February 26, 2020

The UX Design of Board Games, Part 1: Color

I love board games. I play board games a lot. I even go to board gaming conventions! And I'm not referring to Monopoly or Scattergories (those are fine!), I am referring to "Euro-style" games like Settlers of Catan, Pandemic, and Ticket to Ride. After playing a lot of games, I started to notice certain aspects of the designs that could be improved to create a better user experience for a wider audience.

This post is the first in a series of four that will cover specific areas of game design that should be addressed for better user experiences. The first post will cover the use of color in board games, which is a big one. Color is a very important design choice in board games and it's used in almost all aspects of game design including board, card, and icon design and pawn/meeple colors. Color can convey a lot of information in a game when you are typically sighted, but a good chunk of the population has some form of color blindness.

According to Accessibility for Everyone by Laura Kalbag (A Book Apart, 2017) "Color blindness is a common visual impairment that affects up to 8% of men and 0.5% of women." Worldwide, there are approximately 300 million people with color blindness. Color blindness doesn't mean that a person can't see color (although a very rare type of color blindness causes a person to only see in grayscale). Color blindness means the person may not be able to see particular colors or may not be able to differentiate between certain colors. The most common form is red-green color blindness which makes distinguishing between reds, greens, browns, and oranges as well as confusing blues and purples.

The website 64oz Games has a good list of tips for game designers in regards to designing for gamers who are color blind.

  1. If it can have an icon, use an icon.
  2. If it can't have an icon, use different sizes or shapes.
  3. Avoid difficult color combinations.

An example that shows a spectacular fail for players with color blindness is from the game Yamatai. These are goal cards. The players have to obtain what is shown on the card to win the points indicated. Most goals have to do with gathering a specific number of specifically colored boats. The boats do not have any icons on them, they are all the same size and shape, and include colors that are difficult to distinguish between for individuals with the most common form of color blindness.

If it can have an icon, use an icon.

Many games use icons in addition to color to signify certain goods, actions, or locations. Icons are a simple addition that can provide a lot of information. Previous versions of Splendor did not include the gem icon next to the colored circle and number (which indicates the cost of the card). The tokens used for currency in the game are various colors, but also have an image of the gem on them. Simply adding the gem icon to each cost on each card opens the game up to more players. This is an example of where designing a game while keeping in mind players with color blindness doesn't require big, expensive changes to the core game.

Another example of a game that uses icons in addition to color to differentiate between actions is El Dorado. While the designers could have just used blue, green, yellow, etc. hexes for each space, the addition of the paddle, machete, and coin icons convey much more information to all players. Take a look at one of the board tiles from El Dorado below and the second board tile that has been converted to show how a person with Deuteranopia type color blindness would see the same board tile.

The Quest for El Dorado Board Tile

The Quest for El Dorado Board Tile

If it can't have an icon, use different sizes or shapes.

Size can also be changed to differentiate between tokens. In Terraforming Mars, the $10 cubes are the largest, $5 cubes are of medium size, and the $1 cubes are the smallest.

The shape can also be used to differentiate between tokens in board games. In the original versions of the game Agricola, animals were represented by different colored cubes and other goods like vegetables, grain, clay, etc. were represented by different colored discs. In later versions, the different colored cubes were replaced my animal "meeples" and the discs were replaced by tokens in the shape of the items they were representing; a pumpkin for vegetables and a bale of straw for grain.

Avoid difficult color combinations.

If you can't include icons or make the tokens different sizes or shapes, the last thing you can do to help players that are color blind is to avoid the most commonly confused colors. For example, don't use red and green for the same component. cog5games came up with a very helpful color blind reference chart for board game designers.

Colorblindness Reference Chart for Game Designers


Going back to my initial example of bad design for players with color blindness: Yamatai. Imagine if each different colored boat also had an icon on each side? This could be as simple as a certain number of dots for each color or something more thematic for the game. The boats could have been different sizes or differently shaped boats. And finally, the colors of the boats could have contained a better range of colors that wouldn't be so easily confused as green, red, and brown.

Stay tuned next week for my next post where I tackle icons in board game design! I will also be giving a lightning talk hosted by Ignite UX Michigan on May 12 at the Circ Bar. Please join me if you can!


Colour Blindness
Types of Color Blindness
Coblis Color Blindness Simulator
64 Ounce Games

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