Hey everybody! Last week I wrote an article about accessible design in video games (which you can find here).  This week, I am going to be following up on that article and looking at how board games can be made more accessible for users. Let’s get started!

Access Denied

As with video games, there are a lot of different reasons why players may have accessibility issues with various board game. As before, I am going to be looking at five major categories of disability, and then looking at some techniques that board game designers can use to overcome these barriers. These five categories are:

  • Blindness and Extremely Low Vision
  • Low Vision and Color-blindness
  • Low or no Hearing
  • Impaired Motor Functions
  • Cognitive Disabilities

Each of these categories presents different types of challenges, and therefore require different types of solutions. Lets look at each of these categories separately, and then look at some potential design solutions.

  • Blindness and Extremely Low Vision

In video games, most of the techniques used to overcome a lack of vision have to do with sound. Text can be read aloud, and other types of visual information can replaced or compensated by auditory cues. Unfortunately, in most board games this is not an option. While some games may come with an electronic component that can give instructions or auditory cues, for most games this does not work.

That being said, it is entirely possible to design games to be more accessible to those with little or no vision. One difference between video games and board games is that board games tend to be much more tactile – you are physically feeling and moving the

No, a bunch of differently colored meeples do not count

components. Because of this, board game designers can design pieces to by physically distinct, whether through shape or texture, so that different components can be identified and manipulated through touch.

An example of this is the game Chess. While Chess probably was not designed in this way to help blind players, every different type of Chess piece tends to have a distinctive shape that can be identified by touch. Some Chess manufacturers have even gone so far as to slightly differentiate the designs of the black and white pieces, so that they can also be determined by touch.

  • Low Vision and Color-blindness

As with video games, board games tend to be very visual. Color and text are very often used to convey vital information about the game or components, and without this information the game can be much less accessible to a large audience of players.

While video games can have multiple display options to allow users to adjust the size of the text, or activate high-contrast settings, these options are not available for a board game. Because of this, it is extremely important that the game components be designed so that they are accessible by default.

This can mean a few things. First of all, any necessary textual information should be in a large enough font so that it can be read by visually impaired users. While the specific size can vary based on the legibility of the font, as well as any text effects that have been applied to it (such as bolding or italicizing), generally the minimum size is somewhere between 9 and 12pt.

The game should also be designed to be accessible to color blind users as a default. There are several different ways to achieve this – If your game only has a few different colors that it uses to convey information, then you can use software tools to analyze your color palette and see if it is color-blind accessible.

The other option is to avoid using color by itself to convey information. Suppose you

Uno Colorblind Edition: So your brother can stop putting his green cards on the red pile

have three different types of cards, and each type has a differently colored border. While you could make sure that the different colors have enough contrast with eachother to be distinguishable, you could also have a small symbol on each card to identify it’s type without needing the color information.

  • Low or no Hearing

Most board games actually do not use a lot of sound, and therefore generally do not have to worry about being accessible to those with low or no hearing. However, some games such as Operation or Taboo do use sounds as alarms or timers. The main design solution to this issue is to simply provide visual information that aligns with the sound. If an alarm goes off, for example, you could also have a light turn on so that those who cannot hear the sound would still be aware of the alarm.

  • Impaired Motor Function
Pictured: not the best game to play with impaired motor skills

Board games tend to depend less on fine motor skills and quick reflexes than video games, but there are still a number of things that do require motor skills. Rolling dice, moving pieces, and placing tiles are all common moves in board games, and can be very difficult for those with impaired motor function if designers are not careful.

While some board games (such as Operation, again) are primarily based on testing a player’s fine motor skills, in most games these actions are incidental to the game itself. To make these actions accessible to those with impaired motor functions, it is important to design the components of the game with this in mind. The components should be large enough to easily be manipulated, and they should also be designed to ease the process of some of these common actions. For example, in a tile-placement game the game board could have a grid that helps simplify the proper placement of tiles.

  • Cognitive Disabilities

The exploding popularity of board games in recent years, fueled by the flood of new games and new talent that have flocked to Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites, has resulted in unprecedented growth and creativity in this field. This growth in the industry has also led to an explosion in the hard-core hobbyist gaming community, and as a result a large portion of newly released games are catering to these hobbyist players.

Most of the games targetting this hard-core market are, understandably, very complex. These players tend to want games with rich strategic depth and vast, imposing board presence. These games can be confusing and difficult to learn even for the most dedicated gamer, and would require significant structural changes to make them accessible to those with learning or memory impairments.

Unfortunately, I think that accessibility in this field is more about game choice than it is

Fortunately, some games are already pretty simple!

about design. While there are some design practices that can make complicated games more accessible (such as piggybacking – using expectations about how a piece or component should work as a way to ease learning), for the most part these games are not going to be accessible to a large number of players. Not all games are this way, however. There are a number of games that are accessible to a wider array of cognitive abilities, and every individual has different capabilities of what they can and cannot handle.

It may also be possible to simply some more complicated games by removing some of the more complicated factors. Suppose a game comes with individual player mats that give each player a special power that can affect the game. While this element might add a certain level of depth to the game, it may also be possible to play without this element and not lose the core experience of the game.

Until Next Time!

That is all I have for this week! I hope you enjoyed this article about accessibility in board games! If you did, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I will be looking at some bad game design in the greatest game of all – life!


Posted by:Caleb Compton

I am the Head Designer of Rempton Games, and primary writer for the Rempton games blog. I am currently a graduate student in computer science at Kansas State University, and work on game designs every spare moment that I can.

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