Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Problem with Colors

So, you're sitting down to play your favorite game, you pop open the box, and you start pulling out the pieces. And it's then that the pre-game activities begin, starting right off with the squabble for color.

Because game pieces innately come in colors. We've been trained through years of playing that it's how we recognize which pieces belong to whom. When a game like Tigris & Euphrates comes along, which marks player pieces with symbols instead of colors, it's a problem. I don't know how many players I've seen who didn't understand that they couldn't be blue, red, black, or green in T&E. Personally, I found that I had to make my brain leap through strange hoops the first time I played that much esteemed game because symbols didn't make sense, and colors do.

Some players have their favorite colors, while others don't care. One of my regular game partners chooses yellow whenever he can, while another always goes for green. In my review group players tend to pick colors that match their clothing; that means I often get black when such a color is available. When I pick, however, I tend to pick red, but I'm not too deeply attached to it because, as I've learned, red is one of the favorites among game players. One of the other players in my group used to pick red, just to try and throw me off.

All this talk of colors doesn't sound like a problem so far? It's not unless your squabbles descend into fisticuffs, clawing, and biting, and I've yet to see that in a gaming group. However what can cause problems are poor choices of colors in the production process.

Color Standards

Most games use a pretty standard palette of colors. I was writing up a review for Go West! a few weeks ago and I noticed how traditional its colors were: green, red, yellow, and blue. They're the same four colors that I found in the next three four-player games I picked up: Samurai, China, and Rumis. When I quizzed my wife, those were her guesses for the most popular four colors too. Carcassonne adds a fifth player and a fifth color, black, while Ticket to Ride uses that exact same set of five colors for its players. TransAmerica uses the traditional four, but adds in an uncommon white and a fairly unusual brown for its fifth and sixth colors.

I was pretty surprised to see how consistent the four-player color scheme is among games. The Settlers of Catan is a pretty rare four-player game that breaks this mold. Though the back of my Mayfair-edition box shows the standard colors (red, blue, yellow, and green) in its pictures, inside I actually have blue, red, orange, and white, a color scheme repeated throughout many of Teuber's games.

With so much consistency (barring Settlers) I figure there has to be a reason. Perhaps it's that red, green, yellow, and blue are easy to distinguish; after all it's not like anyone were ever red-green colorblind or anything. Or maybe it's just that the wood wonder-workers of Germany have found trees naturally tinted red, green, yellow, and blue, taking the laborious dyeing process out of game manufacture.

There's little purpose in ranting about the problems caused by adventurous game manufacturers who add in an unusual fifth or sixth color, which ends up being totally indistinguishable from something else in the game, because it's already been talked about a lot. Fresh Fish is my biggest pet peeve, with its largely identical looking red and orange pieces, though thankfully the used set I got has the orange-painted-gold pieces that the publisher thoughtfully offered. There's at least one geeklist dedicated to the subject of poor color choices in games, with the red-orange-brown-pink spectrum generating the most complaints. (Publishers take note.)

By the by, if there's one thing I've learned about colors in games, it's that you want to play games in the most brightly lit room you can. I never would have considered the colors in Coloretto hard to tell apart, but then one day I played it in a dimly lit Living Room and started having problems. Fortunately Coloretto does something that more manufacturers should: it matches up colors with different textures, making them a little easier to tell apart. (Ticket to Ride just uses a symbol for each color, making things even easier.)

A less frequently discussed problem, however, is that of using all unusual colors. Take a look at Hansa as an example, which has player colors in purple, gray, yellow, and white. Pueblo is another weirdo, with dark blue, turquoise, red, and purple pieces. I'm pretty sure that the Hansa colors were used to distinguish from the goods colors (on which, more in a second) while the Pueblo colors were meant to be nicely thematic American Indian colors. Both of these are good reasons to include very different colors in a game. However they also open up a very real danger:

You don't know who's who.

As I said at the start of this article, many of us have our favorite colors, and thus it's usually easy for me to glance at a board if I'm playing with any of my regular opponents, and remember who's who. But in a game with really unusual colors (and maybe this just means that I'm getting old) I can have troubles figuring out not only who the other pieces belong to, but also which are mine!

There's an easy solution to this: give each player a marker that sits in front of them to show their color. Really, I think this should be a law in every game, a literal "Thou shalt not hide thy players' colors", even those which use the standard RYGB, but it's especially important if a game uses unusual colors. Hansa gives you a money-bag in your color, and that's more than sufficient. Pueblo sort of backs into a correct solution, because you'll usually (but not always) have pieces of your color sitting in front of you.

Tutankhamen, on the other hand, is an offender. Its unusual player colors are white, black, beige, dark brown, gray, and gold, and your pawns, which you put on the board, are the only things that mark those colors. Last game we played several players just plain forgot what colors they were at certain points in the game, resulting in a few minutes of, "Well, I think I'm black, and wasn't Chris that light brown, so you must be gold or dark brown ..."

Matching Colors ...

Simply have selected a set of 4, 5, 6, or 7 player good colors isn't enough. Games can still get themselves into troubles based on how they match or differentiate player colors throughout their game.

Matching up a player color through all of a game's components can be a real issue. Games that mix together wood and cardboard seem to have the most problems here.

