Designing for Dyslexia: Text in Game Design

Game design

Introduction

Great strides have been made recently in making board games more accessible to players with various forms of colour blindness. It’s something often discussed by players and designers alike. However, something that isn’t talked about (in my experience anyway), is how the graphic design can create a barrier to people suffering from other vision problems and dyslexia. So, I wanted to share some thoughts on the subject.

Not all vision issues can be fixed with a pair of glasses. I suffer from an eye problem that makes it difficult to focus on small details (e.g. reading small/unclear text). One of my friends and fellow gamers, Anthony Brown, has similar issues with text; he is dyslexic. Although the cause of our problems are very different, the result is the same: if a game requires too much effort to read the text, it becomes less enjoyable and will usually be sold on, never to be played again. Furthermore, for dyslexics it’s even worse as they can misread rules or effects, which can be frustrating and contribute to a negative play experience.

If a game requires too much effort to read the text, it becomes less enjoyable and will usually be sold on, never to be played again.

With the above in mind, this article focuses on text in games. Text in games is extremely common, particularly in games that use cards with a variety of effects and abilities. So what are the potential pitfalls and how can you make your game text more accessible? I’ll discuss the main points below. You’ll be pleased to know that all text accessibility issues are easily fixed with a little thought and common sense.

Titles vs. Descriptions 

I’d like to start with a caveat. It is important to realise that many of the points I will discuss apply primarily to descriptive text (i.e. where there is more than just a few words). For titles and headings, you have more leeway but still bear the following in mind with all of the text in your design.

The Font

First up then is the font itself. Choosing the right font is essential. Don’t use fancy fonts except for titles and headings. Reading more than a few words in an unclear font is very difficult for people with vision issues. Instead, choose fonts that have a simple design and are clear to read.

Sans-serif fonts are preferred, especially if there are lengthy descriptions or the text size will be smaller than is ideal. Also make sure your font has both uppercase and lowercase letters (this will be discussed later).

Text Size

At an absolute minimum, your text size should be 8pt but the larger the better. Try and make your text 10-12pt if you can (depending on the font – some fonts are smaller than others). Similarly, don’t use tiny text in a big area – if you have a lot of space in your text box, make the text bigger and use all of the available space. If you have the odd card that has more text, you can make the text smaller for those specific cards – it is much better to have most of your cards easily readable than none of them. 

If you have a lot of space in your text box, make the text bigger and use all of the available space.

If you have a lot of descriptive text, don’t use small cards or components – scale the components to the amount of text you are using. 

Text Style & Formatting

Next up is the text formatting. Firstly, don’t use all-caps for descriptive text (it’s fine for titles and headings though). It has been well established than reading text that is all uppercase requires a lot more effort from the reader.

Similarly, don’t make all of your text bold – this has a similar effect to all-caps. Bold should be used for one or a few words to highlight them.

Line Spacing

Similar to the effect of all-caps, line spacing also affects the white space around the text. Line spacing should be at least the height of the text itself. If there is a lot of text spanning several lines, consider increasing the line spacing to make it easier to read.

Contrast

This is a trickier one and there are several problems that can occur. The most common is not having enough contrast between the text and the background. For example, your card might have a fairly dark parchment image for the textbox, and the text might also be a dark brown to make it look more thematic. This can be very difficult to read, especially if the lighting conditions are not ideal. When using backgrounds, try to make sure there is plenty of contrast – this usually means lightening the background and making the text black (or very dark).

Conversely, too much contrast (e.g. pure black on pure white) can also be difficult for dyslexics, especially light coloured text on a dark background (e.g. white on black). The best solution then, is to have black text on an off-white background, or off-black text on a white background. 

Furthermore, when using background images for your text, make sure it is a fairly ‘flat’ image. By that I mean that the lightness is fairly consistent across the background (where the text will be). This avoids the issue of varying contrast. For example, a dark patch on the background image will make the text on top of that part very difficult to read anyway, but for dyslexics the change in contrast makes it even more difficult for them as their eyes have to readjust to those changes.

The best solution then, is to have black text on an off-white background, or off-black text on a white background. 

Some dyslexics will find certain background colours more difficult to read, but unfortunately there is no rule that can be followed here. Person A might struggle with yellow backgrounds and find text easiest to read on a light blue background, but person B might be the opposite. So when it comes to colour there is no perfect solution, so all you can do is follow the above advice to minimise any contrast issues as best you can.

Rulebooks

All of the above also applies to rulebooks. If your rules are physically difficult to read, it can put people off even learning your game and it might not even hit the table. Also remember that rules are not necessarily read just once to learn the game; players refer to them during play and to refresh their memory between plays. 

