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Leaving Earth in Review

S Updated February 28, 2020
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Leaving Earth

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There Will Be Games

You know I had a big intro for this article written, about sinking aircraft carriers, finding grails and bagging chicks, but it’s all just a distraction from the real topic.  It's a good one; let’s talk about Leaving Earth.

I just don’t make it to game night very often anymore.  This past Monday I made it and arrived late, so when I came in they had a big session of Betrayal going on the main table.  I moved to the table on the patio and started sorting out Leaving Earth, planning to play a solo game first to get the rules down.  The rules are fairly long, but really pretty simple.

As I'm setting it up two other guys come over to the table looking to join in, then another. A four player game is suddenly in the works, and plenty of eyes and ears on the rules will certainly help. We played on the "normal" difficulty setting.

Leaving Earth is about the early years of space exploration.  Each player plays a different country, USA, Russia, Japan, France or China.  The roles are symmetric, all players have the exact same materials to work with.  In some games that’s a knock, but not in Leaving Earth, because there’s plenty to take into account without a special power to give the game flavor.  Your job is to successfully achieve big goals in space by developing the engineering needed to do the job.  Some goals are small -- one of ours was to put a man through a suborbital flight.  Some goals are crazy big, like going to an asteroid, collecting a sample and returning it to Earth.  The goals are randomly selected each game though I suppose you could choose what you like from the list. We pulled them the official way and got a nice mix of big and small.

So, let’s pretend you’re going to the Moon, the same way Apollo engineers did in the 60s.  You need to put enough stuff into Earth orbit to go to the Moon and back.  And in order to go to the Moon from Earth orbit you need to bring enough stuff from Earth orbit to get into the Moon’s orbit, and then you need enough stuff in the Moon’s orbit to go down to the Moon, land there, then have enough stuff to get back to the Moon’s orbit, then back to the Earth’s orbit, then back to Earth.  You need a lot of stuff, and the stuff for each step needs to be brought with you one way or the other along for the ride for all the steps that precede it.  So you may be going to the Moon, but the first thing you need to figure out is “re-enter Earth’s atmosphere”, because everything you need to do that needs to either go the whole journey with you, or be pre-positioned to be picked up along the way.  Each prior step gets added to the bulk you bring, and . . . well . . . you get the idea.  They call it Rocket Science for a reason, and it gets much more complicated when you’re going to Mars or to an asteroid even farther out than that.

As the youngest baby boomer on Earth I remember the Moon shots in no small amount of detail.  Being an adolescent boy during the space race kicked ass, because the space race kicked ass.  It wasn’t just about getting there, it was about getting there first and both NASA and the Soviet Kosmicheskaya took pretty big risks to make that happen.  This was tech on a razor’s edge and everyone watching at home knew that.  Plenty of missions blew up, and took people with them on more than a few occasions.  That kept things pretty dramatic.  Nobody on your TV said that what you were looking at was probably going to work, because no one could make that promise.

Well here’s the thing – Leaving Earth isn’t making that promise either.  There is plenty of room for shit to go wrong in this game, and one play, sometimes one turn, is all it takes to figure that out.  If ever a game married its thematics to its mechanics this is it.  Leaving Earth does something magical – it makes missions hard, but provides a way for you to get better at them if you’re willing to take the time and the money to do it.  That’s the rub in the game.  This is a race.  Time is of the essence, money is tight, but you need to burn both to succeed. 

Leaving Earth John PointingThis was a first game, so there was a lot of pointing and asking and figuring things out. The rules were quite simple, but making your missions work is another story.

The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was that the game pieces don't always match what they did historically. I know the programs of the era, and I know what the equipment on the pieces was designed to do.  So as a first time player (born in 1964) taking an Atlas rocket to start seemed obvious, as it would get a man into orbit. That's what it did in real life. But in the game an Atlas is suborbital at best, or useful for a mid-course burn if you're going to the Moon or Mars.  This inconsistency is almost assuredly the output of balance and playability tuning, and it’s fine.  My Atlas technology served me well later in the game.  But early on I had to get past the historic part and keep my eyes on the numbers. Though everything was fine relative to each other (Atlases are smaller than Soyuz, which are smaller than Saturns, etc.) their capabilities weren't a perfect match with reality.  A minor knock.

