Once a child “learns their colors,” this new language allows them to communicate easier with others and better understand the world around them. In games, designers use this language to help players distinguish objects from one another.

Those of us with color vision deficiencies are not fluent in this language, so we mitigate this communication gap with other methods and tools. A common and useful method called “double-coding” can be applied to cards, tokens, and player pieces, and it is generally game-specific based on that game’s setting and theme. For example:

  • Tussie Mussie uses background patterns to double-code card colors. (CBG review)
  • The Isle of Cats designs the different color cats with unique features (rounded vs. pointy ears; fluffy vs. spiked tails). (CBG review)
  • Fantastic Factories uses a combination of symbols and colors to reinforce its contractors and card types. (CBG review)

Double-coding for accessibility reduces the colorblind barrier by introducing another: learning this new language. Even after I learn which cats in The Isle of Cats are red, this knowledge does not help me identify the Tulips as red in Tussie Mussie or the Training Buildings as red in Fantastic Factories. Double-coding is awesome, but it also maintains the unequal challenge between colorblind and color-normal players by requiring re-learning with each new game.

But what if we could further reduce this accessibility barrier by developing a Universal Colorblind Code? Is it possible? What might it look like? How “universal” must it be to be useful? Would a universal code be better for gamers and easier for designers and publishers? What are the pros and cons, wins and losses that come with standardization?

Attempts at Universal Color Coding

The first step is to NOT reinvent the wheel, but instead learn from those who have already asked this question and tried to answer it. There are several methods used to double-code colors in gaming that we could apply universally.


I’ve been following the ColorADD story since I first saw their tool used on UNO cards in 2017; in fact, their tool was an inspiration for me to begin writing about colorblindness. Most recently, I’ve seen ColorADD’s “color alphabet” added to Bombyx’s Sea Salt & Paper.

I’ve tried to use ColorADD myself, but I’ve run into three limitations that keep it from being “the solution” for me.

  1. The ColorADD code is not intuitive. Nothing about a diagonal line “feels” like yellow. Two rounded triangles do not evoke purple in my mind. It requires rote memorization and/or a separate legend, and while I’ve tried to memorize the code, it never sticks for me.
  2. The coding is not rotationally symmetrical; it cannot be read upside down or sideways. As seen in the UNO example above, the blue and red symbols are identical except for their rotation. For most board and card games this is a problem—it’s often necessary to read upside down or sideways.
  3. ColorADD is a proprietary tool that must be licensed by publishers. While I appreciate the research and development process (along with its associated costs), I imagine this would be a hurdle for designers and publishers who already experience very small profit margins.

If ColorADD is not the ideal solution, how might we be able to address some of these issues?

ArtiSlime’s Quadruple Code

RAWR! Games, in a recent Kickstarter for ArtiSlime, introduced quadruple-coding of colors. As seen on the purple card below, it is identified by color, by the combination of red and blue (shown as “R” and “B” icons in their colors), by written name, and by a supplemental color Venn diagram placing a white dot to denote which of the six colors it is.

This method includes so many combinations that I anticipate any colorblind gamer will be able to play; the graphic designers, artists, and publisher deserve all the credit for this effort.

For this article’s question regarding a universal colorblind code, using the “ArtiSlime model” as a base includes a few limitations:1

  1. English-only letters and words reduce this method’s applicability to English-speaking players.
  2. The Venn diagram only covers the six primary and secondary colors.
  3. The Venn diagram itself is not colorblind-friendly; one must at least memorize the locations of blue, red, and yellow to be able to know what the white dot means.

So we keep looking.

Path to a Colorblind Code

Taking all the information described above and adding in my own experience with games accessibility, I continued searching for iconography that might be universally applicable.

Peter Vel’s Symbology

Peter Vel’s November 2021 essay, Vision Encoding Language, was my primary inspiration. Peter described the issue, limitations of current methods, and recommended a colour-based language following these steps:

  1. Colour Model. Peter recommeded a structure based on primary colours (red, yellow, blue) instead of each colour receiving its own icon: “If we create a different symbol for every colour, learning all the symbols will become a big and complex task, which would render the whole concept unusable in practice.”
  2. Symbology for Red, Yellow, Blue. Mapping to readily-understood items, Peter recommends Red Fire, Yellow Sun, and Blue Wave as the three symbols. This allows for black, white, or grey versions of the symbols to also reflect red, yellow, and blue.
  3. Combinations for Other Colours. Similar to ColorADD, this system combines symbols for secondary colours; for example, placing the sun and wave together to symbolize green.
  4. Minimize, Modify for Themes. Fire, Sun, and Waves are not the best icons for all games. Simplifying to generic shapes could make them more universal, and then future creativity to fit them to other themes like outer space.
Left to Right: Orange, Green, Purple, and Brown

While this is heading in the desired direction, it does not provide an “intuitive” symbol for the secondary colors (choosing instead to combine the three primary colors), and it does not provide a solution for other commonly-used colors like pink and grey.

Vetting on Board Game Geek. Building off this article, Sarah Reed introduced the concept in a forum post within the Board Game Geek’s Colourblind Gamers Guild. The responses included (and continues to include) interesting discussion and back-and-forth on this topic. One user asked if, instead of a universal code, keeping the focus on game-specific icons would be better. I thought Peter’s response was important to share here:

“I think a system like this has several advantages over just adding game-specific symbols. Firstly, there’s a benefit to having all players communicate using the same terminology, instead of half the players thinking of cards as red/green/blue, and the others thinking in terms of beets/apples/grapes. Secondly, it’s a system colourblind players only have to learn once instead of learning a new set of symbols every game. Non-colourblind gamers can always use the same set of colours, but colourblind gamers have to learn a new set of symbols every game.”

Peter Vel

What Symbols Make Sense?

From Peter’s recent work and the ensuing discussions online, I reviewed several other sources, including popular games that use color-based icons (e.g., Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon) and preschool classroom materials. A particularly useful source was The Noun Project.

The Noun Project Website: Search for Green

Here is a starting point to consider:

ColorPossible Symbols
RedFire, Apple, Heart, Rose, Cherry, Stop Sign
YellowSun, Cheese, Lemon, Banana, Rubber Duck
BlueWave, Droplet, Whale
GreenTree, Leaf, Frog, Clover
OrangePumpkin, Carrot, Traffic Cone
Purple/VioletGrapes, Goblet
PinkPig, tongue
BrownMountain, Acorn
GreyRock, Mouse
BlackBat, Tire, Skull, 8-ball
WhiteSheep, Snowflake, Baseball

Next Steps

I’m actually not sure what’s next on this topic. Additional conversation and insights will probably bring about some new ideas and insights. I’m sure this list of colors is lacking in several ways: Should dark blue and light blue have separate symbols? Are baseballs and traffic cones universal across cultures?

What do you think? Is there value in continuing a conversation about a universal colorblind code? If so, how do you think it should be done, who should “choose” the symbol or symbols to be recommended to game designers and publishers, and what should those symbols be?

1 To clarify, RAWR! Games never claimed or suggested their coding should be universal; I am extrapolating their excellent work for my own purposes.

Image Credits (top to bottom): Black Bear Pictures, Brian Chandler (3), Bombyx, ColorAdd, RAWR! Games, Peter Vel, The Noun Project, Brett Sayles

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