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Games with Great Design Lessons for Accessibility

There are lots of excellent design lessons to be learned from all kinds of board games. This is a list of ten games that contain especially useful features that tabletop game designers should try to emulate.

This is a modified version of a post first published on Meeple Like Us.

You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online.  You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage.

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Introduction

I know it looks like it, but this isn’t a top ten list.   Yes, it’s a list.  Yes it contains ten(ish) games.  Yes it’s in the template that I’ve used for previous top tens on the site.   But there’s an important reason why this doesn’t count as a top ten – it’s not actually ranked.  It’s just a ten.  Not a top ten.  It’s a thing.  Yes it is.  Okay, it’s not.  But I’m making it a thing.

This site, as you may have noticed, has something of a focus on accessibility and it’s not something we’ve really emphasized much in our top tens to date.   We've done one on board game apps, one on video games for board gamers, and our recurring general top tens (2017 and 2018) at the end of the year.  Accessibility, in those features, is at best a side note.  That's not good enough.

Today’s special feature then is going to address that.  Here are ten (ish) games that have great accessibility lessons to impart – not lessons that are specific to their design but rather lessons that are widely generalisable to all kinds of games.   In other words – look to these games for good design lessons for accessibility.

They won’t work for every game.  They won’t be appropriate in every case where they’d work.    There’s clever design in here though and you might be surprised at how much of an impact they’d make if you have an opportunity to draw inspiration.

Cards in Blank

For this list, I’m not including games that have fantastic accessibility features that are bound up in their own idiosyncratic design.  Blank from Hub Games for example is probably the single most cognitively adaptable game on the market but ‘turn your rulebook into a roll and write’ has less applicability than you’d maybe think.    Cards Against Humanity (I know, I know) has some of the clearest and most visually distinctive graphic design in gaming.  Unless you’re doing ‘words on a card’ as the entire core of your game it might be difficult to learn much from it.

So, with no further ado – ten(ish) games with great accessible design features that game designers should emulate!

Catan

[ Catan Review | Catan Accessibility Teardown ]

I may not like Catan much as a game, but I had a lot of complimentary things to say about the accessibility of its design.   There’s an interesting feature you can see in games that achieve genuinely mainstream success… they trend towards being more accessible than many equivalent but less popular games.  One of the things that has to happen in order for a game to reach this kind of market penetration is that rough edges need to be knocked away.   Iteration over a design over several editions gradually solves accessibility problems and even builds in natural affordances.

There are two of these that I think are especially good in Catan.   The first is that It’s a game with a modular hex-based board and it comes with a frame into which those hexes can be placed.  It makes the whole thing robust in a way that looser approaches don’t.    It’s wonderful – you can knock the table about and don’t need to worry about it being represented in your game like a geological disaster.

Catan frame

But there’s a secondary feature I love about Catan.    There’s a saying that ‘accessibility is being able to get into the party.  Diversity is being invited.   Inclusion is being asked to dance’.   Sometimes games introduce features that lean into this by reducing the cognitive burden on players through visual cues.  Catan is built on probability, and if you’re not great at calculating which of your options are the best from the numbers it helpfully gives you the hints right on the discs.

Pips on hexes

‘More pips typically means more resources’, this says.  It hugely undercuts the level of numeracy the game would otherwise expect and gives a scaffold to strategizing in play.    It’s a superb feature that I wish I saw in more games.

Monopoly

[ Monopoly Review | Monopoly Accessibility Teardown ]

Yep, there are design lessons in this most famous of board-games that people still aren’t taking to heart.   If you want to get into the position to be selling millions of copies a year instead of a few thousand in a lifetime… well.  It’s not a bad idea to look at the games doing what you want to be doing.

Monopoly is a pretty accessible game for a lot of reasons, but many of them are just because it’s not really a very skilful game.   However, you know the iconic tokens that have become emblematic of Monopoly?  The hat?  The car?  The wee Scotty dug?   They were originally just charms taken from a bracelet.    Cheap.   Easy.   Incredibly accessible.

Monopoly tokens

Every different token has its own form factor.   That permits for blind players to tell what’s going on by touch, and also resolves any issues that would be introduced by colour coding otherwise identical figures.   The meeple might be one of the instantly identifiable icons of hobbyist gaming but its widespread adoption was a massive step backwards in terms of accessibility.   When so many games introduced these instead of more whimsical tokens they added a considerable barrier to play that absolutely didn’t have to be there.

