Modifying Games for Vision-Challenged Players: Qwirkle and Incan Gold

Today I’m excited to share a guest article from Sarah Reed. Sarah and her husband Will have designed several published games, including Project Dreamscape and Oaxaca: Crafts of a Culture, and they are featured in the upcoming Dice & Ink roll-and-write anthology. You can follow Sarah on Twitter at @EuroGamerGirl.


Heya! Brian recently saw this tweet about modifying Qwirkle to make it colorblind friendly and invited me to write a guest piece on modifying games for vision challenges.

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Not only do I have a coworker who is low vision and colorblind, but my husband is both legally blind and colorblind. In fact, most of my husband’s family has severe vision impairments, so I have a fair bit of experience playing games with people of varying vision.

For the most part, we choose games that are already accessible with help from a sighted person. This means we look for games with mostly-to-all open information, little-to-no spatial aspects, and nothing that is timed or requires hand-eye coordination. Even with these restrictions, we find a lot of great games that still need a little bit of modification. So far, I’ve found that the modifications have ended up helping everyone, including non-visually impaired folks.

Qwirkle

As I said, one of my coworkers is colorblind and low vision. She enjoys Qwirkle quite a bit, but red and orange look the same to her, and blue looks similar to green and purple. Especially at the distance she sits from the tableau of tiles, it’s really hard for her to make the distinction, which then requires her to ask for assistance. Since she’s supposed to keep her tiles secret in Qwirkle, asking for help gives other players clues about to what is in her hand.

One thing I have learned from gaming with my husband is that decision making shouldn’t be made on color distinction alone. Symbols should be used, hopefully as the dominant way to discern one choice from another. Qwirkle already uses shapes in a different way, so that wasn’t an option. However, it didn’t mean I couldn’t add another symbol to make a further distinction.

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I remembered back to my childhood and how my grandmother’s Rummikub set had a black dot on all of the orange tiles to differentiate them from the red tiles. So I simply added a black dot to the middle of the orange Qwirkle tiles. To make the distinction between blue and green or purple, I used a silver sharpie to add a plus sign on the blue tiles. I probably could have used a black dot on blue as well, since orange and blue aren’t confusing for my coworker, but I decided to go that extra step to make it completely different, just in case. Who knows if future coworkers will have a different type of colorblindness or vision impairment?

Incan Gold

Finding a light-weight game that Will’s family would play was quite the challenge. It had to have mostly open information and be easy to understand. Incan Gold was a really good choice, except for one vision related issue: the two cards you use to indicate whether you are staying or going are horrible for anyone’s vision, and this graphic design choice makes the game unplayable for someone with visual limitations.

The big problems with the Incan Gold cards are that there is very little contrast between any of the colors in the art and everything is dark overall. High contrast is needed for those with vision impairments, or for anyone playing in poor lighting. I’d also contend that there should have been a straight-forward symbol rather than art. A big trap that a lot of publishers fall into is using art when they should use icons.

With the graphic design so terrible that even fully sighted people had trouble, I knew our family wouldn’t have a chance. We had to come up with another way to make this choice, and it had to rely on something other than visual cues.

We had recently picked up a large bag of smooth blue stones for another purpose. Since we had extras, we grabbed some of those and gave one to each player. When a choice needed to be made, everyone took their stone and put their hands below the table. Each player either put the stone in their hand or not, then everyone put their balled fist up above the table. Once everyone made their choice, we opened our hands. A stone in the hand meant they were leaving (and taking all their treasure with them); an empty hand meant they’re continuing to search for more.

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We found this simple change was easy for everyone to understand, and it sped up the game for everyone. I can only hope that a future printing of the game will improve the two decision cards, or maybe, just maybe, use a tactile component in a fun way.

Conclusion

Hopefully these changes will spark ideas in your mind on ways to modify other games to make them more visually accessible. If they did, please leave a comment on what modifications you made to which games!

Photo Credits: Sarah Reed

Colorblind Review: Calico

Here, kitty kitty kitty…

Pastel colors often blend together in my colorblind brain as a strange combination of Easter-egg-Pepto-pink-or-green-or-blue-ness. Real-world quilts and their gamified counterparts tend to make heavy use of pastel colors, which can make it difficult for me to give quilt-themed games a chance.

