The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Modifying Games for the Blind

Eddie Timanus

December, 2002

I love a line Captain Kirk delivered on the original Star Trek episode entitled Shore Leave:

The more complex the mind, the more it requires the simplicity of play.

Perhaps my Alaska-sized ego took vindication from that. Since I love to play, I obviously have a very complex mind, right? Well, it's certainly good to lose a game now and then to keep one's ego in check.

I've always enjoyed games of all sorts—TV game shows, sporting events, card and board games, and, in my adult life, casino action. I never let a little thing like being blind stand in my way of having a good time. I quickly discovered that playing games was one of my favorite ways to have fun. The world of board games is by no means closed to blind or visually impaired persons. Many games can be made completely accessible with some tactile adaptations. This article is intended as a beginner's guide to adapting games. This is by no means an exclusive list. Despite my above comments, I certainly don't pretend to know everything or have all the answers. Readers might have their own suggestions on making games accessible, and I'd be interested in hearing your ideas. This piece should be of interest to blind readers who enjoy games, or to any gamer who has a visually impaired friend.

Background

You could say my gaming career began with my first Cootie set. Seems nobody I was playing with really cared if I got the right color head on the matching body. A few years after that, I got my first set of Braille cards. I almost always carry a deck with me nowadays. I also had a number of children's games my mother had found ways to mark, such as a Hi Ho Cherry-O set with Braille labels indicating the various positions around the spinner.

It was in high school that I was introduced to more advanced board games, thanks to my friend Joe Hertz. He volunteered to have the map on his Risk set marked and his Cosmic Encounter game brailled. He even came up with a term for such adaptations for a game, "Eddiefying". Joe is now my duplicate Bridge partner as well as a member of one of my gaming groups, and we still use that term today. In fact, how to Eddiefy a game has become something of an interesting meta-game for us.

Some games are more adaptable than others, of course. When I read a game review these days, it's always with an eye toward how the group might be able to make it playable for me. I try to get a feel from the reviewers description of the rules, components and playing area for the kinds of things that might need to be done. How many players does the game accommodate? Can each player's pieces be distinguished by some means other than color? How do the pieces interact on the board? How much information would I need to gather from the board itself? Sometimes, I have to wait until I can actually get the game in hand. Then I can get a feel for the components and get input from friends on how to make the necessary adaptations.

We always begin with the premise of not compromising the playability of the game parts for anybody else. This means, for example, not covering up some vital space on the board that a player would need to see, or not obscuring any lines or borders.

I should note here that in some cases games can be purchased that are already specially produced for use by blind or visually impaired players. These are often limited to public domain games like Chess or Backgammon, and the most common proprietary games such as Scrabble or Monopoly. Most commercial games aren't produced widely enough to have special editions. If you are interested in a game produced independently by an individual or small company, you could try contacting the inventor or manufacturer to see if a customized set can be made. Kate Jones and the good folks at Kadon Enterprises have been most accommodating for me on that score. For the most part though, it's usually not difficult to do your own adaptations. Here are a few of our successful techniques.

Marking Components

Generally, adaptations to games fall under two categories, marking components and marking the game board. We'll start with components, which can mean anything from movement tokens to cards to checkers.

Standard playing cards are among the easiest game bits to mark, assuming you have a working knowledge of Braille and a slate-and-stylus, the blind person's equivalent to a pencil or pen. Braille playing cards are available commercially from numerous sources, but it is far more economical to just buy standard cards and do the brailling yourself. Only two characters are needed, the first to denote the value and the second for the suit. Just put the two-character abbreviation (i.e. "8D" for the eight of diamonds or "XH" for the ten of hearts—using the Roman numeral "X" is a clever way around that two-digit problem), in the upper left-hand corner and in the diagonally opposite corner. This keeps the deck balanced (believe me, that's important when you're trying to shuffle it) and it also matches what the sighted person sees.

Games involving other, specialized cards might be more challenging but definitely not prohibitive. Since Braille takes up quite a bit more space than print, however, you have to be very selective about what information you can include when brailling the card. Some cards give detailed descriptions of their function when played in a game, such as edict cards in Cosmic Encounter or various action cards in certain expansions for The Settlers of Catan. You might have to limit the Braille to a short version of the name of the card, i.e. "Mobius Tubes" or simply "MT," and learn what each card does should it enter your hand.

