Space Explorer is a cooperative card and map game designed by Sid Sackson in 1977. It was published in a book of games called Beyond Competition, which includes five other titles. I’m usually excited to try vintage games that don’t involve trivia, because sometimes they are hiding once-tried-now-forgotten mechanics. I was especially excited to try this game because Sid Sackson is basically a grandparent of modern game design.
A quick note on the book: Sackson starts off the book with a word on games, and cooperation. I am curious how big of an audience he had back in 1977 for these types of publications, and how they were distributed. A mailing list? Specialty stores? I’ve also wondered how well, if at all, these books sold in other markets across the world. I don’t have answers to these questions, but hope to someday find out.
In Space Explorer, you and your teammates play cards to navigate your spaceship on a tour of the solar system. I played this solo, using the same rules outlined below.
The game is set up by creating a deck of 24 cards – four sets going from 1-6. I used a regular deck of playing cards, though there are cards that can be cut out from the back cover of the book (which, of course, I am not touching – my book needs to be pristine)!
After creating your deck, you will draw cards to determine the position of each planet, and then draw a final card to determine the direction your ship leaves Earth.
Gameplay is simple – start with a hand of 3 cards. Play any amount of cards to move your ship / change direction, or skip your turn and discard two cards. At the end of each turn, always draw back up to 3. The goal is to reach each planet in the solar system, in order, and return to Earth before running out of fuel.
As always, I love creating some head cannon when I play games solo. I decided my solo astronaut, Miri, was going to tour of the solar system on a slow, Friday evening. The planet positions seemed good – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Jupiter were relatively close together. Saturn and Pluto were opposite Neptune and Uranus, so that presented a potential problem. But I was confident Miri could handle the trip!
As Miri moved from Earth towards Mercury, I quickly realized how challenging those tight orbits could be! Miri managed to position her ship just one hex from Mercury, but wasted quite a bit of fuel in orbit waiting for the right card. Her trip to Venus was similar – tight orbits and change of direction, and a bit of waiting for the right card. The first fuel cell was completely used, as she landed on Venus!
Mars was much easier – a straight shot, and she was there! Jupiter was more of an issue though, as more fuel needed to be burned, waiting for the right card. Miri encountered more waiting as she approached Saturn, and burned through her second fuel cell.
It was around this time, I added a rule for solo play. I decided that each turn, I could play 3 cards, play 2 cards, or discard 2 cards – I could never play just 1. It seemed that, without a partner, there would never be a circumstance that would be in my best interest to play more than 1 card. I would always want to play 1 and then draw, to see what my next best option was. So, to keep the game fresh, I added that rule.
Finishing the Tour
Miri had some issues after Saturn. Long distances were easy and somewhat fun to navigate, but inevitably, she would approach a planet, and then burn fuel waiting for the right card. She burned a full fuel cell waiting to get to Uranus, another for Neptune, and another for Pluto. Her return to Earth, an anti-climatic one, required one more fuel cell of waiting before she landed safely. By the end, she had burned 7 fuel cells, most of it waiting.
I do not know what the gaming landscape was in 1977, but I thought there were some good ideas with this game. The positioning of the planets to start the game allow a good deal of replayability. The cardplay was interesting at times, and adding one or more players for cooperative play could lead to a better experience (maybe something closer to “The Game“).
However, I don’t think this game holds up to modern design. While navigating to different planets was fun, once I got to a planet I spent a lot of time waiting to draw the right card. This is a problem that probably wouldn’t go away with more players.
While the game hasn’t kept up with modern design, it was fun traveling back in time with this game. This is a type of game that would have caught my attention as a kid in the ‘90s as the navigation mechanism was flexible and could be easily modified. However, for it to really take hold, Space Explorer needs some adjusting- specifically, to take away the waiting problem. At the very least, it could provide a simple system for space movement that, when layered with mechanics for a new game, could be fresh and exciting.
At the end of the day, Miri made it home – and despite the age, Sid Sackson’s book has found its own home on my shelf.