Space geekout time! I’ve got a cardboard Orrery for Christmas and I finished it recently. Here it is:

Orrery - Establishing Shot

Although it looks awesome, I’m not entirely blown away by the result. If you are interested in some thoughts on information design, modelmaking and astronomy – read on:

At a first glance, the features of the Orrery are pretty awesome. It has 3 planets and the Moon, a descent size and a LED Sun. Besides the Orbits of all bodies the rotation of the Earth is simulated and even it’s goddamn axial tilt! The planets and the Moon are in scale to each other (the size of the sun and the distances obviously not). That’s quite an achievement for an Orrery and even more impressive if you consider that it a cardboard model. The price (30eur) is a lot for just cardboard but quite cheap for an Orrery with these features. Orreries are a bit of a niche product, as you can imagine.

However, I can’t shake the feeling that I have a piece of a non-digital Dancing Bearware. It is a term from Alan Cooper’s “The Inmates are Running the Asylum”. Cooper criticizes certain technology by comparing it to a dancing bear. We are not amazed because the dance is good, we are amazed that the bear is dancing at all.

Similarly, that’s the what the cardboard Orrery is about. So it is very imprecise. For example, the solstice shifts by at least a week after revolving the Orrery by merely one year. Re-adjusting the solstice is a major pain in the ass because you have to remove the tight rubber transmission which in turn puts a lot of stress on the fragile structure and creates a lot wear.

Speaking of fragile structure – the Orrery is made of cardboard and it feels like it. It is shaking and vibrating. The glue cracks and it makes cardboard-y noises. It is tilting and bending under the weight and the tension from the rubber cords. I mean check this out:

Orrery - Sideview

You can clearly see how the disk of the earth/moon system bends under the tension of the rubber belts. The whole ecliptic disc is also bent because of the extra weight on the right side. And this is the better position. It looks even worse when the earth is on the other side.

Which brings me to the Bearware. The whole idea of an Orrery is to demonstrate the precision of our astronomical knowledge about the solar system. Having an Orrery so imprecise and fragile defeats the whole purpose.

The bearwareiness of the permeates everything about it. The most jaw dropping thing is that the building instructions are ALL WRITTEN OUT. I haven’t seen that one before. There are only very few, very obscure schematics. The rest is just 14 A4 pages of raw text.

Orrery - Building Instructions

Haven’t they heard of Lego or Ikea? Having a written instruction was a great reminder of what makes visual explanations so valuable in the first place: the information can be accessed at an individual pace, depth and oder. It is also very redundant and safe. Skip over an important sentence here and you are screwed. You are also doomed to follow the instructions exactly as they are described which is tedious. For example, you can’t just easily check which parts you will need for the next few steps in advance, prepare them and put away the parts template to concentrate on the assembly. Instead, you need to follow what they write which involves constant switching between removing parts from the template and assembling them.

And don’t forget how having visual instructions would allow to distribute the product internationally which TOTALLY makes sense if the whole model fits into a A4 envelope for easy shipment. It’s baffling how they gave up that tremendous opportunity.

And I love it how they remind you need to check if parts are perpendicular to each other but don’t mention what to do when they aren’t. I tell you why. Because YOU ARE FUCKING SCREWED if you want to undo a mistake when gluing cardboard together. That’s why MAYBE it wasn’t such a great idea to make things out of cardboard in the first place, huh?

And also they have tips like using oil to reduce friction on some places and using alcohol to increase friction on others to fine-tune the precision. Screw that! I might have gone even that extra mile but disassembling the cardboard Orrery increases the wear. Already the assembly used up some of the cardboard tubes so much that I fear they might fail anytime and make that thing useless. And I can’t stop thinking that it I wouldn’t have to mess around with it if it was made of wood and metal like it SHOULD BE!

All the while, you can clearly see that there was somebody quite smart who thought it all out. It is an ingenious idea – using belts instead of gears and coming up with far out solutions to make it all fit into the A4 format. Some of the details even depend on magnets. It is just amazing that the very same person didn’t see that cardboard defeats the purpose of the project… or at least didn’t realize how bad written instruction are.

I could even go on how the LED sun has faults so gray splotches appear on it’s surface. Or how I thought I have lost the Venus and didn’t receive any answer from the manufacturer when I asked about getting spare parts. But I think I’m just about done venting.

I’ve spent A LOT of time on this one and compared to that, the result is not quite satisfactory. It feels like I could have invested that same time more efficiently in:

It works, but it doesn’t work well enough to use it frequently. I guess it looks good but why that the hassle with functionality if it was only about aesthetics?

Orrery - In the Dark

The slightly redeeming part is that yes – it looks cool, especially if in the dark if you turn on the Sun. I’ve made some more photos. Check out the corresponding Flickr Album.

If you want to give it a try yourself in spite what I wrote, check out http://www.astromedia.de. Judging from the Website those guys are heavily into doing astronomy with cardboard.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

2 responses to “Orrery”

  1. Graham

    Now that you have a bunch of nice measured templates, you could make one out of wood or plastic now? :)

  2. Krystian Majewski

    Not really. A lot of the elements are made out of sandwitched cardboard pieces with glue in-between. Especially the main disc. It is hollow and the border is made of over 40 individual carboard arcs. If I made that out of wood, It would make sense to cut it out of a solid piece from the start.

    And then I would probably go for a gear-based transmission or at least a chain for precision.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


follow Krystian on Twitter
follow Yu-Chung on Twitter
follow Daniel on Twitter