We as game designers make games because we want people to play them. However, many people have limitations of perception and / or mobility which can prevent them from enjoying many games. It’s important for us as game designers (or any kind of designer, really) to put ourselves in the shoes of those players who may face these limitations to ensure our games can be enjoyed by everyone. Like any other form of design, this requires that we balance aesthetics (e.g., theme, illustrations, etc.) with usability and accessibility. In this article, I’ll cover three of the most salient usability and accessibility issues I’ve noticed in many popular games – including a failure to account for colorblindness, poor typography, and inadequate ergonomics – and what you can do about them.
Accounting for colorblindness
Failure to account for colorblindness is the most common accessibility issue I see in modern board games. Dealing with it effectively isn’t that challenging, and it will drastically improve the experience of those players who are colorblind.
Approximately 5% of people have some form of colorblindness. While that may not seem like much, 1 in 20 gamers is in fact quite a large chunk of people. It’s worth noting here that colorblindness does not refer to black-and-white vision as some would assume, but rather a color deficiency in one primary area. There are three types of colorblindness:
- Deuteranopia: green deficiency (this is the most common form of colorblindness)
- Protanopia: red deficiency (this is a rare form, accounting for about 2.5% of males)
- Tritanopia: blue deficiency (this is very rare, affecting about 1 in 200 males)
The first two forms – deuteranopia and protanopia – are of particular importance, not only because they are the most common, but also because they have similar effects, resulting in some form of red-green colorblindness. For people with red-green colorblindness, it is very challenging to perceive differences between red, green, and similar or derivative colors.
Use of color is a popular way to differentiate different elements in a game. Most commonly, we see color used to indicate which units or markers belong to a specific player (e.g., Player 1 is “blue” and all blue colored tokens on the board belong to that player). In many games, having a quick understanding of each player’s board presence is critical to make effective strategic decisions. The importance of this understanding means that using only solid colors to represent a player’s position on the board carries with it a high risk of limiting ability of a colorblind player to play the game well.
Here we see meeples – commonly used colored player indicators – from the game Carcassonne [top] as well as from the game Tokaido [bottom]. Paying particular attention to the third and fourth meeples from Carcassonne, we can see that – when seen as a player affected by Deuteranopia – they are nearly identical. The meeples from Tokaido, conversely, use a color palette more friendly to colorblind players. While the first and fourth meeples from Tokaido are pretty similar when seen from the perspective of a Deuteranope, there is still enough variance to differentiate them. It also helps that in Tokaido each player only ever has one meeple on the board, while in Carcassone players have many.
There are ways of circumventing game play issues when accounting for colorblind players. One is to use a more colorblind-friendly palette (such as the one seen in the Tokaido meeples above). Even more powerful is to use colors alongside some kind of icon, text, or other visual indicator. In the picture of the map from Ticket to Ride, below, we can see that while the colors become very difficult to discern when seen from the perspective of a colorblind player, the reinforcement of the iconography makes it very easy to tell which paths are which.
On the board for the game Ticket to Ride, we see that the colored tracks are additionally indicated with an icon to reinforce which tracks require which cards. This iconography is also carried forward into the cards you need to claim a track in the game, allowing colorblind players to easily associate the cards to the board, just as color perceiving players can.
The simplest thing you can do to help with this is simply avoid using both red and green player markers in your game. While it won’t address the whole situation, it will get you a long way there.
Poor typography is a usability issue plaguing many tabletop games. When so much information for your game is communicated via text, it’s important that you make that text as easy to read as possible.
Good typography starts with a good font selection. Make sure when you’re choosing a font, you find one that is highly readable for your primary game elements. Choosing a font with large, open counters (i.e., spaces within a letter like the hole in an “o”) makes them easier to read from further distances. Display fonts – those with a lot of “character” including unusual treatments or decoration, skewed letterforms, or manipulation of the baseline – should be used sparingly if at all. It is acceptable to use fun, exaggerated fonts to fit your theme and make the game feel more “alive,” but those fonts should be used with caution. Your logo, character names, and some headers are all areas where you can inject some whimsy into your type choice, but be sure to use highly readable typefaces for body copy on elements like cards and instruction booklets.
When working with such limited space as is provided in standard game elements like playing cards, it can be tempting to make type very, very small. However, using small type can adversely affect the playability of your game. The average reading distance for something like a book is about 16 inches away from your face. Standard print metrics for this distance call for type between 10 and 12 points. However, when playing a board game, a player’s distance from the elements he or she wants to read is often much further.
If a player has cards in their hand, they will likely fit into that standard 16 inch distance. However, if a card is down on the table that distance becomes much further. Doubly so if it’s on the table in front of an opponent. When designing your game materials, consider how far a player may be from a game element when they want to read it. Ensure that the text is legible from that distance. As a rule of thumb, I would recommend going no smaller than 12—14 point type on elements you expect to be read by players from any further than in their hand. This larger font size can make it difficult to fit all of your content on your card, which is why it’s always a good idea to be as brief (yet clear) as possible in your wording.
Additionally, it’s important to ensure that your body copy is of sufficiently high contrast to its background to ensure legibility. Text is easiest to read as black characters on a solid white background. While this type treatment can feel overly stark for many themes and art styles, ensure you’re choosing text colors that have a high contrast ratio to the background color to ensure readability. However, avoid using complementary colors (e.g., blue and orange) as a foreground / background combination. Despite having a very high contrast ratio, they have a tendency to “buzz” when put next to each other which is distracting and challenging to read.
Finally, when people read, they rely on the forms created by the words more-so than reading individual letters. Word forms in this sense refers to the shape or outline created by the unique combination of letters which make up a word. For this reason, using all-caps should be avoided whenever possible, as word forms created from all-caps are all the same blocky, rectangular shape, which makes them more difficult to differentiate from each other. Like display fonts, all-caps are acceptable in some scenarios, such as logos and headers.
Another failure I’ve noticed in many modern board games is ineffective ergonomics. When designing a board game, it is critical to consider the physicality of the game’s elements and their intended uses. Ask yourself how an object in your game is intended to be moved, shuffled, slid, stacked, etc., and ensure that the form of the object lends itself to that purpose. For example, if you intend an object to be picked up and moved frequently, it must be big enough to be easily picked up by a player. However, if that object only needs to be slid, it can be smaller.
Here are two damage counters next to a quarter for scale. The first token [left] is from Last Night on Earth, where each time a player is injured, they get a wound counter. This interaction involves frequent picking up and distributing of the wound counters as players are damaged throughout the course of the game. The second token [right] is from Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards and is much smaller. If this object were intended to be picked up, it would likely be challenging for players to do so on a regular basis. Fortunately, in this game the token is slid along a numbered track which represents a players remaining life points, making it an acceptable size.
Another great example is miniature playing cards. Mini-cards are very difficult to shuffle because of their size, and therefore are not ideal for many circumstances. However, also because of their size, it’s much easier to hold many of them in your hand at once. If you have a game where you need to hold a lot of cards but you don’t need to shuffle them very frequently – say Ticket to Ride for example – then mini-cards may be an ideal choice.
When thinking about the ergonomics of your game, it’s also worth considering the how efficiency is affected by the type and number of components in your game. If your game takes as long to set up as it does to play, there is likely a significant ergonomics problem that needs addressing. This doesn’t mean your game can’t be complex, but it’s important not to put undue burden on your players.
There are many more elements than these three to consider when attempting to create a usable and accessible playing experience for tabletop gamers. However, by accounting for colorblindness, making good typography choices, and ensuring your game is an ergonomic experience, you will go a long way to ensuring the widest possible audience will have the opportunity to enjoy your game.