While I was looking into some information on ICBM development (relative to the SAC games I was playing), I remembered the very popular game of yesteryear, Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space. Except that I couldn’t remember that it was actually called “Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space.”
I began googling “Race for Space” and came across instead an old “board game” (sort of) from… well, I have no idea. Probably at least 20 years ago.
No copies of the game seem to be for sale anywhere and there is very little detail, either direct or descriptive, about the contents and working of the game. But this image…
really has me intrigued; a very numbers-heavy modeling of R&D costs for spacecraft development presented as a visual space-and-counter game. The engineer in me wants to work through these charts and their ability to predict development. It looks like a nice way to depict the space development process, with the potential of getting stuck iterating on a design (without making progress) or hitting a technological dead-end.
A very similar game (who inspired whom, I have no idea) called Liftoff! was released in 1989. That looked much more like a real game, with board, cards, money (megabucks), and even a poster (woo-hoo!) included in the colorful box. Of course, we wouldn’t expect to find 30-year-old games of this type still on the shelves, so this too is something that, in 2017, is left to admire from afar.
One of the more interesting points, though, is that Liftoff! was turned into a computer game called “Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space” (Oh right… that was the name). In 1993 BARIS, as it is often referred to, was released for MS-DOS, and like Steel Panthers, the BARIS story managed to put a happy coda onto its eventual commercial end. When the developer ceased work on the game, he released the source under a GPL license and the executable as freeware. It has since been ported to Windows, and undergone minor improvements, as well as being available as phone/tablet app.
Of course, when people are still pouring time and effort into 25-30 year old stuff, it only makes sense that a “modern” version might sell. Enter Leaving Earth on your tabletop and Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager on your desktop – not to mention the crazy popularity of Kerbal Space Program and its physics simulation. Leaving Earth streamlines, simplifies, and converts entirely to a card game, the mechanics of the Space Race simulation – making a modern game to replace the old classics. BASPM (that’s not cool like BARIS, is it?) revamps the graphics and adds technical depth to the old classic.
So a quest to figure out what those charts meant left me with far too many games to contemplate. When in doubt, start with the freeware.
The freeware version still has the original graphics and interface, but it runs as a (really tiny) window on the modern desktop. In my time spent with the program, I have seen no crashes and no obvious bugs. I will rank it among the better efforts to salvage an old DOS program that I’ve seen. Of course, it is still a 25-year-old game. The features of the game, such as the videos (compiled, mostly, from actual footage), do not make for the most exciting interactions. Even when it was newly on the shelves, The Guardian criticized the game as being “lifeless.”
As I have complained about before, the interface employs what at the time was considered a neat trick. Improved graphics, and the ability to deliver more and better within a game via CD, inspired a form of UI where the player interacts with “the real world” by navigating through (in this case) the various buildings of the space facility to initiate actions. Between the painstaking navigation from building to building and the necessity to prepare, possibly years in advance, for missions, this nifty interface makes it tougher than in needs to be to do what you need to do. Particularly annoying are the buildings you have to click on simply to confirm that the parameters set up elsewhere are, indeed, to be applied. Especially in contrast to current games that help the user along, this is game that probably requires keeping a notebook outside of the game to get it right.
I played through one time without relying on the manual and the result was a bit confusing. After getting far enough in, and pretty much failing in my charge as Space Director, I then turned to the manual for clues. I realize that the failure of the undirected trial-and-error approach is probably designed in purposely. By design, the game allows you to take actions for expedience’s sake that ultimately will result in failure. Rather than just make it obvious (e.g. a rule that says you can’t fly a man mission without X hours testing) it attempts to “teach” you why such a rule would be necessary by mathematical equations based on probability. It is a useful lesson, to be sure, but does it make for the best game? That, I’m not so sure.
As I alternate between game and manual, I think I begin to see the intended use for this game. First, several play-throughs will be necessary to learn the mechanics. There are certain rhythms in the game that a player has to learn. How to keep funding balanced over the budget cycle, for example, or the two-turn cycle necessary to setup launches. Once that is mastered, then several more play-throughs will be required to get the hand of the development/risk cycle. For example, when is a lack of research and testing going to end up in dead astronauts and program failures versus when a excess of research and testing will slow the program to a crawl? Finally, the player can embark in a new series of games focused on finding alternate development paths to get to the moon.
It seems to me that an awful lot of playtime is required to get to the actual purpose of the game. It is designed, perhaps, for when a player might purchase the game at full price and then dedicate months to master it. It is not a design that favors grabbing a quick download to enjoy for a night or two.
