Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Heroes of Space Travel: Minus 2 Points

Last night I reached for the stars; finally playing Leaving Earth after a series of near-game experiences. And I might have finished it too, but I ran out of time. And power. And supplies. And ultimately, astronauts. They were either dead or, in my case, headed for bed.

Space takes up a lot of room.

The game tells of the twenty-year space race, 1956-1976. It plays five - you can be the big hitters of the USA or Russia, or go more divergent with the likes of France, China and Germany (I think. Can't remember at this moment). I played Russia, and Dirk was China.

Russia's space control. Note all the numbers

The 'board' is a layout of cards that denote areas of space - and the amount of thrust and time needed to traverse them. Some cards (Mars, the Moon, etc) are dealt from several possible cards, meaning you can't be sure what's out there. Will the Moon be as spaceman friendly as in real life? Or will it contain hostile life-forms?

The banality of evil

You need to assemble a ship that has room for astronauts, supplies to keep them alive, plus - the game's central economy - the thrust to move them. For every manoeuvre in space, you calculate the weight of your ship and multiply it by the difficulty of your route: that's your thrust. And basically, the game is a protracted, pliable maths equation. Not got enough thrust? Add more rockets. But now you've added more rockets, your spaceship weighs more, so you'll need more thrust...

Once you've solved that particular humdinger, there's the chance that your underdeveloped technology will explode anyway. You can improve your faulty tech, but it all costs money, and your government only gives you a certain amount per year. There's three different types of astronauts: pilots help you land, mechanics can fix a life-support failure, and doctors can fix other astronauts. They don't weigh much - in fact they weigh nothing, as far as your thrust equation is concerned - but they do take up space. So you'll need a bigger spaceship for all of them - and for that, you'll need more thrust.

The result of a lot of thrusting

The game gives you a set of randomly dealt goals from three decks: Easy, Medium, and Hard. Easy is stuff like getting a man into space (and back safely) whereas our Medium missions required you to get all the way to Venus or Mars. I didn't have any hard objectives, but any idea that the game would therefore be straightforward proved to be misplaced. At the end of each year your astronauts in space need to keep the life support going and consume supplies. Sally, who joined me in the latter stages of the game to knit and make occasional observations, wondered why I hadn't tested my life support on Earth, and it did seem a reasonable question.

Initially both Dirk and I set our sights afar: I was going to head to Mars, and he to Venus. Dirk's plans changed when he got a bit impatient, and sent a rocket successfully into Earth's upper atmosphere. I only realised after the fact that in doing so he'd completed two of the Easy objectives! And it was only 1958. Damn your starry eyes, Dirk.

I kept to my plans and finally generated a ship that took three astronauts all the way to Mars' orbit. The problem was, this took a long time, and as I'd only packed for three years, they were going to run out of supplies before they could return. As I scrambled to try and get another ship out there with further supplies, they starved to death. That really wasn't rocket science.

Dirk at home, me on Mars. 

By this time it was 1969 and my reward for three hours play was watching my friends decay from afar.  And if the tragedy of your astronauts kicking the bucket in Mars' orbit wasn't enough...

Dirk: 6
Sam: -8

The jury on Leaving Earth was out for me, but I can hear them muttering through the wall: it scores very high on theme and the mechanics of it all do make sense. But the mathiness, for me, made it somewhat gruelling. It felt like accounting, and though I can appreciate that's a crucial component of rocket science, it didn't feel like fun. Mechanically appropriate, but not fun. My closest experience to this was High Frontier, which I found to be equally opaque, although even longer.

But perhaps playing with real opponents could improve the experience: players can agree to share technologies and give each other lifts in space in order to further their own causes, so the game can be played with a seam of co-operation. More importantly though, having someone vaguely numerate will inevitably be a boon.


  1. Joe Berger, I think you would like this one

    1. And possibly Chris and Andrew. Maybe Matt. I think everybody else might hate it though.

  2. I don't know either. I like the idea, but I'm not a very precise type of player so making lots of calculations is going to be weak spot for me. The main thing you've said that resonated with me was the lack of fun. I can suck at a game as long as it's enjoyable.

  3. Well yeah, and that was certainly evident in a solo play-through, where your initial curiosity is countered by the increasing amount of math, which isn't a strength of mine.

    I imagine with more of you though, there is - even if you don't share knowledge - a certain amount of confederacy to it. Of rooting for someone even if it means they're probably going to beat you as a result. There's definitely a sense of adventure, so I'd hope with more players the mechanics of it would feel less of a cumbersome load.

    I never figured out how I could get astronauts to Mars and back though.

  4. Replies
    1. I can't read that without imagining it spoken by a velvet-voiced English cad.

  5. I was going to say it looks like Phil Ellund does High Frontier (i.e. big ambitious theme through a heap of cards). Then I realised High Frontier *is* Phil Eklund - duh.

    I take your point Sam that it's less time-consuming than HF, and I'm sort of intrigued... but only sorta. My tastes at the moment seem to run to few rules, more fun.

  6. That's fair enough. I thought it might give you a similar hit but over 2 or 3 hours instead of 7!

    What slows LE down is the math. But what's quick is everything else. You get $25M to spend each round and there's a limited amount of options as to what you can do with it. The first couple of years is just buying things, really. And though it didn't rocket into my favourite games, I would like to try it again one night...