A Quick Guide to Color-Coding in Tabletop Games

Inspired by this week's #BoardGameHour discussion of disabilities and access to tabletop games, I made this quick guide to color-coding. Boy howdy, did this blow up on Twitter. It's by far my most RTed and faved tweet. Below is the text from the image.

Quick Guide to Color-Coding in Tabletop Games
Color perception problems can happen to anybody. Whether caused by poor lighting, printing errors, or an eye condition, there is a very simple solution any graphic designer can use.

Instead of using colors alone...

[Image: Line of Colored Circles]

“Double-code” with a correlated visual cue,
like an embedded icon...

[Image: Line of Colored Circles, each with a different black shape centered inside.]

and unique card border or background.

[Image: Line of sample card borders, each with varying corners and line quality]

Uniquely textured, screenprinted, or shaped components can help, too. Group each color with one or two other visual cues that are high contrast, easy to see in low light, and can be recognized from any orientation.
CC-BY DANIEL SOLIS   •   Visit SmartPlayGames.com for visually friendly games!
(Oh! And avoid using red, green, and brown or blue and yellow in the same game. Black, white, blue, and red are a safe bet.)
To clarify that last point, I mean specifically using those colors for the same type of component in a game. Otherwise, I stand by this advice. Feel free to share, tape it up in your office, whatevs.

Light Rail: Downtown now available!

All aboard! The first expansion for Light Rail is now available! Light Rail: Downtown adds enough cards for two players to play out a full four-player city. New cards have three different buildings, making them more valuable for building routes. 

The Express lines count as double-segments to quickly build a majority claim to routes, but have no terminals so play them carefully!

So go get Light Rail: Downtown! Don't forget, this is an expansion that requires Light Rail to play. Pick that up, too!

Protosprinting: Stepping back to move forward

A long time ago I talked about how I approached rapid prototyping during the development of Belle of the Ball. It's been about two years and a dozen games since then, so I've revised that process a bit. Last year taught me how much going at full-throttle design can lead you down the wrong path. These digressions happen in every design process, but I sometimes went further down those wrong paths than if I had stopped and considered my current trajectory.

For A La Kart, I'm trying something I'll call protosprinting.

Playtest Day: GO GO GO!
On playtest day, I'll revisit my notes from my last playtests. I'll anticipate problems, hopefully optimize solutions, and rapidly iterate new prototypes with minimum necessary graphics and layout. When the playtest comes around, I take feedback, write notes, and test on-the-fly handwritten edits when feasible.

Every Other Day: Rest
After that burst of output, I'll give myself 1.5 times as many days away from the project as I spent playtesting. For example, I spend Monday and Tuesday urgently playtesting, then I won't revisit the game until the following weekend. This also keeps me from designing in a vacuum, without immediate actual play feedback.

So far this kept my playtest days very focused on the immediate tasks at hand, allowing me to refine core systems before digressing into minutia. Not sure if this works for everyone, but I thought I'd share my current process.


For a few months, I've been tweeting some quick premises for board games under the #NewBoardGameTheme hashtag. I didn't really have a core agenda for the tag except that I just wanted to bring up some themes with under-explored player interaction, non-eurocentric historical themes, and no presumption of violence as a means to solve problems. Whoops! I guess that is an agenda after all. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

For posterity, here are the pitches as of January 20, 2014:

A few of these really strike my fancy, including the Turing Test party game, investigative reporting push-your-luck, and the Kyoto Protocol deckbuilder. With my reduced game design schedule this year, I might have time to devote to one or two of these more deeply. Worth exploring!

