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Subject: We choose to go to Ceres rss

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Steve
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“We choose to go to Ceres in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they earn points.”

Game overview
In the three weeks since Leaving Earth arrived I have played more than ten times. With games lasting from 60 to 150 minutes this game has been a huge success with my main gaming opponents, my two sons aged 11 and 13, as well as being well enjoyed at my local gaming club. Leaving Earth admirably captures the feel of the space race and simulates many aspects of early space exploration very well, while also leaving some areas open for improvement.

Leaving Earth is an alternate history recreation of the space race era covering the twenty one years from 1956 to 1976. Up to five players take on the role of national space agencies competing (and occasionally co-operating) to complete a random selection of possible missions. They do this by researching rocket and space technology and assembling components into spacecraft, then sending them on a range of available courses to attempt to complete missions. An innovative outcomes mechanic requires the players to balance the possibility of failure against the high cost of achieving certain success.

Leaving Earth combines two of my all-time favourite interests: hobby boardgaming which I’ve been interested in since the 1970s, and space exploration which I took seriously enough to study to degree level, twice. I believe I am the target audience for this game. Leaving Earth covers similar ground to Liftoff! (about 70% overlap) and High Frontier (about 25% overlap), both of which are compared at the end of this review.

At the start players have no space technologies or starting components, and 5-9 missions are selected from a large range of possible missions. Missions come in three difficulties: easy (e.g. place a satellite in orbit), medium (e.g. survey Venus) or hard (e.g. Land men on Mars and return them safely to Earth). This selection sets out the aims of this particular play-through and much of the tone of the rest of the game.

Each year the players receive an annual budget of $25 with which to conduct research, giving access to 10 different capabilities (at a cost of $10 each), and to buy components (of varying prices) with which to attempt missions. When a new capability is researched a set of outcome cards (normally three) is drawn and placed unseen on the research card.

With the right components assembled spacecraft can then be launched, research tested and missions attempted. This takes place on a map of the inner solar system constructed by laying out various square cards with location and manoeuvre information on them; if you don’t have any missions involving Mars revealed, you can leave Mars out of the map layout. Some of the map locations are considered “Unexplored” and have multiple copies of the same location. When these are surveyed or entered the owner of the spacecraft can look at the explored side of the location and either reveal it (to gain a survey mission achievement) or keep the information secret. The possible exploration outcomes are based on theories prevalent at the outset of the space race, and allow for such discoveries as extra-terrestrial life, precious minerals, unexpected dangers and even an alien technology artefact.

To launch and manoeuvre a spacecraft the “thrust” of the rocket(s) has to overcome the total mass of the vehicle (including the rocket being used) multiplied by the difficulty of the manoeuvre. This makes mission planning a mathematical exercise, requiring the players to plan in detail ahead of missions, and come up with realistic creative solutions such as rocket staging and leaving boosters and supplies on orbit while small landers collect samples before rendezvousing for the return journey. When a manoeuvre is attempted, an outcome card from the corresponding research is drawn to see how the component performs. Most of these cards are successes, but there are also minor and major failures, which can really spoil your astronaut’s day. When you draw a failure, something bad happens depending on which research that outcome is based on, but you then have the opportunity to pay to make that failure go away permanently for $5. If you choose to keep the failure, or cannot afford to pay it off, it is reshuffled into the appropriate outcomes. You can also buy off success cards for $10, because once you have a single outcome card on an area of research, you can be certain it will work (or fail!) every time.

Being certain of your research’s reliability is especially important in multi-player games, where trading research is a major element of play. A Saturn rocket technology with no outcome cards is way more attractive than one with three outcomes, especially since each Saturn rocket costs $15 (of your annual $25 budget) – you really don’t want those things blowing up.

As soon as a player completes one of the missions they take the mission card and keep it for score at game end. All the other players receive an immediate bonus of $10 as their agencies try to catch up in the space race. Each year the first player is the one with the fewest accumulated points at the start of that year. The game ends and scores are added up when 21 years have been played, or the mission points tally makes a player the unstoppable winner.

Is it any good?
Leaving Earth is great fun for anyone interested in the space race theme. You feel like an agency director, setting priorities, calculating risks, planning mission profiles and feeling a great sense of achievement when completing missions. Even the set of missions feels like a directive from the President: “So why are we ignoring Mars?” – “The President says we have to go to Ceres.”

The outcome cards provide the heart of the game, driving the enjoyable game experience but also leading to anomalous play. At times I found these anomalies pulled me out of the verisimilitude of being a space agency director, but in general I can overlook these to keep on enjoying Leaving Earth. Examples of game play that don’t sit well with the realities of space exploration are:

Components can be re-used and repurposed repeatedly. Often I would buy just one Vostok space capsule and a single astronaut, launching him repeatedly to achieve all the manned missions. There are good game reasons not to do this (astronauts have three different skills, all of which are useful), but oft times there are not many manned mission targets and Yuri Gagarin can achieve them all.

