Fly Me to the Moon
I’m not a math guy. This isn’t to say I can’t do math, just that I probably won’t, not voluntarily. If I’m waiting in a long line I might calculate my sales tax in advance, but that’s just because I’d rather not continue standing in a long line. Other than that, I’ll cheerfully cop to being terrible at knowing the odds.
Leaving Earth bills itself as “a tabletop game of the conquest of space,” but that’s a little bit like calling Columbus washing up in the Caribbean “the conquest of the New World.” This isn’t a game of conquest. It’s a game about the first tentative steps of discovery. Probes, surveys, launching a man into orbit, bringing him home. Most of all, though, it’s a game about the grace and sophistication of solving complicated math problems.
Let me give you an example. A simple one, in the grand scheme of the things you might be tasked with accomplishing in Leaving Earth.
You want to put a man on the moon. Don’t worry about bringing him home — we’ll get to that later, even though sending astronauts on suicide missions is a bit of a faux pas in the spacing community. In order to get him into orbit, you start adding up all the things he’ll need to survive the journey. A lander, for one. Maybe some supplies and life support if you plan to leave him up in orbit for longer than a few days. The bare minimum.
With that figured out, you start going through how you plan to move all that weight. All that mass. When you get down to it, Leaving Earth is all about shipping things from one place to another like a trucker with a z-axis. However, the problem you’ll face is immediate and twofold. First up, maybe all you need to propel your little solo spacecraft to the moon are a couple Juno rockets. The light stuff. Then again, as you skim over your rows of numbers, something dawns on you. Maybe you’ve forgotten to take into account the mass of the rockets themselves. Maybe you need to be firing something with a bit more punch — only, the more powerful stuff weighs more, which in turn means additional thrust, which means heavier rockets and more thrust, an infinite regression that makes your head start to hurt. Worse, this brings us to our second part of the problem, because the millions of dollars in federal funding are starting to accrue, all the little costs of what you need to launch into Earth orbit in the first place starting to add up.
Meet the “mass ratio problem,” wherein the fuel that fires your rockets must be factored into every leg of your journey. Want to bring that astronaut home once his landing is complete? You’ll have to drag a rocket or two out to the moon with you, and careful to keep in mind the mass it adds to every leg that precedes its use.
The point is, I’ve done more arithmetic in the last handful of sessions of Leaving Earth than I’ve probably done in the years since I finished my high school calculus credit.
Not that Leaving Earth ever presents you with anything too arcane. You’ll never really be messing around with fractions, for instance, or at least not complicated ones. The toughest act of raw arithmetic is multiplication, where your mass must break out of gravity wells. After that, the trick largely comes down to keeping track of all that mass — all the components that make for a successful mission — from one stage of your voyage to the next. Usually in reverse. It isn’t any surprise that most of your group’s playing time will be spent heads down, everyone bent over their own clipboard, scratching out their course to win the space race.
And make no mistake, this is a race.
For instance, it’s possible that none of those components responsible for getting your astronaut from Florida to the Fra Mauro crater will actually work. It’s even possible that they’ll explode on the launchpad, or that a lander will fail completely and dash into the lunar surface, or that life support will shut down and leave everyone choking, or that a rendezvous between two different spacecraft will result in a disastrous collision. Setbacks are very real in Leaving Earth, and are often expensive and time-consuming to iron out.
A short while ago I reviewed a game where you could optionally test a rocket by paying some money and material, an act as simple as purchasing a card. In Leaving Earth, much of the game is occupied with testing, though in this case the process of debugging your components is keenly tied to the risks you’re willing to take. Whenever you purchase some research — say, an Atlas rocket or a heat shield for atmospheric reentry — you aren’t simply gaining its advantages. You’re gaining a workable theory. Which is why you pick up your new research along with a few face-down outcome cards. From that point on, whenever you make use of that technology, you’ll draw one of those cards, suffer the consequences (if any), and maybe pay some money to get rid of that outcome forever.
