RogerBW's Blog

Leaving Earth 06 December 2016

Leaving Earth, designed by Joe Fatula, is a game of the exploration of the solar system for 1-5 players.

A warning to my British audience first: you can't easily buy this in the United Kingdom. Lumenaris Games is a small company without ready access to distribution channels outside the USA, so it's up to individual resellers to get stock in for themselves. BoardGameGuru in the UK, 4Dados in Spain and Philibert in France are all worth trying, generally in increasing order of cost. And every time a new expansion comes out I organise a bulk buy to the UK to split the cost of VAT collection among as many people as possible.

Many complex boardgames tend to go down one of two routes: the euro-style game with minimal conflict, little or no randomness, minimal components and elegant mechanics, for example Puerto Rico or Power Grid; and a score calculated at the end, or the "Ameritrash" (I prefer "glorious mess"), with lots of conflict, lots of randomness, lots of stuff in the box, quite possibly lots of special-case rules, and progressive strengthening or weakening of players such that it's pretty clear who's in the lead at any moment, for example Firefly or Cosmic Encounter. Leaving Earth, while it's more towards the "glorious mess" end of the scale, doesn't neatly fit into either category: the mechanics are fairly clean and simple, but you still get a lot of stuff, and it's usually pretty clear at any moment who's winning but you can get surprise upsets late in the game.

Enough philosophising: what do you get? A tile-based map of the inner solar system; all but a very few copies come with the Mercury mini-expansion, so you get that, Venus, Luna, Mars and Phobos, and Ceres, most of which also have a Fly-By and an Orbit location. But many of these locations have more than one tile: that's because you don't know, when you start any given game, exactly what surface conditions are like on any of those other worlds. Maybe Venus' clouds hide vast oceans of liquid water, and astronauts will be able to live there indefinitely; maybe there's alien life; maybe instead there will be massive heat and pressure that destroy any spacecraft which lands. You won't know until you go there and take a look.

So how do you go there? That's the core of the game: each location tile offers one or more manoeuvres to get to nearby locations. These have difficulty ratings from 0 to 9, which determine how much impulse ("thrust" in the game's deliberately non-intimidating language) per mass a vehicle has to have to complete that manoeuvre. Getting to most locations will require multiple manoeuvres, and you can throw away the rockets you used in earlier stages, leaving you with less mass to push to the end.

This does mean that mission planning can be a fairly lengthy process, with a fair bit of (simple) maths involved, and I think it's worth going into a detailed example here, because I know it will put off some players. Say I want to land a probe (mass 1) on the Moon. If I do it from lunar orbit, that's difficulty 2, and a single Juno with thrust 4 will easily do it (the four standard rocket types are Juno, Atlas, Soyuz and Saturn, though they represent single stages rather than complete stacks). That gives me a mass-2 package to put into lunar orbit, which is difficulty 3 from earth orbit; I could do that by strapping six more Junos together, but a cheaper way is to use a single Atlas, with thrust 27. So what I need to put into earth orbit is one Atlas, one Juno and a probe. The trick is that the mass of the rockets being burned to perform a manoeuvre is included in the total mass of the spacecraft that has to be pushed; a player reference card lets you do this the easy way, and simply look up that if you're using an Atlas in a difficulty-5 manoeuvre it can push 1.4 (or, as it's charmingly printed, 1⅖) mass in addition to itself.

Of course you have to pay for all those rockets, and pay more to learn how to build them in the first place… and you may not get it right. When you buy an advancement card (either a type of rocket, or other technology like Landing, Rendezvous or Re-Entry) it comes with (usually three) face-down outcome cards, each of which is a Success, a Minor Failure or a Major Failure. Whenever you use the advancement, shuffle them and flip one card: if it's a failure, the spacecraft may be damaged or destroyed, and you can pay to get rid of it or shuffle it back in. If it's a success, all went well… and you can if you like pay more to get rid of it, because it's harder to learn from a success than from a failure, but once you've removed all the cards the technology is completely reliable.

Finally, your budget is a fixed amount per year, and anything you don't spend is lost. The only way to get more is when other players complete missions: but there are only so many missions available (drawn from Easy, Medium and Hard decks, including goals such as "Lunar Station" or "Venus Sample Return"), and whoever has most points from missions at the end of the game is the winner.

Clearly this is a game for people who don't mind using a lot of scratch paper for mission planning. For players who really don't like that, I've uploaded a Book of Missions to boardgamegeek, which gives reasonably efficient solutions to all the goals in the base game; but working them out for yourself, often trying to use the technology you've already built and tested rather than what might in theory be the optimal approach, is a big part of the fun of the game.

Solo play is a very different beast from the competitive multiplayer game. In the latter, you may well launch with untested hardware, relying on your astronauts to fix it if it breaks, in the hope of getting somewhere before those pesky foreigners; in solo you normally take a little more time to get technologies debugged before committing anything important to them. In the solo game, you add all the available points from the missions you turn up, and try to score more than half before the end of the game. (Any mission that proves to be impossible, such as Man on Venus if Venus turns out to be as deadly as the real thing, is removed from consideration.)

The Easy and Medium game modes form a very gentle introduction, but they're often over so quickly that you haven't had much chance to develop any advanced mission plans or look at most of the solar system; I recommend using them while you're learning the game, but quickly going to Hard or even Very Hard for serious play.

This is probably my favourite game right now. I've always been fascinated by space exploration, and this is a change to design my own hardware and mission plans, combined with a system of manoeuvres that's easily playable without computer assistance (or a huge scary High Frontier-style map)… but which remains realistic, rather than just slapping a "range" value on your spacecraft. It would be great if the game could be played more quickly (it can take several hours), but I don't want to give up any of the detail I get here.

The Outer Planets expansion adds Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, but I'd recommend starting with the base game.

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