One of the most common accessibility problems when playing board or card games with blind and visually impaired people is game component identification such as cards or tiles. Therefore, most modifications that are applied to the game components aim to help with their identification. In this post, we are going to explore how a simple task like identifying game components can put a blind player at a disadvantage because they need to spend extra brainpower for such a task. I will provide specific examples of games where I have noticed that component identification is affecting my overall performance in a competitive game.
If you haven’t read any of our visual accessibility analysis posts before, the main approach to identifying game components is by applying tactile markers. If the blind or visually impaired player is able to read Braille, then usually the most effective modification is brailling the components. When brailling is not an option however, the general recommendation is marking the components with stickers or tape. Depending on the number and complexity of the cards that are marked, sometimes reference tables may also be required because memorizing every card is not possible.
Let’s start with a simple game. I shared my card identification technique in the 5th episode of the Sightless Fun podcast, but I will briefly summarize it here.
Because I don’t read Braille, the best option for me is marking the cards with tape and memorizing the layout. Love Letter has 8 different types of cards. If we ignore the ‘Guard’ card and do not mark that since there’s 5 guards in the deck, we are left with 7 other types that need to be marked. I take a small piece of tape and apply it along the edges of the cards. For example, one combination could be putting tape on the top right corner for the Priest, middle left edge for the Baron, middle right edge for the Handmaiden, bottom left corner for the Prince, and bottom right for the King. For the remaining two cards, the Countess and Princess, what you can do is use two markers at two different corners.
In Love Letter, to increase your chances of winning the game, you need to pay attention to the cards that have been played and deduce which ones could still be in the game. The total number of cards is 16 so this task is not very demanding. For sighted players, identifying the card in their hand takes less than a second as they simply need to look at the card’s name or numerical value. A blind player on the other hand is required to scan for the tactile marker and then remember which position of the marker was associated with which one of the characters.
Personally, my performance in this game is not affected much, but going back and forth with concentrating on what cards were previously played and then focusing on identifying my own card results in me making more effort, compared to sighted players, to play the game.
In the base version of Colt Express, there are 7 different types of cards. These cards are, move up or down, move left or right, fire your gun, loot, punch an opponent, move the Marshall, and finally a bullet wound card type. Just like in Love Letter, I use the same technique of marking the card edges. I don’t mark the bullet wound cards as they are not actions you can take, so only 6 card types are marked.
One of the key differences in Colt Express versus Love Letter is the number of cards that you draw. In Love Letter, you have at most 2 cards in your hand, while in Colt Express you usually draw 6 cards (7 if you are playing a particular character). Another important difference is the complexity of the game. There are many more things you need to pay attention to if you want to win. The first thing you need to track is where you, your opponents, and the marshall are located on the train. Then you need to know which train cars still contain loot to be picked up as well as which player currently has the most loot. Finally, you are required to pay attention on what action your opponents are taking and plan accordingly. Of course, all of these things are public information, but they still require your focus.
Now imagine you’re a blind player, playing against 5 other sighted people. Before drawing cards, you ask the players about the current state of the train and any other public information you might need. Now you all draw cards. The sighted players immediately identify their cards by looking at the icons while you’re cycling through your hand of cards and try to remember which marker position was associated with which card. While you’re doing this, sighted players are already planning their moves. You will most likely need to cycle through your cards in your hand at least one more time because it is highly likely you’ve forgotten a card’s type. “Was it two ‘move up or down’ cards or two ‘move left or right’ cards?”
If we could look up the percentage of brain usage the same way we can look up CPU usage in the Task Manager on a PC, I’d guess at this point in the game, the blind player would be be using at least 20% more resources than sighted players. When players start playing the action cards, the initial plans the players had may be revised and changed. I usually position the 3 or 4 cards I am planning to play in ascending order. So when it’s my turn, I play the first card, then the second etc. But, if another player plays a card that directly affects my plan, I need to update this order which most likely requires me going through the card identification process yet again.
High Society is another simple card game that has a low number of cards that are private information. The same marking technique can be used for this game, but because I didn’t have any sleeves and I didn’t want to apply stickers to the cards directly, I used a different method. There are a total of 11 cards in High Society, all of which are unique and represent your money. They got from $1000 to $25000 in the following order: $1000, $2000, $3000, $4000, $6000, $8000, $10000, $12000, $15000, $20000, $25000.
Before we start the game, I ask a sighted player to order the cards for me in an ascending order. If you haven’t played this game before, the goal is to purchase items that will net you the most points but you also shouldn’t be the player that has the lowest amount of cash at the end of the game.
Using this method of ordering the cards in an ascending order is not the best idea because it pretty much adds card counting for yet another player… yourself. You are required to focus on the amount of money other players spend, try to bait them in spending more, and on top of that keep track of each money card in your hand. The best an least resource intensive way to play this game would be to both use an ascending order and use tactile markers like in the two games above.
What about Braille?
Braille is much more effective than my method of tape markers. If we consider any of the games above, you will notice that we can completely remove a full layer in the identification process. This is the mental association table where the blind player needs to remember which sticker position corresponds to which character, action, or number. With Braille, you can simply type the name of the card and use the same location on every card.
Unfortunately, this can still be a challenge even with Braille. Last week I recorded episode 8 for the podcast with a blind gamer that brailles all of her games and I got the chance to ask her about this. For more complex games where there is a high number of cards with plenty of information, you cannot braille everything on the card itself. One drawback of Braille is also the space it requires compared to ordinary text. So you are still required to abbreviate things and either remember them or create reference tables. Cosmic Encounter can be a good example with plenty of text on cards which are required to be hidden information.
If you’re interested in the challenges of brailling games, Episode 8 will be published in the second half of March.
As the number of games in my collection increases, I need to apply modifications to more games. More importantly, I need to start taking notes to remember what I was thinking when deciding where to put a tactile marker on a given card. For example, in High Society, it makes much more sense to put a marker on the top left corner for $1000, rather than something like bottom middle. Because we read from top to bottom and left to right, this will give us one more pointer at what the marker means. If you look closer at the way I have marked the cards in Love Letter, you will notice I use the same strategy.
The main thing that the games above share is hidden information. The more hidden information a game has, the harder it gets. I haven’t played many competitive games with fully public information, but since you can rely on sighted assistance in such games, they are generally less demanding.
When you play the same game multiple times, you start to become more efficient at identifying your cards. But, in those initial rounds or after taking a break from a game for a few months, you will require a higher level of concentration for card identification. Sighted players have an advantage here thanks to the large amount of data they consume thanks to their vision.
I believe it could be an interesting experiment to compare the brain activity of blind players with sighted players by using different identification techniques. If you are a blind player reading this, I’d love to hear your experiences and whether or not you feel some sort of disadvantage in competitive games caused by the extra effort you need to make during the component identification phase.