In an ideal world every game would have its own idiosyncratic selection of unique and thematic tokens, but that’s expensive and it’s usually something you only see in the more over-produced luxury games.   A handful of monopoly tokens, or their equivalents, would have a considerable positive accessibility impact on more games than I could possibly count.    If they could be colour coded too you’d see this hobby making real accessibility strides in a heart-beat.

Speaking of accessible, tactile pieces that are already in very common circulation…

Chess

Don’t worry, I’m not going to make this list entirely about games you’d maybe dismissed as being a bit outdated by virtue of their age.    Chess isn’t quite as accessible as Monopoly as far as tactile tokens go because they don’t permit (usually) players to differentiate white from black or pawn from pawn.    Other than that, it’s great you can tell different kinds of pieces by touch.

But chess has another feature I’d love to see in more games – unambiguous referencing.   Chess has a whole notation system built on the idea of lettered columns and numbered rows.  Knight to E3.  Bishop to B4.  It’s such a reliable, robust system that most people don’t even think about what it does – it permit describability as a core function of the game board.

We talk about verbalisation a lot on the blog – that’s basically a fancy way to describe how easy it is for someone to say what  they want to happen.  Many game boards are busy and complex and don’t make it easy for players to separate out what they want to do and where they want to do it.   Chess solved that centuries ago.   Some games are even massively improved by grid references – imagine how much more thematic Memoir ’44 would become if you could press a finger to your ear and yell ‘ARTILLERY STRIKE IN SECTOR G5!’

Chess board

And yet, few game boards make use of their otherwise unused margins to provide this important accessibility aid.   It’s a wasted opportunity.

That design lesson doesn’t need to be as stark as co-ordinates either.  Named landmarks on the board do a wonderful job in alleviating ambiguity in game descriptions.  ‘Place my armies north of the swamp of sorrows, in the forest of tears’.    Physically indicating a location on a  board can be difficult for some people.   Verbally describing it might be cumbersome.  Chess made that a non-issue in about the 12th century.   When are hobbyist games going to catch up?

Scythe & Sagrada

[ Scythe Review | Scythe Accessibility Teardown | Sagrada Review | Sagrada Accessibility Teardown ]

See, I told you this wouldn’t all be ancient games.   I’m naming both of these here because they do the same thing but in slightly different ways.   They give thick card-stock that provide indentations in the boards themselves to house components.   And it’s fantastic.

Indentations on scythe board

See, games can be raucous affairs.   People get excited.   Pieces get nudged.   Things get knocked about.  People hit the table in excitement.

And for some games, barring a filming crew recording the state of the game before it was upset, that’s pretty much it.   The whole game gets randomised like a new starting seed for Civilization’s world generation.   You had four steel, two titanium.  Four plants.   Whoops, you sneezed and your arm swept the table.  Now you have six power and four money.    I’m sure that won’t have an impact on the game.  Oh wait.

Terraforming Mars

Indentations for complex game states is a marvelous way of adding a solidity to play that makes the impact of that kind of pertubation much less noticeable.    You see something similar in the way Ingenious handles its scoring.

Ingenious scoring

But as with a lot of really good accessible design, there’s a secondary benefit here and it’s that it massively reduces the cognitive load of playing.    Sagrada for example begins with a window that is full of rich promise and possibility.    So many places your dice can go.

Sagrada board

And then at the end of the game it focuses your attention on the handful of spaces that actually matter, making you curse the Gods that your early foolishness brought you so low.

Sagrada boards

Scythe doubles down on this design philosophy by permitting your faction to be meaningfully upgradeable and also trivial to cognitively parse.  No need to work your way through a massive hand of power-up cards.  Just look at your board.  The indentations will guide you.

BUT EVEN MORE THAN THAT!   These indentations are also tactile indicators and they can convey huge amounts of nuanced information to a blind player.   Even a little indentation between squares on a board can be worth its weight in gold from an accessibility perspective.

I really wish more games would make use of the physicality of their boards to convey information.  Learn from these games.

Playing Cards

Okay, I’m not done pointing out the amazing accessibility affordances in games you don’t think about.    I’m sure you’ve got a deck of cards lying around somewhere.  Go grab them and take a look at their design.

Playing cards

See what I mean?  No?  Well, let me show you.  Let me rotate that picture 180 degrees.

