3 main types of colourblindness

That time I met some colour blind gamers…

Build: a game of sustainable development.

We use colour to communicate a lot in Build.

We took our game, Build, to a local(ish) board game club for a playtest recently. Nothing unusual there. We’ve spent quite a lot of time on tour of late. What caught our interest, though, was that a surprisingly large proportion of the group were colourblind gamers. Build uses colours quite a lot to code the players, the settlement cards and the resources so colour choice had been in the back of our mind for a long time. I had been aware that colourblind compliance was something we’d need to address. On the one hand they were genial and helpful (and wonderfully complementary about Build), on the other hand they opened my eyes (sorry!) to a number of questions.

Are many gamers colourblind?

How does it affect their experience?

What do I, a game designer, need to do?

Are many gamers colourblind?

According to the good people of Colour Blind Awareness, about 4.5% of the population experience a form of colourblindness. The 3 people in the games club on Thursday represented 15% of the club. So no wonder it felt like a high proportion. It is nearly twice as common in males as in females. A recent survey by Stonemaier games found that only 8% of their respondents were female. If our hobby is so male and these males are more likely to have colourblindness then Yes, we ought to be paying attention to colour issues. Mental note – consider the demographic issues in a future blog post.

How does it affect their experience?

3 main types of colourblindness

photo credit: Johannes Ahlmann

One of the playtesters in the group we visited repeatedly leaned over to his daughter, with his resource cubes in his hand for clarification about which was which. The only difference between the cubes was colour. Clearly, in the absence of a friendly face to help, this would totally spoil the game experience. You would not be able to judge your relative wealth. You would not be able to plan your next purchases. And, possibly worst of all, you’d put the cubes back in the wrong boxes.

Returning to the Colour Blind Awareness website, I find that they have a great set of tools for helping me to solve this problem.

Firstly, they show a slideshow which simulates the effect of the three main types of colourblindness.  This clearly shows the complexity of the issue. In some versions, the yellow has faded, in others it is clearly visible. In fact all the colours are problematic for some people. Hmmm. I can’t just choose, for instance, yellow, green and red to use in Build because some people won’t be able to tell some of the colours apart.

Of course the colour of our game artwork is not merely practical, it also has aesthetic purposes. Many of us relish the immersive beauty of game art. But how would a person with colourblindness view it?

The excellent blog Colblinder offers a useful tool. You can upload your own files and filter them according to colour blindness. This gives us a really powerful opportunity to see what our game looks like through colourblind eyes.

I uploaded a picture of Build. I filtered it by Red, green and blue blindness. Take a look at them. You can see that identifying the coloured cubes is really hard, almost impossible and that the settlements are also almost indistinguishable. Of course, all the shapes and the textures are there but the cues we gain from bright, distinct colours are taken away.










What do I, a game designer, need to do?

A reference chart to compare colour perception.

Cog5games prepared this chart just ofr game designers.

Top of the list of answers: I need to consider it carefully, especially for a game like Build which relies on colour as a code for its resource cubes. I need four colours which are distinct from each other by all gamers, no matter how they perceive colour. Well, hello! Here, to the rescue comes cog5games, who shared this wonderful chart on Twitter. And look! It uses cubes! It couldn’t be a better fit for my needs.

If I examine this carefully, I can see that white always looks white and black always looks black. So that’s 2 colours chosen. From the remaining palette, there is always going to be an element of compromise but I can choose as wisely as I can. Yellow almost always looks yellow – although under Tritanopia it can appear violet or grey and blue always looks blue either purple-y or blue. Either way, they appear to be distinguishable from each other.

Next on the list was a suggestion made by one of the playtesters from our Thursday visit: Don’t use colours to distinguish, use shapes instead. You can imagine the accompanying forehead slap and “D’oh!” noise that I made. Of course! if we use shapes and icons to represent the resources, then the colour perception issue is moot.

I chose these icons to represent the four resources used in the game. Much clearer, I think you’ll agree. These were sourced from the excellent Noun Project which curates a collection of clear icons for almost everything.

Food:             Manufactured goods:        Knowledge:        Wealth:    

What next?

In the light of these findings, I have some further tweaks to be made to Build. The colour of the cubes will, I think, be chosen using the decisions I made above. The players are identified by coloured boards and by the stands used to hold their cards. These, too, will have to adhere to the black, white, yellow, blue choices I made. The settlement cards now bear the icons above to show their value and trade income. I will need to adjust the colour of the green food icon to white in order to match my new discoveries. Then, Further playtesting to check I’ve got it right!

I’m very grateful to the playtesters who brought these issues to my attention. I must also admit to a bit of melancholy that so many of our game playing colleagues are denied the full joy of so much great artwork to be found in games.