So you get $25 million dollars per turn to purchase research (e.g., Atlas Rocket Technology) and also to purchase actual products of the research.  All technology items cost $10 million to research and they’re not just big metal things.  Technology includes process engineering as well, like Rendevous in Space or Surveying.  For things like rockets you need to purchase actual manufactured goods as well, so getting your first Atlas upright on the launch pad will set you back $10 million for the research and $5 million more for your build.  Space ain’t cheap, and you get $25 Million non-retainable dollars per turn. 

But here’s the thing.  You gotta ask yourself this question when you’re playing Leaving Earth – can you really, really test docking two ships floating freely in space without sending them up there to do it?  The specs look good on paper . . . but you don’t know what you don’t know.  So everything you research in Leaving Earth comes with a hidden risk factor to it, in the form of three little cards.  Most of them say Success on them.  Some of them say Minor Failure on them.  Others say Major Failure on them.  For each component of your planned trip to Mars, or the Moon, or Mercury, or wherever, these three random-draw cards provide a pucker factor that keeps you humble in spite of your mathematical genius.  Because each time you use that technology you turn over one of those three unknown cards.

So, for example, I wanted to put a probe past the Moon on a surveying mission.  I had a Saturn booster, more than enough to put my probe and its booster into orbit.  When I fired off that Saturn I turned over one of its three cards.  It said Success, so the Saturn lit and ran properly, putting my gear into orbit.  I returned the card to the set of three, face-down again, and shuffled.  At this point I knew there is at least one Success card in the Saturn’s deck, but nothing else.  Each time you use something you turn over a card, and if you use it multiple times on the same maneuver (e.g., you have two rockets ganged together to double your thrust) you turn over a card, return it, reshuffle, then turn over again.  So you never get a complete picture of what’s in that technology’s deck, and that makes for some pretty toe-curling draws.  For big missions you might turn over cards for a dozen maneuvers, any one of which can stick you.

This risk-laden technology-based build concept is the heart of Leaving Earth and it’s unlike anything I’ve seen in other games.  Although I recognize slices of it from other places its gestalt in this title is pretty wild.  Some things just work, and you get complacent depending on them in spite of not knowing exactly how close to the edge you’re living.  Other things are snakebit from day one, as my buddy Chris found out when he tried to rendezvous in space.  He had one major failure after another.  Now, the game gives you the opportunity to tune your technology, by paying $5 million to remove whatever card you just turned over.  So Chris spent the money on his first failure (a major one that scrubbed the mission and left his cosmonaut stranded in space) to remove that one card.  Now he could draw from only two.  On his next attempt another major failure appeared, and he spent $5M again to clear himself down to just one card.  Attempt 3 – Success!  His Rendezvous technology had just one card left, and it was a Success.  It cost Chris time and money, and he lost pace on his mission because of it, but now he knew he had Rendezvous down cold and could depend on it.  Not only that, but he could sell the technology to me at a premium, because when I bought it from him (with his 1 card on it instead of 3) I got to take the technology and put only 1 random-draw card on my copy as well.  The rules on this barter concept didn’t seem particularly important on first read.  But burning off those cards, even Success cards, has value.  Trading between players is permitted as are outright sales, so Chris’ Rendezvous technology had additional value because he had beaten it into shape, down to just one card.  Had he beaten it down to zero it would be automatic success for him AND for all who bought it from him.  More dollars for him to plow into other tech and hardware.

