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I was first intrigued by Leaving Earth’s math. I wondered where the fun could be. So I ordered it.

Please bear in mind that this this review is written from a solo perspective. I believe the multiplayer gameplay to be more race-y (depending on the other players’ progress, you might need to take more risks, and the strategy of locking in as many low-risk low-reward missions as possible also looks much more attractive) and opportunistic (adjusting your goals on-the-fly depending on what other players reveal, cooperating with other players to acquire technologies).

Beyond the equations

Which rockets do I need to bring a Moon sample back on Earth ? What do I need to set up a station on Venus ?

Solving a trip is pretty straightforward and is cleanly illustrated in the rulebook. You just need to solve the trip backward.


For the “bring a Moon sample to Earth” mission, you’d need, as a last step, to carry the sample from Earth Orbit to Earth. This step doesn’t require any rocket. Gravity takes care of everything (hence the highlighted maneuver difficulty of 0).



But to get to Earth Orbit, you’d need to break from Lunar Orbit. Given the maneuver a difficulty of 3 and the fact that the Moon Sample has a mass of 1, you calculate that you could use 3 Juno rockets (each Juno rocket contributes for 1/3 of the payload when the maneuver difficulty is 3). But these Juno rockets each have a mass of 1 too, which will need to be accounted for when you calculate what to send into space.


But such equation solving doesn’t represent the gameplay, by any stretch. In fact, familiarity with the game should make the equation and path solving pretty automatic.


If the Venus sample mission pops up, I already know a recipe by heart : get 4 Soyuz rockets into Earth Orbit, together with 2 Ion Thrusters and 1 probe. 2 of those Soyuz rockets are used to (1) send into Inner Planet Transfer (takes 1 year), then (2) a 3rd Soyuz is used to move into Venus Orbit (takes 1 year). The landing (3) is automatic. Collect the Venus sample using the probe, then use the last remaining Soyuz rocket to launch the sample and the Ion Thrusters into Venus Orbit (4). From this point on, the Ion Thrusters take over for the rest of the trip (contrary to rockets, Ion Thrusters are not discarded after use). I usually try to discard the probe using Spacecraft Separation, so the mass to get back to Earth is now 3 (2 Ion Thrusters + 1 sample). It takes 2 years for the Ion Thrusters to get this mass of 3 to Inner Planets Transfer (5), then 2 more to reach Earth Orbit (6). The whole roundtrip totals 6 years (to relate to the game’s 20-year duration).


Revealing the gaming potential of the Solar system

Just by contrasting a Venus mission to, say, a Moon mission, one realizes how the game almost effortlessly uses the Solar system as a source of varied gameplay.


Qualitatively, Venus is easy to land on and doesn’t require any propulsion (maneuver difficulty of 0), but hard to get off of (maneuver difficulty of 6), hence the need for 1 Soyuz rocket on the surface to get a sample off. Venus also has atmosphere (cloud icon), requiring the re-entry advancement for manned missions.


By contrast, the Moon needs rockets to get both on and off the Moon surface. But the difficulty is low enough that this can be accomplished with the smaller Juno rockets.

The difference is qualitative, in the sense that you can’t just use the same types of technology, even in terms of rockets. No matter how many Juno rockets you fire, 10 or 1000, they can’t be used to launch a Venus-grounded spacecraft into Orbit.


On a player’s Space Agency card, the Max Payload Mass chart indicates the max payload a rocket can move for a given maneuver difficulty. For a difficulty of 6 (e.g., from Venus to Venus Orbit), Juno rockets cannot be used to move anything, because their thrusting power cannot overcome their own mass. But for Moon maneuvers, they are very useful. 1 Juno rocket, for a negligible cost, can be used to launch a Moon sample into Moon Orbit (difficulty of 2).


The budget limits of reliability. Testing as a game in itself.

Quote:
I wondered where the fun could be.


The answer was the risk management. There are unknown risks associated with every aspect of space travelling, from firing a rocket to landing, to keeping an astronaut alive in space. But like a scientist operating in the field, you can test them and take informed decisions based on the test statistics. You can even gradually improve a technology to the point where it becomes risk-free. If you’re willing to pay the cost.


Each technology (also called an Advancement) comes with 3 random outcome cards. Every time you use the technology, for whatever purpose, you draw one, then reshuffle it back. But in this game, testing is linked to improvement, in that you can pay the cost to remove any drawn outcome card from the game (5 million $ for a failure, 10 million $ for a success). No outcome card or only 1 outcome card known to be a success means automatic success.


But testing implies doing the real thing, you can’t just simulate. If you want to test a rocket technology, you need to buy a rocket and launch it. If you need to test atmospheric entry, you need to send a capsule into orbit and try to land it. This takes time and money, so that the route-planning strategies cannot be successful without testing strategies.


My opening gambit is usually to have the Juno rocket and Landing advancements, and 5 Juno rockets by turn 2. Then I will spend these 5 Juno rockets to test both advancements. Here a successful rocket launch into Suborbital Flight is followed by a landing test. If the rocket launch fails, I only lose the rocket (only 1 million $) and the opportunity for a subsequent landing test. In fact, I usually want these early tests to fail, because then, I can pay to get them out of the way definitely. If the test keeps being successful, then I can never know if it’s just pure luck, unless I also pay to remove successful outcomes.


Mission progression overlap with testing

Testing bigger rockets such as the Saturn rocket is a harder decision, as each rocket is now worth 15 million $ (about 2 thirds of the yearly budget). For what it costs, you surely want to maximize the reward-to-risk to ratio.

That’s where piggybacking comes in. The rockets being tested can transport cargo. You don’t want it to be too valuable in case of a major failure (in which case the whole spacecraft blows up), but if the test succeeds, then you have made progress “on the side.”


