Leaving Earth is one of the reasons I have no desire to make games. Sometimes a game design comes along that’s smart, unique, and exciting. Sometimes a game design comes along that convinces me to leave it to the professionals to do the hard work of thinking up this stuff. Sometimes a game design comes along that makes me think, “Oh man, I never would have thought to do it that way!” Joe Fatula’s Leaving Earth, a boardgame about the race into space in the 60s and 70s, is one such game.
After the jump, we choose to leave Earth not because it is easy.
I had a hard time figuring out what to do with Leaving Earth. Where to put it. How it fit into the game I already like. Let me set the stage. Here on stage left is Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space, the classic 1993 strategy videogame, and Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager, it’s turgid 2014 homage/clone. Here on stage right is Kerbal’s Space Program, a fascinating orbital physics sim you can only learn by watching YouTube videos of people playing the game. And down here, front and center, is a massive undertaking called High Frontier by eccentric and ingenious boardgame designer Phil Ecklund. This three-act grand production is my context for games about going into space.
But now I have to rearrange the stage to make room for Leaving Earth, a tremendously creative game about going into space. It’s slightly less serious than the other games for reasons that will become clear in a moment. But it sits on the stage most comfortably next to High Frontier, where it’s totally hogging the spotlight.
High Frontier, that game in the shadow behind Leaving Earth, is an odd and wonderful thing. Designer Phil Eklund, himself odd and wonderful, wrestles history, science, and/or anthropology into whatever games he wants them to be. Which is admirable, because you’ll learn a lot from his games. For instance, I learned from Pax Porfiriana that lots of actual interesting stuff happened in America between the Civil War and WWI. I learned from Greenland that the Vikings discovered America centuries before that Johnny-come-lately Italian guy, but they’re still not all that when they go up against the long-gone Tunit. And I learned from High Frontier that space is far too hard to get people to actually play High Frontier. I love that game, and I got a lot out of reading the rules and poring over its map, which is as dazzling and dizzying as the night sky. But I doubt I’ll ever find anyone to play it. The solitaire mode isn’t much of an alternative.
Leaving Earth, on the other hand, I played on the very first day it arrived. A solitaire game. It’s got, uh, issues as an actual multiplayer game. See below. But even solitaire, it’s unlike any other game I’ve played, with a unique perspective on the thrill, risk, and mystery of the race into space. How unique? Let me count the ways.
Known unknowns and unknown unknowns
We know now what we didn’t know when we went into space for the first time. Now that we’ve stomped around on the moon, she’s been stripped of her mystery. We know what is and isn’t on Mars. We even know what it’s like to land on a comet. How do you restore mystery to the moon? To the solar system at large? To exploration about stuff that’s all but explored out?
Leaving Earth includes three or four different cards for notable locations: the moon, Venus, Mars, Mars’ largest moon Phobos. To set up the table, you randomly choose one of the cards for each location and put it face down in the proper place. When you arrive, you flip it over. What will you find? Will the moon be blanketed with dust unable to support a lander? Will Venus be a rich source of fresh water? Will there be life on Mars? Will Phobos be a hollow alien structure with advanced technology inside? This last option is as far as Leaving Earth goes with its flights of sci-fi fancy. But it can’t very well be a mystery if there isn’t at least one outrageous possibility.
The solar system you discover in Leaving Earth isn’t necessarily the solar system as we know it today. Every time you play, you won’t know what you’re going to get. You won’t know how closely it will hew to the reality we know. Even the radiation beyond the Van Allen belt is an unknown quantity. Will outer space fry unprotected astronauts? Leaving Earth embraces unknowns.
Your tax dollars at work
In most games, you earn a variable amount of money based on how well you’re doing. You have this many factories, you create this many resources. You have this many territories, you earn this much income. If you’re not doing well enough to pay for what you want, you just save up over a few turns.
Leaving Earth won’t have any of that. Instead, it simulates the unique financial situation of a government agency. You get 25 spacebucks every turn. No more, no less. 25 space bucks. You cannot research anything to improve your income. You will not get a raise. You will only ever get those 25 spacebucks during the income phase. 25 spacebucks. What’s more, any of those spacebacks you don’t spend are lost at the end of the turn, which represents a year, both calendar and fiscal. This means you can’t save up for a big mission. You must pay for and assemble it piecemeal over several years. Sometimes you’ll buy something you don’t need just because you’ve got a few spacebucks left over, and what else are you gonna do with ’em? Government agencies don’t have savings accounts and they can’t take the rest on a gift certificate.