We made plenty of mistakes and I needed to think more broadly regarding Rendezvous in order to make the distances while keeping weight down. You don’t need to carry your return-to-Earth rockets down to the Moon’s surface with you if you can rendezvous with them in Lunar orbit afterwards.  As I figured that out with help from my fellow player Sam, I felt sheepish that I hadn’t thought of it myself.  I had seen NASA use that exact same strategy when I was a kid.  But in spite of our bumbling first turns in a game that offers a lot of options for creativity we got it done, with all of us coaching each other on how to make our stuff work better. It was competitive play, but cooperative for first-time players so that all of us could discover the ins and outs together. My contribution to the crazy ideas was to bring a couple of additional small thrusters on the way to a Moon Sample Retrieval mission, allowing me to have a minor failure in one (which I did) but still complete the job.

I'm the one on the right with steam coming off the top of my head. Plenty to think about and there's a time pressure, but it's likely that your buddies will go too early and blow something up too. There's time to iron things out before going for the big run.I'm the one on the right with steam coming off the top of my head. Plenty to think about and there's a time pressure, but it's likely that your buddies will go too early and blow something up too. There's time to iron things out before going for the big run.

This game is all cards and tiles, but it's big on the table, big in the brain, and took a fair amount of time for us four noobs. We likely took twice as long as we will next time, but we all wanted "bigger" missions for our next session as well so I think we'll go back up to a three hour play even though we'll get more done.  We started around 8 and finished at 11, but the time went quickly.  There’s so much to think about and the nature of the game is that you can skip over players that are deep in thought if you’re in the process of taking care of little things.  We’re all accustomed to starting our turns early and finishing them late to keep gameplay going, something which may or may not be kosher in your group.  With that kind of genteel action at the table the game moves along well until someone goes for a big shot at something.  And when they do, damn, it’s worth stopping to watch, because the Russians are sending Andrei Mikoyan to land on the frikkin’ Moon before NASA does!  Let’s see if they can pull that shit off!

I've become really particular in my gaming tastes over the last few years, and Leaving Earth is a nice fit. Plenty of room for things to go wrong, and there's a way to hone your technologies to prevent that as the game progresses. My one buddy Chris had a train-wreck getting his Rendezvous to work, but he’s a guy that knows how to make things work.  He got it done as did all of us.  Really a very different play, one where things sometimes just ain't fair, but you takes whats you gets and finds your ways to make it work.  There’s plenty of time for everyone to have something blow up, all part of pushing yourself hard to get there before the other guy does.

There’s additional unknowns in the game as well, in the form of multiple tiles for each goal location that represent things NASA and its competitors didn’t know as they stepped out into space.  The Moon we drew at random had no special effects associated with it.  But it could be fifty feet deep in dust that swallows anything landing on it, adding another way things can go pear-shaped.  A peek at the cards reveals legit issues NASA contended with – can a human swallow in space?  Can you land on the Moon without sinking?  For anyone that’s listened to the recording of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon you hear Buzz Aldrin say “we’re kicking up a lot of dust” as they’re about to put down, not as a point of interest for the people in TV land but as a final piece of data for the scientists to digest if he and Neil were never heard from again.  These complications can result in some missions being impossible, or some having very interesting twists.  The game forces you to make contingencies all the time.

That’s my kind of gaming. 

It’s a small package with nice art, virtually all cards, thin (but fully sufficient) cardboard tiles, flat wooden pieces that represent your ships on the board and one die that you use for exactly one purpose.  The die is an odd piece in a game so driven by driven by card draw, perhaps a relic from earlier design concepts that were revised before printing.  But the added draw for me personally is that one of its big features is real science and real history.  This game manages to be chromy as hell with just a bunch of cards and a few flat wooden pieces.  The box is small.  There’s likely a dozen games on Kickstarter right now with seven pounds of plastic in them wishing they were as thematic and emotionally engaging as this.