La Strada is I think the worst example I have of this, to the point where I really have to puzzle through which of the various components belong to which color whenever I play. What I really don't understand is the fact that some of the cardboard pieces use different hues for the same players. There's one player who has a red scoretrack, ochre tiles, and dark brown cubes, for example. The white scoretrack meanwhile matches up with the light gray tiles and the gray cubes; the ivory scoretrack matches up with the yellow tiles and cubes, and the black score track matches up with the dark gray tiles and the black cubes.

I think.

Having worked in publishing, I can say that color printing is very hard. I'm still disappointed with how the colors printed on some of the game book covers that I sent to press almost a decade ago. But this also all points out the need for spot checking what all of your components look like before you send a mess out to your players.

... And Differentiating

A somewhat more subtle problem in games is differentiating colors that are used for very different things.

Ticket to Ride, like all of Days of Wonders' games, has very carefully constructed & well-designed components. But it also makes one faux pas: it duplicates player colors with colors used for another purpose in the game (here, railroad track routes).

As I already mentioned, the player colors in Ticket to Ride are a very common red, green, yellow, blue, and black. However there are also eight track colors: red, green, yellow, blue, black, brown, white, and purple. I've never explained Ticket to Ride to a new player who didn't get confused between the player colors and the track colors, since there's overlap. Now, maybe the DoW folks were willing to accept that moment of initial confusion in order to use common, easily distinguishable colors, but it's also a small hurdle every time I explain the game.

As I mentioned earlier Hansa is a game that gets around this problem of differentiation by using weird player colors. As a result there's no overlap between the player colors (purple, gray, yellow, and white) and the goods colors (red, green, blue, orange, pink, and black). Thus it ends up being one of my favorite games colorwise. It avoids repeats of colors used for different purposes in the game and it uses unusual player colors but gives players a marker to help them remember it.

The point of all this?

Games are items with a surprisingly large number of moving parts. And it's amazing how a single one of those parts, such as the color of the pieces, can bring the whole machine to a grind halt if poorly constructed


ekted said...

You didn' talk about Through the Desert. :)

Shannon Appelcline said...

Yep, that would have been a good add. It's not on my shelf, unfortunately, so it just slipped right by. I need to pick up a copy now that it's back in print.

Joe Gola said...

I love the color scheme of Hansa...except for the pink. God I hate pink. I was playing a three-player game recently, and, you know, you leave one color of good in the box, but whoever was in charge of setup left the pink in and one of the other colors out. I was completely flabbergasted. If we can't at least all agree on the hatefulness of pink, do we really have anything in common with each other at all?

Sadly, the worst color offender I know is one of my favorite games, Liberte. There is a blue region on the board and a pinkish purple region, but the cards corresponding to the purple region are a deep bluish purple, and so if you don't have one of the blue cards in your hand for comparison you're liable to think purple is blue. (Actually there's a trick for telling them apart but it's not interesting enough to go into here). I understand how this sort of thing happens, because I too have worked in publishing and I know how an ink can look completely different between two different printings, but there's even another problem beyond that one: the brown player discs and the purple player discs are almost completely identical in weak incandescent light. You can leave one of the two out if you're playing with fewer than six players, but if you're playing with five then that means someone has to be...ewww, pink.

Rick said...

Another game that's a color offender is Magna Grecia, which has a spectrum of earth tones for its four player colors - red, brown, orange and yellow. Since our default gaming venue uses soft yellow lighting, I dread the day I break MG out.

Melissa said...

We have ongoing problems with Alhambra, where some of the currencies are the same colour as some of the buildings.

Interestingly, my colourblind friend had no problems with that aspect of the game :)

And the Settlers orange and red pieces can be *very* difficult to tell apart, we've found.

Anonymous said...

Concerning Ticket to Ride: The first thing I say whenever I teach someone this game is that their colour has nothing to do with the colours on the cards and the map. It's such a simple game, but without clarifing the colour issue, they aren't going to understand how it works.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Big offenders:

Mayfair Cosmic's blue and light blue. The tokens were bad enough, but the destiny pile cards were simply indistinguisable.

4000 A.D. colors: dar orange, light orange, dark green, and light green.


Anonymous said...

We pulled out Attila the other day and couldn't stop complaining about the colors. Many of the player colors are the same as the tribe colors, so you get statements like "blue scores yellow," "green scores black," and "yellow scores yellow."

Keeping all of that clear with new players can be pretty tough.

Anonymous said...

I've seen where some players change colors between back-to-back plays of the same game to intentionally confuse people.

I normally try to pick the color that best blends in with the board. This is to 'hide' during the game & keep other players from noticing me. Can't tell if it has ever worked, but I have missed other players whose colors have blended in.

Shannon Appelcline said...

I'm not familiar with some of these, like Attila, but Alhambra's one that I should have mentioned too. That one still confuses me when I play.

Anonymous said...

At one convention I attended, after extreme confusion in a game of Tutankhamun, the organiser suggested people bring their own miniatures to use as markers in such situations. I can only think of a very few games where that would be handy, but it's worth considering.


Anonymous said...

Attila is very confusing, and a lot of people complained about it. That makes it that much more amazing that City and Guilds (which uses a similar stock market mechanism) makes the exact same mistake!