Color Vision Deficiency

Up to 90 percent of tabletop gaming is visual, and much of that information is color-specific. From player tokens to cards to the board itself, color is an integral part of the gaming experience. Unfortunately, for colorblind gamers, this information has little or no meaning or causes confusion, making play difficult or impossible.

An estimated 4-5 percent of the population have some sort of color vision deficiency, and others suffer from low vision. The effects of colorblindness are not well-documented, and in many cases game designers, developers, and publishers inadvertently alienate this part of the community.

Through the Desert
Century: Spice Road

The Science of Color Vision

Seeing begins behind your eyeballs with rods and cones. Two photoreceptors on the retina take information from the environment, through our eyes, and to the brain. The rods handle light-related information, and the cones handle color. The three cones take certain areas of the spectrum to the brain—red (R), green (G), or blue (B)—like an old “RGB” computer monitor. The combination of these three cones produces color vision.

If any of the cones has a problem, the color absorbed by that cone changes, which then changes the RGB combination received by the brain. Because any one of the cones can malfunction (or be missing altogether), the type and severity of colorblindness are nuanced. No colorblind person sees the world in exactly the same way as another, which is one reason addressing this issue is complicated. It’s also why running a game design through an online colorblind filter not enough.

The most common type of color vision deficiency is Deuteranomaly, a malfunctioning of the green cone. A red cone malfunction, called Protanomaly, is also possible. Rarely, one of these cones may be missing altogether; this is called Deutronopia (green) or Protanopia (red). Rarer still are malfunctioning or missing blue cones: Tritanomoly and Tritanopia.

One version of colorblind simulation from Colour Blind Awareness

The cone problems that cause color vision deficiency impact are much more than a single color. Any faulty or missing cone (red, green, or blue) impacts color identification along the entire spectrum. Our overall color perception tends to be lower, increasing color confusion and the ability to identify colors by name. 

Impacts of Colorblindness on Game Night

Get ready for a little math.

If six players sit down to the table, there is an estimated 4.25% chance any one of them is colorblind. Thus, by the power of compound probability of independent events (thanks, Kahn Academy), we know there is a 23% chance that at least one person at that table is colorblind.

If you were to run a larger game night with 40 gamers participating, there is an 82% chance at least one player at your event will be colorblind, which will impact multiple games and multiple tables during the event. A small convention of 100 is almost guaranteed to have at least colorblind attendee, and on average will have four. 1

We’ve given up with board games…

Recently on Twitter, in a thread related to color vision accessibility, I read this tweet from a mother of two colorblind children:

This response hit me hard. Anyone giving up on tabletop gaming is heartbreaking, and more work encouraging accessibility can help make it easier for more people to play more games.

Colorblind Gaming Solutions

The needs of colorblind gamers – approximately 4-5 percent of the population – are significant as we navigate tabletop spaces at home, at the bar, at our friendly local game store. Current practices fail to provide an accessible environment for colorblind users, illustrated in the potential confusion caused by colors used in some games.

Addressing these needs starts with basic accessibility principles and continues with specific examples – some in gaming and some from other industries – to improve accessibility for colorblind players, and in turn, making the experience better for everyone at the table.

Accessibility Principles

Ian Hamilton, an accessibility specialist in Bristol, England, identifies three key principles related to colorblindness in game design.

1. Don’t use color difference alone to communicate or differentiate information. The concept of “double-coding” is often used to support colorblind people in disciplines beyond transportation. For example, Fantastic Factories incorporated double-coding that provides another level of information beyond color to differentiate game pieces. 

2. Check with a simulator to pick up on contrast issues. For any situation where a colorblind perspective is needed, software tools can give anyone a starting point to approximate what some colorblind users may see. COBLIS is a browser-based simulator that allows users to upload an image from their computer and simulate a variety of color vision deficiencies.

3. Run by colorblind folk to identify other issues you’ve missed. Colorblind people are often willing to share their experiences to help make their products and experiences more accessible. Be sure to note, however, that color vision deficiency varies widely by type and degree, so something one colorblind person can see clearly could still be problematic for someone else.

COBLIS Colorblind Simulator Tool

Colorblind Accessible Games

Many tabletop designers, graphic designers, artists, and illustrators have done an incredible job ensuring colorblind accessibility in their games. Here are just a few examples:

  • Agropolis from Buttonshy Games is based on color, yet incorporates subtle design elements for each zone type to distinguish them from each other.
  • Elizabeth Hargrave’s Mariposas (with graphic design by Matt Paquette) incorporates clever elements to ensure colorblind gamers can play.
  • The Isle of Cats, designed by Frank West, does two things very well. First, it incorporates double-coding into the animal designs themselves. It also provides a player aid specifically for colorblind gamer to help them maintain autonomy during play.

See these and several other examples below.

Colorblind Accessible Mods

Some published games are not colorblind-friendly out of the box, but simple modifications can improve accessibility while maintaining the team.

Sarah Reed wrote about her experience modding Qwirkle and Incan Gold to improve accessibility and playability for her family and friends.

Qwirkle with colorblind mods (Sarah Reed)

Following Sarah’s lead, I’ve recently modified several games so I can better distinguish their components, including Century Spice RoadMy Little Scythe, Mandala Stones, and Pandemic Hot Zone: North America.

Modified player pieces, Pandemic Hot Zone: North America

Next Steps

As you start your own accessibility journey, here are a few hints and tips to help you get started.

Consumers: Read reviews. I hate unboxing a game I cannot play, so I try to do some homework before each purchase. In addition to Colorblind Games, Can I Play That? and Meeple Like Us are fantastic resources that address a broad set of accessibility needs for gamers (see our Resources page for an ever-growing list). Accessibility is entering more and more general reviews, too.

Gamers: Find and create mods. Modify games when needed, and don’t worry about “messing up” your copy. I believe strongly that games are meant to be played. If your game is accessible to more people, then you’ll get it to the table more often. Share your mods with others so we can benefit from your creativity! See all my colorblind mods here.

Designers: Test for accessibility early. For designers and developers, get your prototypes in front of colorblind playtesters and try to think about their needs beforehand. Eric Slauson (designer of Tattoo Stories and MonsDRAWsity) shared these recommendations after a recent experience at Unpub:

Designers, if you want the largest potential pool of playtesters, please make your prototypes colorblind friendly. I WANT to play your game and give feedback, but I legit can’t. I’ve had to pass on so many playtests because of this.

Publishers: Expand your audience. For publishers, look at the numbers. It’s not 4% of the gamers you exclude by not addressing colorblind needs, but 28% of game tables and nearly 100% of medium-sized events.1 Improving accessibility will grow your audience base, and designing with all users in mind will make your games better.

I’m working toward a future when articles like this will be unnecessary, because designers will incorporate color vision accessibility into their prototypes, playtests, and final game designs; publishers will add color vision to their development and quality control processes for new games; and older, inaccessible games will receive new colorblind-friendly editions. I will write a final article of celebration, and then spend more time playing games I love.

1 Math Lesson: Kahn Academy’s Compound Probability of Independent Events

Image Credits: Colour Blind AwarenessStan Wiechers; Brian Chandler