Carbon City Zero - Accessibility in Action

Carbon City Zero – Case Study in Accessibility

Game Details
NameCarbon City Zero (2020)
ComplexityMedium Light [2.00]
BGG Rank16657 [6.91]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Sam Illingworth and Paul Wake
Buy it!Amazon Link


Let’s talk about Carbon City Zero!

I firmly maintain that one of the best things a board game publisher can do before committing to a final design to a is to get an accessibility audit done. We offer these as part of our consultancy service, but it’s not really important that it’s done by us. It should just be done. It’s a fantastic way to find (usually) cheap ways to increase the potential audience for a game, and it’s actually a wonderful way to market a product. Show people you care about their needs, and they’ll be willing to listen to your pitch.

Unfortunately when a game comes to Meeple Like Us for an accessibility audit, it means that we can’t ethically review it since it would then be a conflict of interest. We’re put in the position of wanting something to do well so that we can say ‘Look how important our consultancy is, you should totally get the same done!’. It doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the game but it does mean we need to be upfront about our involvement. That’s why as part of the consultancy we offer there is an option for a supporting post that gives me a chance to do a little signal boosting in a way that I think is ethically appropriate. This is the supporting promotional post for Carbon City Zero.

Carbon City Zero is a deck building game from Dr. Sam Illingworth and Dr. Paul Wake, aimed at gamifying some of the concepts and techniques behind the decarbonisation of modern cities. Like many games of this nature you need to balance the need to generate income against meeting victory conditions, all the while carefully curating your deck so as to remove the cards you no longer want. You’re looking to build a lean, efficient, and clean deck that chains together environmental technologies to hit a net zero carbon emission standard. It’s an interesting, worthy theme for a game. If you’re interested in seeing it played, I thoroughly recommend you check out the Girls Game Shelf preview.

The Kickstarter campaign runs from 20th September to 20th October 2019 and you can check it out here! 

The Game Itself

Let’s get my own personal views out of the way first – I thought this was a nice, enjoyable deck-builder that does a good job of communicating an important science message in an intuitive way. It’s not the first time the designers have tackled this subject – they also did an excellent job with a version of Catan aimed at illustrating issues of global warming. It’s not surprising then that the game would come together well. I had some concerns with balance and the ease with which net zero could be reached but there’s always going to be a tension here between advocacy and fun. The game employs a neat chaining mechanism that encourages decks being constructed in particular ways, but also adds interesting random events and global scenarios that alter play for everyone. As discussed above, this isn’t a review but I genuinely think it’s a good game.

Carbon City Zero deck

As to the accessibility audit – there was a lot of stuff that Carbon City Zero got right from the start. The first and most important of these is that it got an accessibility audit done before the Kickstarter began. I’m sometimes asked if I’d be okay with an audit being included as a stretch goal in games, and my answer is usually ‘Sure, but it’s a really bad look’. Accessibility as a ‘nice to have’ is a problematic idea because it shows that a) you know inaccessibility is an issue, and b) you’re only going to address it if a campaign goes really well. That’s something that often backfires.

That’s not the case here – accessibility has been an important concern of the designers from the start, and even as part of their earlier work with Catan: Global Warming where I provided some light input into the accessibility.

Good Out of the Box

The game right from the start makes great use of double coding, and that’s the magic bullet as far as colour blindness support goes. A good colour palette is important, but it’s never going to make a game fully accessible for people with colour blindness as that condition has too many different causes and manifestations. We talk about four key categories of colour blindness on Meeple Like Us but there are many others. The trick is to make sure every time you’re using colour as a source of information, you accompany it with text or an icon. CCZ arrived out of the box able to do that, although there were a few icons that wouldn’t be especially identifiable at a distance. Skeuomorphism (design that emulates the real world) is great from a cognitive perspective but it doesn’t always offer the same level of distinctiveness as more abstraction does.

Similarly, the font used is clearly readable. The language likewise is declarative and as easy to parse as can be expected. Both of those are excellent from an accessibility perspective.

Deck builders are traditionally a poor fit in our fluid intelligence and memory categories, and a game that works with these mechanisms starts off at a massive disadvantage. That doesn’t mean improvements can’t be made… disability is a spectrum. It just means that there are diminishing returns. All designers need to cut themselves a little slack here – the set of games that can be accessible in all categories is very small indeed. The cost is usually a firm ceiling on complexity.

It’s important to note here then that even if everything with the game was done as well as it could be, there are some intractable issues that can’t be solved simply due to the nature of deck-building.

Nobody is commissioning an audit like this though to be told they did everything right. They’re looking to see what they can improve. I’m not going to repeat the full accessibility report here, but I’m going to point out some of the highest impact suggestions and why they would be useful to consider.

