Planetary scientist Dante Lauretta is a busy man, and not just because of the Kickstarter campaign for his tile-laying, set-collection board game Constellations, in which players compete to build the most extensive and accurate image of the night sky. AiPT! spoke to Lauretta, who was in a very special location, where he told us about why he added the board games of Xtronaut Enterprises to his scientific outreach efforts, and what’s next in both tabletop and space exploration.
AiPT!: The motto of Xtronaut Enterprises is “Fun Games Based on Real Science.” That’s obviously not just a hook. Where are you right now?
Lauretta: I am in Montevideo, Uruguay, attending the Asteroids, Comets and Meteors conference.
AiPT!: While the Kickstarter campaign for Constellations is going on.
Lauretta: Yeah, I kinda do that in the background. [laughs]
AiPT!: All right, tell us a little bit about the game.
Lauretta: We’re going into our final week. The game is trying to capture the feelings of looking at the night sky, the wonderment people feel and the patterns that you draw, and then the characters that have kind of built up around that whole mythology, and even the modern constellations. It’s a set-collection game. Every constellation has a unique combination of stars, and those are based on the real stars in the constellation and the brightest star you can see in the sky. When you collect the right combination, you get to place the constellation into the night sky, and the closer you get to actually building the real map of the heavens, the more points you score.Collect the right amounts and types of stars to build a constellation!
AiPT!: And that’s pretty much the whole game, right? It doesn’t seem like there are a lot of hard and fast rules in this one.
Lauretta: That’s right. It’s a family game, for sure. We’re targeting families with kids; that’s kind of the market I like to go for. It’s challenging enough that serious gamers will enjoy it, but it’ll be the light, 30-60 minute game you play in-between maybe some of your more advanced, longer, strategic board games. It’s great for gaming groups that enjoy socializing and talking to each other. It’s based loosely on a Ticket to Ride style; you collect the stars and get the right combinations.
And then I think we had a lot of fun with the puzzle aspect of it. The constellations are hex tiles. Each hex has a gem pattern that surrounds each edge, and I built that gem pattern based on what constellations want to be next to other ones, so it’s actually a puzzle in and of itself. It comes with 36 constellations, you can lay them all down in exactly the right order by matching gems and adjacent constellations, and actually build a map of the night sky — at least the ecliptic, which is the central plane that the zodiac runs along, and then the ones to the north and south of that.
AiPT!: This isn’t your first game. You’ve had one successful game produced already. What made you want to make these kinds of science-based games?
Lauretta: Our first game is Xtronaut: The Game of Solar System Exploration. That was — it kind of grew out of an after-school science club that I was leading at the Boys and Girls Club in Tuscon. Just to give you a little background, I’m a professor at the University of Arizona, and I’m the leader of a NASA mission called OSIRIS-REx, which launched in September of 2016. We’ve been flying the spacecraft for seven months, and it’s on its way to a near-Earth asteroid to retrieve a sample from the surface and bring it back to the Earth. I really like to use that mission and my position to educate and inspire young kids, and people of all ages, to get excited about the solar system and space and planetary exploration.
I have two young boys, they are now 8 and 10 — they were a little younger when I started making [Xtronaut] — the game was really a way to engage them in what I was doing, explain to them what’s Dad’s job. “This is what I’m doing, I’m building a rocket that’s going to send a spacecraft to an asteroid.” We play games as one of our favorite pastimes at home, so they really helped design the game and test the game, and [they] came up with a lot of good ideas on what should be in there. We really targeted an audience of [age] 7 and up for that one.
AiPT!: And you can get Xtronaut, too, as part of one of the Constellations pledge levels, but even beyond that, this campaign may have the coolest rewards I’ve ever seen in a Kickstarter. What else can you get if you plunk down enough money for Constellations?
Lauretta: We’ve got a sponsorship from Meade Instruments, which is a telescope manufacturer. I am personally super-excited about the total solar eclipse that is going to cross North America on August 21, and Meade has a special EclipseView telescope that has the filter that you can point … at the Sun and actually watch the Moon pass in front and ultimately block out all the daylight. And then just taking off that filter and changing that eyepiece, it’s a great telescope for looking at planets, and the Moon, and galaxies and stuff like that. We’re offering that at basically the price of the telescope, and you get Constellations for free if you back at that level.Yes, you can OWN AN ACTUAL TELESCOPE for backing Constellations.
And then one that nobody has taken yet, but I hope somebody will, is a $1,000 personal tour of Tuscon, Arizona, which is “Space City,” where I’m based, where the OSIRIS-REx mission operation center is based. We have world-class telescopes and some really fun aerospace startup companies, including World View [Enterprises], which does stratospheric balloons, and Vector [Space] Systems, which is developing small rockets for cheap access to space.
AiPT!: So what’s next for Xtronaut Enterprises?
Lauretta: We are working on several things. We are partnering with a company called NanoRacks, which delivers payloads to the International Space Station, and we’re looking at experiments that will fly to the space station but that you can also perform in your house, and you’ll be able to watch the differences in the experiments, between what’s going on on Earth versus what’s going on in microgravity. That should be rolling out in the fall.
And we’ve got more games in the pipeline. I’ve kind of got the game design bug; I find it actually to be a pretty relaxing activity … I’m working on one that’s really about — Xtronuat, the original game, is about launching your spacecraft, and it really focuses on building the rocket — my next game’s going to focus on what happens after that, when you get the spacecraft to your planet and you’ve got to operate it and get your data down, and make the exciting science discoveries.
“Constellations” is fully-funded on Kickstarter, but you can still reserve your copy until this Sunday, April 23, and help unlock the stretch goal that adds GLOW-IN-THE-DARK paint to Ashley Kenawell’s already amazing artwork!