What Spring Is Like on Jupiter and Mars
I’m a huge fan of Joseph Fatula’s Leaving Earth and its expansion Outer Planets. They’re messy in some ways, but that’s precisely why I like them — much like actual space exploration, they’re a cross between careful preparation and outrageous risk-taking, between brute-forcing the math and forgetting to take a heat shield on your trip to Venus. Back to the drawing board you go, again and again, until you get it right. Or somewhere closer to right than you were before, anyway.
Leaving Earth’s second expansion, Stations, feels like a microcosm of the whole thing, and not just because it’s all about adding a ton of extra depth to the exploration of the inner planets. Rather, in between offering new toys, new objectives, and new wonders to uncover, it still can’t seem to shrug off its former messiness, and even seems insistent on adding a few new problems.
First of all, the good. Because seriously, the good is good.
The central delight of Leaving Earth has always been the way it mixes the known with the unknown. What I mean is that we know what’s up there, at least generally. You’ve got Mercury, Venus, our own Moon, and Mars. Beyond that, things get a little muddier, but we’ve got the broad model sketched out. My Very Educated Mother, and so forth. Just because you’re exploring the unknown doesn’t mean you don’t have a target. Space exploration has often been compared to the Age of Discovery, but at least in space you can see past the horizon.
Phobos will always be there, is what I’m saying. Whether it’s a boring lump of rock or a hollowed-out alien installation, on the other hand, is what Leaving Earth left up to chance. Are there samples to be taken on the Moon, or is it an ocean of dust that will swallow up anything attempting to land on it? Is there life on Mars? Can you survive Venus’s crushing atmosphere? These are the questions that can’t be answered until you get someone crazy enough to strap themselves to a rocket, brave cosmic radiation and muscle atrophy and food that comes in toothpaste squeezers, and set foot onto alien soil. Or drown in it.
Leaving Earth: Stations represents one giant leap for mankind in that regard. Instead of arriving at a planet and revealing everything it has to offer, exploration is now more gradual thanks to the addition of feature cards.
Here’s a little bit of what I mean. Let’s say you land on the Moon and don’t find yourself neck-deep in lunar dust. The card you flip won’t announce much, just the number of features you now get to draw. Of course, you don’t get to reveal them all at once. Exploring something so large can take a long time, even decades, so it’s beneficial to invest in one of the new reusable rovers or maybe send a pilot who can maneuver around the surface a bit.
The point is, where discovering a planet in Leaving Earth used to mean it was more or less finished, no reason to visit again unless another objective brought you back, now the steady trickle of feature cards might reveal all sorts of things. Even our tiny Moon might offer underground radon seepage, meteorites with high palladium content, caverns that can easily be transformed into a sustainable habitat, or surprise oceans of dust. And that’s just the Moon. I won’t say what you might find on Mars or Venus or elsewhere, since that’s much of what makes Stations so special, but new sources of funding, colonization, or even points can be uncovered, making it more possible than ever to stick around a little longer in each location.
It’s a huge addition, and an excellent one to boot. Only the inner planets are expanded, so there’s no fleeing from ice monsters on Europa, but it — and the new missions that drive your expansion — give the inner planets a whole lot more to do alongside fiddling with the launch windows and years-long probe missions of the outer solar system.
Unfortunately, a lot of Stations’ other additions aren’t quite as enthralling.
The best of the new techs are the ones that deal with the expansion’s central focus, enabling the exploration of all those inner planets. Habitats in both space and on planetary surfaces cancel out radiation danger and make living far easier for astronauts, even though supplies are now broken into medical, food, and spare parts. It’s a nice distinction, and means that missions can no longer rely on generic “stuff” to survive, and there are even options like hydroponics and fuel generator modules to keep yourself topped off in the most inhospitable of regions. A habitat with everything running can be left to its own devices practically indefinitely.
Meanwhile, the space shuttle is the central new form of propulsion, and is such a fantastic deal that it overshadows many of Leaving Earth’s previous rocket models. All it needs to blast off is fuel pods, which themselves are relatively inexpensive. And if you’re too stingy to buy those, you can rely on Daedalus rockets and fuel generators for practically nothing.
With so many cool options, you might be wondering what my beef is. Put simply, many of them are too good. The space shuttle practically obsoletes other rockets before they’re even invented, robbing the player of any reason to research them at all. Meanwhile, while it represents a considerable investment of time, research, and money to get a working station in place, they’re almost boring once they’ve been installed, churning out everything a growing astronaut needs other than love. There are some Space Madness rules in place, in which an astronaut might go nutso under certain conditions and a poor roll. Very cool — except, again, the conditions that might trigger it are far too easily sidestepped thanks to shuttles and habitats.
It’s hard to avoid envisioning a version of Stations where the habitats were as fickle and prone to breakage as everything else in the game. Maybe they could suffer wear and tear, or hydroponics bays could catch blight, or fuel generators could explode, or a habitat could break so direly that you only have a short window to get it a bunch of spare parts. They could have been another instance of potential drama, or even points — getting a stranded astronaut home seemed to work out for The Martian. Perhaps such theatrics run counter to what Leaving Earth is trying to accomplish, but it would be better than nearly forgetting you have four dudes living in their own recycled filth on Mars.
On the other end of the usefulness spectrum squats Joint Venture Agencies. In theory, these exist so that multiple players can pool their resources and divide the rewards based on how many stock shares they own. In practice, you’re forced to invest in a Joint Venture if you want to swap tech or loans with friendly players, but then they contribute about as much as a counterfeit moon rock. The problem is that its stock-holding minigame isn’t any fun. You can buy and sell shares, but they’re only worth something if the agency has accomplished something in the past, and that’s precisely when you should want to hold onto a share. Tesla vs. Edison’s game of manipulating companies through their stock prices, this is most certainly not.
As I wrote at the beginning of this review, Stations is messy, even a bit more so than its predecessors. It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing if it weren’t for the way it transforms exploration from one-and-done to a lifelong process of peeling back a planet’s layers. In fact, I enjoy planetary features so completely that I’d argue they make the whole package worthwhile just on their own, and the habitats aren’t bad, just not as dynamic as I would have liked. I can handle too-clean space stations and ultra-efficient hydroponics bays if it means I’m able to discover [REDACTED] on Venus.
Fans of Leaving Earth will likely know where they stand. Either you want more or you don’t. Where Outer Planets drew the focus farther outward, Stations points its telescope at the ground, and to tremendous effect — most of the time.