Outer space – not necessarily sci-fi, but also actual space grounded in real science – has always been a fascinating board game theme for me. I mean, I like a bit of implausibility just fine, but there’s something about distilling literal rocket science down to dice rolls and card placement that appeals to me greatly. Hence my immediate interest upon learning that Leaving Earth – a one to five player game of running your own space agency, from designer Joseph Fatula and publisher The Lumenaris Group – is a thing that exists.
Andrew: Oh no, not another one…
Rob: I know, I know. It’s probably giving you flashbacks to when we tried to play High Frontier. I went to a similar place when I first found out about it.
Andrew: And yet, here we are.
Rob: It’s different this time, I swear!
Rob: For starters, I actually know how to play it and it’s not difficult to learn. Plus look at how pretty it is!
Andrew: Wow, yeah, this game is gorgeous!…Okay, now you have my attention.
Comparisons to Phil Eklund’s High Frontier are inevitable, seeing as both games are about running your own space program – from constructing rockets to researching technologies to carrying out complex missions (or having catastrophic failures). However, while the themes are identical, Leaving Earth is comparably much, much lighter.
Every game of Leaving Earth will have goals for players to complete as they race to be the first to do a thing and earn more points than everybody else. What’s really nice is that these goals come in three difficulties (easy, medium, hard) and can vary quite a bit from game to game since they’re picked semi-randomly each time. Playing on “easy” means all easy cards, “hard” uses a mixture of all three difficulties, and so on, so there might be some overlap from time to time. Still, it’s nice to have that bit of variability to everything. It doesn’t hurt that the full-card artwork on the missions is incredibly pretty in a somewhat “retro NASA” sort of way.
Diana: Admittedly, when Rob and I first sat down to play this, I was pretty skeptical too.
Rob: Yeah, I could tell how little interest you had in it, but I figured I’d keep going until you asked to move on to something else. Just in case it started to grow on you.
Rob: Hey, you never know!
Diana: But you’re right, I did end up having fun with it.
Leaving Earth uses a pretty clever series of mechanics to represent the trials and tribulations of rocket science. Simply acquiring new technology is only the beginning. Once, say, Juno rocket tech has been bought, players still have to work the kinks out. This is represented by placing special Outcome cards on a given technology, and only revealing one whenever that technology is used – then spending money to remove that card from the stack, if do-able and desired. Granted it’s entirely possible to not spend precious time and money refining rockets, life support systems, and so on, but that approach runs the risk of things going horribly wrong at the worst possible moment.
Simple malfunctions tend to make things like rockets inoperable, which is fine when they’re still sitting on the launchpad. Once they’re in orbit, however, it’s much more difficult to repair them. Similarly, larger malfunctions tend to outright destroy whatever craft the affected system is attached to – whether that’s a single rocket being tested or a multi-stage, multi-year mission to Mars that was just about to land but oh no it crashed and everything’s a wash.
Diana: It took me a few rounds, but eventually I was kind of surprised to find myself caring about whether or not I could get an astronaut into orbit and then land them safely back on earth.
Rob: Right? There’s this oddly satisfying rhythm to it, where each year starts everyone off with a $25 million budget before they start buying up new technologies or performing various “tests” so that they can pay to fix any issues that come up.
Diana: You really have to plan ahead, too.
Rob: Yeah, definitely. Don’t wanna spend years preparing to land on the moon only to realize you still need the ability to land.
Diana: It’s not just that, though. Planning out missions is a lot of work!
Rob: This is also true.
Actually getting anywhere in Leaving Earth is functionally simple. Each location card has a number on its edge (or edges, depending) that indicates the difficulty of maneuvering over to the adjacent card. In order to successfully pull it off, a ship needs to have enough thrust to match or exceed that number. The catch is that difficulty is multiplied by mass, so the heavier a ship is the tougher it’s going to be to get it going where it needs to go.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds, thankfully. Building a craft is as simple as placing various component cards on a ship card, then placing that ship’s token/meeple on the earth location. Sure some basic multiplication and addition is necessary for more complicated missions, but by fanning out the component cards from left to right you can see the mass of every single piece. From there it’s just a matter of adding them up, then multiplying that number by a maneuver’s difficulty.
Rob: I know how it sounds, but it’s actually pretty intuitive in practice. Plus there’s a very important tip in the manual that makes it much easier to handle.
Andrew: Which is?
Rob: Plan backwards.
By starting at a goal and methodically planning in reverse, putting missions together is much easier. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what’s needed to reach the end, then from there using the information on the equipment that would already be installed and figuring out what else needs to be added to perform the earlier steps. Trust me, it’s really not as scary as it sounds.
I still wouldn’t call Leaving Earth a light game, or anything even remotely close to that, but it’s far easier to understand than its theme (and other similarly-themed games) imply. There’s lots of preplanning to be done, and oh boy do the tougher missions take a long time to pull off, but getting there is half the fun. Scoring a completed mission before everyone else is also a pretty awesome feeling, I have to admit.
Those who swear by High Frontier will probably find that there isn’t enough meat to Leaving Earth to keep them coming back, but anyone who wanted to like Phil Eklund’s space program simulator that couldn’t get into it should definitely give this one a try. Anyone who’s interested in the subject matter should, really. At worst, it makes for a solid (and pretty) stepping stone to even more fiddly and complicated (in a good way!) space games.
At the moment, the only way we know how to get your hands on Leaving Earth is by ordering it directly from Lumenaris – you can grab a copy here!