Of course, this means that you might spend a lot of time purchasing rockets and hurling them into space, where they’ll uncouple with heat shields and landers that will then drop down through the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s the smart play, and will result in thoroughly debugged systems, the stuff that won’t fail on a long-range mission.
On the other hand, maybe you don’t have time for the smart play. Instead, maybe you’ll launch a mission prematurely and trust that you’ve done enough testing that the chances of failure are remote, or do a bit of extra testing while your spacecraft is hurtling towards Venus four years before anybody else was willing to risk it. If a flaw is exposed while your crew is en route, surely they can fix the issue before arrival.
Just as much as Leaving Earth is about mathematics, it’s about that constant high-wire tension between testing and taking risks. It’s about daring to take a step while everyone else is crawling, even if it means you might stumble onto your face every now and then.
Okay. Remember our theoretical mission to the moon? Even if everything went exactly right — your thrust:mass calculations were spot-on, all those components worked when they needed to — there’s still a chance you might land your astronaut on the moon only to watch as he sinks into a sea of dust.
Part of the thrill of exploration is the joy of discovery, and Leaving Earth knows this intimately. Rather than simply hand you the solar system as we know it now in 2017, after decades of flybys and surveys and even landing a probe on a comet, this is the solar system of 1956. Space is uncharted, mysterious, dark. And many of its limits have yet to be tested. Our star’s radiation might be so invasive that your astronauts will quickly sicken on longer missions, or it might be background noise. Ceres might be a lifeless rock, or it might contain enough water ice that you could restock by landing on its surface. Mars might be a wind-swept husk, or it might conceal seasonal vegetation.
Life. You might discover life. Hell, you might even discover that Shklovsky’s 1958 “Hollow Phobos” theory was right after all, and that the moon is indeed an artificial Martian habitat.
Not that any of that is particularly likely, of course. But that sense of peeling back the inner solar system’s mysteries is one more bullet point in a long list of what makes Leaving Earth so compelling.
Adding to this sense of mystery is the fact that one game’s set of missions will be entirely different from another game’s set. Where one play might pit everyone’s competing agencies in a race to survey as many planets as possible, another might be about setting up permanent stations on the surface of Venus, retrieving samples and returning them to Earth, or even the ill-advised mission to bring alien life back home. Completing early goals like getting a man into orbit or taking a gander at the moon are quickly supplanted by longer and more daring flights, expanding outwards as your capabilities increase.
When all these features are added together, the result is one of the most staggeringly inventive games I’ve played in a very long time. There’s something about the sheer scope of Leaving Earth’s endeavors, its willingness to set a complicated problem on the table and trust that you’ll work through it, and its plucky optimism about the value of failure. It’s noteworthy, for instance, that disastrous system failures are often the desired outcome of a test launch. It’s easier and cheaper to isolate a known problem than an unknown one, after all. In a game about the merits of uncovering the things you don’t know, that’s a bold epistemological statement to be tucked away in the cost of dismissing those pesky outcome cards from your research decks.
Of course, it’s inevitable that Leaving Earth won’t be for everyone, largely for reasons that I’m not all that interested in discussing. It’s a sprawling, complex, multifaceted, and often deliberate sort of beast that often winds up playing with a sort of jerky simultaneousness where everybody keeps peering around their clipboards to ask whether the year has ended so they can collect their next $25 million in federal funding. It can be enormously galling to calculate the mass and thrust of a mission to Venus only to realize that the Morning Star’s atmosphere is dense enough that you don’t need to bother with that lander you’ve been planning on hauling along. Anyone who turns up their nose at the thought of using scratch paper need not apply.
But let’s not dwell on that. Leaving Earth deserves better. Here’s a game that takes giddy delight in the solving of complex questions, the revealing of the unknown, the process of chucking an expensive Saturn rocket into orbit and being relieved that it failed to ignite. For those reasons alone, it’s worth checking out.
Leaving Earth can be a little peculiar to acquire, mostly because its publisher — the Lumenaris Group — features quilting samplers and something cute called a “Midnight Maple Centerpiece.” You can find the website for Leaving Earth over here.