Hello and welcome to another Brian's Battery review, this time for one of my favorite new games#Leaving Earth with#Leaving Earth: Outer Planets expansion.
I will start as always with a brief overview of how the game works and then launch into the review portion.
But before I do that I'd like to tell two stories.
The year is 1972. All of Planet Earth watches and holds their breath as the Ceres lander makes it's final approach. "2 kilometers and closing...prepare for the landing burn." pilot Neil Armstrong says over the intercom to scientist Sally Ride. "Copy. Secured for landing". The Ceres lander resembles the Eagle LEM used to land astronauts on the moon in a different timeline. "I'm getting green across the board on the booster. Landing burn successful." Back on Earth everyone breatheda sigh of relief. The Atlas booster used for the landing burn was relatively proven technology but stranger things have happened. Only one major hurdle left - landing.
"On target for landing. Everything tracking. Telemetry tracking great. Uh... what's that... Getting an anomaly in the landing controls. Sally, can you check?"
"Copy Neil, I see that too..."
"Looks like a major failure in the landing system! Attempting to abort! We aren't gonna...."
The Ceres lander smashed into the surface of the dwarf planet. All hands were lost. Later analysis from NASA showed that the untested landing system caused a major failure and the resulting crash killed both astronauts. The hopes and dreams of NASA were crushed by the failure and the agency wasn't able to recover.
The year is 1963. NASA's high tech MESSENGER probe, an unmanned probe, is about to land on the planet Mercury with the intention of bringing a sample back to Earth. Years of intense effort and testing have come to these critical moments. Due to the distance and time lag, mission control can only watch and hold their breath as the probe carries out its programmed instructions.
We have confirmation of successful Atlas booster burn. Landing burn completed. All systems nominal.
This was expected. The Atlas rockets have been tested and retested and are currently the most reliable rocket in NASA's inventory.
Landing cycle has started. Telemetry looks good.
We have confirmation of a successful landing!
Applause erupts around the control room. Landing systems were not at all proven.
Sample collection complete. Launch window is open to return to orbit.
Once again the Atlas rocket performs nominally and the probe has a successful orbital insertion. Next comes the most difficult hurdle yet - a rendezvous with the orbital spacecraft which will fly the probe back to Earth.
Probe on approach with spacecraft. Distance closing... it's closing too fast - probe attempting to compensate...
The probe has over corrected... that's a minor collision with one of the ion thrusters...
...Probe looks to be intact... three of four ion thrusters operational on the spacecraft... the fourth isn't responding.
Probe resetting for another rendezvous attempt. Telemetry looking good, systems nominal.
And we have confirmed rendezvous! Remaining ion thursters firing... Probe and sample on their flight back to Earth!
Later analysis would show that the completely untested rendezvous technology had a minor failure in a sensor leading to the damaged thruster and failed rendezvous attempt. It's fortunate that the spacecraft was still able mount a second attempt and that the remaining thrusters were sufficient to break Mercury orbit.
The returned sample from Mercury was a great boon to the space program and increased the operational budget by $50 million for the next calendar year, leading to funding of an advanced probe to explore the moons of Jupiter.
The game#Leaving Earth is a 1-5 player game about the space race and exploring our solar system.
At its core this game is a race against time to complete missions while you balance the risk and rewards of your attempts. Do you go for broke and launch now with an unproven rocket and technology? Or do you try to play it slow and test more components first? Managing these risks is the core part of the game.
What risks you need to take are determined by what missions are available. Each game you take a number of easy, medium, hard, and (with the expansion) outer planet missions. The game book tells you how many of each for each difficulty level.
For solo games you are encouraged to try Hard or Very Hard difficulty. To win the solo game you need to complete 51% of the points available from missions before the end of the game.
If attempting and completing missions and managing risk tells you the "why" of the game, planning out your missions tells you the "how" of the game.
And this is where the game gets really interesting. Calculating what thrust you'll need where and when and what payload you'll be bringing is a challenging and satisfying brain puzzle with any number of possible solutions.
Some solutions are more elegant than others. Some can be completed by brute force while others need to use a slingshot maneuver or aero braking to successfully reach the destination.
Each maneuver you attempt to do has a difficulty rating. In order to calculate how much thrust you'll need to complete a given maneuver you'll need to multiply the difficulty of a maneuver by the mass of your rocket. The mass of your rocket includes both the payload and the mass of the booster itself - so the best solution isn't always to bring more rockets as that will make your spacecraft mass increase exponentially.
Doing these maneuver calculations for each step of your journey is critical to planning a successful mission. And coming up with the best solutions for each mission is a big part of the fun.