Consider this, if I am choosing between two games. I need to refresh my memory of the rules for both games: do I pick the one that’s easy to read, or the one with the small text and low contrasting background? It’s not a difficult choice.

Keywords

Unlike the previous points, this one does not relate to the look and style of the text. If your game uses keywords (e.g. to make it easier for players to remember certain abilities and effects), choose words that are not too similar to each other. For example, the keywords Precise and Peirce are similar words and can be easily confused by someone with dyslexia: they could easily get them mixed up because although the text says ‘Precise’, their brain could read it as ‘Peirce’, and therefore they would be using the wrong ability/effect without even knowing it.

Icons

Of course, one way to avoid text issues is to bypass it altogether and use icons. This has the added bonus of making your game more language independent. If you choose this route, reference cards are a must to to help players learn what they mean as they play.

However, icons also come with their own set of potential problems. Obviously you need good icons that represent what they mean, and good descriptions in the rulebook. Also, too many icons can overload players with the amount of symbology they need to learn, so it’s really a judgement call as to whether this is a viable solution for your game. 

Conclusion

In short, hard-to-read text is a barrier to enjoying the game, for some people more than others. There are lots of games out there, so people who struggle with the text in your game will simply choose a different one to play.

Do you suffer from dyslexia or vision issues that can make some games difficult to play? If so, please comment below.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Anthony Brown for his input into this article and answering my many questions on dyslexia.

Limitation Inspires Creativity: Designing Laser Bots

Game design

Laser Bots is a two-player strategy card game. Players each control a robot via an action management system: actions become more powerful depending on the amount of cards played before the effect occurs, so the order of card play is the key to victory.

Origins

Laser Bots started out life as a computer game that I created back in the 90s on my trusty old Amiga 1200. I was a student at university, and my friends and I needed some cheap (i.e. free) entertainment, so I locked myself in my room for a week and created what was then called Laser Droids (I only recently discovered that George Lucas owns the rights to the word “droid”, hence the name change).

The gameplay was simple: up to four players moved a robot around the screen (a 2D top-down view) and tried to shoot and destroy each other. There was also a ‘power droid’ that meandered around the screen dropping weapon and armour upgrades. The sound was minimal, the graphics were terrible, but boy was it fun.

What made it fun? Well, when four players mashed the fire button, the computer couldn’t cope with all those ‘bullets’ on the screen so I needed a way to limit the amount of laser fire. The solution: limit ammo to 10 shots per robot via an energy resource, and have a recharge zone in the middle where you could regain energy, but you were vulnerable whilst doing so (you had to hold down the fire button and watch your energy slowly recharge). Suddenly there was an element of strategy and tactics in this fast moving shooting game: you had to make every shot count and pick the best moment to recharge your energy.

Evolution

Fast forward about 10 years; I decided to create a simple boardgame version for a reunion with my old university friends. The game was fairly crude, but it had a hex board, standees, and lots of cards to replace the power droid. The energy and recharge zone remained as this was the essence of the game. We had fun with this first version but it was far from a great game. However, there was something there that I felt was worth pursuing, so over the next five years or so I worked on it sporadically, improving the gameplay and mechanics where needed.

Over that period, the movement mechanic and unique robot abilities were merged into program cards – these had a special ability unique to the robot, and a movement path. Program cards were chosen at the start of the round and revealed simultaneously, cutting down on play time and adding an element where you had to anticipate your opponents’ moves. There were also command cards, available to all robots, which added instant effects that could chain together.

As the game evolved it was looking like it was getting close to being a decent game, so I commissioned Gong Studios to do some artwork. I like to be immersed in my projects and having some great art really helps my creativity. I also find play testers are more engaged when it looks pretty. So, I had a new prototype printed at The Game Crafter with a new tri-fold board with improved graphics, illustrated player boards, and new standees of the robots.

However, whilst the game had improved a lot over its development and it had some nice mechanics, somehow it just didn’t all hang together in a good way. At times the game felt slow and clunky, and I wasn’t really enjoying playing it much. So I decided to shelve Laser Bots and focus my efforts elsewhere.

Less is More

Shortly after I shelved Laser Bots, I founded a small company designing and selling 3D printed gaming accessories. This swallowed up most of my time so I had an extended hiatus from game design. Eventually, the urge to make games got the better of me and I started working on a few projects in my spare time. I joined some Facebook groups and started getting more involved with the game design community, and eventually stumbled on to The Game Crafter’s Mint Tin Contest.

Now this seemed like a great way to get back into designing games – entries had to be small (to fit in a mint tin), short (under 20 minutes), and not too complex. Entries couldn’t use copyrighted artwork, and my funds were limited. So, I started by searching my archives for art assets I could use and decided I would go from there. Amongst other ideas, I wondered if I could redesign Laser Bots to the constraints of the contest. Perhaps some limitations were exactly what I needed; the original computer game was born out of limitations of technology, so maybe restrictions on game components and complexity were the key to finally making Laser Bots work.