Leaving Earth is a little hard to find, but there are copies kicking around.  I got mine in trade for my copy of Silent Victory.  The game is due for a reprint, and the base game comes with what used to be the first expansion.  It includes Mercury and Venus, Mars, the asteroid Ceres and of course the Earth and Moon.  Other expansions are out there for the outer planets and space stations, but I’ll tell you what – there’s plenty in this first package to have yourself a serious dose of rewarding brain-burn with moments of tragic hilarity sprinkled in at no additional charge.  Our post-game show was good, based not only on what we had experienced during the game, but from the revealing of all the cards on our technologies as well.  I had Saturn rocket from early in the game and had used it five times with one minor failure and four successes.  When I turned over the cards I found a Major Failure that I had avoided by dumb luck.  That put things in perspective.  Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you ain’t.  I won by two points.  Oh my.



Leaving Earth in Review
Leaving Earth in Review
Leaving Earth in Review
Leaving Earth in Review

Editor reviews

1 reviews

Perhaps the ultimate engineering-geek game, neck-deep in its theme and full of technical goodness. This is a game you feature for an evening event. Imbibing alcohol is not recommended for this title, though likely hilarious.
John "Sagrilarus" Edwards (He/Him)
Associate Writer

John aka Sagrilarus is an old boardgame player. He has no qualifications to write on the subject, and will issue a stern denial of his articles' contents on short notice if pressed.

Articles by Sagrilarus

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ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #306641 27 Jan 2020 09:52
Interesting bit of trivia, The Lumenaris Group, which published this game, has a B&M shop which sells board games and quilting supplies. So if you're ever in Colfax, California with the wife...
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #306643 27 Jan 2020 10:05
Yeah, their online page is a strange patchwork of stuff.

I've seen two people indicate that their copies have just sent a shipping notice, leading me to believe that Lumenaris has gotten new stock in to sell. So the game may not be as difficult to pick up as it was.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #306645 27 Jan 2020 10:25
"Patchwork" ;)
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #306649 27 Jan 2020 11:02
Sounds a lot like High Frontier. I love the board in High Frontier, but I found playing the game to be a slog. It sounds like Leaving Earth might have a cleaner rule set that is easier to learn.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #306653 27 Jan 2020 11:33
Yeah, let's not dig too deeply into High Frontier. I wrote a 10,000-word diatribe on its rulebook that is best left where it lies.

But -- the quick response to this is that at times Leaving Earth can be downright hilarious. In spite of the sanguine theme and setting there's a real opportunity for things to go wrong in ways that a lot of gamers may not be comfortable with. Each launch is a risk. If it's not, you're not doing it right. You have to press your luck, and the rules specifying that your funding is use-it-or-lose-it puts a pretty solid incentive on going earlier than you're ready for. That's all well and good, but it means shit is going to blow up, and you have to be comfortable with that. Some gamers won't like this. I hope that comes through in the article.

So there's a lot of arithmetic in this game and I'll recommend a notepad for each player just to help them keep is straight. But there's still a lighthearted aspect to it because failure is baked into the design. You're going to fail and fail plenty. That's ok. When you make the big run and pull it off it's that much sweeter.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #306657 27 Jan 2020 12:46
I played this years ago. It can be hilarious and I’d definitely give it a try (but just one) while I will never play High Frontier.

We use the word “pure” in this hobby from time to time. Ascension is a pure deckbuilder, Intrigue is pure negotiation. Leaving Earth is pure math. Yes, that’s pretty thematic and it had some hilarious moments, but I also spent the afternoon doing more scribbling arithmetic than anything else. It’s certainly interesting and no doubt has an audience, but it was more of an “experience” than a game for me, and not one I want to return to.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #306659 27 Jan 2020 13:30
So Josh, what's your opinion of Terraforming Mars or Scythe? Similar? Less math but equally procedural from my perspective.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #306661 27 Jan 2020 13:37
I’m very much not a fan of Terraforming Mars. Scythe, that one is a bit more complicated. I didn’t like it, then I did, but the micro-turn ultimately did it in for me. Just sold my copy off, I’d be happy to never see it again.

