Yes – the title of this article is a terrible pun. I apologise for such misdemeanours. But it’s got your attention, right? Then it has succeeded in its aim …
I am fairly late coming to this game, despite it being 40 years old. Thankfully I have recently rectified this mistake and found what appears to be a simple ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ style game, with a lot of depth and strategy. Designers such as Steve Jackson and Richard Garfield have stated how this has influence their own games – and if you consider they are referring to Illuminati and Magic: The Gathering respectively that is indeed high praise. It has gone through several publishers over its life time and has won the 1991 Origins Award for Best Fantasy Or Sci-Fi game.
By now, several of you are telling me to get on with it, because you already know as to what I am referring. To those of you who are newer to the board gaming hobby, I speak of the seminal Cosmic Encounter.
Cosmic Encounter was designed by Peter Olotka, Jack Kittredge
, Bill Eberle and Bill Norton. Originally published by Eon Products, the latest version is has been in print with Fantasy Flight Games for the past 9 years – with 6 expansions currently available allowing additional players and variants on the basic game.
Each player in Cosmic Encounter represents an alien race chosen at random from a wide selection at the game’s start. The players start by setting up twenty tokens on five planets that start under their control. These tokens represent basees when on planets and star ships when used to attack other players. They are also given a hand of cards which are a mixture of Attack, Negotiate, Reinforcement and Artifact cards (in previous versions of the game Negotiate and Artifact were known as Compromise and Edicts respectively).
The aim of the game is to establish colonies on five planets outside your starting system. Of course the problem with this is that all the other planets have colonies upon them belonging to other players. So you have to find a way to get your tokens there – by fair means or foul.
Each turn a player draws a card from the Destiny deck which will state which enemy they need to attack (or if they draw a card that is their own faction, they get to choose). The player choses a planet with tokens of that players on it and commits up to four of his own tokens to attack. Both players then have an opportunity to invite other players in as allies in the attack (who can also add up to four tokens of their own to assist either side). It is at this point, players will play one of their cards secretly into the combat. Attack cards add a fixed number to the number of tokens in the combat (so attack card 9 and 3 tokens gives a combined total of 12). The side with the highest score wins. The losers tokens are sent to the warp (a dead zone from which the tokens are gradually released back to players). A successful defence gives the player a bonus encounter card. If the attackers are successful, all tokens in the attack are immediately placed on the planet and that player is one closer to victory.
I mentioned the prisoner’s dilemma earlier and the introduction of the Negotiation cards is what facilitates a modified version of this. Players can convince one another that an agreement between them may be the better option and can play these cards instead of attack cards. However, players are under no obligation to honour this and can instead put down attack cards in response to Negotiation cards. Where this happens, the negotiator and their allies are wiped out, but is allowed to take a card from the other side’s hand in recompense. Where both sides agree to negotiate, the players have a minute to reach an agreement over the exchange of bases or cards. If they fail to do so, both players end up losing tokens to the warp as punishment for their dithering.
Whilst the game’s strategy appears simple at first, it is complicated by the addition of the Artifact cards and the individual Alien abilities. Each of these allows players to bend the games rules in certain ways. Artifacts have a number of different abilities – some of which include the capacity to release all ships from the warp; cancel other alien abilities; or block allies from being involved in a challenge. Careful marshalling of these cards can leverage a crucial advantage for you at an important point in the game.
The Alien cards give players a persistent means to influence the game and often substantially change the play style for the players. The titles of each alien is more of a generic description of their style of player – so titles such as Magician, Healer and Ghoul give you a concept about how each race plays. The abilities can be situational; a different victory conditions or a standard change to the basic rules. An example of the later is the Virus who counts the combat score by multiplying the number of ships they have by the encounter card played rather than adding. The Genius is able to draw cards rather than establishing colonies – and can win the game by having 20 encounter cards in their hand. Some of these powers appear serious, although there are a number of races that have “jokey” abilities (although not necessarily to the extent that it makes the game unwinnable). The Sniveler is the most well-known of these, where players in a losing position can whine about it and other players must give them ships, colonies or cards or suffer penalties of their own.
So what is it that makes Cosmic Encounter so good in my opinion, especially when I in the past I have found games with such a long history to have failed to sufficiently evolve. I think the point about Cosmic Encounter is that it does not have to evolve, as the game has always managed to feel fresh in its player interactions. If you consider that the basic game contains over 50 aliens and each expansion adds even more to the mix, there are so many different combinations of abilities that could occur.
Unlike other 4X style games, the destiny deck ensures that there is no fortressing in your home systems and trying to build an impenetrable defence before venturing out. There is an immediacy which ensures that the game plays much quicker than others. Some may dislike the artificial nature of creating conflicts and the lack of choice, but I find it adds tension and prevents conservative play. Moreover, due to the number of cards in the destiny deck, it prevents players ganging up too much on one individual and brings the game to a conclusion usually within the hour.
I also like how the galactic civilisations theme is does not feel integral to the game’s design, but neither does it feel tacked on. For those individual for whom anything sci-fi is no go, I feel there is an opportunity to bring them into this game and I am pretty certain they will forget about it in the bedlam that erupts from the word go. Furthermore, it works as a great introduction game – no dithering over turns and players having an opportunity to get involved at all times through the alliances that emerge.
Moreover this game is as much as anything a framework for the social interactions that are carrying out between the players. There are threats, agreements, pleadings and back stabbing that makes an episode of Game Of Thrones look like a family picnic. But most of all, there is laughter. The game does not take itself too seriously and it does not want you to do so either. This is not a po-faced space opera. This is a sci-fi game that thrives on immediate and repeated chaos. It may knock you down, but you sure as hell want to get back up again and re-enter the fray again.
Despite being late to the party, I adore Cosmic Encounter. I can get it on the table with little fuss, explain most of the rules within a few minutes and then crack on with being honest, thoughtful, deceitful or whatever way I feel with going to the job done. As so many of my games are co-operative, it’s nice to know that at times you can just be looking out for number one. And in doing so, dominate a small corner of the infinite cosmos.