The first thing I did was limit the game to four robots (there were six in the previous big-box version). I selected them carefully so each one had its own unique abilities and play-style: Astro is defensive and works well at long range, Henry is better at offense and manipulates cards in play, Sparky has mastery over energy, and Turbo is all about speed & movement.

The game size and length were the next thing I tackled, and it wasn’t long before making it a two-player only game seemed like the right way to go. This meant that with four robots to choose from, there would be a decent variety of robot match-ups.

Then I had to decide on the core mechanism. I’d wanted to design a game using what I call ‘action management’ for some time. It’s a not a well known mechanism – I’ve only seen it in Assault of the Giants and really liked the concept. The basic idea is that you build up a row of cards, one card per turn. When you add a card, the more cards that are already to the left, the more powerful the newly played card becomes. So the timing of when you play each card is a key factor to victory. You then have some means to return all your cards to your hand so you can start the process again.

I took the old program cards and adapted them to this new mechanism. The movement paths were no longer needed, just abilities unique to each robot. However, for action management to work you need a hand of about eight cards to choose from so you can build up the cards and still have a choice of what to play and when. With four robots to choose from, that’s a total of 32 cards, leaving no room for other cards in the tin once you factor in the other essential components.

At this point I also considered the game’s replayability which would be limited with only four fixed decks. This is why I added the advanced program cards: 12 unique cards with two dealt to each player at the start of the game – this really mixes things up, and opens up lots of card combos. I also wanted each droid to have some basic actions to increase and decrease range so I created the sets of basic program cards for this (two identical cards for each player). So with two basic program cards and two advanced, I now only needed four unique cards per robot – perfect!

For the robots’ own program cards, I balanced them by giving each a defensive card, a movement card, a normal attack, and a double damage attack. Each of these cards has their own unique twist depending on the robot’s personality and play-style. I also made some actions ‘delayed’, so they could be used later in the game, such as defensive abilities and attack rerolls.

As part of the action management mechanism, I created the Recharge action which players can perform instead of playing a card. This is a nice nod to the original recharge zone idea – when recharging, you can return any of your cards to your hand, and you gain an energy for each card returned. Again, nice and simple and it elegantly fused the energy resource with the action system. With this action I added the option for players to leave cards in their program row to give them a head-start building up their cards, and also to leave cards in play that had unused actions.

Then I moved onto the game board – I tried making a board from several cards, but they shifted around too much. I then thought to myself, what function does the board serve? Once you remove all features from the board (recharge zones, terrain), it essentially just determines how far the robots are from each other. Now the game was only two players, this function can easily be utilised by a range tracker, and so the range card was born – perfect for a mint tin game. I love it when I come up with an elegant solution like this.

I tried several variations of the range card. Initially the target number went down to 2+ but I found that it devalued defence cards – forcing a reroll when the attacker only needs 2 or more was pretty lousy odds. But with best chance at 3+ it gives a reasonable chance for a reroll to miss. Whilst making these changes I also adapted all of the ‘Shield’ cards so that if the attacker’s reroll still hit your robot, you gained some other benefit – this way it never felt like you had wasted your shield, removing any potential negative play experience resulting from bad luck.

With a lot of play testing, I made various other tweaks and changes until I arrived at the game as it stands today. It was a lot of hard work, and it was a huge learning experience in skills beyond game design – I’ll probably cover this in a later blog entry.

I’m very pleased with how the game turned out, and it’s a game that both I and my testers really enjoyed playing. Laser Bots exceeded my expectations, and I owe a lot of what makes it work to the limitations imposed on the design: from the original computer game to this mint tin version. In the evolution of this game I really have come full circle.

Further Info

For more details on Laser Bots (including a playthrough and tutorial video), and to purchase the game, please visit the shop page: https://www.thegamecrafter.com/games/laser-bots

If you like the look of Laser Bots, please consider voting for it in the Mint Tin Contest: https://www.thegamecrafter.com/contests/mint-tin-challenge

Your Gateway to Another Dimension

Uncategorized

Welcome to the new website for Another Dimension. 

I have recently diversified into designing and creating our own boardgames, in addition to our 3D printed gaming accessories. Our shop for 3D printed products will remain on Etsy, and our boardgames are currently available via The Game Crafter, an amazing print-on-demand boardgame service.

Because my different products are spread over two different online stores, I needed a hub to those websites. I also wanted to blog about my game design journey, of which this is the first post.

So, here it is, your gateway to Another Dimension…