The Gamer’s Wish List: K.I.S.S.

Wish 2: Don’t over-complicate things. Especially when you have a good thing going.  Last summer, my brother introduced us to a wonderful board game called Castle Panic. In this strategy game, all players work together to fend of an invading horde of goblins, orcs, and trolls before they destroy your castle in the center of the board.

The mechanics, while numerous, are pretty simple to follow: Play cards to attack the enemies currently on the board, then draw two new enemies. The roll of a die determines the new enemies’ placement, and therefore the direction from which they will attack. Before you play a card, you have the option of trading a card with another player in an effort to improve the strength of your respective hands. You win if you’ve killed all the monsters and any part of your tower is left standing.

It’s a lot of steps to take on each turn, but the flow of steps from one to another is logical, and there are handy reminders printed in the corners of the board. So once you find your groove, gameplay moves pretty quickly. Which is good, because the game is hard to beat, so you may be tempted to play “just one more time” to try to win.

My son and I were so hooked by our short experience with the game that I resolved to buy him a copy for Christmas. The game had been featured on Geek and Sundry’s TableTop, and became hard to find. So imagine my excitement when the little game shop in my hometown was able to acquire not only the base game, but the Wizard’s Tower expansion as well.

As the name implies, the expansion pack adds a wizard’s tower, which you use in place of one of the standard tower pieces. It also comes with a second deck of cards, representing the defensive and attack spells the wizards cook up to protect your castle. The game comes with new monsters, too. 43 new monsters, to be exact, all with new skills and abilities. There’s the addition of 6 new mega boss monsters, mythological beasts such as a dragon, and a hydra, that have strange new ways of attacking and moving around the board. Plus there’s fire.

If you think this added a little complexity to the game, you would be wrong. This expansion pack added a lot of complexity to the game. So much so, my son and I found it nearly unplayable on our first try. Just setting up the game, which requires swapping out some old monsters for new ones, is an onerous task. We lost, naturally, but mainly because we couldn’t adjust our strategy to all the new rules. When my brother came to visit, we tried it again, thinking a third player would help us get a better sense of the added game mechanics. Sadly, this time we drew the dragon, who has his own rules for movement, different from any other monster in the game, and sometimes breathes fire. This was the point at which we split the expansion back out from the base game, and put the Wizard’s Tower away for good.

Okay, so I had a bad experience with an expansion pack. What does this mean for instructional and user design? Two words: cognitive overload.

A good user experience doesn’t have to be flashy to be effective. In fact, the simpler the better.  The more elements you add to your eLearning course, web page, or user interface, the harder it becomes to keep everything in balance. The learner’s focus is drawn in too many different directions, and the result is that the user doesn’t learn much of anything. Ever taken an eLearning course that reads you every word on the screen? Did you just mentally shut down until the narration finished and you were allowed to proceed to the next page? That’s what I am talking about.

Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer’s bible for multimedia learning designers, e-Learning and the Science of Instruction , outlines seven principles for designing instruction that will reduce cognitive overload. Mayer and Roxana Moreno also published a study entitled Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. (Learning Solutions Magazine has a nice synopsis of the study and handy derivative cheat sheet here.)

In short, keep it simple, stupid. And until you have mastered an element (audio, animation, etc.), use it sparingly. If your training is effective without it, why ruin a good thing?

Posted in gaming, learning, UX

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