Saturday, March 11, 2023

Some Thoughts About 60 Years in Space


Buckle up folks, we've got a wild ride ahead of us. 

Off Into the Dark Wild Yonder

60 Years in Space is a game prescision-crafted to pander to me, while simultaneously triggering incredible frustration at every opportunity. Here is your white whale, but it is unfortunately dead on arrival.

What is it, you ask? A tabletop adaptation of the notoriously complex board game High Frontier, written by Andrew Doull. It consists of five books at ten bucks a pop:

  • 60 Years in Space (Core Rules)
  • This Space Intentionally (How to actually play the game. Missions and travel)
  • A Facility with Words (Additional travel & combat rules, ecosystem & Species Designer)
  • All Errors My Own (Trends in society and technology)
  • A Lot of Zeroes (The far future - intersolar missions, planet generation, aliens)

As a work of science fiction and as a source of inspiration, I have many, many good things to say about it. We'll get to those (much) later (like in a different post later), as there is a more pressing matter at hand.

As a tabletop game, it is unfit for purpose. And that's a rough thing to say about something that was a one-man, eight-year project, but despite the fact that I do legitimately love the core idea of this game and many of its components, I can't be handing out passes on what Could Have Been.  

To whit:

  • The text arrangement on the cover is...a choice.
  • There are no pages devoted to rules summaries or procedures of play in the core book - not a flow chart or bullet list to be found. Directions are located scattershot through the text, and they are often very confusingly worded as to why you are rolling, or on what, or what systems are in play.
  • Mission outlines are not included in the core book.
  • Key terms are neither bolded nor italicized.
  • Reference tables are not numbered.
  • Headings and subheadings are not numbered.
  • Directions are confusingly worded.
  • References to other concepts or mechanics will nearly always be made without page reference. Some of these concepts or mechanics will be either actually missing, or so difficult to find that it doesn't matter.
  • The index has internal hyperlinks (Good!) There is no way to tell that this is the case unless you mouse over the table and pay attention to your cursor (Not good!)
  • The core rules do not contain an itemized procedure of play.

While I admit it is not particularly fair to drag a one-man team for an eight year project, these are basic issues here and should not have been an issue even for a one-man formatting job. Not to mention that, if we bop on over to Atomic Rockets and dig around we can find a link to a google doc of the 3rd edition High Frontier rules, compiled by the board game's creator Phil Eklund, which avoids most of these errors and is overall a much better reading experience for it despite the fact that I am missing half the context.

Enough of that. Let's walk through making a crew. The steps here are my doing, the book does not specifically enumerate them.

Step 1: Roll for Space Politics

Space Politics is not your team's politics, but the overall mileau of space at the start of the game. In what is going to become a recurring theme, the table has multiple columns but does not indicate if these columns are meant to be rolled individually, or if the table is supposed to be read across with each row as a single entry. I get 'Red - Authoritarian'; "The space race has effectively been won through military, political or technological superiority - usually through force of arms - and the victor is able to control which colonists are permitted into space."

There is a column for card suits, which is for "randomly generating outlooks" - there is no page number or link to outlooks, explanation for what they are, and a whole lot of white space. I err on the side of caution and read the table in rows, so our suit is Clubs.

Step 2: Mission Control

In which we skip over Chapter 3 (Eras) right top Chapter 4 (Mission control), and find ourselves in the first bad omen. Chapter 3 is all background material - important stuff, mind - common technologies, attitudes, things to remember - for each of the major eras...but those major eras are not numbered. They're named - Baseline, Upported, Colonization, Exoglobalization, Futures, Breakthroughs - but they don't have numbers and they don't include the starting years in the header (ex. Upported starts in 2040, but that's in the body description or at the chart at the end of the chapter.)

Interesting stuff, we will return here, there's good material here especially for Mothership. But it is also in the way of making our crew and that makes me a grumpalumpagus.

Okay, mission control. We get a nice table labeled "Second Wave Mission Control Social Units", where we roll for our what sort of organization will be running our mission. Once again, there is no indication if the table is meant to be read in rows, or each column rolled individually. As with Step 1, I am reading it as rows. There's no roll here,as the recommendation is that we are playing as a National Space Agency, which is politics White (Nationalistic / Conservative), has Spacecraft quality Medium, crew quality High (they have experience in LEO and their crew module is spun at 0.6 G), their Contract Age (not explained here) is 36+3d6 (I get 44), and the mission is science.

Alas, my Green ancoms in space will have to wait for another day.

Now some notes - the explanations for aspects of the Mission Control Social Unit are not provided in the order of the table (giving us Crew Quality first and then Color), and they cut up information that should be put together (ie, there is an elaboration of what colors mean outside of the section with the color heading). Also the important mechanical aspect of having a high-quality crew ("the crew will not suffer Microgravity risks until the crew module is damaged.") is not located in the section headed High Quality Crew. If you are navigating this by headers - an absolute necessity with something this dense - you are fucked. Doomed to miss useful information.