The Biggest Priorities

A Digital Manual

Massively important for people with visual impairments is a digital version of the manual, produced ideally as an accessible PDF or word document. It’s also great if any in-game text and the like can be provided, on request, to those that are interested in creating an accessible version of the components. CCZ is a text light game so the latter is of relatively reduced importance, but a digital manual is a hugely valuable thing to provide.

This is something the team took seriously, too. They said:

It is really important to us that the rules are both accessible and understandable. Following the Accessibility Teardown, we got professional help in editing the rulebook for clarity, and have made it available for free as a digital resource.

You can find that resource here.

Better Contrast

It’s often difficult to find a good colour scheme that appeals and offers useful coding to players. Dark text on a light (not white) background might be ideal from a contrast perspective but it’s an aesthetic that will always draw comparisons with Cards Against Humanity and other such games. Nice colours often don’t play well together in terms of readability. There are useful techniques available though – letterboxing (having a panel behind the text to create a distinctive, better contrast) can be aesthetically pleasing and CCZ has this for its linking effects already. Doubling down on that gives an opportunity for enforcing visual consistency as well as making the text more readable.

Carbon City Zero cards

Failing that, it’s possible to offer more situational contrasting on key information – status effects, names, costs and so on. Bolding is a way of accomplishing this at low cost in terms of alterations to a design.

Again, this was an element that was addressed in a revised version of the game.

After working with our graphic designer and playtesting out a few new designs (including letterboxing) we settled on making the text have a much sharper contrast against the background colour of the cards. This gave us the best trade-off between accessibility and aesthetics. Following the advice provided in the teardown we also changed some of the symbols for the different suits of cards to make them easier to distinguish.

There’s an important point here in that there is often a trade-off, and different games may find that the sweet point between the different elements is difficult to find at times.

Memory Aides

In a deck builder, those that can remember the rough composition of the deck are always at an advantage. If I know there are ten building inspectors left to be drawn then I can work that into my strategy. That’s a problem from the perspective of those with memory impairments. It’s an easy fix though – provide on the cards either numerical counts or some symbol that shows how often cards appear in the deck. A few dots, or colours, under the name of a card – that means nobody needs to memorise anything about the deck and thus everyone has access to the same strategic options as everyone else. Sometimes it’s not easy to integrate:

We tried a few different designs with dots to indicate the frequency / rarity of the cards, but unfortunately none of them proved to be a suitable solution (what we gained in terms of aiding memory seemed to be at the cost of clarity elsewhere).

Also, whether that’s appropriate depends on someone’s view of the game design – it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to insist that this is just part of ‘skilful play’. That doesn’t change it from being a memory issue, but all game design is a process of trade-offs.

Going along with this, I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to provide reference cards or sheets – something that shows at a glance the structure of a turn and ideally what each of the icons are and what they mean. Having these in front of each player ensures that they can be looking this up while waiting for their turn, and they don’t need to keep reaching for a manual to understand what their cards are for. I’m also a fan of these being one-sided so they don’t need to be flipped over. If that’s not possible, having two cards per player (so each can have two cards facing them at a time) is a reasonable compromise.

Again, the team took this on board:

This was an easy win. We’ve added one-sided Player Aids (one card per player), which can be kept in front of the players at all times to provide reference and help structure a turn.

Those player aids look like this:

CCZ Player Aid


Tracking Game State

Carbon City Zero has a bit of state tracking that needs to be done – primarily your carbon levels as the game goes on. It’s sometimes awkward to support this in a game that consists entirely of a single deck of cards – Star Realms tried something creative with their authority cards but that ultimately didn’t work very well. My copy of the game didn’t come with a board or the like, although I got the impression from the manual that it should have. One nice solution, used in Microbrew as an example, is to have a board you can construct from cards. Just slot them together and you can have as large and clear a board as you want. It’s not a perfect solution (it can be easy to misalign or upset the cards for example) but it’s a good way of keeping to the idea of a game that works using nothing but cards.

We tried several solutions to this challenge and settled on a paper Carbon Tracker, roughly A4 in size, which comes in the game box. After trying a few designs this presented the most elegant solution to tracking the carbon in the game (constructing a tracker from multiple cards proved to be too fragile for the reasons outlined above).

There’s definitely a challenge here when using cards to construct a board, and while paper may be flimsier and easier to dislodge it’ll also dislodge ‘all at once’ which might well be the better option.

