Mission Control: Critical Orbit Designer Diary (Part 1)
by Corey Andalora and Donnie Coleman
Mission Control: Critical Orbit is a direct result of the pandemic. Back in 2020, when the world shut down, we discovered creative new ways to grow. No strangers to contests, we eagerly jumped at the chance to enter a competition to make a game that could be played remotely with the caveat that only one of the players had to have the game components.
A few weeks prior to the shut down, we were at a convention at which we played a real-time co-op game. It was somewhat chaotic, but that was part of the fun! However, what we found most frustrating was that during the game, players performing their task could be interrupted to do something completely different. What we wanted was a game where everyone could be doing their own thing without interruptions while still contributing to the whole. A couple months later, we saw the opportunity to bring this idea to life.
Houston, we have a solution!
The theme of Mission Control came to Corey first. It’s the story of the Apollo 13 mission and the real-time, remote, cooperative ordeal they went through when a malfunction caused an oxygen tank to explode. Astronauts more than halfway to the moon, along with Mission Control members back on Earth, figured out how to improvise, in the very middle of a crisis, a solution so that Apollo wouldn’t run out of oxygen.
This story of triumph in the face of adversity seemed like the perfect theme for our trying times, as well as for an exercise in remote cooperation. All that was missing was a mechanism. Pretty soon, it became apparent that a roll and write would be the ideal thing: one person could have the game components and their friends could simply print out a sheet of paper.
Another few months prior to our last pre-pandemic con, we were fortunate enough to meet one of the designers of Merchant’s Cove who taught us how to play. We were blown away at the asymmetric gameplay. With that in mind, we took the chance to try our hand at it: instead of one roll and write sheet, we decided on three with different puzzles.
Given all of this criteria, we came up with a plan: there would be one astronaut and three asymmetric Mission Control members. We assigned important cities in terms of space exploration to the three Mission Control players: Houston, Orlando, and Washington, DC.
Solving the "Alpha Gamer Problem": A Happy Accident
One issue that’s well known for co-op games is the “Alpha Gamer” problem. If one person calls all the shots, well they might as well be playing solo. The game we created doesn’t suffer from this problem. Totally remote play helped, as did asymmetry, but the question remained: what is the main playerdoing? Turns out, they would be doing a lot
Ultimately the Astronaut would be solving a big puzzle with a lot of potential solutions. How easy or difficult that puzzle is, depends on the members of Mission Control.
Because the astronaut player has limited control over what’s going on, and they have too much going on in front of them to worry about what others are doing, this player must rely on communication, rather than direct manipulation, as their main means of influence.
A great piece of advice we learned was to have a mantra for our game – the phrase that sums up our game's experience. We came up with "Everybody focus or I’ll suffocate!"
A Tale of Three Cities
For the three Mission Control roles, we knew we wanted variable levels of complexity. We didn’t want to necessarily make it so that one person having a bad day could totally ruin everyone’s experience, but we also didn’t want all the pressure to be on the Astronaut. Mission Control is there to make the Astronaut's high-pressure task (saving their life!) easier.
We first identified thematically what the three Mission Control players could be doing. We designated a parts builder, a route assistant, and a calculator.
Houston was always a 2-dimensional puzzle. We almost immediately identified a method for building polyomino shapes (one of our favorite game mechanisms). This helped mold what the Astronaut would be doing. Houston provides the shapes, and the Astronaut fits them together. These shapes would have paths drawn on them for building routes.
Orlando probably changed the most. We had the idea that Orlando could create components for making routes more valuable. We tried mimicking building routes on a player sheet but ultimately these became too complex or not viable in a quickfire roll-and-write game. We methodically iterated into a sudoku-like puzzle which was the perfect blend. The only question was how big and how many of these puzzles there would be.
For Washington, we wanted math, but not too much. The equations at first felt like work, not fun. It converted eventually into simple addition problems and we were happy with that. We received some sound advice that we keep today in designs: "hide the math". We found a way to keep the spirit of addition without ever stating "X + Y = Z". Instead, players fill bubbles that add up to the target number.
In order to lean into the communication aspect, we added stars so that Mission Control would have another reason (other than calling out the dice number they need) to talk to one another and also to the Astronaut. This was our “AH HA” moment. One of our favorite elements of roll-and-write games is when you combo one value into being able to write another. We added that to our game, but when you combo in Mission Control, you give the value to another player. This created so much fun for the players with satisfying moments of finally getting that number you needed to finish a puzzle.
We have the technology...
Designing a game from remote locations proved to be an additional challenge. We resorted to use a lot of online tools to help with collaboration:
Google Slides (slides.google.com)
It is easy to share a presentation between multiple users. Any changes made are immediately reflected to all parties. Furthermore, as you have different ideas, you simply add another page. All of our cards, player sheets, and even polyomino tiles started in Google Slides.
We wanted a quick way to test out our shapes, but cutting out slips of printed paper can be tedious. We were able to model the shapes in tinkercad and 3D print them at home. As we changed what was on the shapes, we would apply stickers with different arrangements. These models also proved useful for Tabletop Simulator.
Playtesting is a critical part of the design of any game. While this game was designed for remote play where only one person needed to own the game, we still wanted a quick way for anyone to play the Astronaut role. We couldn’t meet in person so we needed an alternative. Tabletop Simulator is an excellent sandbox tool for designers to quickly upload and try out their components.
Lost in Space and other minor setbacks
We lost the contest. It turns out we misunderstood the assignment and created a game that required a lot of components rather than just using handy components. There was also a question of how well the game played without the full player compliment.
We’d played games where 1 player was the astronaut and 1 player was all 3 members of Mission Control. It was quite the challenge, but long after the contest, we put our heads together and came up with an AI deck that could take the place of two missing players. There always needs to be an Astronaut player, but any 1 or 2 members of Mission Control could be replaced by an AI. The AI makes either part or all decisions on where to write on the sheet and the human players do the marking and let the other members or the Astronaut know if resources have been granted.
This was the final key to the puzzle.
One of the judges, Michael “Googs” Guigliano liked the game so much, he got us a meeting with 3WS who loved the game as much as we did!
To Be Continued…
In Part 2, we’ll discuss the development process that kicked off after we signed with 3WS.
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