The game was considered to be a difficult one upon release and that hasn’t changed with the years. After a couple of preparatory games, where missions are left undone because I didn’t to all the right preparation, I finally feel like understand enough to make an actual game of it. Still, I’m pretty far from knowing what I am doing. While I am managing to advance my Mercury program without killing any astronauts, I am a bit demoralized by the announcements of Soviet achievements far outpacing my own. I suspect that what I really need to do is create a timeline of the actual NASA program, and try to keep my game program on or ahead of the real-life schedule. Without such guidance, I’m sure I’ll never be (for example) testing Saturn V rockets soon enough to be ready for a first-man-on-the-moon lunar mission.
Despite the DOS graphics and the MIDI synth score, the game is still playable today. I think the key to appreciating it is to recognize that the numbers model and the percentages are the real game and that the interface is loosely built around it. Does that suggest that a rework of the AI to streamline and modernize it would greatly improve the game? Would hiding some of the numbers behind a better narrative improve the feel? As I speculated about translating a board game to the computer recently, it could go either way. When the game is the numbers, hiding the numbers and automating the “spreadsheet” portion of the game could actually take away from what makes the game what it is. What is the best way to update this game for the twenty-teens?
Why Buy the Cow?
The Race Into Space story has another parallel with Steel Panthers, although without quite the bitterness involved. While a volunteer team has created an maintained the freeware version of the original code, the company Polar Motion reworked it into a completely new version. Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager, released by Slitherine/Matrix, is quite clearly an updated version of BARIS. Now I have no idea how much code is shared between the two versions, if any, but it is clear that it was the starting point for the new project.
Unlike with Steel Panthers, however, the end result looks very different. Graphics have been updated and the current ability of consumer’s desktops to display a realistic, 3D representation of Space Hardware can look impressive. The interface corresponds to modern design standards, although it still seems to feature the aerial view of the space complex with selectable buildings. From what I’m reading, the game has both added to the technical depth as well as expanded the scope of the missions beyond the “Space Race” into the realm of modern planetary exploration.
I say “from what I’m reading” because, unless I’m missing something, I’m looking at basically an upgrade of a freeware product for the price of a top-shelf game. Yes, some of the graphics look pretty cool, but not necessarily $40 cool. I’m also pretty sure I’m not hankering for a more complex version of BARIS with some additional missions. Mostly, I mention Space Program Manager here as a compare-and-contrast exercise for my next section.
Similarly, I’m not going to dig into Kerbal at this point, except to show the demand for this type of game is out there. I’ve long meant to download and try the demo, but for right now, it looks like the game has got ahead of the demo and none is available.
State of the Art
Let’s compare to the design of Leaving Earth. At a first glance, this game is a re-implementation of Liftoff! It covers the same time period, the same Cold War struggle, and is played through assigning resources to the design and execution of missions. It’s hard to imagine that the Leaving Earth designers weren’t also familiar with Liftoff!, but looking at the details, no one would say that one is an upgrade or revamp of the other.
The compare and contrast shows much of how game design has changed between the boardgame heyday of the 1980s and the boardgame revival of today. First, as a board game, the design reflects the necessity to put value in the product beyond the rules and mechanisms. The components are unique, a pleasure to look at and handle, and have an aesthetic to reflect the period being played. I think this is a huge part of what makes the boardgaming market so big. The designers have learned to make products that players look at and want to own.
But the design is also heavily influenced by the changes in that Eurogames and the subsequent rethinking of game design. It’s a game of cards and tokens, minimizing the role of dice. It’s also hugely streamlined. Does that mean it’s more of a casual game, and less of a “simulation?” Is it, like many Eurogames, simply a mechanic with some contextual chrome lain upon it?
I would argue no.
First of all, Leaving Earth (perhaps more than its predecessor) exists in part to be a teaching game. A chunk of the manual is dedicated to explain the fundamentals of rocketry and orbits and how to plan missions. The relationship between engine impulse and Delta V are all explained to illuminate what a mission “difficulty” number entails. While it is possible to simply look up, on tables, the relationships between payload and booster size, the player is encouraged to design a launch system backwards from final playload through each staging.
Two of the obvious simplifications are costs and reliability.
The cost model in Leaving Earth is greatly simplified relative to its predecessors. Gone are concepts like inflation or managing budget allocations over multiple years. Instead, the costs in the game are charged a fixed amount that expires each turn, and they are adjusted accordingly. So the cost of a Saturn V during the height of that program can be proportional to the much higher budgets of that period. It is a decent way to simulate spending in an governmental environment while also eliminating the lion’s share of the in-game accounting.
