Blinded By The Dark: How designing for accessibility inspired a new type of horror game
You're sprinting, hopelessly lost, heart racing.
You hear a tree crashing down in the forest behind you. He's coming.
You speed up, desperately trying to fumble your way through the trees, trying to remember the way you came, but you can feel the forest changing around you.
You have to find the way, if you want to survive...
This is Nyctophobia, a unique horror survival game that challenges you to escape from a terrifying axe murderer (or mage) using nothing but your memory and your sense of touch. The game is designed by Catherine Stippell, and will be released at Gen Con this year by Pandasaurus Games.
Fascinated by the idea of a game that deprives most of the players of their sight, I interviewed Catherine about her inspiration for Nyctophobia, the design process, and her upcoming projects.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you first started playing tabletop games!
Hi! So I’m Catherine Stippell. I’m currently a college student working towards a degree in Biomedical Engineering and in what free time I can find from that I like to design board games.
When I was younger, I would mostly play either Solitaire a bunch or my mom taught me Rummy. In terms of getting into hobby games, I was researching an actress that I liked and found that she was on an episode of Tabletop. I didn’t care much for the game she had played but I watched through the rest of the episodes and thought it was the coolest thing ever. Around that time, a hurricane had hit and my house had lost power for a few days. I have two sisters and the only thing they wanted to do was play the Game of Life. So for three days we just sat and played it. I vowed never again and bought Pandemic.
Can you tell us about Nyctophobia, and what inspired you to design it?
I have a blind uncle, and after getting into the hobby I would bring games with me whenever there were family get-togethers. In order for him to play, the game had to be modified and adapted for him. My family ended up buying Dixit as a gift to my cousin and I realised that this was a very fun game that he really couldn’t play. You could describe the cards, but there might be some little detail that ends up being missed and is the point of the clue.
After that I decided I was going to make a game that he could play without any modification. Rather than him adapting, we as sighted people would have to adapt.
Nyctophobia was then born. Nyctophobia is a one vs many survival horror game where all but one player will be playing the game with blackout glasses on. These blinded players can only interact with the board through touch and have to navigate a dark forest without falling victim to the sighted player who is hunting you down.
What led you to the horror movie-style gameplay of Nyctophobia?
I knew right away the game was going to be played blind. I enjoy thematic games so my next thought after that is “Why are you blind?” I had recently watched Alien for the first time so my mind went to Alien chasing you around a dark spaceship. I wasn’t too big of a fan of the science fiction theme though. The non-sci-fi version of Alien is of course a horror slasher! The horror movie style was really just a perfect fit.
Have you playtested the game with your uncle and other blind players? What has been their experience and feedback?
I’ve playtested a bunch with my uncle. He loves it, though he may be just a bit biased. It was interesting going through the different physical versions with him. The first board I had shown him was made out of wood. He loved the feeling of it. There’s a naturalness and warmth about it. A couple versions later, I switched to a 3D printed board. The plastic was easier to transport and changes were easier to do than with the wood. He prefers the wooden board but the plastic seems to have grown on him.
One of my big regrets of the game is that I didn’t get a chance to play with more blind players. Going away for college and the short times I was home didn’t lend itself to schedule those playtests. I had really wanted to set up a playthrough with only blind folks, but I haven’t been able to pull that together. Every blind person is different, but also the game at heart is a gift to my uncle so his feedback was really important to me.
You’ve mentioned that usually you need to adapt games so you can play them with your uncle. Do you have any advice or resources for other gamers who need to do this as well?
Everyone is different. For me, I really love cooperative games so those are easy to adapt. You are able to help out without breaking the game. I also tend to bring lighter, more party-style games when I'm with the family which are a bit easier to do. For example in Codenames, the only information he would need to know is the words on the grid. That is always open information and can be quickly relayed to him without any sort of break in the game.
There is also a company called 64 Oz. Games - they produce accessibility kits that add braille and QR codes for games.
What can publishers do to make their games more accessible for players with impaired vision?
Nyctophobia got made because I had a rather unique viewpoint with my uncle. With all the growth in the board gaming community that means all these other unique views are popping up. I think publishers can take a risk and look closer at them. I was constantly reminded through designing Nyctophobia that it was going to have a rather unorthodox manufacturing, and that getting someone who wanted to tackle that may have been tough. Pandasaurus took that leap though.
Also just being aware of simple things such as font size or colors are quick, easy, and low cost changes that can help the accessibility of the game. In terms of font size, a larger font size may mean less space for your text but it can then force you into creating more concise and clear cards. Low light areas or text far away from other players are situations that any player can find themselves in regardless of vision level.
Are you working on any other game designs?
Most recently I’ve been working on a prototype called Foliage. In it you are a caterpillar on a leaf in the wind trying to eat the delicious falling leaves to score the most points. It’s a spatial dexterity game where you are throwing and rotating leave cards around the table. Foliage is a little thing, currently just a deck of cards and some caterpillar tokens I 3D printed. I am a sucker for tiny portable games.
If you were trapped on a desert island with your friends, what three games would you like to have with you and why?
Seeing I have three close friends, I just asked them what they’d want to play with me!
First is Sentinels of the Multiverse. Sentinels is part of a select group of games to achieve the honor of “accidentally played until 2 AM.” It has a lot of replayability with all the different heroes, villains, and environments - if I’m allowed to bring along its many expansions as well. It also has a good playtime. When you’re trapped, I’m sure it would be much better having two hours pass with it feeling like a few minutes. As a co-op game, aka my kryptonite, you won’t have your friends getting into a fight or sore losers. I would not want grumpy friends wandering off alone, they could get attacked by a bear or something!
Second game would have to be Hanabi. I befriended my first college friend through it. We were both at a Freshman orientation type of camp. It was a few days overnight and I had brought along Hanabi. We were not in the mood to do any of the activities so we played Hanabi for about two days straight. It is more or less desert island tested and approved.
Finally, I’d grab Nightfall. My last friend loves deck builders. Nightfall has the nifty chaining where you can play cards on other peoples turns. It also allows me to make a giant card drawing engine, because I have horrendous hand management skills. Deck builders in our group are also played without a lot of seriousness. Even if the end game is triggered, we’ll just keep playing for a while. And we probably need a competitive game in here, sometimes you just have to fight your friends a bunch.
How can people purchase Nyctophobia, and where can they follow you if they’re interested in keeping up with your work?
Nyctophobia: The Hunted is going to be released at Gen Con this year by Pandasaurus Games, with retail hitting a couple weeks after. There is also Nyctophobia: Vampire Encounter which is a Target exclusive which will also be released sometime after Gen Con.
You can find me on twitter, @playnyctophobia. I post prototype pictures and ramblings there normally.
A huge thank you to Bebo from Be Bold Games for providing some of the photos for this interview! Check out her YouTube channel for incredible, high quality game overviews, and follow her on Twitter as @BeBoldGames to see her latest videos.
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