Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure to learn how colorblind designers, developers, artists, and publishers have both overcome and leveraged their color vision deficiency to make great games. I was excited to connect with Eric Slauson — designer of Tattoo Stories, Nerd Words: Science, and the upcoming MonsDRAWsity — about his experience.
Eric was identified as colorblind by his kindergarten teacher, and his color vision deficiency continued to affect him in elementary school and in college.
In one class, none of the markers had the names written on them. I have a very clear memory of being laughed at because I colored the trunk of a tree red instead of brown and the leaves brown instead of green,.
In college, I took a geology course and almost failed it because no one told me that using color was a massive part of identifying rocks. I complained to the professor, and she was like, “Wow, I never thought of that before. I should put that in the syllabus.”
In is own classroom, Eric avoids making color a big part of his lessons.
A lot of the decisions I make as a teacher are influenced by the positive and negative memories I have from being a student. I don’t want to put a kid through the experiences I had, so when I DO use coloring as part of a lesson, I make sure all of my supplies have color names on them or give students an alternative way to do the assignment that doesn’t involve coloring.
I asked Eric about his experience as a game player and designer with color vision limitations.
What do you wish people knew about color vision deficiency?
I want people to know that I CAN see color. People who have normal color vision have a really hard time understanding when I can correctly identify the color of everything they are pointing to in a room (what colorblind person hasn’t been subjected to this?), but then I cannot tell the color of their shirt that’s some weird color like taupe or burnt sienna or sand. I can see your shirt has a color, I just can’t name it.
The analogy I use most often is reading. Someone who is illiterate can SEE the letters and words on a page, they just can’t make sense of them. To use another example, you know how some fonts make it hard for you to tell the difference between a lowercase l (el) and a capital I (eye)? That’s me with blue and purple.
What do you find the most difficult when playing games?
Having to ask other players what colors pieces are. At best, it slows the game down while I double-check that I’m going to draft a blue card and not a purple card; at worst, if I must ask it lets everyone know the cards in my hand.
In games where you have to think several moves ahead, it’s sometimes hard for me to have long term strategies based on board state because I could be basing my plan on an incorrect color reading of the pieces.
Do you have any standard workarounds at the table?
I always pick the white meeple to play with so I can easily identify it on the board. Also, a lot of color identification has to do with the lighting in the room. Anything but bright lighting makes telling the difference between colors much harder for me.
Have you run across issues related to color vision in your own designs?
The games I design don’t typically involve a ton of pieces or icons that you need to keep straight. I did design a trick taker once and had to give the suits different colors. I chose red, blue, and yellow for three of the suits because those are really easy for me to tell apart. I chose a green for the fourth suit that looked clearly different from yellow and red on my computer screen, but when I printed the prototype, I discovered that unless I had ideal lighting, I was getting ALL of the colors mixed up. I went back to the drawing board and added icons around the colors to help me differentiate.
Eric’s current and upcoming games are focused on approachable play in community, and each is 100% colorblind-friendly.
In Tattoo Stories players draw tattoos and make up the stories that go with them.
As I discovered while reviewing Tiny Towns and reaching out to Peter McPherson, players are not the only colorblind members of the board game community. Designers, developers, graphic artists, illustrators, and publishers can have vision deficiencies, too.
Sarah Reed recently guest-posted about her experience modifying games for use by her colorblind friends and family. She also shared that her husband, Will Reed, is both colorblind and legally blind. As a follow up to Sarah’s article, I asked Will a few questions about his experience playing, testing, and designing tabletop games.
What’s the most difficult for you when playing games?
Probably my toughest challenge with games are when art is used. Many times a mechanic is buried within something that is supposed to look nice and help the theme of the game. The thing is, this only offers a barrier to play, which prevents me from enjoying any part of the game, regardless of theme.
One of the most common examples is an art piece used as an icon. From my perspective, an icon is meant to be a quick reference so you understand what something is supposed to be or how it’s supposed to be used. Every time art gets layered on, this slows down the comprehension and thus prevents it from being a good icon.
What do you wish people would know about your vision deficiency?
For the most part, I just want people to remember I have one. I tend to operate very successfully in games, so people take for granted just how much I don’t see. This makes games with public information tricky for me, at times, since it’s readily available to most players while not to me.
Do you experience any advantages as a game designer because of your vision impairments?
Actually, I do. Having vision impairments mean I tend to retain a lot more mentally than most people when interacting with games. As such, when I design, I can often mentally playtest game concepts and iterate on designs quite rapidly. This results in many of the prototypes we create being much more stable than other designs I’ve played from sighted designers’ initial prototypes.
I appreciate Will taking the time to share his experience, and I encourage you to check out Will and Sarah’s most recent release, Oaxaca: Crafts of a Culture, and their upcoming roll-and-write game, Scrapyard Rollbot, in Dice & Ink Volume 1.