I inhaled deeply before trying out a prototype of Calico, designed by Kevin Russ, illustrated by Beth Sobel, and published by Flatout Games. Calico is a tile-laying puzzle game for 1-4 players that plays in 30-45 minutes. In it, each player crafts a quilt, and certain combinations of colors or patterns allows them to “stitch buttons” or “attract cats” – each of which earns points.

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The color palette itself is problematic for me, but the team put a lot of thought into accessibility. Each hexagonal quilt piece includes a small icon (mushroom, leaf, etc.) that corresponds to its color and the matching bonus button. This icon was a huge help to me, and it didn’t seem to detract from anyone else’s enjoyment of the game. 

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I asked Shawn Stankewich of Flatout Games about the game’s development related to the use of colors (especially pastels) and colorblind needs, and he shared this about their process.

“As with any game with a lot of color (and especially here, since color is part of the core gameplay) we wanted to be both accessible and also maintain a certain punchiness and brightness to the game. Part of the art direction work was figuring out how to have a relatively colorblind-friendly palette, while also not defaulting to groups of colors that would make the artwork less appealing.”

It’s not an easy balance, and I asked about this push-and-pull between accessibility and their vision (literally and figuratively) of the game.

“Balancing the accessibility needs with aesthetics is always a little tricky. You want to make a game that is accessible for all and that provides the same experience for all (without band-aid solutions) but I have seen some colorblind palettes for 6+ colors that just fall flat when it comes to creating a cohesive color palette that is pleasing to the eye in general. It’s definitely something we constantly try to do better at.”

From my perspective, that is the goal. I don’t want every tabletop game to be black and white (or Crayola Blue and Yellow), but I am hopeful that I will be able to play every game, even if I might need some help. I enjoy seeing a beautiful game on the table, and I appreciate the hard work graphic designers and illustrators do to strike the balance between accessibility and aesthetics.

With any luck, more games will do it as well as Calico.calico3

Calico is available via Kickstarter. For Flatout Games’ other projects, visit their site at https://www.flatout.games.
Photo Credits: Flatout Games

Colorblind Review – Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run

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As I walked from Fantasyland toward Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Disney set the stage, subtly changing the sights and sounds of my environment, taking me far, far away from Snow White and Peter Pan. It was a truly immersive experience.

Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run is the centerpiece of this new land and a fantastic theme park ride. One part Star Tours, one part role-playing game, it’s a must-see the next time you visit Disneyland Park or Walt Disney World.

I had two minor nitpicks, one colorblind-related, one not.

Grouped by Color. After waiting in line I was handed a Role Card and led to a holding area – an amazing replica of the Millennium Falcon. I wandered about, sat in the Holochess booth, and waited for our ship to be ready.

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However, when they gave me the credential they didn’t tell me its color. I listened for a cast member to call out “Orangey-Yellow-Maybe-Brownish-Rust,” but they did not. Fortunately, the other members of our six-person crew helped me along, so all was well.

Play Your Role. There are three roles handed out on the Millennium Falcon: Pilot, Gunner, and Engineer. I was hopeful my real-life engineering education and field experience would come in handy to save the galaxy from evil. According to my Ship Operations Credentials, I was “authorized for systems repair, life support, and tow cables.” Apparently they had reviewed my resume.

As it turns out, the real credential required for the Engineer is, “Look at the wall and push flashing buttons. Do not watch the amazing story unfold or everyone will die. Do your job.”

I did my job. I repaired systems. I supported life. I cable-towed. I pushed the buttons.

It was still a fun time, but on my next visit I will climb the corporate ladder to Pilot, a role in which I have high enthusiasm, zero credentials, and little chance of success.

Take Two. I rode Smugglers Run a second time that day. I got stuck in the same Engineer role (womp, womp), but then I noticed that this credential’s design included the color typed on the card. Maybe Disney received early feedback about the color issue and were in the middle of switching all the cards from the original design to this new one? Maybe it’s two-sided and I never flipped it over?

