Michael Lipton tells The Inquisitive Meeple a little bit about the story and design behind his new co-op game, Incoming Mission.
Michael, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. We are going to just jump right in and talk about Incoming Transmission. Could you tell us a little bit about the game and how it is played?
Michael: Incoming Transmission is a co-op puzzle and deduction game for 2-5 players. A Cadet is stranded on a doomed space station, and their only hope to survive is from Mission Control. Mission Control has a set of objectives that the Cadet must complete, and are secret to them and them alone. The only allowed form of communication is a small set of simple commands, but are scrambled in transmission to the Cadet. It is up to the Cadet to figure out what they were supposed to do.
The game plays like this; there is a 5×5 grid representing the station. Parts of it are damaged. One player is Mission Control and has 3 missions that they need to get the Cadet to complete. These are unknown to the Cadet. Mission Control has command cards with simple instructions like Move North, Move East, Repair, Collect, and Deploy. Mission Control selects 5 commands that will work towards solving the missions. Before being given to the Cadet, which is the second player or group of players working in committee (think Codenames), the cards are shuffled. The Cadet has to then figure out what order the commands should be executed, and then runs them. The command cards are the ONLY way Mission Control is allowed to communicate. There are 7 rounds to complete all 3 missions, and it is either win or lose. Difficulty levels are made by adjusting how much chaos or order is added to the commands before being given to the Cadet, which is controlled by the Transmission Deck.
What inspired the idea behind the game?
Michael: The game was inspired from the book The Martian. The idea of a lone survivor trying to survive until rescue arrives with the help of someone from the distant home base felt like a great game. My brother came up with the brief concept at our local tap house. Two days later I had a prototype out of printer paper and was testing it at a convention.
This is your second game with Magic Meeple and again it’s a co-op game. What draws you to designing co-op games?
Michael: I actually have designed two competitive games, one of which is signed on with MM for their next release. co-ops, however, tend themselves to be more of a puzzle, and that is really appealing to me. I play mostly competitive games, but a co-op is a great way to reset any turmoil that may have arisen. Also, my wife much prefers co-op games, and as she ends up being a major playtester and co-designer, having something she is excited to play is a huge deal.
Being part of the Super Nano line, the game art and theme is inspired by old school video games. Here it seems to be Super Metroid. As you continued to design and develop the game did Metroid inspire you at all or was that all on Magic Meeple’s end of development and theming?
Michael: The art direction is all on Magic Meeple. They are having fun with the throwback graphics, and it is a cool concept and the games lend themselves to that motif. The theme of a lone person on a space station with a potential alien threat was the running force, and the Metroid look just fell into place quite well.
In Incoming Transmission both sides play very differently. Do you have a favorite side to play?
Michael: I personally like playing as Mission Control. I have to figure out the most foolproof plan to send to the Cadet(s), taking into account previous actions and what they may be thinking. And of course, watching them completely mess it up, as I am screaming internally because I can’t actually give any clues to them.
What was the most helpful feedback you received about this game when you were playtesting it?
Michael: The best feedback I got was from people on the Cadet side saying they wanted more agency. By that, they meant they wanted to feel that they had more control over their fate, a way to affect the game beyond following instructions. I ended up adding Signal Boost cards which the Cadets earn for completing a mission and can turn in for a simple (yet sometimes incredibly crucial) hint. It gave a highly strategic decision on when to spend them as well as a feeling of accomplishment as they were rewards earned for success.
Was creating that agency the biggest hurdle you faced in your designing of Incoming Transmission or was there something else?
Michael: The biggest hurdle for the game was actually playtesting. I playtest extensively by myself on each change before exposing it to other people to get better data. Most coop games can be played by a single person running multiple characters or roles. Not as fun, but most are designed that way. In Incoming Transmission, however, the hidden information and scrambled communication makes it completely impossible to run single player. So I would need to run tests with people for every change and iteration, even to test out minor experiments that I wanted to run on my own to see if it was worth pursuing further. So testing was oddly the greatest hurdle, which is not the case in any of my other designs.
What’s the biggest lesson you have taken away as a designer from designing this game?
Michael: Remember the core of your game. I found several items of Incoming Transmissions that were just adding time to the game but no real depth. I had to keep myself from adding items to change things up for my own interest, as I was straying from what made the game fun. So knowing what to cut to keep the vision of the game true was a real focus during the development.
If there is someone reading this that perhaps is in the fence about backing Incoming Transmission, is there anything you like to say to them?
Michael: If you want a game that involves getting in the head of your friends or partner, makes you create your own solution to a puzzle where there is no single true answer, and be met with a fun sort of frustration, then this is for you. It’s Codenames communication, RoboRally programming, and The Princess Bride poisoned goblet scene logic all in one.
As we come to a close, we mentioned you now have co-ops under your belt. What advice would you give to anyone that would like to design a co-op game?
Michael: For those creating co-op games, create uncertainty. That way each player feels they are making their best decision for themselves rather than solving an equation. Each player should feel that they are the hero when it is their time to act. Create interactivity, otherwise, it is just a group of people playing solitaire.
Thanks, Michael for taking the time out to do this interview.
- Magic Meeple Games Official Website
- Incoming Transmission on BGG
- Magic Meeple Games on Twitter
- Michael Lipton on Twitter