Our White social unit color gives us...

  • "White BSUs are religious, nationalistic or family focused organizations"
  • "social units are nationalistic, conservative and family oriented and rely on limiting personal freedoms because of their moral beliefs but also in rewarding hard work and limiting the role of the state."

Oh joy. Positively frabjous day. With luck our re-entry capsule will disintegrate.

There is a secondary table for the type of National Space Agency you are, and I get Privatized.

"The national space program has been privatised but still has an implicit government guarantee and monopoly on space travel.
I feel like a mutiny is in order.

I should also mention that the headers for the different types of Mission Control Units are not numbered, and don't contain the color associated with them (if, indeed, there is a specific color associated with each and we weren't supposed to roll for each column)

Skipping the subtables for the other MC types, we move on to Launch Site. There are no tables to determine what country we are, or what non-country we are, or anything else about our organization other than that we are a privatized National Space Agency.

The Launch Site header is located below the table that it is connected to. I end up rolling the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which means my launch corridor is not only complete bullshit and...hrm. Yeah I do not like my options for nationalistic/conservative factions operating out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Next up is Crew Module Design, which splits the tables of Major and Minor Spaceports, despite the Major table having a result that says "roll on the minor table" and the minor spaceports table is absolutely able to fit on the same page as the major table.

Also the Crew Module Design table is not on the same page as the heading.

I roll up...I don't know. It has a Mass of 1 (which is 40 tons of payload), Rad-Hardness of 4, Thruster of 6 * 8 AB 2 (I don't know if that asterisk is mean as a multiplier or a placeholder, the explanation says "thrust * fuel consumption need to enter each burn, with the AB indicating the thruster can afterburn an additional two steps of fuel to increase the thrust by 1." It's also got ISRU 4, which is In-Situ resource utilization, which measures water gathering and resource scouting for building the factories that I keep hearing about but seeing nothing.

There's also a column labeled 'platform', which is additional functions of the module. I get Missile and Raygun. Neither are explained here beyond handwaving at combat applications, and I am referred to the This Space Intentionally supplement (no page number given) or the rules for the High Frontier board game.

Step 3: Other Starting Factions

Now's when it starts getting confusing. To generate other factions, we roll 1d6 for each color not our own, and if the number is equal to era number + 1, so we need to roll a one or a two. I think. I am honestly entirely unsure, because the next heading is "First Wave Crews".

We are, according to the table way up at the beginning of Step 2, a second wave crew. But waves haven't been mentioned before this and what does that mean for era? Are we Baseline, or are we Upported? Back in the Eras chapter it says that Upported contains the tech we need to start playing the game, but if that's the case why is Baseline even mentioned as a starter here, and does that mean that the waves are equivalent to eras? Does this mean that we start at Era 2?

Well, I rolled for Era 1, because you start counting at one. And the only faction I got was Green, who I guess we are on very poor terms due to the space politics roll. Let's jump ahead to page 317 (it's actually page 319) to look at the faction designer.

The faction designer is a thing I don't like.

So. There are three types of factions. Crews of other ships, factions that want to set up colonies, and social factions for everything else. All three get their own waves, which are not bulleted, and they all use different waves. Apparently you can get third-wave crew factions by emailing the author.

There are only 5 major factions allowed total, and only one per color. Makes sense, it's a crowded game. Everyone else is minor, they build infrastructure but don't have their own dedicated map markers (i think?)

Factions have Origin Stories, Doctrines, Ranks (we haven't even touched on ranks yet so I have no idea how this applies to anything else), an org chart, upgrades (found in an entirely different chapter, but at least it has a page number), encounters, faction missions...and one sample.

Yeah you're making up all that save the type of doctrines they faction has (and even then it says that they'll usually have custom versions), generic rank benefits, and a generic Color-based org chart. There's a list of potential colonist factions in the appendix, which is better than nothing, but it is not mentioned in the Faction Designer. You are on your own.

There's some crunch about colony factions but at this point I am irritated enough that I am ignoring them. We're still making characters, remember?

Step (Checks Notes) 4: Crew Demographics

The fluff for the crew comes before the mechanics. Fair enough.

First heading is "Mission Control Nationalities",and is followed by this paragraph:

"When determining crew demographics, some mission controls will restrict the possible nations that a crew member can come from. If this is the case, roll 2D6 for each crew member. If this number is less than or equal to the Nationality Mix Number for the Mission Control, then roll for the crew’s nationality normally; if it is greater the crew member will have the same nationality as the nationality of the Mission Control. Factions without a Nationality Mix Number use 2 if the faction is Red, 3 if White, 4 if Green, 5 if Purple and 6 if Orange."