To clarify, this isn’t a game that I failed to see the appeal. I totally get it, and as I said, the math is immersive. But that math dominates the design. It’s like 90% math, 10% playing the odds, if you’ve left any odds to play. That’s going to be fine for some people and it still had entertaining moments in my case. But I’m in no rush to spend my precious little fun time doing it again.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #306667 27 Jan 2020 15:42
Are we talking addition? Multiplication? Or something more complicated?
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #306669 27 Jan 2020 16:01

Space Ghost wrote: Are we talking addition? Multiplication? Or something more complicated?

Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #306670 27 Jan 2020 16:03
Addition and multiplication of very small numbers, but a lot of them. It's not hard math, it's about organizing your thoughts on a ten step process.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #306672 27 Jan 2020 16:38

RobertB wrote:

Space Ghost wrote: Are we talking addition? Multiplication? Or something more complicated?

You're talking to the wrong guy, that's probably well within Space Ghost's skillset.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #306675 27 Jan 2020 17:30
Damn sure not in my skillset anymore. Only higher math I know now is ∫(1/cabin) dcabin = log(cabin).
Not Sure's Avatar
Not Sure replied the topic: #306676 27 Jan 2020 18:34
It's a houseboat. Don't forget the "+ C".

(a math dad joke notable for being in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, too)
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #309365 18 Apr 2020 11:48
This is back in stock at Lumenaris' web site, and still getting great reviews from new users stumbling across it. There are two expansions -- Outer Planets and Stations that are each about as pricey as the original game.

I'm not an expansions guy but honestly, this is a family business and the son that made the game isn't seeing eye-to-eye with the rest of them, so one angry phonecall could pull the expansions for good. I'm just trying to decide if they're worth $82 plus $23 shipping. There's a lot of game in the original package and I hate buying because someday I might want it, especially a C-note's worth. That's a bottle of Yellow Spot that I know will get used.
mezike's Avatar
mezike replied the topic: #309373 19 Apr 2020 04:56
If you are going to play solo then Outer Planets is worth it, particularly so if this game is your jam. Pulling off a slingshot to complete the Grand Tour for the first time gives a nice sense of achievement. It’s also good to have some goals that require longer term and more complex planning for the point when building the same old assembly of Juno and Saturn rockets lobbing potatoes at the Moon becomes tiresome. I mentioned it a while back but you can try Outer Planets on TableTop Simulator before you buy.

I never got around to Stations, we moved on from the game by that point so I cancelled my pre-order. It looks like a similar tack to Outer Planets in creating a more complex suite of options to shake up your approach to each game, adding reusable space shuttles and more complex space station building. My teenage son’s interests have skewed back to space travel and the joy of figuring out maths problems so he has started giving me some sly digs for selling it. I might have to re-buy it all again.

A side note on the math. A lot of it comes down to figuring out the optimal build to complete a mission, which is easy to do with simple multiplication tasks but is fairly deterministic so can feel like a dull slog. Once you know some optimal builds it’s much less onerous, but yeah figuring out those builds is very much a big part of the game particularly when you start to think in longer term plans where you scoop up and re-use components that you’ve already paid the cost to put into orbit.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #322662 28 Apr 2021 15:57
Michael Collins just passed away.

I'd imagine most of you don't recognize the name and may not care when you find out, but Michael Collins was the commander of the Command and Service Module on Apollo 11, the first flight to land on the Moon. A living piece of history just passed on to the next world.

For those of you in deep in engineering, I'll recommend the man's book but even more I'll recommend You can listen to the entire Apollo 11 mission, every feed, every loop in ground control and see for yourself how complicated and how pre-planned the Apollo missions were. Listening through is the equivalent of a 700 level course in process engineering. Really excellent material, beautifully realized by an avid amateur that was hired by NASA after they heard the results of his work.

The Command and Service Module commander was the most technically complex of the three slots on the Apollo missions, and I spent one evening sitting in my driveway as I listened ( to the discussion in Mission Control about how Michael Collins needed to visually pick out the Lunar Module on the surface of the Moon so that he could adjust his orbital mechanics to fly directly over it for rendezvous. The Lunar Module didn't have enough fuel for adjustment, Collins had to find them (they landed off course) and had to adjust, while spending about half of each orbit out of radio contact with anyone as he fell behind the shadow of the Moon for the farthest part of his orbit. Talk about having the place to yourself, damn.

