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Designer Diary: Mission ISS

Michael Luu
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At the beginning of 2017, Campagames in Hamburg, Germany — a publisher that specializes in the development of space-themed products — contacted me to ask whether I would like to work on a game for the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, or DLR).

The German astronaut Alexander Gerst would be part of the International Space Station (ISS) expedition called "Horizons" that would run from June to December 2018. To coincide with this expedition, the DLR planned to release a game that would not only remind people of this special event, but also provide the public a better understanding of the work between the control station and the astronauts on the ISS. Campagames was assigned for the development and implementation of this project.

Without hesitation, I immediately expressed my interest. The subject of space travel and the project background aroused my enthusiasm. In addition, I wanted to collect new experiences by developing a game under the terms of a contract work. After all, I would have certain requirements to fulfill with this design: The game should reflect the tasks of the control center, as well as the guidance and the support of the astronauts. Timelines and time management should also play a role in the game.

Board Game: Mission ISS

Campagames allowed me a lot of freedom during the creation process. Sabine and Joachim of Campagames and I worked as team, meeting regularly in a bistro in Hamburg. In the beginning, we exchanged our first ideas, put them on paper, then discarded them all afterwards.

It became clear that the game should refer to the history of the ISS, which would be the most suitable theme to capture in a game. Based on that, the construction and completion of the ISS — ideally done in a playful and entertaining way — turned out to be the focal objective of the game. Since the construction of the ISS was possible only through the close co-operation of many nations, it was obvious for us to design a co-operative game. The players should complete the construction of the ISS, maintain it, and deal with the hostile environment of space as one team rather than playing against each other.

Board Game: Mission ISS

Based on these approaches, I tinkered with the first prototypes, playtested them, and evaluated the gaming experience. However, the game ideas did not meet our high expectations. This was mainly because of the still missing "engine" of the game. The game needed a mechanism that would define the sequence and moves, drive the game forward, and (at the same time) generate fun.

After several discarded approaches, I decided to consult my "box of ideas" in my hobby basement, where I designed and collected many different game mechanisms. One of those was that the active player always has to combine their own card with that of other players during their turn. This idea of card combination has become the main mechanism of the game Mission ISS. The "engine" was found!

Board Game: Mission ISS

Afterwards, the project proceeded much faster. Campagames provided graphics and scientific texts for all aspects of space travel and of the ISS, and I integrated them into the game. The prototype slowly shaped up to the final version.

It was always important for us to develop a game that was based on reality, one in which the players could learn a lot about the ISS and experience the interaction between the control center and the astronauts. At a later stage of the project, we recognized the necessity of bringing the game to a more complex level to enable (as much as possible) a realistic gaming experience. Based on the complexity, the game is recommended for players age 12 and up.

Board Game: Mission ISS

After a number of prototype versions, we started to test with outside players. Later, we were confronted with an apparently unsolvable task of how to realize a game component that we were very fond of: the production of the base elements each equipped with three dials on which the astronauts stand today. These dials represent the "ability" of the astronauts, so the higher the setting, the better the ability of the astronauts to complete the tasks on the ISS. Campagames consulted different manufacturers for the production. However, the challenge about the production costs was not yet solved.

Board Game: Mission ISS

At a later time of the project, a fortunate coincidence happened. Campagames got in contact with Georg Wild, a well-known editor in the board game industry, and hired him as the rule writer.

At that time, Georg Wild had just switched to publisher Schmidt Spiele as product manager. He was very convinced by the concept of the ISS game, so he presented it to the Berlin publisher himself. As a result, Campagames licensed the game idea to Schmidt Spiele, which then took care of the final production and at the same time solved the "base element problem" thanks to its many years of experience in the production of game components.

Board Game: Mission ISS

Board Game: Mission ISS

Just as sixteen countries were involved in the construction of the ISS, the development of the game Mission ISS is also a product of good co-operation between many participants and, ultimately, two publishers. The engagement and expertise have resulted in a wonderful game that invites players to explore the world of space travel.

Unfortunately the game didn't make it to the ISS with Alexander Gerst due to the time required for design and production, but a trip by Matthias Maurer, another German astronaut, is planned for the second half of 2021.

I would like to thank Campagames, Schmidt Spiele, and all other participants for the great teamwork during the entire project and, above all, for the publishers' confidence in my abilities as a "rookie" game designer. This has been an exciting experience for me. I appreciate it very much and will always fondly remember it.

Michael Luu

Board Game: Mission ISS
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Tue May 4, 2021 1:00 pm
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