But planning perfect missions is only half of the battle. The other half is actually having technology that works in order to accomplish your goals.
In order to get new a technology you'll need to research them. It costs $10 million to research a new technological advancement. When a new advancement is acquired it comes with 1-5 outcome cards. (Most have 3 outcomes). These outcomes are Success, Minor Failure, or Major Failure.
The only way to clear out these outcomes and guarantee success every time is to test your technology. Failures cost $5 million to remove and successful outcomes cost $10 million to remove. Once you have cleared all possible outcomes then the technology will work without fail.
However - testing components costs time and money. With a fixed budget of $25 million per year you can't afford to spend year after year testing and retesting. In order to meet your goals you might just have to go for it and hope for the best.
And that's really all there is to understand about what you do to play this game. From one viewpoint it's actually not that complicated. The complexity and depth in this game comes from managing the randomized elements, meeting the time constraints, and planning effective and efficient missions.
Now let's head into the review:
The theme of this game is absolutely incredible. Being able to tell stories like the two I shared at the beginning of the review is amazing - and those stories happen multiple times per game. You can plan the perfect mission but then you have to go and fly that mission. The tension builds as you rely on an untested technology and hope the entire mission doesn't fail because your rendezvous damages an essential component. Or maybe your rocket explodes on launch and you don't even get to leave Earth. This game has an incredible theme and the mechanics are woven so tightly into it.
The art in this game is understated but so incredible and evocative of the theme. It's subtle and subdued and fits with the 1950s theme but it's also really effective. It perfectly captures the feel of the game. The font, the color scheme, everything ties together into one amazing package.
This game is literally hand crafted. It's not made by a big publisher somewhere and you can really feel the care and effort that goes into producing this game. The cards aren't fancy linen finished FFG quality but they feel weighty and thick. The wooden spacecraft bits are simple but effective. The paper money is a nice touch. The advancement cards are coated or laminated or something and they just feel nice to hold.
At first glance the rule book is nothing fancy. It's not glossy. It has a limited amount of illustrations. Its just a text document folded into a book. But wow it is incredibly effective. Straightforward and actually fun to read. And clear and unambiguous too - it teaches you the game and then sets you loose into the solar system. I've actually gone back just to read portions of it again. Maybe it's because I'm such a nerd for this theme but I have fun just sitting and reading it. Well done!
In case you can't tell I have so much fun playing this game. It's the kind of game that you think about even when you aren't playing it. Trying to solve a problem like how to get a certain payload to Callisto in the most efficient way really gets my brain churning. Do you use one big rocket? Or launch several small vehicles and then attempt to rendezvous? It's so awesome planning it out ... and then trying it out in practice to see how it turns out. The thrill of those outcomes cards. The pain when something explodes. The sadness when your astronauts die. The joy when you succeed and everything goes according to plan.
The amount of variation in this game is incredible. Each major location has 3-4 different cards that are randomized at each setup. Maybe there is extraterrestrial life on the Moon. Maybe the dust on the moon is so horrible that it's impossible for ships to land there. Maybe the moon has... nothing at all. And that is just at one location. And reaching the outer planets feels like such a huge accomplishment. The first time I got a probe to Jupiter felt incredible. And then exploring the outer solar system feels so alien and dangerous. So many factors can change from game to game.
Solo play (+++):
This isn't a traditional solo game. It isn't a beat your own score and it isn't against an AI opponent. Instead you are simply trying to accomplish the same goals you would if you were playing against a human opponent- except that you are racing against time in an effort to do enough to win. It's an incredibly satisfying challenge. The solo experience is incredible and I wonder if adding other players would make it worse. It might be fun to watch others to see if their missions fail or succeed- and there is a chance for multiple players to cooperate. But it could take time watching others plan their missions... Enough speculation. It's a great solo game.
Table space (+/-):
This game is a big boy. For coming in such a small package it really does take over the entire table. Seeing the solar system spread out like that is incredible and awesome but also a bit cumbersome. I've been able to manage ok but it's definitely something to consider.
This game isn't for everyone. If the prospect of calculating thrust to mass and maneuver planning doesn't excite you, I'd probably stay away. If you are a huge space nerd and that does excite you - what are you waiting for? This game is great.
This game is everything I'd hoped it would be. Challenging. Engaging. Beautiful. Deadly. The complexity and depth come not from a million tiny rules or 300 components but from planning and luck and mitigation of luck. Risk and reward. Foresight and epic failures. This game is an instant classic for me.
An astounding accomplishment.