depend on the arrangement of cubes on the grid. If there is only one place a yellow six can go, it does me no good to actually pay for it to go there. That makes even selecting items for auction difficult.

As I said in the review though I don’t really believe this creates an interesting decision space. Merely a complicated one. Your clever plans will often end up being used against you as the game twists and turns. However, just because ‘The game doesn’t really let you be clever’, it doesn’t follow ‘the game lets you play carelessly’ because that’s absolutely not true. The Estates is a game about constantly trying to protect yourself from error, and it’s exhausting. Every mistake is a pit into which you can easily fall and never escape.

We don’t at all recommend it for people with fluid intelligence impairments, but we can recommend it for those with memory impairments alone.

Emotional Accessibility

The review is basically one big ‘nope’ as far as this section goes. This is a game that zooms straight past ‘mean’ and lands directly in ‘spiteful’. Even cruel on occasion. It’s frustratingly difficult to play without mistakes, and expert play doesn’t always translate into effectiveness because the game state is practically rubberised. You can fall into a pit from which you can’t escape – left with no money, nothing worth auctioning, and sometimes left to pay for actually improving life for everyone else. There’s a fair amount of implicit bluffing too to get people to bid for items with money they don’t want to spend.

What accomplishments you build in the Estates are only ever transitory, and it’s always other players explicitly choosing to screw you over. When someone steals a building away from you it’s because that’s what they chose to do, except in circumstances where it’s the only option they had. But still, unless they were the auctioneer (that is, unless they were you) they chose to bid for the chance to do it. Often the game swings in a nasty direction – you’re close to winning so the rest of the table conspire to take your most profitable row and extend it to the end of the meadow. Then they block you cancelling it and apply the mayor. So you went from being in the lead to losing as a direct consequence of collusion. The game doesn’t just encourage this – it requires it. The whole game is build on this kind of mechanism. It’s a crabs in a bucket design, and it revels in it.

Players never get eliminated as such, but The Estates has the Catan issue of your turn coming around and you having to say ‘Can’t do anything useful’. You never get any extra money – it’s a closed economy. If you’re in a rut there’s no way to break out of it. So you pretty much have to keep playing but never get to do anything fun. If you have zero dollars for example, then even if someone bids a mere one million for an item that you auction you have to accept it. And if they can get it for one million dollars, they’re not going to bid ten. You can keep someone ‘alive’ in the game with subsistence bidding and it’s very frustrating to experience.

We absolutely do not at all recommend The Estates in this category.

Physical Accessibility

The cubes are pleasingly substantial and the money, while technically being ‘paper money’, is actually card. It’s still a bit awkward to handle but you’d be better off using something else anyway. Poker chips perhaps.

Cubes get placed on top of other cubes, but this isn’t a major part of the game ‘feel’. The spectacle of it is quite nice, but the actual act of placing a cube atop another doesn’t impart any particular feeling of accomplishment. As such, this can be handled by a physically abled player at the table without it impacting on enjoyment.

Everything else in the game is amenable to play with verbalisation.

We’ll recommend The Estates in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

The manual is gender neutral, and each of the cheques in the game has a different name on it. These come from Kickstarter rewards, at least in part,, so they reflect the makeup of those that can and will drop $100 on a vanity pledge board-game reward. That is to say – there are a lot of men and not a lot of women, and the surnames reflect a certain ethnic homogeneity. Not exclusively, but if you pay attention it’s pretty clear. It’s an interesting scenario actually – a genuine socioeconomic phenomenon of the type that I had hoped would turn up more often in these teardowns. It’s not the fault of the publisher that the demographic of outlandish Kickstarter backing skews heavily in one direction, but on the other hand there was nothing to stop them balancing it out themselves after the fact. It’s easy to see in the Estates who controls the money, and just like in real life it’s mostly white men.

The Estates cheques

The Estates has an RRP of approximately £40 as best I can tell, and while I wouldn’t play it again unless you had a gun to my head there will be people that absolutely love how vicious it is. It plays up to five people, and if you just want to spend an evening dicking over your friends this is about the best game, on this blog, for doing it.

We’ll tentatively recommend The Estates in this category. Mostly because of the fact the use of the Kickstarter to build out the investor names is, of a natural consequence, going to reflect a socioeconomic disparity and it’s a little pricey for what you get.

Communication

You can play The Estates in stern silence if you like, but it benefits from some economic table-talk. You’ll want to dissuade people away from certain courses of action while colluding on others. It’s not a negotiation game, but rather a bidding game where negotiation is an important back channel. I wouldn’t want to too strongly encourage play of a game like this if communication at the table is going to be an issue, but it’s not formally required.

We’ll tentatively recommend The Estates in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

Much like the game itself, The Estates swings wildly in these grades. The critical intersectional categories that tend to create the largest interface issues (visual and cognitive) are already games where we advise players stay away. There are, as best I can tell, no other intersections that would impact on playability.

The Estates is a game that says it should be played in rounds, but in my experience a single round takes long enough to potentially be uncomfortably long. When someone places down a three-length building contract I can feel my heart sink because it just added even more length to the game. I suspect with familiarity it becomes a lot quicker to play but in the short term it’s long enough, and nasty enough, to exacerbate issues of discomfort and distress. It’s also not a game that permits anyone to drop out of play without significant impact – it’s not that the game changes components or counts but rather it has an impact on momentum and the economy. If you have lots of money, you’ve locked that up away from people. If you have none, you’re responsible for a surplus that loosens everything up. You similarly can’t really just redistribute the cash or buildings you have without having a massive impact on the dynamic of the game. If you start The Estates it’s going to be a problem if you’re not able to finish.

Conclusion

Well, it’s not really a surprising performance given what we talked about in the review. I used the word ‘poisonous’ to describe the atmosphere of play and that’s reflected here. The style of game will be fine for a lot of people, but there are many that I wouldn’t dream of playing it with even if they were completely able. It’s a game that’s too fragile in its fun for that. Everyone at the table needs to be a stone-cold bastard if there’s to be any joy in it at all. And for my social groups, the biggest (and often only) bastard is going to be me.

The Estates, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessA
Visual AccessibilityD
Fluid IntelligenceE
MemoryB
Physical AccessibilityB
Emotional AccessibilityF
Socioeconomic AccessibilityC
CommunicationC

Given the complexity of the game state and the intractable contours of the economy, it was also never going to be a game that worked well in several of these categories. All we can really say is that insofar as the game can be accessible, there are some notable decisions in presentation that have ensured it to be so. The implications of the Kickstarter reward are unfortunate. I hadn’t at all considered this in the past though so I’m thankful that The Estates has contributed a little additional information to the accessibility guideline work that is still slowly percolating away in the background.

I didn’t like the Estates. I’d go so far as to say that, with reflection, I hate it. I’m also happy to accept that’s an issue with me and not with the game. It’s a problem of philosophy rather than game design. I think the Estates accomplishes what it undoubtedly set out to do. I just want no part of a game that takes such gleeful delight in making my game night such a nasty experience. Some of you won’t be able to play it. Personally I think that might well be for the best.

 


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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