Do you yearn to get far away from your home or apartment? Do you wish you could travel to a different world where wearing protective equipment wasn’t necessary when leaving the shelter where you spend most of your time? A world where the only connection to other humans wasn’t through a screen? Perhaps even somewhere millions of miles away, on a hitherto undiscovered celestial sphere?
If so, I’m afraid you’re out of luck: the pandemic is ongoing and traveling is still on an “as needed” basis for a few more months. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t contemplate what’s out there, through, say, an innovative board game about astronomy!
According to publishers Foxtrot Games and Renegade Games Studios, “The Search for Planet X is a board game where players take on the role of astronomers, using observations and logical deductions to search for this hypothetical planet.” And since it’s an enjoyable pastime rather than a vocation, you can take that role without having to spend years applying for research grants and subsisting on ramen noodles. That said, there’s a lot in this game that’s designed to simulate the actual experience of modern astronomy research.
In objective and structure, The Search for Planet X is like an advanced riff on Clue, where the players try to deduce through logic, and clues provided via app, the location of an undiscovered planet in our solar system. In doing so, discoveries of gas clouds, comets, asteroids, and the logic of where and how those things can be located relative to one another, allows the players to build the scaffolding of a planetary whack-a-mole contest. Players are different “telescopes” competing to identify the contents of different “sectors” of space.
The game progresses through turns like “surveying” or “research” to earn logic rules or map out the unexplored territories of space. Different types of research actions take different amounts of time, which is similar to how it’s done in real life. The time projects take is utterly unknowable in advance, and often longer than you’d expect, so it’s smart that Planet X approximates that sort of variability. (Even observations themselves can be unpredictable; astronomers have to compete for limited telescope time for their projects, and if the nights you’re granted happen to be cloudy, good luck next season!)
There are rules about publishing research and who gets credit for it, including a dynamic where papers advance toward publication (they left out the part where your paper gets held back until you cite more of the referee’s articles). Ultimately, once you believe you know enough to make an educated guess, you submit your theories about the contents of the solar system for peer review, and whoever gets to the right answer first wins, and gets to go meet the people who live there (okay, that last bit isn’t part of the game itself, but maybe they’ll add it in an expansion or something). There’s even an incentive for releasing research before the result is fully confirmed, and consequences for guessing at outcomes that happen to be wrong.
This is something that actually happens! For years, dark matter detection experiments have been jumping all over each other to announce tantalizing preliminary results with the hope that subsequent work will confirm them, while planting a flag in a particular estimate in case it ends up being correct. Scientists in many fields often feel tension between the potential spoils of publishing their work preemptively, and the reputational sting of releasing flawed research too early.
Planet searches themselves have a fairly storied basis in scientific history. Prior to 1781, we only knew of the six planets (Earth included) which could be seen with the naked eye — William Herschel’s development of large telescopes made the discovery of additional planets possible. In that year, he happened across Uranus by accident, first observing that it was just a bit blurrier than a normal star. Herschel initially assumed it was a comet, but it never developed a tail or a coma. Once enough time passed to start calculating its orbit, astronomers realized it was moving around the Sun on a nearly circular path (rather than a highly elliptical one, as a comet would).
Subsequently, observations of deviation from the predicted orbital trajectory of this newly-discovered seventh planet suggested the presence of an eighth. The perturbations pointed astronomers in the direction first of Neptune, which was identified 65 years later, and then of Pluto, 84 years after that. Pluto was actually nicknamed “Planet X” while observers sought its discovery.
Though the process of academic science is outstanding at getting to the truth of the world around us, the idea that designers Matthew O’Malley and Ben Rosset would want to simulate it in a board game is both fascinating and puzzling to me, and I hope it makes some sense to non-scientists. Then again, games are supposed to represent an idealized form of reality that takes us out of our everyday life, so as long as you’re not trapped in that particular world against your wishes, it’s probably a welcome diversion.
And you get to recreate a multi-year astronomy project without having to spend endless, desperate, late-night hours staring at rickety code until your eyes glaze over! The Search For Planet X is an innovative game with an interesting array of tension and strategy, inspired by the largest-stakes competitions imaginable: determining the existence of celestial objects. If that sounds intriguing, give it a shot, but don’t forget to look through an actual telescope some time as well.
Ryan Michney has a PhD in astrophysics from Brown University, where he studied the role of dark energy in the expanding universe.
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