If another game has used this simple and clever trick to simulate how government agencies work, I haven’t played it.
It worked fine last time we tried it
In High Frontier, a spaceship aint nothing but a stack of cards. Each card represents a component youve researched. This spaceship going to Mars is these rockets with this reactor and this payload. Stack the cards and blast off. Leaving Earth works the same way.
But sometimes something going drastically wrong, usually with a particular component. A fire breaks out in the capsule of the Apollo 1. An oxygen tank explodes while Apollo 13 is on the way to the moon. An O-ring gives way as the Challenger launches. A piece of foam dings the heat shielding on the Columbia. Oops, we left Matt Damon on Mars. So in High Frontier, to represent unforeseen failures with sometimes catastrophic results, you sometimes roll a d6. Theres a 1 in 6 chance a component might fail. Thats reasonable, right? Thats what Id do if I was designing a game. If I was designing a game about the development of the space program, I might let you mitigate that with some research. After spending a certain amount of spacebucks, you roll a d8 instead of a d6. Your 1 in 6 just turned to a 1 in 8. Spend some more space bucks to roll a d10. Eventually, research your way up to a d20. Hey, here’s me doing game design! Aren’t I clever?
I’m actually not. If you want clever, let me tell you how Joe Fatula presents the risk of catastrophe in Leaving Earth. Shuffle a deck of 90 cards: 60 Successes, 15 Minor Failures, and 15 Major Failures. Any time you research something, such as a particular rocket, landing techniques, or in-flight rendezvous, you draw three cards from the deck. Put those cards on that technology. Every time you use the technology, you randomly draw one of the three cards. Was it a minor failure you might be able to repair or troubleshoot with intrepid astronauts? Was it a major failure and now all is lost? Or, most likely, was it a success? Whatever the case, mix up the three cards and put them back. Draw again next time you use the technology. You might draw successes nine times, only to be surprised by a failure the tenth time.
Since you can’t be certain what three cards are in the stack, you can’t be sure if there’s a failure lurking in there. An inherent flaw, waiting patiently to emerge. It’s not just a random chance rolled on a die. It’s physically lurking inside your technology. It is an actual thing. And a preventable thing. Because when you draw a card, you can pay to remove it from the stack. So if you want to guarantee that something will work, you will spend time and money to test it until you’ve paid to remove all three cards.
This means it’s easy to test cheap components like Juno rockets. I can fling those around like bottle rockets on the Fourth of July. Got an extra dollar in your budget this year? Of course you do. Might as well launch a Juno rocket to get a look at one of the cards. A few years into the game and those Juno rockets may be puny as ever, but they sure are reliable. But then there are the massive juggernauts. The Soyuz and Saturn that pack the necessary thrust for your payloads to slip the surly bonds of Earth’s gravity. Do you spend the time and considerable money to test launch those monsters? How much risk are you willing to take on your most expensive and most important missions? That’s the core gameplay in Leaving Earth. Even as a solitaire game, in which you try to accomplish as much as you can in a 20-year span, it’s the central dilemma of your project management: how much time and money will you sacrifice to risk management?
The Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs
High Frontier’s solar system is a board with an amazing spirograph of overlapping orbital vectors. It’s a gorgeous dizzying sprawl. But Leaving Earth’s solar system is a compact arrangement of cards. It’s only five cards tall and five cards wide.
How is a game going to fit the extreme distance to Mars in those same five cards that also represent the relatively short distance to the moon? It’s not. Leaving Earth doesn’t care about physically representing distance. It instead shows how much time it takes to travel the distance between two cards. For instance, after a ship crosses from the Earth orbit card to the diagonally adjacent Mars orbit card, you put three hourglass tokens on the ship. Then you take one off at the beginning of each year/turn. The ship can’t interact with the card if it has hourglass tokens on it, because it’s not there yet. So it takes three years to cross from Earth orbit to the adjacent Mars orbit. Distance is time. I’m sure Einstein or someone said something mind blowingly quantum about this, but all I have to do is remember to take away an hourglass token each turn.
The fine men and women…err, men of the space program
The human element is an important part of the race into space. In High Frontier, you are not allowed to leave your astronauts behind to die. There are very strict rules about that. Unless you’re China. Then you’re allowed to leave astronauts behind, because China’s superpower is a disregard for human life. It’s a feature of communism.
Leaving Earth has different space agencies, but none of them have superpowers or government types other than “bureaucracy”. It also has astronauts, each of whom is named after a real world astronaut. They come in three flavors. Pilots mitigate technology failures, engineers repair components, and medics repair other astronauts. The missions that earn you the most points are based on getting these guys up into space, and ideally onto other planets. And then home again, of course. It’s no good putting a man on the moon if you don’t also bring him back to Earth. There is no China in Leaving Earth.