Graphic Design Seminar at UnPub 5

Next month in Baltimore, I'll be attending UnPub 5 and running a short seminar covering the basics of graphic design in tabletop games. Thing is, I always find it more productive if I can actually know what it is that attendees want to know. So, if you are attending UnPub 5, please share your questions! Here's my general outline:

  • Experience in Advertising/Marketing
  • Experience in the Tabletop Industry
  • Typical process for a graphic designer for tabletop games

I. Graphic Design for Players
  • Typography
    • Hierarchy: How to organize sections of text.
    • Legibility: Making sure text is readable.
  • Iconography
    • What is an icon vs. a diagram?
    • When is it best to use either?
  • Color
    • What are the "safe" colors for color-blind players?
  • Common Resources
    • Fonts: Blambot, Lost Type
    • Icons: Noun Project, Game-Icons.net, my Patreon
    • Inspiration: Lovely Package, Web Design Ledger
    • Stock: Shutterstock, Creative Commons
    • Misc: InDesign Secrets, PSDCover
  • Design Challenges in Tabletop Games
    • Reading game components from varying distances.
    • "Cool" layout vs. a usable layout

II. Graphic Design for Production
  • Tools of Production
    • InDesign or Scribus
    • Illustrator or Inkscape
    • DataMerge
  • Prepress
    • Bleeds / Live Area
    • RGB vs. CMYK
    • Press Check 
 III. More Info and Resources
  • SkillShare: Designing Cards for Tabletop Games
  • SkillShare: Graphic Design for CCGs
  • Google Helpouts: Graphic Design for Tabletop Games
  • Patreon: Icons for Tabletop Games

That ought to cover about 45 minutes at least, but I wanted to make sure I'm not rambling about stuff everyone knows already. What questions do you have?

Ducks in a Row: Apples-to-Apples Mechanics as a Strategic Trading Game

It's been a while since I've posted a simple little game here, so try this one out and share your thoughts. Take a standard deck of cards and shuffle them up for a group of 3-6 players. Deal out a hand of nine cards to each player and set aside the remainder. Choose someone at random to be the Judge for the first round.


To play, each player (including the Judge!) simultaneously chooses one card to offer the other players, face-down. The Judge keeps her card face down to the side of the play area. The Judge mixes up everyone else's offered cards while they're face-down so she can't tell who offered which card. Then the Judge reveals the offers to all players.

The Judge selects one card from the offer, adding it to her personal scoring tableau. The player who offered that card to her then takes one card from the offer, adding that to his own scoring tableau. The player who offered that card, then takes her choice of card... and so on, so each player takes turns accepting one card into his or her own tableau.

Whoever had the last turn gets the Judge's offered card and becomes the new Judge in the next round of play. Restrictions: You cannot take your own card. Cards you take can be added to the left or right of your scoring tableau, but not in between.


The game ends when each player has 7 cards in their tableau. Each player then adds one card from their hand to the end of their tableau and discards the one remaining card.


At the end of the game, your score is based consecutive five-card poker hands from your tableau. Each set of five cards overlaps across your tableau, as shown in the example at the top of this page. The tableau above divides up into four sets of five cards, the first being 6 of spades, 7 of spades, Ace of spades, 2 of spades, and 3 of diamonds.

In this manner, each player compares the first set of five cards in their tableaus. Whoever has the best poker hand wins 5 points. Whoever has second best scores 3 points. Whoever has third best scores 1 point. Once that first set is scored, move on to the second set of five cards in each tableau and compare those to one another. The player with the most total points wins! If tied, the player with highest total numbered ranks (2-10) wins.

Now on SkillShare! Graphic Design for Collectible Card Games

Ever wanted to design your own deck of cards but were intimidated about all the fiddly bits of graphic design? Check out my latest SkillShare course Graphic Design for Collectible Card Games, a set of video lessons where I take you step by step through my design process for card decks. This is a followup to my previous SkillShare course Designing Cards for Tabletop Games, so it might help to check that out first.

Collectible card games are really fun, but they can be intimidating as a graphic design project. All those stats and variable elements! I'll de-mystify the advanced features of InDesign's DataMerge so you can easily create a deck of cards and rapidly iterate during your development process.

At the end of this course, you will know how to

  • Create dynamic card frames that adapt to text length
  • Design your "dingbat" icon font and automatically insert icons into text
  • Get the most out of art assets with transparent backgrounds

And more! So check it out: Graphic Design for Collectible Card Games

Spirits of the Rice Paddy on Kickstarter

Happy to announce that Philip duBarry's Spirits of the Rice Paddy is now on Kickstarter. I did graphic design for this project back in mid-2014, designing the cards, components, player boards, iconography, the whole shebang. It's my heaviest Euro design job and involved a lot of tweaks from several rounds of playtesting.