Components can be safely and routinely returned to Earth. One time I launched a two stage rocket and payload. The first stage worked fine, lifting my spacecraft into an orbital trajectory, but the second stage didn’t ignite, so I parachuted the whole assembly safely back to Earth, strapped it onto a newly purchased first stage and launched it again. I doubt anything quite like this has ever happened in reality.

Mission parameters can be changed after launch. We’re a year into our cruise to Mars, oh – the French got there first, so let’s to go to Mercury instead. (My copy included the Mercury expansion, adding Mercury locations and related missions).

Some missions are so valuable as to be critical to winning, and others so small as to be safely ignored. In fact, missions can be actively avoided early in the game in order to preserve a preferable turn order and prevent the $10 bonus payout. One time my youngest son was attempting to establish a manned base on Venus. He sent his manned mission into Venus orbit, only to discover by remote sensing that a manned landing would be impossible. So he calculated the points he needed and worked out that he could abandon Neil, Buzz and Mike in orbit (they survived until the game end but had no means of ever getting back to Earth before their supplies ran out) and repurposed the rest of his spacecraft to collect a sample from Ceres and return it to Earth for the win.

The game is fairly random, in a way that can swing the overall result. The time I played at my local games club, one player had a good lead until his three-failure-outcome Ion Thrusters set him back considerably. I don’t mind this, as a student of space exploration I am happy to accept unforeseeable outcomes, but some gamers will feel the game to be overly swingy.

Space exploration is dangerous, but in Leaving Earth it is possible to make space technologies 100% reliable. Once this is done the game degenerates into a mathematical puzzle, albeit an interesting one.

The game is definitely scaled appropriately. One time I decided to try 20 missions with my two sons, and our three agencies cooperated to attempt to achieve all of the missions. By about half way through the game we had perfected nearly every technology and were able to determine 5 years ahead exactly when we would complete all of the missions.

While I have given a long list of problems here I want to be clear that these are relatively minor and only detract a little from the enjoyment I and my fellow players have had from playing Leaving Earth.

Comparison with Liftoff!
Liftoff covers almost exactly the same scope and scale as Leaving Earth, but in Liftoff you are constrained to “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” All other missions are side-shows with the sole intent of boosting your budget. There are no exploration surprises. But the main differences relate to the technology outcomes and failures. In Liftoff no technology is ever perfect, and failures result in a huge range of outcomes described in detailed tables for each class of component. In Leaving Earth some components and activities never fail – a capsule can never go wrong while flying in Earth orbit, although it can fail during an annual life support check, on re-entry and during rendezvous. While I find the Leaving Earth outcomes mechanic to be very interesting, I find the Liftoff one slightly more plausible, less likely to lead to anomalies and more component efficient (2 dice, rather than a deck of outcome cards). That said, I think the Leaving Earth outcomes are highly innovative and could be improved with some minor tweaks.

Comparison with High Frontier
High Frontier begins about 50 years after Leaving Earth finishes. One of the most interesting technologies in Leaving Earth, the ion thruster is refined and developed into a multitude of low-thrust, high impulse thrusters by the time of High Frontier. Technologies are completely perfected, although there are still risks at certain hazard sites in the High Frontier solar system. The High Frontier map is a superlative work of science and artistry. It renders mankind’s best understanding of the solar system in an open sandbox for all to explore, but that “best understanding” is at odds with Leaving Earth’s alternate reality world (or solar system) view. Also, in Leaving Earth play is not limited by components, being able to have many missions in progress at any time. High Frontier focuses each agency onto a single rocket mission at a time (although freighters and bernals can exist simultaneously). Players who enjoy High Frontier mission planning will enjoy a similar aspect of Leaving Earth, whereas High Frontier leaves players open to find points wherever they like, while Leaving Earth steers the players toward each play’s subset of missions.

Random Rambling
I believe that there is scope for a Leaving Earth / High Frontier mashup. The manoeuvre difficulties from Leaving Earth could be used for launching / landing on planetary objects, while the burns from High Frontier could be used for on-orbit manoeuvres using the thrust calculations from Leaving Earth (time counters being based on number of burns traversed). The Leaving Earth outcomes would need to be able to fail even after three outcomes have been removed (for instance, draw from the outcomes deck and if you get two or three failures in a row, the component fails), until sufficient research has been achieved to attain the High Frontier technologies.

