Board gaming lags considerably behind even video gaming when it comes to the accessibility of the products that are on the market. Accessibility is a multi-channel challenge where subtle and nuanced interactions of impairments may create complications as a result of intersectionality (Heron et al. 2013). This means that there is rarely a single correct compensation, especially when considered within the context of the complexity of formal rules-based systems such as board games.
For those with physical impairments, it is often simply not possible for them to fully engage with a game without the intervention of a third party. Most board games are physical products, with spatially complex game-states and multiple, often small, components that are interrelated in often subtle ways. The location of components on a game board may be significant, and the margin of error for meaningful positioning may be very limited. Some components may be very small and fiddly, occasionally difficult for even unimpaired players to effectively handle without frustration. A standard card-game may require multiple players, each managing multiple decks of cards, with some communal representation of game-state between them. Some games require the physical flipping of game tiles, and the layering of visual markers on these as the game state changes. Others require a constant stream of collection and discarding of small cubes, and the placement of miniature people (known in board gaming jargon as ‘Meeple’) within a spatially complex and state-dependent representation of a fantasy city.
Some games require the ability to take a long term view from an elevated position to consider the strategic implication of decisions. Such games can be played, with difficulty, by those with impairments provided they have people around them willing to compensate for interaction difficulties. Such interventions can be slow; be difficult to perform; or simply interrupt the flow of gameplay. More importantly, they do not permit the impaired player to interact with the game themselves, restricting autonomy and the empowered wish fulfilment that is a core feature of many titles. Some games require a player to have cards or resources that are hidden from others—in such games, an impaired player either cannot fully participate or must be supported by another individual who cannot play the game. A game as common as poker cannot be fairly played if one’s cards are known by another active participant.
Game-states are often represented in heavily thematic ways. This disadvantages those with visual impairments. Font choice may be sub-optimal for readability, or the sheer number of choices on a board may require text size to be uncomfortably small. Many games involve lots of components, some of which may be colour coded, or difficult to make out against the backdrop of the game-board. The physical orientation of pieces played on a board may have special meaning, so even if symbols can be visually ascertained, they may have subtleties of positioning that complicate interpretation. Cards may have considerable amounts of text, densely written and full of complicated instructions. Again, these do not prevent someone from playing if they have others around them willing to compensate, but in doing so it moves the responsibility from the game developers onto the players, and risks much of the flow that comes from effortless and absorbing game-playing.
Those with cognitive impairments encounter more problems—rules may be complicated or heavily state dependent, resulting in complex compound conditionals such as ‘If the villain has this card in their deck, then all attacks of this particular type are at + 1 for this round only, but if they have a different card then all damage they do is at − 1 unless it’s an electricity based attack’. Such rules are difficult enough for most of us to fully understand. In some games where the rules themselves are modifiable familiarity with the base rule-set will not meaningfully simplify the cognitive cost of participation. Similarly, game-state itself might be complicated—even if the rules are simple, the end stages of a game may involve highly interrelated physical state, where ascertaining the best way to contain an escalating situation is part of the logic puzzle involved. Many games embrace failure as a likely outcome, which can add an additional level of frustration for those that feel already disempowered by complexity. Most require specific symbols, locations and orientations to have particular meaning within the game-state, adding a burden of recall on the player to understand not just the game-state itself, but the abstract mechanism that exists for representing it.
Those with hearing impairments are perhaps least affected by board game design, but some games have accompanying soundtrack CDs which provide game-dependent cues to which all players must respond.
There exist a variety of accessible versions of games such as Chess and Monopoly. These are well-meaning but at best a partial solution to the problem because they do not address the issue of full participation in popular culture. Accessible versions of chess, Monopoly and Scrabble are welcome but limiting people to these titles severely restricts the scope of participation in board gaming culture for those with impairments. There exist some bespoke projects to offer accessible versions of modern board game titles. However, such solutions are also only partial because they are of use primarily to the blind, and only to the subset of blind players (estimated by the National Federation of the Blind to be around 10% of the legally blind population) that are conversant with braille. Even within this limited solution space, the nature of braille means that certain long text passages would not be possible to convert into a tactile format within the narrow confines of a physical token or card. Advice within the gaming community for those with impairments tends to focus on ‘Do it yourself’ hacks and compensations. That can work as an individual solution to an individual problem but lack generalisability and ease of support.
Accessibility is about removing the barriers that stop people playing. Those barriers are sometimes physical, sometimes philosophical, sometimes economic, and sometimes in terms of inclusiveness of representation. A large portion of the teardowns performed by Meeple Like Us are about disabilities. Accessibility though is a much broader topic than that and it’s important that a review of how accessible a game is takes this into account with the same degree of seriousness as the other barriers.
A real, lasting solution must involve raising everyone to the same standard rather than attempting to create different, incompatible categories of accessible games for those with impairments, or to focus on ineffective compensation strategies such as braille dice or overlays.
However, this is a complex challenge.
The ‘feel’ of a game is important, and thematics are an important aspect of that feel. A game based around pretending to be superheroes for example has an enhanced feel as a result of cards being ornamented with comic-book art and fonts. We cannot address accessibility issues by ignoring the importance that theme plays in the overall experience.
Board game developers are already in many ways committed to particular designs, thematics and rule-sets. We cannot address the issues by relying on developers to redesign their games so that they are fully accessible, at least until a sufficient business case can be made for accessibility as a valuable market opportunity.
Mapping out the contours of this topic is an important first step in being able to offer a meaningful strategy for raising the floor on accessible design in board games. What’s needed is a programme of research aimed at examining potentially external sources of accessibility compensation such as digital apps, dedicated cognitive support tools, and learning aids and tutorials that come from outside the box of the game itself. Before that work can begin, we must first understand the nature of the problem. There are many ways that a topic like this can be addressed, including via the ecology of human performance (Dunn et al. 1994) and the person-environment occupation model (Law et al. 1996). These however are outside the scope of this specific paper which is focused primarily on the specific intersections of player and game design. Future work will likely draw more heavily from insights permitted via these techniques.