Cost Per Player

One metric I use in a teardown is the ‘cost per player’. It’s a terrible way to assess a game – comparable to ‘lines of code’ as a metric for assessing the quality of software. It is though a frame of mind that people adopt when shopping. Not everyone is embedded as deeply in the hobby as we are, and when they see a two-player game that costs £30 they’re going to blink, frown, and move on. Some people are shopping on a budget, or for large families, and player count is a hugely important aspect of accessibility. Two parents, and three kids – they don’t want a game night full of things that top out at four players. Games with the design of Carbon City Zero though actually have a neat trick they can pull. If they let players combine multiple decks together the player count can be effectively infinite without requiring people to buy ‘more game’ than they need. Star Realms does this. One Deck Dungeon does this. I’m not a fan of games that are 1-2 players, more players with a second box. I am a fan though of games that are 2-4 players and more if you like.

Whether that’s a real possibility depends on the design of the game, but game modes and variations are a good way of offering real value to players at a price point that suits their player counts. Price for the team was an important consideration:

This was a really useful comment, and we have been working hard with our printer to keep the cost of the game to an absolute minimum. At £12 a deck + shipping costs (£4 in the UK) the game works out as £4 per player. We hope that is an inclusive price point. The game will always be 2-4 players per box, but two or more boxes combined would facilitate extra players as described above. We have also included a discount for backers in Kickstarter who want to buy two decks, at £22 for two decks + shipping costs (still only £4 in the UK), this works out as £3.25 per player for an 8-player game. We will also be making a print and play version of the game available as a free download.

The option of a print and play wasn’t even something I wanted to agitate for, but it’s a wonderful inclusion.

Clarity of the Manual

I don’t really talk much about manuals on Meeple Like Us, even during a teardown. I work on the assumption that the game has been learned somehow and you just want to know if its playable past that point. The accessibility of rulebooks is a whole site in and of itself. Hint, if someone is looking for a cool project.

Carbon City Zero, like all games before they enter their final print run, had a manual that left me with some queries that I couldn’t resolve because there was no online errata or similar. In all circumstances I advise, if budget permits, getting in touch with a professional rules editor. The manual is where a game loses a lot of players, but it doesn’t have to be so.

It’s not that CCZ was bad in this regard – I suspect I was working from a draft of the manual that was different from the cards – but it’s never a bad idea to invest in making a favourable first impression. The team already addressed that above, and I link again to the great preview video they commissioned from Girls’ Game Shelf.

(You should always look to GGS for high quality work!)

Digital Presence

There are a lot of great sites out there to support the launch of a game – Boardgamegeek is the most obvious of these. For accessibility purposes, it’s also a fantastic repository for any supporting information or resources you have put together. The manual for example. Card text if it’s being provided. FAQs. It’s the first place a hobbyist would look, and if you put it directly into the manual it’ll be somewhere everyone knows where to look for supporting information for the game. The team really doubled down here:

Carbon City Zero now has a BGG entry which can be found here: It already includes links to a digital copy of game, several images of the cards and the game in action, and a complete card list which can easily be updated. We also plan on using this to address FAQs as players begin to get their hands on the game.

The hidden benefit of stuff like this is that it also means that automated tools on Reddit, Twitter and our own WordPress plugin can draw information from BGG. It won’t guarantee extra visibility but it does mean that you’re not invisible when one of these software solutions knocks on BGG’s door for data. You can see at the top of the page that our usual info plate works now, because BGG is the database of our hobby.

Accessibility of the Kickstarter Campaign

It’s absolutely wonderful when people take accessibility seriously as a topic in and of itself. I often say it’s easy to make the moral case for accessibility but it’s the business case that’s more convincing. The two aren’t exclusionary though, and I think it’s really important that the Kickstarter campaign offers an opportunity for designers to pat themselves on the back. Put an accessibility section directly into the campaign text. It will be a wonderful surprise for some people, and a normalising factor for others. Show you’re interested in the topic, proactive in addressing it, and reactive with regards to feedback. Show everyone that has a focus on accessibility that they have a reason to support your project with social shares, positive buzz, and maybe even actual pledges.

To back that up, it’s important not to stumble at the first hurdle – the campaign video should be fully subtitled (and by hand – automated solutions are often imperfect), and the campaign page itself should be predominantly text. Don’t do That Thing where the entire page is a text-heavy PNG, because there’s no better way to show people that you don’t care about them as customers than making sure they can’t even read the pitch. As the team said:

This was a really helpful comment in helping us to develop the KS page for CCZ, and apart from images and video the whole page is text in order to make it more accessible. We also discuss the accessibility and sustainability aspects of the game on the KS page itself, as it is something that is very important to us.

Absolutely give yourselves the pat on the back. You deserve it.


Carbon City Zero is a lovely little deck-builder put together by people that care about accessibility. That’s reason enough for me to urge you towards the campaign in the hope it is a massive success. What makes that even sweeter though is that it’s also a game that is environmentally conscious with strong educational credentials. It’s not just a fun game – it’s a fun game packed with meaning and it’s rare that you get all of those things in one compelling package.

The Kickstarter campaign runs from 20th September to 20th October 2019 and you can check it out here!