But here's the thing. That Nationality Mix Number doesn't exist. It pings three time in the 352-page pdf, and all three of them are in this paragraph. If my faction is White, does this mean my number is 3? Or does it change because I have a National Space Agency? Is the crew nationality table where I actually choose what National Space Agency I am working with? or was that listed elsewhere? Shouldn't the launch site be determined after I figure out which country is involved? Cause it would be really weird to end up as Venezuela and be launching out of Baikonur which is objectively worse than French Guiana let alone halfway around the globe.

I didn't end up as Venezuela, because this is the part where I quit. There are tables for ethnicity, language, pronouns, callsigns, and while on their own they might be worth playing with in the future, for the right now I am stuck with hundreds of pages of directions that don't make sense, mechanics that either don't exist or are very well hidden, and no remaining patience.

Actually you know what, I will roll up a crewmember severed from the rest, just to show you what you can get. Next table is nationality.

"Roll 1D6 twice; except roll 2 is 2D6 on roll 1 result of 5. If roll 1 is a 6, roll 1D6. Use a result of 3-6 as roll 1 on the Colonist Nationalities table on the following page. Otherwise roll 3D6 on this table."

I rolled boxcars and I cannot parse this sentence.

(Deep reading has lead me to this: roll 1d6; if result is 1-4, roll 1d6. If roll is 5, roll 2d6. If roll 1 is 6, roll 1d6, and if that roll is 1-2, roll 3d6; if it is 3-6, use that result as Roll 1 on the colonist nationality table.

(Nested tables, gods above and below)

So Roll 1 is 6, then roll 2 is 6, which means that I go over to the colonist table, go down to 6, and then roll 2d6 to get my actual nationality. 6 + 3 = 9 so my crew member is from Iran.

Sweet baby Ganesha on his cute little rat

I go to the Ethnicity and Language table, roll 2d6 on the Iran listing. Get a 5, so I am Azeri (Azerbajani) and I speak...I don't know, what is this notation?

Ethnic language >= 2. Persian <= 3.

I rolled a 4, so... I think I speak Azerbaijani? Do these ranges overlap? Is it "greater than or equal to 2 and less than or equal to 3",  or the reverse?

Gender table I roll an 8, which is Female. Public pronouns apparently change with every Era influenced by space politics, and if this is indeed Era 2, I suppose I should roll. 1d6 minus 1 for Red,and I get a one, so now zero, and...

"I/Me/My/Mine/Myself, You/You/Your/Your/Yourself and We/Us/Our/Ours/Ourselves merge the first and third person so they are no longer distinguished, suggesting a partial or complete erasure of individual accountability, replace by collective responsibility and identity."

While this, grammatically and socially, sounds like an absolute nightmare, it is our first example of something I actually do like in this book, which is that when interesting cultural things crop up, they tend to be very interesting indeed. This is the public pronoun table, not the personal one, remember.

Though I still find it awkward how all of these are based on English when there are so many languages (including this obscure one called Mandarin Chinese) that get by with something much simpler. I guess it's justified by everyone speaking English as well as their normal language? Or they're more just examples to indicate attidues. I like that option best.

(The gender table is more of a sex table on the whole, but it has a solid selection of options including transhuman ones for later eras. Though the explanations of the results are neither in the order of the table nor in alphabetical order.)

My callsign is Rotor Excellence - PCs only get callsigns (because name tables for all those background options would be extremely cumbersome. I think this is a good move.)


Final Thoughts

I'm calling it here, because I ain't making three more of these chuckleheads. I did make an interesting character and the hints at the setting have the imagination running, so it certainly succeeds in that respect. There's a solid section on safety tools at the beginning of each book.  It's all the surroundings that's choking out the brilliance that is here.

There's skills and there's assets and upgrades and risks and infrastructure and travel and other stuff, four entire books that I haven't touched on, but I'm not going to review that. I will certainly write more posts about it, but the review is over, for one reason more egregious than this

There is no rules summary nor procedure of play section in the core book. Indeed, if you want to get an idea of how to actually play the game, you need to piece together a bunch of disparate fragments found across multiple books and that is fucking unreasonable. I am not psychic. I am not immortal. I am not 17 with unlimited time and low standards. If one is writing a game, and the game is intended to be played, it must be written reader-first. Especially when dealing with complex information. Especially when trying to teach complex information. I want to play the game: Let me play the game.

I brought this up in the itch page discussions, and it wasn't productive. I was told that the game both "assumes you have bought and played the board game" and "It is entirely standalone", and that the basic information necessary for play is not even contained in the core rules (it's all in This Space Intentionally, a fact that is exhausting. There is indeed a numerical list of steps to take, and it is not in the core rules), but the fact that the author of the game can pull an entire 180 in the space of two posts wrt the necessity of outside reference material has, if nothing else, confirmed that "standalone" no longer means anything.


