I previously reviewed Tiny Towns, one of my favorite games released in 2019. In that review, designer Peter McPherson (who is colorblind himself) described his design and development processes, including his review of an early set of components.
“There was one (briefly terrifying) point when we got back the latest version of the cards and I couldn’t tell the red and brown apart. We tweaked them until they appeared as distinct as possible to me…”
In Tiny Towns, you are the mayor of a tiny forest town (represented by a 4×4 grid). By placing resource cubes (wood, brick, etc.) in specific layouts, you can construct buildings on that site. Each building scores in a different way, sometimes interacting with other buildings in your town.
Cubes are selected by a Master Builder (similar to a first player token) or cards can be flipped randomly, depending on play style and player count. Tiny Towns has an excellent solo mode, and the card-flip game type allows for near-infinite player counts as long as components are available.
The published version of Tiny Towns works just fine for the majority of colorblind players. This makes sense, given Peter’s own color vision deficiency and his care for accessibility, I can discern between the colors in Tiny Towns pretty well and have played the game out of the box for years without problems. The buildings are double-coded by shape, so even though some of those colors are close to each other (for me), I find it easy to tell them apart.
However, the game does rely on color for the resource cubes, so while I can play the game, I know there are other colorblind gamers who could use additional help. I wanted to see if a truly playable-in-greyscale version of the game was feasible.
Replacing the Cubes
Given the theme and what the cubes represent, I thought it could be fun to upgrade beyond my typical method (marking up components with a sharpie) by using new components.
- Brown Wood. Borrowed wood components from Caverna
- Yellow Wheat. Borrowed wheat tokens from Caverna
- Red Brick. Purchased resin brick tokens from Top Shelf Gamer.
- Blue Glass. Borrowed* ice tokens from Titanic: The Game
- Grey Stone. Borrowed stone tokens from Caverna
How did it work?
Generally I like the change from small cubes to realistic resources. The Glass and Wood, in particular, are sized appropriately, colors match quite well, and the change added to my enjoyment of the game.
During gameplay I did run into a few issues, some of which surprised me:
Component Sizes. Most new resource components I used are quite a bit bigger than the provided cubes. One ramification is that combining the resources to build a building didn’t feel quite the same, as these resource tokens are as big (or bigger) as some of the buildings. Stone, in particular, is larger than the Well it creates, so this could result in some confusion. Of course, using a smaller stone component would address this issue.
The other nuanced issue is the use of the Warehouse to hold components for use on later turns. The original design holds up to three cubes very nicely. As you can see, stacking the upgrade resources can be a big more challenging (maybe introducing a dexterity variant?). This is easily solved by simply placing the components in the same square as the Warehouse, but I consider that a downgrade from the original. As mentioned above, smaller components could address this issue.
Color Matching. The Top Shelf Gamer bricks are amazing and highly recommended. For this purpose, though, I introduced a new color vision issue that made part of the game harder for me as a colorblind gamer. The bricks I added are much darker than the cherry red of the original cubes. On the table this caused me confusion between red and brown as I matched the bricks to the correct squares on the cards. I had to think harder about making sure I used those two colors correctly.
I could fix this pretty easily by painting the bricks to match the cards or adding three small dots to the red squares on the cards (evoking the holes in the brick). Either would probably solve the problem for me.
The Cards. For this modification I did not mark up the cards, which remain colored squares that provide the blueprint/recipe for each building’s resources and their configuration. This makes my mod incomplete, as a fully colorblind person would need to add symbols or fully replace the art with shaped symbols representing the resources.
Other Ideas. As I was putting together this modification, I also had the opportunity to communicate with Crafty Games, who are publishing Tabriz (designed by Randy Flynn) soon. To address color vision issues in that game, the publisher is producing “cubes” that are uniquely colored and shaped, similar to the rendition in this image. This clever idea has me thinking about new ways to make games accessible.
Did I actually make the game more accessible? Well, yes and no.
Pros. I love a lot of things about this new setup for my copy of Tiny Towns. It looks fantastic, and it adds another element of theme to the game. Also, I didn’t modify the original components, so if someone wanted to play the original version, it is available with no changes.
Cons. The primary downside is cost. If you don’t have other games around to borrow components, the price of the upgrades would be higher than the game itself. And as I shared, sometimes attempting to make a game more accessible can introduce new problems, like the upgraded bricks I selected that are not a good color match to the original cubes or cards.
In the end, I’m glad I upgraded my Tiny Towns experience, and along the way made it easier for me and other colorblind gamers to play.
* Borrowed forever. Tiny Towns kept the ice tokens, and Titanic headed to the thrift shop with a note inside the box: “ice tokens missing.”
Image Credits: First two by AEG. All remaining by Brian Chandler.