Problem solved – at least for English-reading smugglers.

smugglersrunwhite

Colorblind Review: Tiny Towns

It’s becoming a common experience. I hear about the new, hot game on Twitter or my local friendly game store. I watch a video review or play along. I see a lot of pretty colors, few of which I can identify. I get nervous I will not be able to play the game without help.

Tiny Towns—designed by Peter McPherson and published by AEGis colorful and charming. It accommodates 1 to 6 players, and I’m happy to say it is quite accessible for most colorblind gamers. It’s also a delightful game experience in solo mode, online play-along via YouTube, or multiplayer with friends and family.

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The five resource blocks require color vision, but for most colorblind gamers (myself included), the colors selected will be easy to distinguish.  The game’s buildings use similar colors (e.g., red, orange, yellow), but each has a unique shape to distinguish from the others.

Colorblind accessibility was baked in from the beginning, as I found out when asking Peter how he selected the color palette.

“You made excellent colorblind-friendly choices in Tiny Towns. Was that an up-front decision, part of playtesting, or from another source?”

“Thank you! Though it was a necessary decision—I’m colorblind!”

“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…”

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Beyond Peter’s own personal experience, he also reached out to colorblind playtesters.

“…I just tried to get the game in front of other colorblind players to confirm that they had no issues.”

I was thrilled to meet a colorblind game designer, and I look forward to seeing how Peter’s perspective will impact his future game designs. I also highly recommend giving Tiny Towns a try!

Colorblind Mode Mod: To make Tiny Towns 100% colorblind friendly, the five types of resource cubes need an upgrade. The Agricola Resource Set from MeepleSource contains replacements for wood, wheat, brick and stone. This leaves only glass, which you can replace with acrylic cubes or just keep using the original blue cubes from the box.

Image Credits: Peter McPherson

Selling Colorblind Accessibility?

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Today, the latest Board Game Design Lab podcast episode started with the following ad:

“This week’s episode is sponsored by Weird Giraffe Games, whose game Big Easy Busking is on Kickstarter right now!”

It continued with the normal stuff: theme, gameplay, etc.  Then this:

“Big Easy Busking is easy to teach, has vibrant art, and graphic design that is colorblind friendly…”

What? An ad read that includes colorblind accessibility as a selling point? A recognition that a potential backer who is colorblind might see the vibrant art and have concerns about playability? I followed up with Carla Kopp, who shared Weird Giraffe’s approach to color vision deficiency in game design and publishing:

“I try to make all my games colorblind friendly, as it’s super nice for colorblind people, but it’s also great for everyone else… Less ‘not fun times’ should mean the entire experience is more fun.”

This extra effort sold at least one more copy of their game – to me. I’m excited to follow the progress of Big Easy Busking on Kickstarter and play it soon!

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Image Credits: Weird Giraffe Games

Colorblind Review: Wingspan

I started my first play-through of Wingspan ready to struggle with its wide-ranging palette of orange, red, brown and green. The big pile of pastel eggs didn’t ease my concerns, as I readied myself to confuse white, pink-ish, and maybe-blue for the next 40 to 70 minutes.

The natural environment – home of every named and unnamed hue – is one of the most challenging for the colorblind. In particular, greens, browns, reds, and yellows can blend into an indiscernible greenish-brownish-redish-yellowish, which for me leads to confusion and frustration.

So every time I am introduced to a new game with a nature theme, I prepare myself for the disappointment of not being able to play it, the vulnerability of exposing my vision deficiency, or a need to ask for real-time help or colorblind-friendly modifications.

Enter Wingspan, which boasts all the beauty of nature. Birds, trees, and eggs dominate each player’s game board, and the colors of cubes, tokens, and bits vary widely. I was both excited to try it out and nervous about how it might go.

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It turns out I had nothing to worry about. Wingspan exemplifies accessible graphic design. It is a beautiful, nature-inspired experience that colorblind gamers can play right out of the box.

I later learned that the designer and developer considered colorblindness early in the process. In a Twitter AMA, I asked Elizabeth Hargrave if she had identified any color vision deficiency issues during the design and development of Wingspan.

