Imagine rushing past asteroids on a groundbreaking spacecraft that calculates the speed boost you get by whipping past a massive planet, navigating radiation hazards in space, and developing plausible and speculative technologies for rocket propulsion and for aiming for valuable resources. It's not just NASA scientists studying such things; with the latest board games everyone can.
Board games have come a long way since Settlers of Catan came on the scene a quarter of a century ago. Especially games with space themes have spread in recent years, and while a few of the new generation of games are reminiscent of classics, like Risk or Monopoly in space, many others are completely different. A candidate for the most complex game is definitely High Frontier, which released its fourth edition in 2020 and has several expansions or "modules" on the way. It encourages people to play as space agencies like NASA or Roscosmos (or companies like SpaceX) while designing fast and agile or charged rockets that bring crews to distant worlds where you have to extract water for fuel and extract minerals to build yet several rocket components.
Other board games include Leaving Earth, about space agencies competing during the early space race, SpaceCorp: 2025-2300 AD, about companies exploring the inner and outer solar systems and then establishing interstellar colonies, and Gaia Project, where factions of different species compete for to terraform neighboring planets to their liking.
In Terraforming Mars, players who act as companies - some environmentally conscious and others not - compete to bring the world back to life. They work to generate a greenhouse gas effect to heat the planet, they improve the conditions for plant growth, they raise the oxygen level in the air, they make the surface water flow again, and they even build cities for settlers. If humans one day try to transform Mars into a human-friendly place where a stroll outside without a spacesuit would not mean a certain death, the technologies they use could be similar to those envisioned in this game.
These impressively advanced games, most of which have been released over the last five years, truly bring the future of space exploration to the coffee table. But in doing so, it circumvents the controversial ethical issues.
Now the real world space exploration beyond our atmosphere is finally happening, one can imagine how all this could unfold in real life. The long-term visions of space agencies and space billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos involve all astronauts visiting, if not settling down and building on, other worlds. Humans are likely to return to the moon within five years or so, thanks to NASA's Artemis program and Chinese missions and companies such as Blue Origin, Moon Express, and Astrobotic. Using these lunar outposts as staging points on their way to deep space, they will set foot on Mars within the next two decades. Mining for water and building materials is also likely to come into our lifetime, while travel to asteroids and the moons Jupiter and Saturn can take decades longer as they are complicated by the great distances from our home world and by the need for non-solar energy so far away from the sun.
Some space games today involve such technical and logistical complications, and they evoke the very real tensions between international rivalry and international cooperation in space. But they do not address broader issues, although experts have begun to discuss: Is terraforming a good idea? Whose decision is it to make, and who is to take responsibility for the risks involved? On Earth, ideas about transforming our climate and atmosphere to combat climate change, called geoengineering, remain controversial (although one day they may become necessary). But terraforming is even more complex, and there's a good chance it might not work. And as the Gaia Project game shows, terraforming means different things to different species, and it can not at the same time be habitable for aliens with opposite needs. Most planets cannot be transformed into an ice world and a greenhouse at the same time.
People have also begun to discuss the dangers of space mining and the challenges of doing so sustainably and without destroying the surfaces of other worlds. But who decides that they can only take space resources for themselves? And since these resources do not fill up on their own, how sustainable can that be?