The game puts players in the role of rice farmers guiding the flow of water through their fields and occasionally getting assistance (or hindrance) by spirits. Players draft spirit cards which are individually numbered, always making you choose whether to get first dibs on precious water or earn favors from the spirits. It's a classic Euro that scales well from 2-4 players and moves along at a very nice pace.

Go check it out on Kickstarter!

Promoted Tweet Strategy for Tabletop Games

The old saying goes: You're always wasting half your marketing budget, you just never can tell which half. I examined my in-depth analytics about my 2014 sales so I could launch a reasonably geo-targeted twitter campaign promoting the right games in my catalog.

For example, despite large populations, I wasn't selling much in Texas or Florida. Those are territories I can aim for at a later date, after more firmly establishing an audience in strongly burgeoning markets like California, Washington state, and right here in North Carolina. I also set my campaign to run in Japan, since I've heard some buzz about my games there. I launched my first campaign with a very softly worded opener:

The results of that first week were about 25,000 impressions, with 14,000 from Japan alone. Looking at my 2014 sales, profits, and potential for growth, I followed that up with seven days later with this promo for Kigi, which is the first of my games to receive interest from Japanese publishers.

It was then I realized the really firm constraints that come with promoted tweets for tabletop games. I couldn't communicate how the game plays while at the same time expressing the feeling of playing the game. So I decided to reply to that promoted tweet with a simple explanation supported by several photos.

Twitter thankfully keeps replies threaded with their "parent" tweet. So, while viewers wouldn't see that reply in the promo, if they were interested they could expand the conversation and see those photos right away, all without leaving Twitter itself.

With more time and budget, I can easily see the promoted tweets having embedded video tutorials for the game. This is still only the first week of the campaign and firm numbers are a little premature. I'll share the results as they come!

Sprites for A La Kart

Just another little peek at the art I've commissioned for A La Kart. These sprites come from Fabio Fontes, whose pixel art you may recognize from Pixel Tactics. (Now on kickstarter!)

I usually do not recommend getting art too early in game development, but in my case it helps to keep my design direction clearer. In this case I'm reminding myself to keep true to the Mario Kart inspiration:
  • Approachable premise
  • Simple mechanisms with fast interactions
  • Variable terrain tactics
  • Frequent opportunity for little victories
 That's the goal! So far so good.

Smart Play Games 2014 Sales by Product

Not done crunching the numbers yet! Sorry if this is boring folks who want to see more graphic design and game stuff, but I wanted to see how each title performed through this year. I whipped up these three charts to see how they performed. (No awards for infographic design here, sadly.)

Measuring success by product is tricky because I released new product each month of the year, so naturally the longer-lived products would have higher total sales than the younger products. On top of that, the prices of each product varied through the year depending on promotions or discounts. I've just averaged things out where they vary a lot.

Despite all that obscurity, it's useful to see individual product earnings on their own terms. Take a look at the interactive charts below for details.

Not a lot of surprises here. Koi Pond is the top seller by far, and a good earner in terms of royalties. Nine Lives is a bit low, considering the pie chart below. Otherwise Light Rail and Monsoon Market placed roughly where I expected.

The average royalties for each title vary widely. Perhaps unsurprising, the higher royalties for each product, the lower its relative sales. I get a big royalty for Bird Bucks, but it has the fewest sales. In 2015, I should find alternative uses for those card assets.

Clearly the vast majority of my income this year came from Koi Pond. It's my oldest product and a consistent seller. The more surprising entries are Light Rail coming in at #2 because it's a relatively young product. Nine Lives is almost as old as Koi Pond, but I had the impression that it's less popular. Monsoon Market is another young product that places more highly than I expected, given that it has a large card count.

So, major pushes in 2015 should reinforce Koi Pond products and perhaps Kigi as a crossover product. Nine Lives, Light Rail, and Monsoon Market should feature prominently in future ads, too.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.