Drawing event cards brings randomness to a game. Is this a good thing?

Frequency, Severity and Event Cards

I’ve been wrestling with event cards of late. Not actually wrestling. I’m not in a blue leotard sweating a poker-sized laminate to the games table surface. No, of course I mean metaphorically.

Event cards, you know – event cards – you draw them during a game turn. They introduce some random event into the game which can enhance or totally muck up your plans. In pandemic, you could draw a ‘One Quiet Night’ event and bless your stressed scientists with some time to push their glasses up onto their foreheads and rub tired eyes while breathing a deep, shoulder melting sigh. Or you could draw the dreaded ‘Epidemic’ card and then the excrement really hits the the ventilator. Or consider a game like Munchkin which could be described as ‘nothing but event cards’. Even that old relic Monopoly had ‘Chance’ and ‘Community Chest’ cards.

Which will be more effective, the golden floating ball? The blue sword? Not the Ethiopian club, surely? Ah yes the Holy Grail and ruby wand combo.

Wrestling with Event Cards

I know there’s a bit of discussion back and forth about whether event cards are a good thing or a bad thing. Mostly it revolves around how much randomness gamers are comfortable with in their games. I think my thoughts on the design process might be useful and interesting.

My wrestling has all been in the context of our game ‘Build’. A quick bit of background. Build has elements of worker placement, area control and cooperative play. The players take a ruined, corrupt and broken nation and build it into a thriving, robust and sustainable one. Hopefully. It has its feet firmly in real world economics and development theory. And it has event cards.

In defence of randomness

To my mind, the world has randomness built in and event cards are a handy mechanism which reflects this. Embrace the randomness! They can also be a hold-all for carrying some useful thematic ideas which don’t need a separate game mechanism of their own. Corral! Organise! Simplify! In Build, they encompass ideas as diverse as terrorist attacks, coup attempts as well as export bonanzas.

C’m here you pesky event cards.

Right, down to my wrestling. I’ll just pull on this lycra…

I introduced event cards because, in the early versions of Build, gameplay was linear and predictable. Event cards served to mix things up a little. At the end of the player’s turn they drew a card which could be good or bad. It lifted them or knocked them back. We found that in the early stages of the game, when the young nations were weak, a ‘bad’ event could knock a nation totally sideways. I quite liked this, as the other players often rallied round to help the stricken country get back on its feet. Then it could re-establish trade. Then we could get back to developing. But sometimes the knock was very great and a country would be put so far back that they were obviously in no state to win the game. And then you’ve got the lingering death of a runaway leader – or runaway loser in this case.

Later, the gameplay changed slightly and then every player drew event cards every round. Suddenly we were awash with event cards which were having an enormous effect on gameplay. Because they were random effects, the players felt annoyed that they couldn’t ameliorate effects much.

Thinking: mathematical or otherwise. #notreallyapictureofme

Mathematics to the rescue!

At this point I delved into my mathematical thinking and described the problem as follows:

Affect of the card = Frequency x Severity

The effect on gameplay of drawing an event card is a function of how often cards are drawn and how hard those cards hit. Horrid card effects which happen all the time can be devastating and will block your ability to get started and make any game progress. On the other hand mild, infrequent effects are probably not worth including. The satisfying middle ground lies in the area of infrequent and hard hitting or regular yet mild. And yet, if an effect is happening all the time but not really impacting on game play – why bother including it. Simplify!

Thinking this through to its logical conclusion lead me to decide that the event cards in ‘Build’ ought to have significant gameplay effects in order to stimulate a change in behaviour or a change in the plans of the players. As I said earlier, I liked it when the players rallied around a country that had been struck by a natural disaster. It was thematically secure and a dramatic moment in the game.

What remained was a method of giving the players an opportunity to plan for and overcome the effects of ‘bad’ events. We tried all sorts of solutions to this. We created an ‘international aid fund’ for countries to contribute to to help other countries in need. We allowed countries to buy ‘contingency plans’ which allowed them to ignore the effects of ‘bad’ events – this one caused the unexpected strategy of allowing a leading player to hoard the contingencies and punish the other players. Mean! Eventually, valuing simplicity and respecting the thematic strength of ‘Build’ we subsumed the’contingency plans’ into the victory conditions. Victory is made by collecting ‘achievements’ for your country, such as developing a health service or investing in social equality. Achieving these gave the in-game effect of ignoring ‘epidemic’ cards or ‘crimewave’ events. This pleased me greatly. Simplify! Thematic strength!

Here at last we had a system which recognised the occasionally random nature of the world; balanced severity and frequency; allowed players the opportunity to influence and control their game more all while being true to the theme of the game. Nice.

