Retro Review - Blast Off! by Waddingtons (1969)
Antony Brown is a games analyst and inventor who writes regularly on board games. His Retro Reviews take a nostalgic look at games of the past. This article travels back in time to 1969, when the Apollo Program reached its climax and Blast-Off! was published by Waddingtons.
You cannot get more retro than the moon landings of 1969. It was the era of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin; of blast offs and splash downs; of rocket stages and retro-thrusters. The Vietnam war was still raging, Mary Jo Kopechne died as Edward Kennedy drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick and scores died in Honduras after the country lost a football match. As Oscar Wilde might have said, the world may have been in the gutter but people were looking at the stars.
Of the many board games published at the time around the idea of the space race and exploring the final frontier, Blast-Off! is probably the exemplar. It was cited as "the game of modern space exploration and technology" in which players raced to reach the outer planets of our solar system. Of course, the word "modern" is relative; today the game is practically an antique
The game includes an illustrated 12-page rule book, the cover of which shows a Titan II rocket blasting off. Its first paragraph is a metaphor for the game: players must "keep their spaceships in satisfactory orbits, achieve capsule-to-satellite docking, make frequent moon landings." Hardly a main draw for a party. The play is a little one dimensional but overall it's a classic retro game because of its presentation, components and theme.
The game is for up to four players and each player gets two distinct playing pieces - a satellite and a command module ("capsule") that docks with each other to form a spaceship. The best feature of the game is the cardboard engineering. Players each get a cardboard control panel which has three dials showing a player's orbital velocity, course recorder and fuel gauge. A master control panel has four dials to record the progress of each player. The game board is striking and beautifully presented. It has the earth at the centre and 16 concentric rings represent the different orbits. The eight planets are marked on the board, each in a different orbit. A plastic moon, about an inch in diameter, a pack of "thruster rocket" cards and a die make up the other components.
The game divides into three stages. Players must: (1) get a satellite into orbit; (2) dock a command module ("capsule") with the satellite; and (3) use the moon as a base to launch their spacecraft to land on the other planets in the solar system. Unfortunately, most of the game play is determined by the roll of the die. The greatest scope for tactical play occurs when a player is navigating a spaceship onto the moon, which moves after each player's turn. Choosing a suitable orbit and using your fuel allowance and available thrusters cards play a big part here. However, even then there is little player interaction, the biggest drawback of the game.
Nevertheless, 12 pages of rules shows there is a little depth to the game. Evidently the publishers were quite nervous about the length of the rule book, which proclaims in bold type: "It is not necessary to understand the rules for all three stages at the start." The game can also drag on past its pleasure point if all the planets have to be visited but players can agree to reduce the number of planets. A nice rule variation would be to add secret mission cards, similar to the ones in Risk, which specify which planets a player must visit (e.g. Venus, Saturn and Jupiter or Pluto and Mars). This would require a few rule changes but should be easy for a seasoned games player to implement and would undoubtedly enhance the game.
A trivia footnote: The Titan II featured on the rule booklet cover was originally an Intercontinental ballistic missile. Apt, given the cold war was still at its height when the game was published.
Verdict: A quintessential retro game which is well presented with unique components.