Good speed Mr. Collins.
ThirstyMan's Avatar
ThirstyMan replied the topic: #322805 03 May 2021 01:04
IF anyone has a deluxe board for High Frontier I'd be eternally grateful. Paper ripped on mine when I opened the box.

I use it for teaching but it looks a bit messy after repairing.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #328405 01 Dec 2021 09:40
So after a year and a half of more or less no in-person gaming sessions we've started back up and one of the guys in the photo above, bearded guy on the left, specifically asked to play this one.

I'd like to again reiterate that this game sort of has two personalities at once, and you can sort of count three if you hold your mouth right.

The first is the technical aspect, where you need to mind your Ps and Qs and make sure that you cover all of your bases when you go after one of the goals. I went after one of the hard ones this time, "return a sample from Ceres" which is a glorified asteroid between Mars and Jupiter. It's a long way away, and I found myself adding up the mass of all the pieces I was going to need to land something on it, take it back off, and then get it back to Earth. No people involved, so I could do it on the cheap. But even with just a probe there was a need to boost everything out that far, plus bring along another set of rockets to boost the probe and its shovel full of dust back. It became apparent that I needed to learn how to do a rendezvous in space first, because one rocket couldn't carry everything up. I would need to assemble pieces in space. All of these are simple tasks. The game abstracts these down to cards on the table in front of you that you point at and say, "I have my two rockets meet in space" and you can pull the pieces from your two launches together and continue. But it's a matter of figuring out the 21 simple steps that you need to do to go after a hard project like this one. That's the Technical Personality.

There's also a fellowship aspect to the game. You can do more with your money if you trade with the other players, and frankly, since everything is costly you don't mind giving away stuff to get stuff, even for people going after the same goals. It's the kind of game where you want to win, but you still root for the guy next to you because a) you definitely want them to launch because on occasion it's hilarious; and b) you kind of want them to succeed because there's plenty of other things to go after and the game presents a challenge. Watching a win is almost as fun as doing it yourself. So you trade, you check each others' steps to make sure nothing has been overlooked, you gift someone something for nothing but the promise for a similar favor in a later turn. That's the Social Personality.

There's also a historic aspect that I think most people aren't as concerned with. This isn't just a theme, it's a historic sim of a sort. I'm old enough to remember Apollo and there was some really cool shit going on that, frankly, SpaceX and its ilk can't touch. There was a gravity to it that modern marketing BS shellacs over for fear of someone thinking they're stupid. The people voicing current liftoffs sound like unboxing videos instead of engineering liaisons. This was a cool moment in world history, and Leaving Earth taps on that with authority.

I was very glad to get another shot at this, even if I did bury my probe 18 feet deep in dust when I tried to land it on the Moon. Who knew the Moon sucked?
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #328408 01 Dec 2021 10:11
My brother in law brought this by and we didn't get a chance to play it. I thought of your posts about it, I'll ask him to bring it to the next family gathering.
Not Sure's Avatar
Not Sure replied the topic: #328419 01 Dec 2021 18:02
I always forget about this game until this thread pops back up.

This time I just ordered it, maybe I'll get some time with it when my son is home from school over Christmas. He's almost as space-mad as I am.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #328423 01 Dec 2021 18:37
It's been sitting on my shelf for years now as I've only played a single solo session. I really need to force this to the table. Thanks for keeping the fire burning Sag.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #328424 01 Dec 2021 19:46
It’s one of the games that’s been calling out to me. Valor & Victory is also on that list, Merchants of Venus, Bolide, Posthuman.

There’s two kinds of shelf toads — those that call to you, those that never say a word.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #328426 01 Dec 2021 22:31
Croaking vs. non-croaking, obv.