Addendum 17th April 2018

I’m adding this on after a conversation with a friend in which he separated ‘luck’ from ‘chance’ in which ‘luck’ was something which happened to you and ‘chance’ was influenced by (and influenced) player strategy. I’m not sure his choice of wording is quite right, but the concept is useful. As game designers, we want a game system which is satisfying to play and in which the players feel they have earned their victory. A game of luck doesn’t give us that.

This brings me on to my second addition. We playtested ‘Build’ recently at a very friendly game club in Congleton. Sadly we didn’t see any Um-bongleton being drunk but we did get some excellent feedback. On the subject of ‘event’ cards, we tired a few options. The first was to have a number of cards face up for the players to see in advance and to plan for. This was good, it made the event cards a source of interaction and negotiation. The second idea was suggested by one of the playtesters: that each player ‘inflicts’ an event card on another player. Again, the events become a subject of interaction, but also a subject of strategy. Hmm interesting.



Ecology or economy as a model for game design?

The Ecological Model of Game Design

Over a series of posts, the Make Them Play blog uses economic ideas and models to make a theoretical framework for game design. It has made fascinating reading. Over four blogs (growing all the time!) the writer, Bastiaan has outlined how game elements can be identified as assets or liabilities and looked at cost and value in-game. When I happened across this series, I was at a crucial time in the design of our game. My last blog post tells of the feedback we received from the Cardboard Edison Award. A key point was that the game needed a more complexity of game play. I will write later about the decisions we made in response to this, but suffice to say that Bastiaan’s blogs gave me a structure for my thoughts that proved invaluable. So thank you Bastiaan!

Economics in Ecology

Hot on the heels of grateful feelings, I started to wonder if other academic fields might offer us useful insights into game play. My own academic background includes the study of ecology. That made my brain cogs turn. There is some overlap between the two disciplines. Ecologists often talk about species having an economy – a metaphor that illustrates how a species uses its finite resources of energy and nutrients to its best advantage. For example poppies invest very little energy in body mass, they germinate, grow and flower very quickly, taking advantage of being the first on bare ground. On the other hand, oak trees invest loads of energy in body mass and so can flower repeatedly over many many years.

As I thought further, my feeling was that there are a number of parallels and useful analogies to be had from ecology. I’m going to fire out some initial ideas and thoughts. Further depth and density can follow. Perhaps you can add a little perspective.

Ecology is the study of organisms and their relations to each other and their environment. Straight away we can see that the ‘organisms’ in question can be read as ‘players’ or their in-game personae and the ‘environment’ is the game board, cards, pieces and rules.

Dynamic Game Ecosystems

The game can be thought of as an ecosystem. Ecosystems are dynamic, changing systems of interactions between organisms and the environment. It is an important point that over time, the ecosystem changes and behaviours change to meet it. A classic example is the development of forests. From bare ground, weed species arrive first and colonise. They need few resources and can grow quickly, stabilising the soil and trapping moisture. They provide shelter and food for other species that follow. Next come grasses and bushy species in who’s shelter tree saplings grow and eventually dominate all.

Let’s look at Catan in this light. The environment consists of the island. The first signs of colonisation are the villages. In their wake come roads. These are quick and easy to build and are essential for the structures that follow. Later, like the succession of trees, players look to the more sophisticated strategies of ‘longest road’ or ‘biggest army’ as well as cities. Some players, dependent on the resources available might choose to be weeds: building roads and villages quickly and easily. Others, with access to stone and wheat, might decide to be oaks and invest lots of resources over a longer time and build Cities. These players, like oaks are playing a long game and risk being over run in the early stages but are looking for big payouts in the future.

Like ecosystems, the game is dynamic. Players are influenced by each other’s decisions and change their strategies accordingly.

Competition and Mutualism

Ecologists also talk of competition and mutualism. Think of a snake hunting a mouse. It may be in competition with an owl for that mouse. They have different hunting strategies and, once caught and consumed, the mouse cannot be shared. They are in competition for that resource. On the other hand, bees and flowers don’t compete, they have a mutually beneficial arrangement. Bees get lovely sweet nectar full of sugar energy and the flowers get pollinated. That’s mutualism.

If I take this example back to Catan, some activities can be seen as competitive. The players compete for limited space on the board – the clever ‘nearest neighbour rule of village building; or they compete for the longest road or largest army. On the other hand, you can’t win a game of Catan without a bit of mutualism, in other words trade.