The trick is bringing along enough astronauts to cover for each other. In other words, teamwork. But for longer missions — anything other than a short hop into orbit — you have to bring along supplies, which means extra weight, which means extra thrust, which also means extra weight.
Sometimes an astronaut might die. When that happens, you put his card under your space agency card. It’s like a memorial, but it’s also a marker for -2 victory points.
The spice of boardgames
What an uncluttered presentation with such clean evocative artwork. It reminds me of the covers of old science fiction novels and the look of their promised futures. Specifically, it reminds me of the copy of Dune I read as a kid.
USSR! USSR! USSR!
Leaving earth assigns a point value to various milestones in the race into space, some of which haven’t been reached yet. Designer Joe Fatula includes each nation’s real world score in the history of space exploration to date, as well as the real world scores for the 20-year span modeled in the game. The scores are as follows:
If the real history had been a game of Leaving Earth, with all missions available [normally only a random selection of missions is available], the scores at the end of the game would be 42 for the Soviet Union, 33 for the United States, and 1 for Germany.
Up to one players
I’m not convinced Leaving Earth is practical for many gaming groups. For starters, there’s no meaningful player interaction. This is just a race game about who can claim which objectives. In High Frontier, which is also a race game, players eventually get to shoot lasers and missiles at each other. Silly, perhaps. But if that’s not player interaction, I don’t know what is.
But there’s a bigger problem with Leaving Earth. One of the most important elements of a multiplayer boardgame is pacing. A player should always be involved or at least invested in what another player is doing. Sitting around waiting for your turn is not a viable way to involve a player. Furthermore, one player’s turn shouldn’t take five seconds while another player’s turn takes five minutes. In boardgame design, a lot of thought goes into preventing erratic pacing.
Leaving Earth doesn’t have any of that thought. The turns are barely formalized. A player just does stuff until he doesn’t want to do stuff anymore. Then another player just does stuff until he doesn’t want to do stuff anymore. If the first player changes his mind and wants to do more stuff, it goes back to him. It’s not as bad as it sounds, and it’s a necessary format given some of the rules. But it makes for terrible pacing. Some of your turns might take a couple of seconds. You just buy rockets because you’re building up your components over the course of several years. No, don’t even give me my income this turn. Just keep it because I already know I’m taking this Saturn rocket and this Soyuz rocket. I’ll be doing the same thing the next three turns. Meanwhile another player is doing stuff that requires completely revising his worksheet because his probe to Ceres is going to crash when it reaches its destination because he did the math wrong. Yes, worksheet. Everyone will need a worksheet. Have you ever played a game where everyone sits around doing math? That’s how a lot of Leaving Earth goes. Which brings me to…
Pencil and paper not included
I don’t necessarily mean to represent the worksheets as liabilities. They’re actually a big part of Leaving Earth’s unique charm. You have to work out on paper how a trip will go. I don’t mean “have to” in the sense of “should” because it makes it easier. I mean you literally have to. You cannot figure this stuff out in your head. You start at your mission’s end point, and then work your way backwards, looking up numbers on a chart of space algebra, adding up the thrust and weight you need for each step of the journey. Eventually, you work your way all the way backwards to your mission’s starting point. Now you know exactly how much thrust you need for each step and therefore how many and which rockets you have to buy.
But that’s just for a basic mission. Some missions will require separate sections. For instance, when visiting another planet, why land all your return rockets when it just takes that much more thrust to lift them off again? Instead, drop a capsule with just enough fuel to get back into orbit, at which point you rendezvous with the main ship and return to earth. I had to have this explained to me because I was doing everything the hard way. Carry everything to Venus, land everything on Venus, now take everything off from Venus. What an “a-ha!” moment that was for me when someone suggested not landing all that weight on Venus in the first place.
But you’re not done yet! Now you decide whether to spend time eliminating risk, minimizing risk, or to just accepting risk entirely and proceeding. In which case, do you have the resources and have you put into place the contingencies to salvage a mission gone pear shaped? Or are you just going to gamble that there are no failures lurking in your hardware?