There is, I swear, a whole lot of good in 60 Years in Space - it's just that none of it is actually the game. The flavor, especially in All Errors My Own and A Lot of Zeroes is fan-fucking-tastic. And I say that with total sincerity, it's some of the best sci-fi idea work I've seen in RPGs. Steal it for Mothership or Solarcrawl or something else. Or just read it, it's a good time.

But as a game? As a system of rules intended to be read and learned and taught and used at a table to play a game of imagination?

Unfit for purpose. Needs an editor with a keen eye, a red pen, and a hacksaw - at minimum.

Next post I write about it will be positives, because I ain't letting these random tables go to waste. Paid 50 bucks for these books and honestly despite the disaster of the game's presentation.

And it doesn't even have the benefit of Creative Commons.


  1. Another white whale.

    Next post about it will involve random tables.

  2. I mean a dead whale means a whalefall and time for the scavengers to feast on the remains.

  3. From one of the author's development posts: "
    For a start, that's a great excuse for allowing me to get away with making more rules. If reading the rules is part of playing the game, then more rules equals more game play. But I already had a great excuse: as long as nothing I wrote was as complicated as rocket movement in the High Frontier board game, I could get away with as writing as much as I wanted (and let's not start with the sins that the phrase living rules enables). So something else was up.
    Reading the rules in Sixty Years In with a group of friends and figuring them out is as close to the experience of sitting in NASA mission control, with the spacecraft design and operating manuals out, trying to figure out a technical solution to an unexpected situation as I can make it."

    From this I conclude a number of things, but they basically boil down to the author being an amazing demonstration of INT being higher than WIS. And given some of the grammatical errors involved, I'm not that sure about the INT.

    If he weren't charging fifty dollars for this, I'd consider it interesting. At fifty dollars, it's horrific. And a wonderful reminder of Heinlein's comment in Starship Troopers about effort not being inherently valuable.

  4. Jesus, I just counted it up and there's 1825 pages of this.

    I am terrified by what kind of mind would see that as a good idea.

    1. Ehhh that is pretty unfair, roughly 1500 pages of that are just random procedural generetion tables and short entries explaining the stuff on the tables.

    2. That's still a bit worrying, and I say this as someone who loves a good table. Some things were not meant to be tabulated.

    3. The tables, while voluminous and containing many good things, are not well organized. Tried doing the system generation and had to read directions for certain steps 3-4 times before I could grok them.

  5. "We get a nice table labeled "Second Wave Mission Control Social Units", where we roll for our what sort of organization will be running our mission. Once again, there is no indication if the table is meant to be read in rows, or each column rolled individually. As with Step 1, I am reading it as rows."

    I'm baffled how you would think this. The entries for Crew Quality, Contact Age, and Mission show "Roll twice, rerolling this result," which only makes sense to me if you are to roll each column individually.

    1. See, that's what I initially thought, it's what the design of the table indicates.

      But the text /around/ the table, describing how one goes through things, made me think that it was row by row. The author recommends starting as a White polity, but that has no attached mechanical benefits at all unless it is linked to the Crew Quality and Ship Quality entries in that row.

  6. See, I'm currently reading through GURPS Space, one of my recent purchase during the "new site For Warehouse 23" sale. From what I'm reading from your post, GURPS Space is in the same kind of content (general Sci-Fi world building) as this book. You can spend a good afternoon with GURPS Space's chapters on randomly rolling up planets/systems and aliens. Naturally, the random rolling benefits from the GURPS team's well-thought-out editing and formatting, as always, that the book in your post gruesomely lacks to an extreme. Don't take this post as a hard recommendation for GURPS Space, though, as it requires the reader to already be pretty invested in GURPS as a whole. There is required reading, in other words, and you'd be pretty allergic to that kind of deep diving right now.

    1. I've rolled on the GURPS space tables before and found the experience pretty fun.

    2. Yes, the book's rolling tables was carefully written to make it easy for the reader to use them. I feel aspiring RPG writers really need to check out GURPS Space for a masterclass on how to present useful material for both GMs and players that doesn't strain the eyes.

      As a GURPS genre book, I find Space to be superior to the Fantasy one. I recall most of my time reading Fantasy to be underwhelming - too much "here are some clichés" and not enough depth. Space helps you make SF tropes your own.

    3. Oh, and I liked the Spaceship books, too, as a companion piece to Space. They went into all the fun stuff you can do with interstellar trade, combat, exploration and so on. They had "minigame" subsystems and mechanics for them, they helped you make adventures for stuff like first contact, space capitalism, building colonies and sending out scanners.