Ecological Niches

In response to competition for resources, species often become specialists. They are the very best at one skill. They can out-compete all other species in their own small niche. Darwin’s famous finches on the Galapagos Island are a classic example. He noted teh diversity of beaks in the finches he was observing. He went to spot that the beak shape of different species was linked directly to exploiting their own particular food source. Nut eaters had strong beaks, grub-eaters had long sharp beaks for pecking and so on.

Picture in your mind’s eye the various roles in Pandemic. The Medic can heal more efficiently; the contingency planner allows the team to exploit special cards more effectively. This mechanism gives each player a niche. Not only does it make them feel valued and special as unique team members, but it also means that gameplay has variety from one play through to the next.

In the recent rethink of Build and its evolution into Build 2.0 we considered niches. We had found that players made the same sorts of decisions time after time. So we added niches, specialisms. Some characters were natural traders, others were better farmers. Soon we had a balanced yet asymmetric game which lent itself to both competition and mutualism. Nice.

I feel I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this analogy, still yet to build it into a framework as strong as Bastiaan’s economic model. I think, if I lay this out for public consideration, then maybe you will have a perspective that will help me.

When game designers have to listen to feedback

After the Cardboard Edison Awards

This year, in January, we entered the Cardboard Edison Award for unpublished games. We submitted Build. This was a first for us in many ways: our first game; our first competition entry; our first video promo.

We made our submission and waited. Breath bated.

My attitude was philosophical. There was no way would win it, surely? It’d be great to shortlisted. We could put ‘shortlisted for the 2018 Cardboard Edison award’ on our box and on the Kickstarter page. If nothing else, if we didn’t even get shortlisted – it had been a great motivator to produce a finished, polished version of the game.

We waited.

Positive Feedback

At the end of February, the organisers emailed us.

“We have finished evaluating all of the submissions to this year’s Cardboard Edison Award, and while Build wasn’t chosen, we have feedback for you…”

We couldn’t help but feel a bit of disappointment, but we were being, you know, philosophical about it.

After the initial slump of our shoulders we read on. Each Judge gave feedback in a ‘best bit/worst bit’ format. The positive stuff was, of course, great to read:

“I like the simplicity of the game.” That was good, one of our target audience is secondary schools – we wanted a game that was quick to pick up.

“The theme integration (was strong)”, “I really appreciate the level of research and real-world economic theory and policy went into the design of this game.” We were glad to know that the game was thematically strong. As an education tool to be used here and abroad, the theme needed to be at the front of the game. Also, as a player it bugs me when the game mechanics don’t make sense in the game’s world.

“This looks like a solid and fun game. I love the interwoven mechanics. Gameplay appears engaging with very little downtime”, “Seems like you put a lot of work into having lots of mechanics that can interplay.” Yes indeed – all good stuff. It was certainly pleasing to hear that our carefully designed mechanics seemed to work well together.

Lily and I high fived, slapped each other’s backs and did a complicated Dad and daughter handshake. Of course we didn’t. We’re British. Philosophical and British.

Lessons to learn

So then we moved on to looking at the ‘worst bits’ feedback. A good thing to remember when hearing feedback is that you don’t need act on all of it. Some of it you can choose to ignore. You’re the designer and ultimately the final arbiter. You can make the choice of which bit of advice to take and which to leave.

Obviously, though, the positive feedback is bang on the nose and the product of a clear mind and a wise voice.

It fell into one main group: depth and complexity of gameplay.

“I’m not sure if there is enough to compete in today’s market”; “The diplomacy phase needs work. Making agreements is fun, but many players need a reason to make a deal, not equal gains but unique bones that help each player differently”; “I wonder if there is way to get more into the game play?”

Another one that stood out was, “Seems to be fiddly with a lot of time spent moving components around.”

The thing was when we heard these two comments, we realised that the judges were expressing some things that had been hanging around at the back of our minds already. Maybe it was a thin on gameplay options? Maybe the ‘creating buildings’ bit was redundant and fiddly. We had been wedded to the turning over of building cards since the start. That was one of the initial ideas of game design. Did we really want to get rid of it?

A bit of perspective

You see, I think at this point I was suffering from a lack of perspective. I’d been staring at Build for so long in such close detail that I couldn’t see the whole picture anymore. Which bits were fun? Which parts were integral.

The clear mind and wise voice would advise us that this sort of sentimental attachment had no place in grown up game design. I decided to let the playtesters have their say and see which they preferred.

Back to the issue of depth and complexity. As I said, I had this unspoken niggle in my mind that this was the case. As the judges expressed it, the thought took shape and I had to recognise its veracity. This was clearly feedback we needed to listen to.

What next then? How do Lily and I build in more depth without losing the ease of play? Some tough choices to be made there. I suppose it is important to stay philosophical.