Gaming with Colorblindness

“What color is this?”
I hold up a crayon to my two-year old as we start to draw a picture with her crayons.
“Umm… Green!” she replies.
I wasn’t quizzing her on her knowledge of colors. I wanted to draw a tree and wasn’t sure if the crayon I was holding should be used for the leaves or the trunk. I’m colorblind.

“What do you see?”


You probably see a 74. I see a 21.

I get that question a lot after someone finds out about my colorblindness. And it’s a very difficult one to answer – how do you describe a color? I’m red/green colorblind (deuteranopic). I can see the colors red and green (or blue and purple), but it is difficult to distinguish between the two at times. Taking a colorblindness test can diagnose the condition and help to explain what I see, but most people still don’t get it. Now I can tell someone to Google “colorblind” and get sites that show images side by side of what people like me see. This site does a good job. Those color vision tests all look the same to me!

“What about stop lights?”

I’ve learned various ways to handle colors in my environment. For stop lights, the red and green are actually designed to be different looking so the green looks almost white to my eyes. There are also other clues that can be used: the red light is always on top or on the left when mounted sideways. In other situations, if I really can’t see the color I’ll ask someone. Usually my wife or daughter can help me out, but I’ve also asked complete strangers. Sometimes once I’ve been told something is red or green I’m able to then see the colors. I think somehow my brain compensates for what my eyes miss.

I also change my behavior to help avoid the issue. The color of clothes I buy is affected. As an engineer I often make charts of data. My charts will always have a color and shape associated with each different label. This is good practice for everybody: if you print out a report/presentation it should be legible in color OR black and white.

“I thought this was a blog about board games?”

I was getting to that… Colorblindness definitely affects my board gaming. The most obvious (and generally least important) result is when I pick out my playing piece. I almost always pick blue. Yellow, white or black are my next choices. I generally avoid green, red, orange or brown. If each player in a game only has one token, it usually isn’t a problem keeping track of the colors (a conscious effort on my part at times). However, if there are several tokens and they will be moved around a lot (Carcassonne for example), I will sometimes ask other players not to use certain colors.

When the colors are a part of the game or can’t be avoided, it may be a challenge. I played Power Grid for the first time a few weeks ago. The board has a map with several regions, each a different color. We only had three players so only three of those regions are in play. I had a hard time figuring out which cities were in play and which were out. My first game of Ticket to Ride was also difficult. The colored train routes and cards were very similar to my eye.

Usually the colors aren’t a challenge and don’t effect my play, but not always. I already suffer from analysis paralysis in some games. The extra few seconds I need to concentrate on who-has-what-tokens-where can slow me down even more. To keep from slowing down game play, I may make a bad move because I didn’t realize that red enemy token was actually a green friendly one.

Ingenious Tiles

The colors may look alike, but the shapes don't.

Fortunately some games design around these issues. I think the biggest key for a game design is to double up on the differences by using shapes AND colors. Ingenious is a game of matching colored tiles. Blue and purple?! Red, green and orange?! This game could have been a nightmare. But each color also has an associated shape. This makes it very easy for me to quickly see what I have and where I can play. We also have a dominoes set that each number has a different color. My daughter matches the colors while I match the number of dots – this helps both of us. The Ticket to Ride designers got feedback about difficulty in distinguishing some colors and added symbols to the routes in later editions.

And when the game is designed poorly (at least in color management), I try to adapt. In a second game of Power Grid, we blocked off the border of the regions we were using with the city tokens of a fourth color. It was a great help and makes me wonder why they didn’t draw boundaries between the colors. A game like Here I Stand looked confusing at first glance – the Ottoman green and Protestant Brown looked a lot alike. After playing, I realized it didn’t matter as those powers’ tokens never interact so I don’t have to worry about confusing the colors. And if it came down to it for a game I really liked that after repeated plays I still had troubles with – I would look at making my own board/tokens to eliminate any confusion. Fortunately, I haven’t had to do that…yet!


5 Responses to Gaming with Colorblindness

  1. Joe says:

    So you are able to distinguish between your French and my Hapsburg forces? Dang. Well, that changes everything . . .

  2. Russ says:

    Another strategy I’ve seen that is helpful is using a secondary contrasting color to outline the primary color. Like adding a shape, this gives you a second point of reference.

    I have the same problem with some green and red health bars in videogames. I like that Valve (Half-Life, Left 4 Dead) actually have a colorblind setting in their options.

    • Rick says:

      While playing video games, looking at the little radar HUD to determine Enemy/Friendly units has caused me problems.

  3. […] in size and wears a hat and robe. They are wood bits painted red, green, yellow, blue and purple. Not my ideal choice of colors, but they aren’t too difficult to distinguish. There are also some other plain cylindrical […]

  4. Brian Ridge says:

    I don’t understand why the game industry isn’t more aware of the issue of colorblindness and gaming. I remember trying to play Ticket to Ride before the put the icons on the map and I could barely tell three of the colors apart. WHy do publishers go with three shades of brown when they have the whole color spectrum to choose from?

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