Final Thoughts
Credit is due to the designer, Joseph Fatula, for communicating with people interested in Leaving Earth and posting regularly in these forums. He has been very open, enthusiastic and clear in supporting the game and its community of players. The rulebook is excellent, but there are still questions and clarifications needed on some of the game play and Joseph has been outstandingly helpful.

Overall I am very pleased with Leaving Earth. My two sons keep asking to play and enjoy the mix of open sandbox and mission targets. The mechanisms are refreshingly innovative and highly evocative of the space race. Some minor flaws in simulation accuracy distract slightly from the overall enjoyment and immersion in Leaving Earth but it remains a great game for anyone interested in the space race.

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Excellent review, Steve. More excited every time I read something like this about the game. I am running home after work in an hour or so to see if my copy has arrived yet (any day now!).

Later edit ... it wasn't, but my copy of The Scheldt Campaign was.

Nov 16 ... arrived!!!!
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Dave Daffin
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Great review!

I fell into the trap in my solo game of trying to perfect each technology before performing the scoring missions, and I lost (I.e. I failed to achieve more points in completed missions than in incomplete missions). I just didn't have time (the game 'ends' in 1976) to get a mission to Venus! Perhaps I'm just a bad planner......

I would have liked the astronauts to have had more varied skills, but hey, that's a minor issue in a game where you can get Gus Grissom and Ed White to the moon (and beyond). A awesome game with a superb retro feeling.
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Samuel Hinz
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So eager
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jonathan schleyer
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Fantastic review!

I pre-ordered High Frontier so am thinking that I may just wait for it instead of getting a second space game like Leaving Earth (which would come sooner and address my impatience!) - because, do I really need two in the end?
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Will H.
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I can't tell you how much I love both High Frontier AND Leaving Earth. I would not be able to pick one to replace the other. There is room for both in your game collection.
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Martin McCleary
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I ordered a copy of Leaving Earth many weeks ago and haven't received anything to date. I know they charged my card for it. Is there a delay or backlog or something else going on?

FWIW: I own a copy of High Frontier and it is not an easy game to get in to. The physical layout of the rules is an obstacle all by itself. Also given the fact that they are now going to the 3rd edition of the game doesn't help matters. I ordered LE as a simpler alternative.
 
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Pas L
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This game is terrific!
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Roger BW
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Martin - yes, going by other threads here, they've been hugely oversubscribed and are making more copies as fast as they can. (Lumenaris isn't primarily a games company - it mostly does craft supplies.) You might want to contact Joe (buffalohat on these forums); he's been pretty helpful in sorting out what's going on.
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Dave Daffin
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Rallye72 wrote:
I ordered a copy of Leaving Earth many weeks ago and haven't received anything to date. I know they charged my card for it. Is there a delay or backlog or something else going on?

FWIW: I own a copy of High Frontier and it is not an easy game to get in to. The physical layout of the rules is an obstacle all by itself. Also given the fact that they are now going to the 3rd edition of the game doesn't help matters. I ordered LE as a simpler alternative.
Due to the high interest being generated here on BGG (I guess), they have been inundated with orders and there is a back-log. A four to six-week wait to receive the game is not uncommon, for the reasons Roger has touched on. Lumenaris's customer communications also leaves a lot to be desired - don't expect to receive anything more than an order acknowledgement. Your best bet for checking on progress is through Joe, who is also a Lumenaris employee.

However, it is worth the wait.
 
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Steve Herron
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I saw it can be played solitaire, how well does it play that way?
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Steve
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sherron wrote:
I saw it can be played solitaire, how well does it play that way?
It plays ok solitaire, and you can get quite creative with your objectives. My youngest son and I want to create a solitaire "The Martian" scenario over the next couple of days. If it turns out well I will post it here on the geek.

Another one could be to try to achieve a manned lunar landing by 1969. The in-built solitaire rules require that you complete enough missions to earn half the available points within the 21 years. This is fine but leaves you at the mercy of the mission draw and able to focus on a subset of those missions. For the mathematically minded the fun comes from planning the flights to fulfill those missions.
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I have one solitaire play under my belt, and it was a lot of fun on my own.
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Dave in Ledbury wrote:
Rallye72 wrote:
I ordered a copy of Leaving Earth many weeks ago and haven't received anything to date. I know they charged my card for it. Is there a delay or backlog or something else going on?

FWIW: I own a copy of High Frontier and it is not an easy game to get in to. The physical layout of the rules is an obstacle all by itself. Also given the fact that they are now going to the 3rd edition of the game doesn't help matters. I ordered LE as a simpler alternative.
Due to the high interest being generated here on BGG (I guess), they have been inundated with orders and there is a back-log. A four to six-week wait to receive the game is not uncommon, for the reasons Roger has touched on. Lumenaris's customer communications also leaves a lot to be desired - don't expect to receive anything more than an order acknowledgement. Your best bet for checking on progress is through Joe, who is also a Lumenaris employee.