Similarly, Leaving Earth has dramatically changed the reliability model that is the core of pretty much every space program simulation. The earlier versions have a reliability percentage that the user interacts with. These can be raised and lowered by events or improved with research spending and are eventually are compared to a die-roll when attempting a mission. What that means is that the probability of a mission success is always known in advance, but there is always some chance for failure. While engineers do spend a great deal of time calculating safety factors and estimating the possibility of failure, in truth, the predictability of mission success is not a known quantity. Worst of all, in the cases of actual mission failures, the cause of the failure is typically not a component that had a chance of failing and did. The cause is usually something behaving in a way that was unforeseen.
In Leaving Earth, the percentage reliability is replaced with a set of dealt cards that either have success or failure. These cards are drawn (while remaining unknown) in the “research” portion of a program. Unlike BARIS and others, research is a one-time cost, not something that is continuously managed relative to the percentages. Testing, on the other hand, is much more explicit. A booster with, essentially, unknown reliability can and should be flown in unmanned missions to prove its capabilities before chancing a failure in an unmanned mission. Ongoing research is modeled by the ability to, after a mission failure, invest additional research money to remove that failure card from the deck. Unlike the dice-rolling version of mission probability, it becomes possible to eventually reveal and/or remove all the cards associated with a particular component making it 100% reliable for the purposes of the game. While this also may not be a “real” representation of a space hardware, which may end up failing even after you are completely confident in its reliability, it does vastly simplify the game. It also improves it, in my opinion. It is tough to model a historical space program when, at any given time, a freak role can wipe out your schedule and a team of astronauts in a system that you have thoroughly vetted as maximally reliable. It precludes a Space Shuttle Discovery, but fits well within the other simplifications of the game.
Is there life on Mars?
One other area of game design is something that this product really gets. I discussed earlier about the importance of a historical game simulating not what we know now to be true, but what historical figures knew at the time to be true.
One example discussed in the rule book is how scientists at the time expected to find life on other planets. First (although predating the period of the game) there was an expectation of life on the Moon. There was also long an assumption that observations made of the Martian surface showed signs of life. While during the period of the space program, scientists had discounted some of the wilder “martian” theories, the first lunar missions, in fact, had returning astronauts go through a period of quarantine to ensure that they weren’t bringing back any dormant bacteria from the moon. Although we now understand the impossibility of finding living organisms on the moon, the players in the game should (and do) face the possibilities that these wild possibilities are true. An unexplored planet might produce alien life, or valuable resources, or even exotic alien technology.
In another rulebook example, the fleeting belief that Phobos was an artificial satellite created by advanced alien technology ,was held by the Russians. It was based on a calculation of density compared to the orbital mechanics, which found that the moon was far lighter than any naturally-occurring space body could be. It turns out to have been based on bad observations of the orbit and was corrected before it had much of a practical effect on the Soviet space program. Had the misconception persisted, surely the Soviet military would have made a mission to Phobos to obtain this advanced alien technology an absolute priority. Unless the aliens are a real possibility, the players would never commit to a mission we know to be obviously based on a mistake.
This game reminds me of an experience as a tween. I was absolutely enthralled by space-based science fiction, probably due to the influence of Star Wars. I had the novelization of that movie, which I had read over and over, but had to rely on the local public library for variety for my science fiction diet. Unfortunately, nearly all of their science fiction had been published in the early 60s and, even with that caveat, wasn’t of particularly high quality.
I remember checking out one book set around the construction of a space station. The cover had a drawing of the large doughnut-style station, which one imagined as a way to produce an artificial gravity. It wasn’t a great book, but it wasn’t truly terrible either. I don’t really remember the plot, but I believe it had something to do with sabotage during the construction of the space station. What really got me (and the heartbreak stays with me even today) was the final paragraph of the book. Our heroes have defeated evil and put the construction of the station back on track. Once the station is completed, we are told, mankind can continue on their next step of their great journey into space – to the Moon!
I wept in my pillow that night. When the book was written, possibly in the 50s, the direction that the space program would go was unknown. When the book was read, probably in the late 70s, trips to the moon had come and gone and were considered by many to be, to reference the film Apollo 13, routine. The idea that the whole book that I read was not part of some fantastic future, but of a discredited past, just made me feel like I’d wasted the many hours that I’d put into reading the book.
A game like Leaving Earth actually resurrects the mindset of that much resented (by me, at least) author. Depending on the parameters of the game, the path to the moon may actually be via a earth orbiting space station.
I don’t know how popular Leaving Earth is in the boardgaming world, but I do have to wonder whether this is a viable path for a computer game to take. Rather than, like Kerbal Space Program, go down the path of ever more realistic physics, orbital mechanics, and flight simulation, is there a market for essentially a casual game? Something that lets players make a few of the Space Race decisions and, in doing so, appreciate the trade-offs the the physics presents, but not force the player to commit months of their lives to learning the system.