Games bring space exploration home. But they omit all the risks
Imagine the rushing past asteroids on a state-of-the-art spacecraft, calculating the speed boost you’ll get from passing a massive planet, navigating the dangers of space radiation, and developing plausible and speculative technologies for rocket propulsion and for the screening for valuable resources. It’s not just NASA scientists who study such things; with the latest board games, anyone can.
Board games have come a long way since the arrival of the Settlers of Catan a quarter of a century ago. Games with space themes, in particular, have proliferated in recent years, and while a few of the new generation of games resemble classic games, much like Risk or Monopoly in space, many others are completely different. A candidate for the most complex game is surely high border, which released its fourth edition in 2020 and has more expansions, or “modules,” to come. It encourages people to play as space agencies like NASA or Roscosmos (or companies like SpaceX) while designing fast and nimble or charged rockets that take crews to distant worlds, where you have to extract energy. water for fuel and mine minerals to build even more rocket components.
Other board games include Leaving Earth, about the space agencies competing in the first space race, SpaceCorp: 2025-2300 AD, about companies exploring the inner and outer solar system, then establishing interstellar colonies, and Gaia Project, where factions of different species compete to terraform neighboring planets as they please.
In Terraform Mars, actors acting as businesses – some environmentally conscious and some not – are racing to bring the world back to life. They work to generate a greenhouse gas effect to warm the planet, they improve the conditions for plant growth, they increase the level of oxygen in the air, they make surface waters flow again and they build even towns for settlers. If the humans ever try to turn Mars into a human-friendly place where a walk outside without a spacesuit wouldn’t mean certain death, the technologies they use could be similar to those envisioned in this game.
These incredibly advanced games, most of which have been released within the past five years, truly bring the future of space exploration to the coffee table. But in doing so, they sidestep controversial ethical issues.
Now that the real world space exploration beyond our atmosphere is finally happening, one can imagine how this could all play out in real life. The long-term visions of space agencies and space billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos all involve astronauts visiting, if not settling and building on other worlds. Humans will likely return to the moon in about five years, thanks to NASA Artemis program and to Chinese Missions and companies like Blue Origin, Moon Express and Astrobotic. Using these lunar outposts as way stations to deep space, they will set foot on Mars within the next two decades. Extraction of water and building materials will likely also come in our lifetime, while traveling to the asteroids and moons of Jupiter and Saturn could take decades longer, as they are complicated by the vast distances of our original world and by the need for non- solar energy so far from the sun.
Some space games today involve such technical and logistical complications, and evoke the very real tensions between international rivalries and international cooperation in space. But they don’t address broader issues, even though the experts did. started debating: Is terraforming a good idea? Whose decision is it and who should take responsibility for the risks involved? On Earth, the ideas of transforming our climate and atmosphere to combat climate change, called geoengineering, remain controversial (though they may one day become necessary). But terraforming is even more complex, and chances are it won’t work. And as the Gaia Project game shows, terraforming means different things to different species, and it can’t be simultaneously livable to aliens with opposite needs. Most planets cannot be turned into an ice world and a greenhouse at the same time.
People have also started discussing the perils of space mining and the challenges of doing it sustainably and without disfiguring the surfaces of other worlds. But who decides that they can only take space resources for themselves? And since these resources are not replenishing, how sustainable can this be?