Q&A with Thad Johnston: Making a Physical Board Game Accessible for Blind and Low Vision Players

Let’s start from the beginning. How did you come up with the idea of making a board game be accessible?

It started early last year, in March, when I started working with a student at Colorado State University named Adam, who is blind. I was supposed to work with him to help him in one of his classes. While working with him I became interested in accessibility, a very broad and relatively untouched subject. There are a lot of areas that we could go deeper with in accessibility, so one of the things I did while working with him was talk about board games. I am a pretty avid board game player and I play a lot with my brother.  In October, I decided that I wanted to make one of the games I enjoy accessible, so that he could play it.  It was more of a curiosity thing to see if I could make it work. I looked through my stack of games, and the one that stood out to me was a game called Shadows Over Camelot.  I believed that I could make this game accessible for him, and also his girlfriend who is visually impaired. Shadows of Camelot is a cooperative game where each person takes a knight at the round table, and they each have their own special abilities. Through cooperation, players work to complete quests and have the forces of good beat the forces of evil.

One of the reasons I really wanted to work on board games is that making board games accessible is way easier and less time consuming than video games. One thing I like about board games is that everyone is present and can participate socially. You could play multiplayer videogames, but they are still isolated events that you are playing in your own little world.

What were the accessible modifications to the game?

To enable all players to read the characters sheets that define each knight, I put transparent tape through a Braille typewriter and affixed it to the character sheet. The description of each knight’s specific powers could now be accessed through sight and touch.

There are two decks of cards: a black deck and a white deck. I created short braille labels for each of the cards so that they were easily identifiable. I typed up a longer description of what each of the cards does, and then sent it as a text file to Adam. On Adam’s computer, he can associate the braille labels with the longer descriptions of the different cards in a text file, and with his headphones, he can hear an assistive technology read the text as synthesized speech. These text files can be used to check the meaning of each card from the abbreviation in the text file.

The Shadows Over Camelot game board is dense with information. It has a pretty in-depth map, and multiple game boards go along with it. I cut out wire and taped it to where the characters go for each part of the board.

Shadows Over Camelot

What parts of the game were already accessible?

The game has many individual pieces that are positioned on the board. Fortunately, each of the game pieces has distinct physical features that enable its identification by touch.

For example, there are white and black swords that are used to track progress on quests in the game. When you complete a quest you get a certain number of white swords, and when you fail a quest,you get a certain number of black swords. I didn’t need to modify the swords in any way to be accessible, because the white sword is rounded and the black sword is a little sharper. This is a great example of not using solely color to differentiate items. Because there was a tangible difference between the swords, their meaning could be identified through multiple senses.

Also, each knight used in the game has its own unique features. It\’s amazing that with touch, each knight can be distinguished even though the pieces are fairly small.

What were some observations from playing the modified game with people who are visually impaired?

Adam, Cala, and I started playing the game together very soon after the accessible modifications were made. It worked, they caught on really fast, and now the three of us enjoy playing together.

During gameplay, Adam and Cala could feel their cards and determine which quests would be most appropriate to go on. The game has many different statuses that get conveyed visually on the board. Adam was very good at maintaining the status of the board in his memory and reciting the current state. If there was a question about a particular area of the board, then I could answer or validate his question. Also, Adam and Cala could independently physically explore the board through following the wires affixed to the game surface.

Each player liked to sit in the same position on the board to orient himself or herself on the board. The player can physically explore the board to draw a card for a new turn. Also, through touch, the player could position cards in slots on the board by feeling, from the left to the right, where the first empty space was. The player can then play the appropriate good or bad card on the board with an understanding of the sequence of cards that came before.

The traitor component of the game was also interesting in this new setup. I honestly think taking vision out of the equation adds another layer, and here is why: When someone is a traitor, many people have certain tells. You don’t give the same tells to people who are blind that you give to sighted people. The way that people are perceived through their voice and tone adds a different layer. Adam could tell I was the traitor through changes he heard in my voice. It challenges the dynamics of the game and makes the experience more enjoyable.

Any closing thoughts?

Gaming is such a part of what I love. One of the reasons I am excited about living in Indianapolis is that an annual gaming convention happens here. Gen Con is in August, and I am hoping to set up a booth for accessible games. One of my goals is to reach out to the local school for the blind to explore other ideas for accessible board games.

When all was said and done, it only took five hours total to make the game accessible. Nothing I did was complicated, and it was not a hard problem. It only took a good idea, and following through with it. Working with accessibility often takes a little creativity to solve a problem. You have to have the belief that people who are blind can play these games as your starting point.

Playing board games together can be unifying and enjoyable for everyone involved.

To Contact Thad Johnston with additional questions and comments, you can reach him at thaddeusmjohnston@gmail.com.

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