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Mission Control: Critical Orbit Review

Board Game Review by::
Matt Kiser

Reviewed by:
On Mar 7, 2024
Last modified:Mar 7, 2024


We reivewWe review Mission Control: Critical Orbit, a 4 player, real time roll and write game published by 3WS games. Can you save the Mercury III rocket? You must work together!

Mission Control: Critical OrbitThere are plenty of space games out there, and the number of roll and writes is pretty overwhelming at this point. So, what can a new game in a crowded genre with an oft-done theme bring to the table? How about asymmetric player roles? What if it’s a co-op? And why not make it real-time to pile on the pressure? Will that be enough to send this game into orbit, or do the innovative elements feel gimmicky and fall flat?

Mission Control: Critical Orbit is a real-time, cooperative roll and write game from 3WS Games designed by Corey Andalora and Donnie Coleman for 2-4 players and plays in 20 minutes.

Gameplay Overview:

A 4-player game of Mission Control: Critical Orbit sees each player running a separate board and pursuing asymmetric immediate goals to contribute to the larger shared objective of restoring the necessary oxygen levels of the Mercury III rocket. One player takes control of Mercury III, building oxygen flow routes with conduit tiles that will be controlled by valves. The other three players each take on the role of one of the Mission Control sites, located in the U.S., India, and Germany.

Mission Control: Critical Orbit houston
Insert obligatory “Houston, we have a problem” reference here.

The Houston player helps to unlock conduit tiles for Mercury III on a crossword puzzle-like board by filling out specific shapes with the rolled numbers. Bengaluru plays a minigame similar to Sudoku by completing rows and columns without repeating numbers to produce valves for Mercury III. The player controlling Cologne fills in a sort of equalizer/bar graph chart to unlock canister dials that the Mercury III player can use to route oxygen flow.

Once players have chosen their roles and taken the corresponding boards, a 20-minute timer is started. On each turn of the game, the Mercury III Flight Commander rolls 3 dice behind a screen and dictates the numbers to the Mission Control players. They’ll decide amongst themselves which 2 dice to keep and use, leaving the third value to be utilized by the Mercury III player. On the rocket, this third die is used to advance one of two Valve Reconstruction tracks, which will generate valves for later use. Each of the Mission Control stations will use the same 2 values they selected on their respective player boards. Once all numbers have been entered in, the Mission Control players must declare that they are Locked, and the game moves on to the next turn.

Houston provides conduit tiles for the Mercury III player by entering die values into a grid so that they form specific Tetris-like shapes. Once a particular shape, such as “L,” is completed with 4 instances of the same number, the Houston player will notify Mercury III, who then selects a corresponding tile to add to their supply. The Flight Commander must use these conduit tiles to create the path the oxygen flow will follow in order to repair the rocket and get the crew home.

Mission Control: Critical Orbit Bengaluru
Playing Sudoku in Bengaluru.

The Bengaluru board contains 4 grids, two of which are 4×4 spaces and two that are 5×5. The player records the 2 die values each turn onto their grids without repeating values within a single row or column. When a certain number of rows or columns has been filled on one of the 4 grids, the Bengaluru player will let Mercury III know that they can pull a half-valve out of their bag. Two halves of the same color (black or white) can be turned in for a Release Valve that the Mercury III player can place onto tiles that require a valve to open up the conduit for oxygen to flow through.

The Cologne player uses their 2 die values to fill in boxes that are below columns containing variable numbers of cells. If the values used in a column match the number of cells above it exactly, then a bubble can be filled in at the bottom of the board. Once enough bubbles have been marked, Cologne unlocks Canister Dials for the Mercury III player. Once unlocked, Canister Dials can be moved freely by the Flight Commander to manipulate the path that must be connected with conduit tiles.

The ultimate goal is for the Mercury III player to complete routes between two Canister Dials of the same color with a path of conduit tiles. Any required Release Valves must be in place for a route to be complete. Multiple routes can be completed and may be necessary as the total number of oxygen units on the completed routes must equal or exceed the total dictated by the difficulty chosen at the beginning of the game. If this is done before the timer runs out, the players win. Otherwise, all players lose if Mercury III runs out of time.

Mission Control: Critical Orbit Mercury
Mercury III has completed a conduit with 5 oxygen.

Game Experience:

Mission Control: Critical Orbit is definitely best played as a full 4-player game. Given that you’re working against a timer, having players manage more than one game board makes it considerably more difficult. There is an AI deck that can simulate one or more of the Mission Control roles in a 2- or 3-player game. But flipping cards from the AI deck to determine how that city’s board behaves is just as fiddly and time-consuming. For maximum enjoyment, it’s ideal to have 4 humans controlling the various roles in the game.

Mission Control: Critical Orbit Cards
Cards can unlock specific shapes and colors of Canister Dials or be a miss.

Just like any real-time game, Mission Control can feel hectic, particularly in the final minutes, as players rush to complete the objectives. The asymmetric nature of the various roles, each essentially playing a separate mini-game, can also factor into the sense of confusion, particularly for the first few plays. Since each person at the table is doing something completely different, it’s hard to communicate with or aid other players. You’re really just doing your own thing and yelling out to other players when you’ve triggered a free action for them on your board.

There might also be conflicting needs in terms of the values players would like on any given turn. Since all three Mission Control players must use the same 2 values, they’ll have to compromise and pivot to ensure that each role benefits from receiving the numbers they need. The Houston player likes to get the same values over and over, so they can create shapes of like numbers. But the Bengaluru player prefers differing values to more quickly fill in rows and columns without repeating numbers. And Cologne has a trickier balancing act to play by adding together numbers to equal specific values exactly. There will be times throughout the game when the Mercury III player needs very specific things, be it certain tile shapes, a particular valve color, or a specific Canister Dial unlocked. They’ll need to communicate these needs clearly to the other players so they can all beat the timer and get the rocket home.

Mission Control: Critical Orbit Cologne
Cologne requires specific combinations of numbers to hit certain values.

Once players have gotten a few games under their belts, and perhaps switched roles enough that everyone understands the bigger picture, things should flow more smoothly. The asymmetry keeps things fresh and interesting, providing enough variety to make sure that plays aren’t dull or too repetitive. Each role plays quite differently and as they all have differing, at times competing, requirements to get things done, there’s a decent amount of tension in the gameplay. The cooperative juggling act requires that players learn to balance their personal board goals against the greater objective of making sure that Mercury III restores its oxygen in time.

Final Thoughts:

Mission Control: Critical Orbit mixes things up in the roll and write genre by providing a cooperative experience where each player is doing something different to support the shared goal. Not to mention the addition of the real-time aspect to drive tension and introduce another layer of challenge. These aspects will appeal to many, but there’s a bit of a learning curve as players get familiar with the roles and dynamics of the balancing act under a time crunch.

If the theme is appealing and you enjoy roll and writes, but want something a little different, then Mission Control has a lot to offer. Just remember that it’s going to play best with a full complement of 4 human players.

Final Score: 3.5 Stars – Asymmetric team play, and a fun theme make this trek into space enjoyable, with plenty of variety.

3.5 StarsHits:
• Cool space theme
• Asymmetric player roles keep it engaging
• Solid replay value

• Really should be played at 4 players
• Can feel hectic and stressful under the timer

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