Jeroen Vandersteen is a newcomer to game design, with Lift Off, his first published game, having debuted from German publisher Hans im Glück at SPIEL '18 in October. (An English version of the design is due out from Z-Man Games at some point in 2019.)
Given the setting of the game, with each player controlling a space agency in the 1950s and 1960s when the space race was in full swing, perhaps it won't be surprising to learn that Vandersteen is an aerospace engineer at the European Space Agency who has been to Mars!
Or who has been in a Mars simulator. One of those.
Lift Off is an archetypal Hans im Glück design as players start with money, a few tools, and secret long-term goals via endgame point cards, then build up from there. Your actions in the game feel like they're taking place independently of the opponents, yet you're actually affecting one another constantly via the draft for specialists at the start of each round. You draft a hand of three specialists, with each specialist providing either a one-time bonus of money or points or a modification bonus of what you'll do later in the round; in addition, each specialist has one or two abilities on them, and these abilities are crucial for:
• Upgrading your laboratory (so that you can launch missions of levels higher than 1), • Acquiring technology (again, so that you can launch higher-level missions), • Improving your rocket (so that you can carry missions that weigh more than 1 ton or lower the cost of launches), • Investing in the international space station (for points and a boost to your income or bio-food supply), or • Scoring points for missions already launched (which also nets you money).
So much space required for space exploration!
You want to do it all, and of course you can't. You play only two of those specialists each round, holding the third for the subsequent round, which gives you some ability to plan for future growth, although your plans might change once you're dealt two new specialist cards at the start of that next round.
As you launch missions into space — scoring points both for the rocket launch itself and for the mission(s) launched — you gain other improvements or an endgame scoring goal that you can add to your "to do" list: maximize my income, for example, or collect tons of fuel technology. To pull down the big points, you need to launch level 3 and 4 missions, but to do that you need to upgrade tech, advance your laboratory, and build bigger rockets that can carry more weight — and all of that takes money, which in a nod to realism (at least in regard to the U.S. space agency) is hard to come by on a regular basis. You're constantly weighing options and changing course because you don't have the funds to do everything, a common game design element that produces a crushing, yet expected tension to everything about the game.