However, it is worth the wait.
If you are in the US and are receiving the game through USPS then a my.usps account will have the lumenaris package show up once it enters USPS's hands. Basically your mailing address shows up in the tracking and the website populates your account with incoming packages. That's the best we have as consumers right now.
 
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Quote:
Some missions are so valuable as to be critical to winning, and others so small as to be safely ignored. In fact, missions can be actively avoided early in the game in order to preserve a preferable turn order and prevent the $10 bonus payout.
This jumped out at us right away. I was thinking the payout should be variable depending on the difficulty of the mission accomplished. Perhaps $5/$10/$15 payouts for easy/medium/hard.
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Daniel Berger
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Quote:
So he calculated the points he needed and worked out that he could abandon Neil, Buzz and Mike in orbit ...
We hit an issue where people were deliberately sending astronauts on suicide missions to get the points for an objective that didn't require getting the astronaut home. The loss of 2 VP was no problem vs the effort to get him home.

As far as I know there's no rule against this. We were thinking of ruling that you can't land an astronaut without a rocket that can at least get him back into orbit.


 
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Roger BW
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djberg96 wrote:
As far as I know there's no rule against this. We were thinking of ruling that you can't land an astronaut without a rocket that can at least get him back into orbit.
It would always be possible to send a recovery mission later, and if you were doing a "Station" mission that might well be the best way to achieve it.
 
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Joe Fatula
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I've actually seen a successful Man on the Moon mission where they sent an astronaut to the Moon with supplies, but no return rocket. Later, when they had their rockets better developed, they sent the second half of the mission and won.

Anyhow, if people are being too cavalier with their astronauts, I think that would best be fixed by increasing the penalty for losing an astronaut.
 
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Lose an astronaut through accidents, fair enough. Deliberately send them on a mission where they are doomed to die - disqualification. No space agency would survive the public backlash from such a strategy!
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Joe Fatula
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Absolutely -- no space agency should send astronauts deliberately to their death. If I could think of a good way to make that an enforceable rule, I would. As it is, it's usually hard to tell if someone is deliberately letting astronauts die, or if they're just not planning/testing well enough.

In the end, though, I think the deterrent is still the same. No one wants astronauts to get killed in space, but in a race, space is never entirely safe.
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David Dockter
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Very good review. Looks like the club is planning to play this one soon.
 
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Donald Cleary
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djberg96 wrote:

As far as I know there's no rule against this. We were thinking of ruling that you can't land an astronaut without a rocket that can at least get him back into orbit.
Orbit is just as fatal as any other location except Earth's surface.
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Daniel Berger
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BigD145 wrote:
djberg96 wrote:

As far as I know there's no rule against this. We were thinking of ruling that you can't land an astronaut without a rocket that can at least get him back into orbit.
Orbit is just as fatal as any other location except Earth's surface.
Right, it's too hard to gauge intent. So, I altered the approach in my variants thread so that if an astronaut is lost for any reason, you lose half the VP of the mission.

For people trying to game the clock, your astronaut has to be on Earth on in Earth Orbit by the end of the game, or you get half the VP of the mission.
 
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Roger BW
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djberg96 wrote:
BigD145 wrote:
djberg96 wrote:

As far as I know there's no rule against this. We were thinking of ruling that you can't land an astronaut without a rocket that can at least get him back into orbit.
Orbit is just as fatal as any other location except Earth's surface.
Right, it's too hard to gauge intent. So, I altered the approach in my variants thread so that if an astronaut is lost for any reason, you lose half the VP of the mission.

For people trying to game the clock, your astronaut has to be on Earth on in Earth Orbit by the end of the game, or you get half the VP of the mission.
How about: you get half the VP of a manned mission when the card objective is achieved, and the other half when all the astronauts involved in it are back on Earth?
 
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Steve
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I appreciate the active discussion on possible game variants and house rules, and would like to take this opportunity to interject that as a (my OP) review thread this discussion lends weight to the assertion that the game has a few anomalies.

This begs the question whether this is first and foremost a game or a thematic simulation. In my opinion Leaving Earth is successful as a game, but has some shortcomings as a simulation.

I find it interesting to see just how much interest there is in the community of players to "improve" the game. I already referenced the similarities with High Frontier; that is one game where there is an active community of contributors and play testers who "mod" the almost "open source" game over time. The foundation of Leaving Earth provides a strong platform on which to build and I hope that Joe is interested to keep the community involved and contributing in the future. I'll be looking out for Living Rules v2 before too long.

It feels like Leaving Earth wasn't so much finished as released into the wild to either thrive or perish on its merits, and also to evolve over time.
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