Designing Games for Colorblind Players

Curtiss Patrick

By: Curtiss Patrick
April 8, 2019

I recently posted some card designs on the r/tabletopgamedesign "subreddit" of Reddit, which is, by the way, a fantastic place to get brutally honest and surprisingly helpful feedback for board/card game ideas. Within 2 minutes of posting my initial card designs for Rainbow I received a message from a user named "beefzilla". Surely someone going by the username "beefzilla" wouldn't steer me wrong... here's what he said: "Remember that color-blind players will want a second way to identify colors. So associating a symbol with each color would be an example." This was interesting. Colorblindness was something that, I'm ashamed to admit, hadn't even crossed my mind.

As I thought about this comment I started doing some searching to learn about colorblindness. I was amazed at how prevalent colorblindness actually is.

Do those numbers seem high to anyone else?

1 in 12 males! That's over 8%! I had no idea. I probably would have guessed more like 1% or less. So, naturally, I thought to myself, "Well, if 8% of males are colorblind then game designers everywhere must already be making sure that their games are always designed in a way that players can enjoy them even if they can't tell red from green, right?" Sadly, no. It's actually amazing how many big games have no visual indicators of any kind to assist a user who has difficulty distinguishing certain colors. As I researched I found example after example of very popular games that had been frustrating colorblind users for years.

So what's the solution?

There are 2 ways to ensure that your game is colorblind-accessible. The first is to make informed color choices. Martin Krzywinski has a great post about colorblind palettes on his blog. These parameters can be tough to design for, however, as the contrast choices will be very, very limiting. The second method to make a colorblind-friendly game is to take beefzilla's sage advice and add visual indicators. These are icons or symbols that represent colors. They can be added anywhere in a game that uses color to convey important information.

Ticket to Ride colorblind indicators
The original version of Ticket to Ride didn't have any indicators for different colors. The complaints poured in as colorblind players had an extremely tough time telling different-colored tracks and cards apart. Every version following has used symbols like the diamonds on the black tracks and the black card above to help players identify colors. Colorblind players still have difficulty knowing which trains are theirs once they have been played as the train pieces still have no indicators.
UNO colorblind edition
In 2017 UNO finally ended 46 years of colorblind players' frustration by adding visual indicators to each color as their green and red cards were virtually indistinguishable by players suffering from deuteranopia.

I just happened to play Ticket to Ride that evening with some friends and sure enough I couldn't take my eyes off of the color indicators all over the board, the cards, and in the rules. I started noticing these indicators in a couple of other games as well. There seemed to be one problem, though: the symbols always seemed to differ from game to game. Oh, we need a symbol for blue? here's a raindrop. You need to be able to tell it's a red card? Here's an X.

...Until I found UNO. UNO had just completed a redesign that included colorblind-friendly cards for the first time in 46 years! As I read more I saw the article refer to something known as ColorADD. I began to research the ColorADD system and became fascinated by the simplicity. Blue, yellow, and red are represented by symbols and those symbols are combined to create other colors (e.g. the red "up arrow" and yellow "bar" combine to form the symbol for orange - an "up arrow" and a "bar").

ColorADD color chart
The ColorADD color/symbol chart.

What's next?

ColorADD is growing quickly. It's being used publicly in everything from healthcare to transit maps. The best part of ColorADD is that it's FREE. It was created as a public service project and it doesn't cost you anything to add the symbols to your game. As more games start using this system the symbols will hopefully become standard practice to the benefit of colorblind gamers all over the world.

I added the symbols to our card game, Rainbow, the same day I learned about ColorADD and I'm happy with the results. Since the game uses colors as a trumping order it was very important to make sure that ALL players could easily tell which color was which. The icons are small enough that they don't get in the way of normal gameplay but they're easy to find for the players that need them.

Rainbow card game with ColorADD symbols
Rainbow card game with ColorADD symbols

The nutshell

If you're designing a game that uses color think about using symbols, whether ColorADD or your own design, to help colorblind users play frustration free!

Related resources:

  1. After I initially posted this article a Reddit user (robertrence) suggested a url that allows you to upload images and see how they would look to individuals with a selected type of colorblindness: colorblindness simulator. I tried it with the image of our Rainbow cards above and it was fascinating to see how difficult distinguishing colors would be for someone with each of the different conditions.

    Rainbow card game as viewed with deuteranopia
    Simulated image of the Rainbow cards as viewed by someone with deuteranopia. Go ahead and try to pick out the green card...
  2. I also found a TED talk by the creator of ColorADD that gives a more in-depth look at how the system is being used (Spanish with English subtitles available):

Rainbow Poker is now available on Amazon.com

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