REVIEW: Leaving Earth

Designer: Joseph Fatula, 2015
Publisher: The Lumenaris Group, Inc.
1-5 players, 60-180mins
Price: £35-50 (approx)

Any game that comes with a 56+ page rulebook and needs to include a 5-page introduction to the basics of Rocketry (or rather, how these basics relate to the mechanics within the game) might well be asking for trouble in a modern boardgaming environment, and if I told you that a friend of mine once said, and I quote, “I think I’d rather stab my own eyes out with a fork than sit through another game of  Leaving Earth” (and he seemed to mean it) — well, you may just be wondering where the appeal in this game might be…

Leaving Earth is certainly not the easiest game to learn, and it’s not a game you can pick up and play when you’ve got a spare hour or so, either. At least not until you know the game inside and out, backwards and forwards, etc. and even then you might need at least 90 mins or so!  This game is relatively complex, and needs a fair slice of basic mathematical knowledge to get the best out of it – yes, I did say, Mathematics: Leaving Earth will take you back to school and make you feel like you’ve got Math homework to do with every turn!

In the game (which you can play Solo incidentally – a godsend for those struggling to find other players), each player takes on the role of a ‘fictional’ Space Agency (either the Chinese SAC, the French CNES, the Japanese ISAS, the Russian ОКБ-1 or America’s NASA) and is tasked with the job of being first to complete a selection of missions randomly determined from a deck of easy, medium and hard mission cards – how many and what type you start the game with depends on whether you want to play an Easy, Normal, Hard, or Very Hard game. Each mission has the details of what needs to be done, and how many points that mission is worth, and basically whichever Agency has the most points after 20 turns is declared the winner. Once a mission card is claimed, no other players can claim it, so it is indeed a space race of sorts.

The game starts in the year 1956, and each turn represents a full year of activities, culminating at the end of 1976. These dates are important because the style of the cards and the graphics are relatively simplistic, but they are reminiscent of the time, and actually look rather neat, I think…

A pretty game, to be sure!

Turns are quite involved, and your choices are many, but interestingly, you only get $25 at the start of each turn (I assume it represents $25m), and any money you had from a previous turn is not carried over, which forces players to try and make the best use of their funds every time. This does also make things very difficult initially, and can lead to a ‘slow-build’ which drags the start of the game down significantly: you have to buy the various components needed to assemble your spacecraft, pay to research them, and cope with a lot of failures initially, and that’s before you even try to actually do the fun stuff like launching spacecraft and astronauts into space, etc.

And in truth, that is where I believe a lot of the fun –and satisfaction– can be found if you choose to invest time into this game. Evidently, many people do just that, because not only are there a number of expansions available encompassing things like the Outer Planets, Space Stations, etc. but there’s a lot of fan-made material readily available for download from the BGG ‘files’ page for this game, too: Leaving Earth Fan Stuff.

So, having established that Leaving Earth already has a legion of die-hard fans, and a questionable approach to what gaming entails (a decent knowledge of basic math is essential to play this, it really is), why should you play it?

A fair question.

For me, the fun can be had from having to overcome the various barriers required to successfully complete a mission, and the sense of satisfaction you get from pulling these off is truly exceptional: it’s like a series of puzzles with a slight element of randomness thrown in (and even this can be taken out if you test and research your equipment thoroughly).

Imagine playing a series of Exit games in a row, and the sense of achievement you’d get from completing them all correctly, and this is what it feels like when you successfully recover a sample from the Moon or Mercury, for example. Complete multiple missions, and you will genuinely feel a glow in your heart!  Granted, this game isn’t easy to get to grips with, and it can be so frustrating if your calculations are a bit off, or an essential piece of equipment fails at the wrong time, etc. but this is all part of the game, frankly.

As well as researching components, building spacecraft, launching them, manoeuvring in space, surveying and collecting stuff from the moon, etc. you also need to overcome potential barriers presented by the places you’re visiting (radiation, etc) and in many cases you won’t know what these barriers are until somebody has invested the time and money to try and visit that particular place and found out the hard way what hazards (if any) need to be overcome.

Leaving Earth can also be played co-operatively as a team game. Within the boundaries of the normal rules, there is room to co-operate with other player Agencies, but the game can just as easily be played using the Solo rules but with multiple players taking on various roles and responsibilities to ensure success. It works just as well in this format, and is probably more akin to an Exit-style team puzzle when this mode is chosen.

If I had any suggestions it would be to speed up the start of the game by allowing players more money to buy the components and research/test the equipment they need right at the beginning, and then perhaps to ‘clamp down’ on the funding in later years – this might even be more thematically accurate… and would probably get players to the fun bits of the game that much quicker. I appreciate that for some gamers, the slow-build approach feels much more fulfilling when you’re beavering away and researching/testing stuff as you go, as opposed to those players who would rather forge ahead and risk humiliation and the death of their astronauts (“It’s all in the name of progress!”) in a bid to claim the points to be had from completing mission cards first, etc. but it’s a case of each to their own, I think.

Damaged box 😦

Personally, I do like this game, and the wooden pieces, quality card and stylised design is refreshing, but I am not a fan of the terrible packaging – I literally had to ruin my box to get at the contents (see picture) and I fully understand how painful this might be for some players. Indeed, there’s a selection of suggestions on the BGG page on the subject of how to open the box without ruining it, but things would be much easier if Lumenaris just packaged it better in the first place. ‘Tis a shame, because this game deserves a bit more attention: it’s got a unique approach, yet still feels like the type of game you’ll end up playing on your own the majority of the time… but it’s no less appealing for that, though!

[This review originally appeared in SPIRIT #3,
a free PDF copy of which can be downloaded by clicking this link]

Leaving Earth is available direct from Lumenaris


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