I’m excited to welcome back Sarah Reed, a game designer, developer, and playtester who previously wrote about her experience modifying tabletop games for those with color vision and low vision. Sarah specifically shared how she plays with her husband Will Reed, who is legally blind and colorblind.
Sarah recently responded to a Facebook community group request for game recommendations for those with low vision, and how to support them. Sarah shared about her 20 years of experience finding games she and Will can play together, and she described the challenges and rewards of supporting her partner in play. This article is an expansion of that response.
For all intents and purposes, my husband Will cannot see tabletop games. He plays almost completely in his head and what he can feel by touch. He has a closed-circuit TV (CCTV), which allows him to magnify cards, but text and symbology must be simple and distinct due to how bad his vision is.
When gaming with a disability, it is important that we research games first by watching reviews and how-to-play videos. These allow us to look for critical gameplay aspects that might make or break a game for us, in terms of interfacing with the game. We need to conduct this review first, even before we can analyze if it’s a game we want to play for all the other reasons (Does it seem fun? Do something new and different? Are there mechanisms or themes that we enjoy?).
Playing games with a blind person takes a lot of work on the part of the visually-able person. I set up the game. I handle almost all the parts. I read the rules out loud. I often handle most of my husband’s components for him, unless the game has distinctly-shaped pieces that he can keep organized himself. Going into a gaming session, I need to be prepared to balance Will’s need of my assistance with my ability to play and enjoy the game – especially if it’s competitive. Frankly, some games might not be worth my time because of how much more I need to be involved in helping him. This is where two decades of partnership comes in, and the work we’ve done to communicate as a couple before and during play.
Components make a big difference in the ability for blind gamers to play, and for others around the table to support them.
- Dual-layer player boards are a blessing because Will can learn the layout of the board by touching the recessed areas and moving the pieces along those tracks. A good example of this that we recently played is Fantastic Factories (which is one I suggest checking out). The player boards are dual-layer, made for dice placement.
- Dice with recessed pips allow Will to identify what number is rolled by feel.
- Component shapes. Whether two-dimensional chits, wooden resources, or anything else, it is much more useful if they are distinct from one other. For example, Charterstone has shaped resources as well as some meeples that are unique. Sometimes we benefit from investing in upgraded components, like the available items for Wingspan or Taverns of Tiefenthal.
- Clear iconography. If cards have simple and clear iconography, Will is able to see using his CCTV.
- Organization. Even when there aren’t uniquely shaped components, if the game only has a few different types, Will can keep them organized around his player board, with type 1 to the left, type 2 above, type 3 to the right, etc. So there are still ways to take an existing game and make it more accessible by setting up the player area.
For colorblind issues, you need to look for double-coding. This is where the components, often cards, are identified by a color and a symbol. Triple-coding is even better when they use text as well. Will uses text if it’s there (unless the font is horrendous, which does happen, sadly). Some publishers think art is good as an icon, but it’s not. When combining low-vision with colorblindness, the icons need to be simple and distinct.
We generally avoid games that keep cards or other player-specific items hidden; for example, we avoid most games that require a screen to hid components from others. It puts a lot of strain on Will’s eyes, so even if he can see the cards it causes visual fatigue. If there is a small aspect, like a hidden goal, that can usually be okay. We’ve even played games where 99% of the game is open info and we choose to treat the hidden goal as open (though with my memory, if I read him his goal, I’ve usually forgotten within a few rounds).
In general, we avoid any games with maps, tile laying, polyominoes, and overlapping cards. There are exceptions. We do play games that have grids for maps – for example, Dice City – and we play some tile laying games with very simple grids and tiles, like Overboss. As mentioned previously, these games have no hidden information, so I can help Will manipulate his board.
A good rule of thumb we follow is that if I can’t explain how to get from one place on the board to another in a way that he can understand and remember, it’s not a good game for us. And intricately placed tiles or cards that he’d have to touch and see, but doing so would mess it up, is a big no-go.
Cooperative and Solo
Many cooperative games allow for completely open info so you can work together and enjoy the experience, and we’ve even played solo games together. Most of our video gaming together is solo RPGs. I always joke that I’m the brawn (eyes & handle the controller) while Will is the brains (thinks of strategies), but we make decisions together. Some of my favorite memories are of us playing these kinds of games together – both video games and tabletop.
Your Mileage May Vary
A lot of it is trial and error, which can result in buying a game we think will work, finding out it doesn’t, and re-selling or trading it for something else. No two people have the same vision limitations, and the same person’s challenges can change over time. Games Will could play 10 years ago may be a lot more difficult now that his vision has degraded. For example, we love Seasons, but it requires everyone to keep their hand of cards hidden all the time, so it requires him to get up from the table a lot and go use his CCTV. That much reading strains his eyes now.
Additionally, sometimes I’m not up for taking on the additional support needed for a large, complex game, so we pick simpler games that don’t put a lot of stress on me. Other times, I’m quick and up for playing heavy strategy games and moving Will’s pieces over a gigantic board.
Final Thoughts and Encouragement
For anyone considering diving deep into tabletop games with a low-vision, colorblind, or fully-blind friend, partner, or family member, I don’t share any of this to warn you off. Just know it will take some work, especially on your part. And it’s going to be very rewarding. I love helping my husband play games.
Only you and your fellow gamer(s) know the extent of their vision and ability as well as your ability and desire to balance helping them and playing the game for yourself.
Good luck and, most importantly, happy gaming.
To hear more from Sarah and Will, visit their new YouTube channel focused on 2-player games and accessibility analysis, Rolling with Two.
Photo Credits: (1) Joseph Z. Chen. (2) Stonemaier Games. All others by Sarah Reed.