There are also Braille label makers, for which transparent labeling tape is available. This is handy if you don't want to punch cards directly or if you need to label solid game pieces that can't be punched, such as the tiles in Acquire.

Checkers for games such as Backgammon or Connect 4 aren't difficult to mark either. One color can simply be left plain, while the other can be distinguished with a simple piece of tape or adhesive dot. In the case of Othello chips, simply mark the black side of all the chips.

Games in which there are more than two colors represented by pieces are a bit more challenging. The best method to make them distinguishable depends on the size and shape of the pieces themselves. In some cases, you'll find it easy to put differing numbers of tape strips or dots on different colored pieces. Sometimes, putting varying shaped pieces of tape or felt on each token would work better.

I don't mention dice here, incidentally, because those are usually made with indentations which can be felt or simply read out loud by sighted players during the game for expedience. If you have trouble feeling indentations, you can order Braille dice that have raised dots placed in recessed areas on each face. I wouldn't recommend trying to do anything with them yourself that might interfere with their balance.

My group is currently working on solutions for marking tiles for placement games like Carcassonne and Tigris & Euphrates. I'm sure we'll come up with something.

Marking Game Boards

Again, how much work you do on the board is largely determined by how much information you need to gather from the board itself. Some boards need no work at all. The board in the current Acquire version has raised squares to hold the tiles and needs no alterations, as long as the blind player knows which way the board is oriented at the beginning. I am fortunate enough to own an original Can't Stop game with its wonderful stop sign-shaped board with all the spaces denoted by clear indentations.

In many cases, it isn't necessary to tactually denote every feature of the board. On the Settlers of Catan board we use, for example, we have placed a piece of transparent labeling tape with a single Braille letter denoting the type of terrain on each hex—"M" for mountain, etc.

Glue applied to the borders in RiskSome boards are more involved, particularly for games like Risk or anything that uses a map. The borders must be drawn in tactually without compromising the printed lines. Believe it or not, one of the best tools for this is Elmer's Glue. It takes a person with a very steady hand to apply it, but a thin line of glue along each line of glue will dry clear and leave a raised ridge that will last a surprisingly long time. This glue method worked well for Sternenhimmel, in which star tokens must be placed on boards representing the signs of the Zodiac. Each constellation board is different, so the lines needed to be glued in for each one. I had a dozen round pieces of cardboard sitting on my kitchen counter for a couple days waiting for them to dry, but they now stack and travel very well. The glue won't stick and it won't peel off once it hardens.

One of the best group efforts of Eddiefication that graces my shelf is my copy of Take It Easy, in which players try to make unbroken lines of the same color across his own hexagonal matrix with each colored line corresponding to a point value from 1 to 9. I thought the game's mathematical nature would appeal to me when I read a review and immediately began thinking of ways I could mark the hexes, each of which would have three distinct lines. When my deluxe copy arrived, we determined it wasn't necessary to mark every set of tiles. We only needed to mark one. That would be the set I would play in every game. With my Braille label maker and transparent tape, I made a row of nine of each digit. My helper then cut the numbers apart and affixed a single character to the top of each line of the 27 hexes in my set, then glued in the lines surrounding the hexes on my board.

This worked all right, but my friend noticed I was having trouble keeping my tiles in place during the game, since I was constantly having to feel them to remember what I had placed where on my layout. We came up with the idea of affixing Velcro dots, placing the "hooks" half on each spot on the board and the front half on the back of each tile. Voila! Perfect! My group later used that Velcro idea on our Settlers of Catan set to keep the numbers on the terrain hexes, very helpful while I consider my initial placement of settlements.

As I said, these are just a few ideas we've come up with, and we're always trying to think of more. If you are blind and want to join a gaming group, it might be a good idea to introduce a copy of one of your own games that is already marked on your first night. Then if the group wants to try a new game later, the members will know what works for you and what accommodations are needed.

Have fun and happy Eddiefying!

- Eddie Timanus

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