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For some designers, color can be used as an easy distinguisher to support basic game mechanics, but in many games it is uninspired, and for me, unplayable. By replacing “set collection by color” in Wingspan, Hargrave and the team both improved accessibility for a subset of players and made the game better.

Image Credits (top to bottom): Stonemeier Games; Twitter.

Colorblind Review: Sagrada

I get by with a little help from my friends. 

Sagrada - Gameplay

Short version: Sagrada was impossible for me to play out of the box without colorblind accessibility add-ons and assistance from other players.

The game: Sagrada is a basic dice placement game with a stained glass window theme. If you haven’t played, read or watch a review, then come back.

The colors: I had the most trouble distinguishing the blue and purple dice. Red and green weren’t as problematic, because in the version I played they were pretty much “Crayola Red” and “Crayola Green.” Of course, your experience will vary.

The game board itself was equally tricky, especially for blue and purple.

Help!: The solutions I used were threefold. First, when choosing a game board I self-limited to one with very few blue or purple squares. Second, my friend Chad (follow him at Cast Iron Game Lab and Twitter) created this add-on that made a huge difference. After each roll we simply sorted the dice by color (elapsed time: 3 seconds) and continued from there. That little piece of paper literally changed my Sagrada experience from unplayable to playable.

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Third, I asked other players to remind me what I was looking at on my board. Since I avoided blue and purple at the front end, I didn’t need this help too often. I tried to not purposely avoid those colors during play, but I’m sure I sometimes did so I wouldn’t have to ask for help as often.

After a few friendly games at work, I went “next level” later in the month, playing in a Sagrada tournament at my LFGS, Blue Highway Games. I brought my paper-boxes tool and asked players to support my needs, which they were happy to do. I was a bit more apprehensive to ask about my board throughout each match, but I still requested help as needed.

I did not win the tournament, but I also did not feel out of place. I was proud to participate in a color-based board game event and grateful for the support from the gaming community.

The verdict: Sagrada can be enjoyable with a friendly group of gamers, particularly those who know you and your needs. It could elicit anxiety if you’re uncomfortable sharing your color vision deficiency.  I know sometimes I am.

The fix: This one is a little tricky. Of course, I managed with the dice-color-boxes and help from other players.  If I owned a copy I could change the purple dice’s pips from white to black, write color names on every square, and/or switch blue and purple dice to black and white. These would solve the playability issues, but at the cost of immersion. I think there is an opportunity to design more elegant solutions that support accessible play while maintaining theme.

Image credits. Top: Floodgate Games.  Bottom: Brian Chandler

Colorblind Review: Splendor

Rubies are red, sapphires are blue…

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I recently played Splendor on PC, based on the engine-building board game from Asmodee. The objective is to collect gemstones to purchase developments and lure visiting nobles to earn “prestige.” The game is engaging, and on PC I liked that up to three AI opponents can be configured by type, like balanced and opportunistic.

The gems themselves are distinguishable by both color and shape, and even the red rubies and green emeralds are “ok-ish” for me. The primary problem I had was with the cards. The placement of colored shapes to indicate gemstones is not consistent, so only color distinguishes them. I personally struggled with green and red, in particular.

The bottom-row counter has the same issue, but it’s less problematic because the order stays the same and generally matches the placement of the gemstones: Top-to-Bottom gems equates to Right-to-Left placement on the screen.  However, I did still mistakenly grab rubies instead of emeralds, and vice versa.

As I started brainstorming ideas to work around the problem, I discovered that it’s already been fixed! The updated version of the tabletop game has been modified with gemstone icons next to each circle or square on the cards. It’s an elegant solution that maintains the game’s theme.

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Have you played Splendor yet, and if so have you run into any accessibility issues?

Top Image Credit: Steam          Bottom Image Credit: The Board Game Family

Author’s Intent

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My intention and hope for Colorblind Games is to share stories of color vision deficient gamers, designers, developers and publishers – including my own. Look for colorblind-focused reviews, essays, and interviews, along with after-market ideas to help us play “color-required” games.

 

 

Image Credit: m_hamberg via Board Game Geek. “Through the Desert” published by Z-Man Games