Frankly, the paperwork in Leaving Earth is pretty simple and even snappy once you cross the T’s and dot the I’s on your worksheet. But it’s going to take more time than just deciding where to move a piece in any other game. This is probably the hardest part of Leaving Earth, and also the most gratifying. Here’s a picture of a typical worksheet:
That’s a plan for an unmanned probe to land on the asteroid Ceres, take a sample, and then return it to Earth, where it will dock with a re-entry capsule waiting in orbit. The capsule will then carry the sample down through the atmosphere, scoring me 14 points. At least that’s the intent. The actual math as written will launch a spaceship that doesn’t have enough thrust to actually land on Ceres. Basically an asteroid missile that does nothing more than make a new crater. If you were to actually launch that mission, you would have to waste a burn to make sure your probe doesn’t hit Ceres too hard. At which point you won’t have enough thrust to return to Earth, so you’ll get to do a separate worksheet for the new mission to recover your failed mission. In other words, never copy off Tom Chick’s worksheet.
What are these funny words and numbers?
There’s an index in the back of the manual. Because it’s that kind of manual.
Leaving Earth comes in one of the weirdest boardgame boxes I have ever seen. It’s small. Far smaller than you’d expect. About the size of a trade paperback of The Right Stuff or one of those Kim Stanley Robinson colored Mars books.
It opens like a shoebox, with a lid that fits loosely on top. But when you buy the game, the lid is sealed with a wraparound label. You’ll consider the wraparound label for a moment, wondering how to get the box open. You’ll turn it around in your hands. You’ll look at the top. You’ll wonder if something is supposed to slide out somewhere. You’ll turn it around in your hands again. You will eventually realize — perhaps with horror if you’re the sort of guy who fusses about resale value — that if you want to get into this box, you will have to cut the label. Like, with a knife. You will have to slice right through the artwork, arguably defacing it as surely as you’d deface a copy of Risk Legacy.
As someone who takes good care of his games but doesn’t mind when a game is a little worn — it just shows the game has been loved — I didn’t mind this in the least. But I can imagine some people will be aghast at the prospect of actually cutting through something that wasn’t designed to be cut in order to get to the boardgame underneath.
According to the box and manual, the full title of this game is Leaving Earth, A Tabletop Game of The Conquest of Space, 1956-1976. Which is descriptive enough. I like that you’re basically trying to beat history. In a really good game, you might get a man to Mars before the game ends in 1976. Now that’s a space program!
But isn’t the “conquest of space” bit a little optimistic? That’s like calling the Normandy landings in 1944 the “conquest of Nazi Germany”. Uh, guys, we’ve still got a way to go before we can describe this as a conquest.
However, there are pretty big hooks dangling from the edge of Leaving Earth, waiting for an expansion. The locations cards have indicators to travel to the outer planets, but at this point, they just lead to empty tabletop. Leaving Earth obviously has an expansion in mind and it isn’t shy about letting you know. Jupiter’s moon and Saturn’s rings, here I come! One step closer to actual conquest.
Dark side of the moon
Leaving Earth is only available directly from publisher Lumenaris Group, a company that mainly deals in, uh, I’m not really sure. Sewing stuff? Quiltwork? I have no idea what to make of all that stuff on their home page. But before you order, you should know Lumenaris doesn’t do customer support. I don’t mean they don’t do it well. I mean they flat-out don’t do it. I had to go through quite an ordeal with my order. After my credit card was charged, I hadn’t received the game after more than a month. The publisher hadn’t responded to a single one of my emails. So I asked for a refund. Several days went by with no response. After a couple of phone calls, I spoke with a woman who explained I hadn’t gotten my refund because she’d been dealing with something else, so she’d take care of it that day. Three days after that without the refund showing up, I called my bank to dispute the charge. In all that time, I didn’t receive a single response from Lumenaris.
I normally wouldn’t mention this in a review, because who’s to say whether it’s an isolated incident? But based on several posts on Boardgame Geek, it’s not an isolated incident. The slow processing and lack of communication seem to be how Lumenaris conducts business.
To be fair, there’s no reason to doubt everyone eventually gets the game he or she paid for. But be aware that you’re dealing with a small and sadly unresponsive publisher. Is Leaving Earth worth the bother, along with the $50? I can’t say, because the company eventually sent me a free copy by way of an apology. But I can say I’m grateful they did this, because I had given up on ever playing Leaving Earth, which is absolutely worth the bother. As for the $50, I used it to buy a super hardcore solitaire World War II wargame about the American invasion of an island called Peleliu. I guess I have Leaving Earth to thank for that, too.
Leaving Earth is a game about planning and about managing risk. With even a single grand journey into outer space, you might claim victory in the game. Consequently, it is your job to plan each journey carefully, finding the cheapest, quickest, and safest ways to reach your objective -- but do not spend too long preparing, or another nation might reach their goal before you.