Written by Russ Dobler
When Joe Fatula and a dozen of his engineering colleagues were downsized, they didn’t despair. Instead, they repurposed their design and software skills to create Lumenaris, a craft and hobby company that specializes in – would you believe it? – felt kits and sewing tools.
Fatula took up the challenge of making board games for Lumenaris, inspired by the simple puzzles he’d developed for his own children. Now, with a fistful of professional games under his belt, Fatula has decided to literally shoot for the Moon with his latest, Leaving Earth, which puts players in charge of the world’s superpowers as they try to stake claims in space.
I recently spoke with Fatula to find out why he chose this theme, how the game plays and where his astronauts might land in the future.
Leaving Earth is set in 1956 during the international “space race.” What made you think that was a fertile concept for a board game?
It’s sort of two parts. The space race is a compelling theme, and it is also a struggle of enormous magnitude. The theme on this one – this is the greatest voyage of exploration that humans have ever done. We’ve had people cross oceans before, we’ve had people go across different continents; this is the only time people have ever gone to a truly alien environment. Space is somewhere we can’t survive, where gravity doesn’t behave the way people expect on Earth. There’s no air, the sunlight is dangerous. This is an exciting theme, and yet people today have very little knowledge about it.
And we’re not just talking about the Moon – in the course of the gameplay, you can go to other places too, right?
You can go to other places, but even just going to space itself – just getting off the ground – comes with its own set of dangers.
What kind of dangers are we talking about? What’s the gameplay like, overall?
The gameplay is very much about figuring out what risk there is and trying to manage that risk. It’s trying to balance between taking more risk and trying to get to the objectives before your opponents do. Pretty much everything can go wrong in an expedition in this game. You can have rockets fail to work or you can have rockets that explode. You can have – you try to land on the Moon and you actually crash into the surface of the Moon. It could turn out that humans don’t survive very well in space. That was an open question in 1956.
How do you end up winning the game?
Winning the game is going to be different each time depending on which particular missions are worth points, since that will vary from one game to another. A typical game, you might have “putting a man on the Moon and bringing him home safely” as one of the big objectives in the game. If you do exactly that, you collect those points in the game. Travel to the moon with a person, and bring them back to Earth.
The other objectives work similarly. There’s an objective to put a satellite into Earth orbit, basically the Sputnik objective. You put a satellite into Earth orbit, you collect those points.
This game is pretty true to life. You can actually play as the different countries that were involved in the space race, correct?
That’s correct. That is one area where we deviate a bit from reality, though. The five countries in the game are the first five to put a rocket into Earth orbit, so they all were participants. However, realistically, there were really only two major participants – the U.S. and the Soviet Union. To make it a game for more than two players, we give the other countries an equal chance of getting to the big objectives. Realistically, Japan was not going to put a man on the Moon by 1969, but in the game, they have as much a chance as anyone else.
What kind of research did you do when putting Leaving Earth together? Did you have a prior interest in this sort of thing?
I had some prior interest in this. It’s kind of been building over the years; the story of spaceflight started catching my attention. As far as private research, mostly reading – a lot of reading. NASA has put out a huge number of documents from the era, and I’ve read through hundreds of pages of those. I read through the entire transcript of communications from Apollo 13.
Tell me about the art. It sounds like you’re going for a very 1950s aesthetic. Were you looking for images that particularly evoke that?
The artwork is very much from the perspective of before we’ve actually been to space, which is where the entire game is focused on. The game is saying, “It’s 1956. No one has ever been to space, but now we believe it’s possible; now we’re on the verge of doing so.” And so the artwork in the game – the mechanics of the game are all about the unknowns we still didn’t understand at that time. So the art for Mars, for example, is what we could see from telescopes from Earth. It doesn’t look quite like Mars does when you actually go there, and the same for the other planets in the game.
You mentioned it before, but this isn’t just like a rote history lesson. Things could end up very differently from what we discovered when we actually went to these places, right?
Very differently. At the beginning of the game, one of the first things that happens – for each of the different major locations in the game, one card is chosen, then all the rest are put back in the box. You don’t get to see that card until you actually send a spacecraft to that place. So everything we thought was possible in 1956, I’ve tried to incorporate into the nature of the solar system of the game.
Today we know that Venus is a horrible place to go. It has enormously high pressure, it has a very acidic atmosphere, [and] it’s very hot. It’s an awful place to put anything. At the time, that was one theory about Venus, but it was also a theory that Venus might have oceans of liquid water and be a great place for a colony. In any given playthrough of Leaving Earth, you might find that Venus is a horrible place to go, [or] you might find there’s life on Venus.
The game officially releases on September 4th, but the pre-order is available right now. What do you get for pre-ordering – anything special?
The pre-order comes with a set of extra cards. The pre-order includes the planet Mercury…so putting the first probe on Mercury, or sending a survey mission to Mercury, can get you points in the game, with the pre-order.
It seems like there’s some pretty good buzz out there for Leaving Earth. Do you have any ideas for expansions if it takes off (no pun intended)?
Right from the start, I was trying to decide how much would fit in one game and how much would have to be in an expansion. If this sells as well as we’re hoping, then I would like to do an expansion involving the outer planets, and this would be – as much as Leaving Earth is 1956, asking someone, “What do you think we’ll be doing in space for the next 20 years?” an expansion would be, “All right, what do you think we’ll be doing for the 20 years after that?” So it’s going further into the future from that era. It’s getting into the outer planets, it’s more potential of life in the solar system, it’s more human activity in space – people living in space. It’s the next 20 years of imagination of what we thought was possible then.