If there’s a Moon mission, I like to fill out the spacecraft with Juno rockets while testing Soyuz rockets. One Soyuz rocket is used to put the other Soyuz rocket and cargo into Suborbital Flight. Then the other Soyuz rocket is fired to get the stuff to Earth Orbit. If any one Soyuz rocket fails, I lose at most 1 Soyuz rocket and the cheaper rockets. If the test is successful, then it’s less mass to move off Earth later.


Ion thrusters are other great candidates to put into orbit as soon as possible, since they only weigh 1, and can fit about anywhere. Once they’re out in space, they can be tested by firing them individually (the spacecraft stays in place if the thrusting power is not enough to complete a maneuver) at the start of every year, when the money is available. If they fail, then you can pay to remove the failure, and you can later send astronauts to repair them. If not, you can now spend the money elsewhere with an improved confidence in your Ion Thrusters.

Piggybacking mission progression on top of testing brings up the notion that staging is not a term that only applies to rockets. It also applies to mission planning. By layering the shipping of components into space while testing, to be later assembled using the Rendezvous action, it nicely illustrates how the concept of orbits can apply to mission planning with testing/budgeting constraints.


Cargo sent into space by earlier test launches are waiting to be picked up by other spacecrafts.



When not orbiting, an idle spacecraft will just drift away in space. This is indicated by the automatic maneuver symbol (!) preceded by “Lost.”


Just-in-time testing

Testing, like planning, is usually seen as happening before doing the real thing. But it doesn’t always have to be a strict temporal relation. For example, in the case of manned missions requiring atmospheric entry (to Mars or Venus), testing and improving atmospheric entry is quite costly, because it involves sending capsules into orbit first. Instead, one could launch the actual long flight prior to the testing. Atmospheric entry testing can be performed just before the real landing attempt is made.


The flight to Venus takes at least 2 years. It provides a window for gathering the funds for a testing campaign. When I draw missions requiring atmospheric entry, capsules can be a part of my earlier mock launchings, but I usually don’t have the funds to improve the re-entry advancement, as most funds were sunk into the preparations for the real expeditions. Instead, I delay the testing until the expeditions are launched. Then I usually have the money to pay for testing and improvements. Here I had a spacecraft set up at the beginning of the year with 3 empty Vostok capsules ready to be tested, while another was carrying occupied capsules to Venus. It should be noted that the 25 million $ yearly allowance is actually the exact amount needed to perfect any single Advancement (provided you have everything set up for 3 tests). The worst case scenario would be to pay 10 million $ to remove 2 successful outcome cards drawn in a row, then 5 million $ to remove 1 failed outcome card.


Beyond the game : a great educational tool

Leaving Earth is definitely a great game to teach, and a great educational tool. While planning your trips, you actually go through quite a bit of knowledge about space travelling in the Solar system, whether it’s the concepts of gravity and orbit, or the individual characteristics of planets and satellites. The principles of testing and their relation to budgeting and risk, as well as the concept of proving that a technology works as opposed to believing in it (having to actually pay to remove successful outcomes at twice the price for removing failed ones, is indeed brilliant), would make Karl Popper proud. It reiterates the fundamental scientific principle that no matter how many times an experiment succeeds, there is no reason to believe it won’t fail unexpectedly as long as the player can only rely on less-than-perfect information.

On a final note, I would especially recommend the game to any astronaut wannabe, for what I took away is that space agencies will cut costs, and that astronaut life, especially when there is little incentive for bringing the astronaut back, is the least of their concerns. And, well, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the game also got it right in this aspect of space agency management…


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For more Advanced Gameplay Reviews, check out this geeklist : Advanced Gameplay Reviews
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Joel Carr
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Excellent review. It is a thinky game... and I love it.... Wish there was a neoprene mat for the "game board" with outlines in locations to put the randomized location cards as I very much enjoy the art... (that and we keep bumping the table and our inner planet jostle about.. too much brownian motion )
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David Griffin
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B Wumpus wrote:
Excellent review. It is a thinky game... and I love it.... Wish there was a neoprene mat for the "game board" with outlines in locations to put the randomized location cards as I very much enjoy the art... (that and we keep bumping the table and our inner planet jostle about.. too much brownian motion )


Yes, it would be a "big" board but I like the idea. You could probably pay someone to create a "starmat" for you. I've heard of people doing mats for XWing and STAW by finding a star image and getting it printed to the neoprene mat. You might be able to do that for this game if you stitched scans of the tiles all together.
 
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Len K
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carbon_dragon wrote:
B Wumpus wrote:
Excellent review. It is a thinky game... and I love it.... Wish there was a neoprene mat for the "game board" with outlines in locations to put the randomized location cards as I very much enjoy the art... (that and we keep bumping the table and our inner planet jostle about.. too much brownian motion )


Yes, it would be a "big" board but I like the idea. You could probably pay someone to create a "starmat" for you. I've heard of people doing mats for XWing and STAW by finding a star image and getting it printed to the neoprene mat. You might be able to do that for this game if you stitched scans of the tiles all together.

The file already exists here. It's 57x83cm (23x33in).

There are websites like inkedgaming.com that will make you a neoprene one (I've used them for other mats), or you could just print at Staples on various types of paper.
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Lauren
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Nice write-up. I like reading how others figure out missions.

So it looks like you can’t stage supplies in IPT without them being lost? That changes my standard Venus plans (that so far have never worked out...).
 
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strudel07 wrote:
Nice write-up. I like reading how others figure out missions.

So it looks like you can’t stage supplies in IPT without them being lost? That changes my standard Venus plans (that so far have never worked out...).


Venus sample return missions are annoying. I do better with the Venus space station ones. No guarantee regarding the astronauts’ life though...
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