Above picture upside down

Cool, right?  It doesn’t matter which way around you rotate the card it’s still 100% readable.   But there’s more!   The cards permit ease of compression – you can hold a load of them in your hand and leave only the edges showing.   No key information is blocked.   Look what happens if you fan to the right :

Fanned to the right

And if you’re a leftie:

Fanned to the left

There’s no real way you can hold a hand of playing cards incorrectly.   There’s no real way to accidentally obscure the key information.   That makes them comfortable to use, and if someone is physically unable to hold the cards they work perfectly in a card holder.

Arboretum

A number of games already do this of course – the playing card style of component design isn’t unknown in games.  Very few though manage the trick of permitting their cards to be held upside down, left to right and in a card-holder without any thought going into it.

Again, there’s a reason that some things get mainstream success and often a major factor of this is how easy they make it for people to use them.

Patchwork

[ Patchwork Review | Patchwork Accessibility Teardown ]

Patchwork might have made this list by virtue of its tactile pieces, but that’s not what I like most about it.  Instead, it’s a wonderful feature that often goes unremarked.   Let’s take a look at the Patchwork board:

Busy board

Whether you like the art or not (I don’t) I think we can all reasonably agree this is a hot mess.   Squares might be well differentiated from each other but the flow of the board is difficult to make out because in the end it’s not clear where the various rows are.   It’s very busy with weird ‘double’ spaces here and there that are bigger than the average but with no special effect.

But if you flip it over…

Simpler board

Good gravy this is great.   This is the board I play when I break out the game because it’s just puts less strain on the eyes.  It’s also much more visually accessible, eschewing ornamentation for clarity of presentation.   Most game boards when you flip them over either have some game related artwork or a plain black backing.  Patchwork makes use of that otherwise dead space by providing a board of maximum visual accessibility.  It doesn’t make a big thing of it.  It just gives you an option that you may not have even realised you wanted.

More games should use the dead-space in their components to permit optional configurations.   That might be the difference between a game being playable and it not.

Coup (and the various games in that universe)

[ Coup Review | Coup Accessibility Teardown | The Resistance Review | The Resistance Accessibility Teardown ]

We consider representation to be an accessibility issue.   If people don’t see themselves reflected in the characters within a game it might not stop them playing but it certainly doesn’t make them feel like they’re part of the target audience.   However, there are risks that come with approaching inclusion in too ham-handed a manner.  It’s not just a case of drawing a gender-diverse set of figures and randomly assigning skin-tones.   The context in which the art is used also matters.  You want to avoid tokenism, but you also want to embrace the rich variety of humanity in your art.   So what do you do?

Coup characters

Well, you do what Coup does and make diversity an integral part of the back story because it’s awesome.   Globalization in its current form is a new phenomenon but the past was far more diverse than you might think.  Renaissance Europe for example was constantly in contact with African traders, Arab intellectualism and awash with the churn of people permitted by the intercontinental travel of the time.    Don’t rely on lazy stereotypes or your own hazy recollections of high school history.  Do a bit of research and look for a chance to incorporate people that you wouldn’t otherwise.

Make them matter, make them awesome.   Give your game a backstory that permits diversity to flourish and your game will be richer for it.  More than that, players will see people like them reflected in your art and will be able to see themselves playing your game.  And, importantly, they'll be able to visualise themselves buying it.

Deception: Murder in Hong Kong

[ Deception: Murder in Hong Kong Review | Deception: Murder in Hong Kong Accessibility Teardown ]

Communication games, particularly social deduction games, tend to involve an awful lot of argument at cross purposes.  They encourage people to lie, bluff, talk over each other and sow misinformation and misdirection so as to deflect blame and attention.   If someone has a communication impairment – whether it be articulation or hearing – it can be very difficult to keep track and more difficult still to make a point over the hubbub of activity.

Deception

That’s why it’s great that Deception formally gives every player an uninterrupted chance to make a presentation about the data  and what they think it means.  The manual says ’30 seconds’ but it also gives permissions to adjust this as needed.   As such, while a player with a communication impairment might not be able to get attention during the more rambunctious discussion phase they will get a set interval to put forward their position and have it heard without anyone trying to talk over them or take advantage of communication lapses.   Not only does it help in cases of communication impairment but also makes sure those players that lack the hunger for confrontation still get to contribute.

This is something you can (and perhaps should) house rule into any social deduction game but Deception gets kudos for explicitly structuring it into the rules.   Really, any game that has a lot of discussion can benefit from having this incorporated into the design.

Santorini & Flash Point

[ Santorini Review | Santorini Accessibility Teardown | Flash Point Review | Flash Point Accessibility Teardown ]

Abstract games tend to require a lot of thought and consideration in order to demonstrate any real mastery.   That’s great – it’s what makes t

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