Today I’m going to talk about a game which could be the definition of broken, its random beyond any other game I can think of, the powers are completely unbalanced, there is luck up the wahzoo and yet, despite that, it’s been hugely popular for over 30 years.
My Story So Far…
Cosmic Encounter was a game that was picked up for me in a charity shop back when I was in my teens by my loving parents, who back then, didn’t really have the patience to learn games, which begs the question why buy the games? Anyway, I digress. This was a time when old Games Workshop games were fairly common in the charity shops, we had found Heroquest, Bloodbowl, Dungeonquest, Kings & Things and Cosmic Encounter was just another £1.50 find that got added to the cupboard.
Of course, I wanted to play it. I broke it out, read the rules, failed to understand why anyone would agree to play unless they could be the Virus and tried to teach the game to my family. Immediate outraged followed as one person’s power was clearly superior, how was anyone else supposed to win. The game concluded quickly after that and was returned to the box, there to rest in peace for many years to come.
Fast forward several years. I’m now 20 and in a long term, long distance relationship. My then Girlfriend expresses interest in playing games. I pipe up that I have a whole collection of stuff we can try. I suggest Kings and Things (we’d already been playing various trading card games and I thought she’d be up for something a little more complex), I hadn’t even finished getting the components out of the box before she suggested putting it off for another night.
Needless to say the games never came out again, we broke up a couple of years later and Cosmic Encounter was lost for good, along with much of my roleplaying collection! Then, in 2008, I discovered board games again, right around the time FFG was republishing Cosmic and I remember remarking to myself, “Why?”
Recalling the terrible event where the game had been played once and caused infinite argument I dismissed it out of hand. When Tom Vasel placed it 6th in his top 100 list the next year I still ignored it. When they released the Incursion expansion I scoffed once more, although less audibly and with some minor interest because I had learnt what FFG stood for by that time.
Then, accidentally one evening, I found the game on Ebay for £30, new, which seemed reasonable. I doubted I’d ever get it to the table but I bought it anyway. However, it turned out that there never was a copy of the game and I’d been scammed, although my money was returned to me, so not a very good scam. Still I was annoyed that my bargain had been stolen from me, despite knowing I was almost definitely not going to play the game, so I went back on the internet and Board Game Extras were having a sale, with Cosmic Encounter priced at £30!!! What were the odds?
I promptly added it to cart, paid for it, received it, punched it all out, read the rules, watched Tom’s video reviews, read some more reviews and then shelved it until my birthday rolled around last month.
Now I am the proud owner of Cosmic Encounter and do you know what’s even more impressive, it’s been played… and enjoyed… and there haven’t been any arguments… and I’ve never won one solitary game!!!
That Took Longer Than Anticipated
So, I’ve had a history with the game that left me somewhat sceptical as to its worth, but (spoiler alert) I’m glad I persevered. Right, let’s get on with this review.
In some ways the theme in Cosmic Encounter is incidental, but in other ways it’s all there is, but then, this is a game that is full of contradictions like that.
In Cosmic Encounter you play as an alien race intent on conquering the galaxy by any and all means necessary. Of courses, your attacks are not directed in the normal fashion, but are instead left up to the dictates of fate.
With 50 different Aliens in the galaxy these interstellar wars should be constantly changing, never producing entirely identical results. Of course the universe is a vast and complex place and new aliens are being discovered all the time, so if you do find yourself reliving the same battles over and over, FFG has kindly created a whole plethora of expansions. (Can 2 be a plethora? Well they won’t stop at 2 anyway…..... will they???)
Like most (non-silverline) Fantasy Flight Games, it comes in a box which is way too big for the components but happily leaves plenty of room for the expansions. It’s one of those nice, sturdy, linen finished, square boxes with pretty art on the side and a promise of goodies inside. Like:
5 Player Colony Markers
1 Hyperspace Gate
25 Player Planets (5 per player)
100 Plastic Ships (20 per player)
50 Alien Sheets
20 Destiny Cards
72 Cosmic Cards
50 Flare Cards
20 Tech Cards
42 Cosmic Tokens
7 Grudge Tokens
1 Genesis Planet
1 Lunar Cannon Token
1 Prometheus Token
1 Alternate Filch Flare
Everything is the quality I have come to expect of FFG. All the punchboard is nice and thick with good quality artwork on it. The plastic ships look great and stack nicely on top of each other. Occasionally they fall over but they look so much cooler than the cones in my old edition that I don’t care. My only complaint with the contents really is the box control, but as I said before, the total lack of box control does mean you have plenty of space for expansions. The Aliens look great and the fact that there are 50 of them is huge. Other than Tomb from AEG, I can’t think of a single game with this many playable characters/races, that's a lot of development (even if some of the work had already been done by previous editions).
One thing I think is really clever is the lack of a board. no fixed board means adding new players into the game (as each published expansion does) is easy. I also like that the core box included several variants and options that could have easily been released as a separate expansion, but weren't.
Finally I’ll just mention the rulebook. Very nice job here, very clear and concise with plenty of examples. I like the fact that the main body of the rules were not cluttered up with “if this” or “when that” type statements, that instead they were placed in side bars, that really appealed to me. Also the rules summary on the back is pretty nice and concise.
Anyway, enough about components, onto…
At its heart Cosmic Encounter is very, very simple. Each player begins the game with 5 planets and 20 ships. They each receive two Alien Powers and choose one. Everyone is dealt a hand of 8 cards and performs any further setup required by their Alien Power.
Then the top card of the Destiny Deck is drawn to reveal which colour will start the game. This is a great mechanic that I want to start using in other games, much faster than everyone rolling a die. On their turn each player does the following steps in order. Firstly, they retrieve one of their ships from the Warp (the Space Graveyard). Next they check to see if they have at least 1 Encounter Card (the word Encounter is clearly printed on the cards to make this easier.). If they don’t they may play any cards they can before discarding the rest of their hand and drawing back up to 8.
Next they turn over a Destiny Card this card tells the player which other player they will have an encounter with. Drawing your own colour allows you to attack players who have settled in your home system or reclaim a colony you may have lost. Alternately you can draw again until you draw another players colour.
Next the player points the Hyperspace Gate at the planet he wishes to attack and places 1-4 of this own ships in the gate. The defence may only use the ships he has on that planet as its defence. Even if he has no ships he must still defend the planet.
Next both players may invite allies. Starting with the Offence, the other players do not have to respond until they have heard from both sides. Then any player who wishes to ally can place up to 4 ships with the Offence’s or the Defence’s ships.
Each main player (not allies) now chooses a card from his hand and places it face down. The cards are then revealed and resolved. If both players play an Attack card the value, plus the number of ships on their side including allies is added up and the player with the highest total wins. Various things can affect this including powers, flares and reinforcements, but at some point a winner is declared. The loser has all his (and his ally’s) ships sent to the Warp, if the offence wins he gets to place his ships on the planet as a foreign colony.
Allies with the Offence also get to place a colony on the planet if they win. Allies with the defence can choose to receive 1 card from the deck or one ship from the warp, or a mixture of both, for each ship they contributed to the defence if they win.
If one player played a Negotiate card but the other didn’t, that player automatically loses, but he gets to take cards from the winner's hand equal to the number of ships he had in the encounter (Allied ships are destroyed without compensation).
If both players reveal a negotiate they have 1 minute (provide own timer) to broker a deal (Allies return home), otherwise they each lose 3 ships to the warp. The deal must include a tangible element, either cards or colonies, rather than just empty promises.
If the player made a successful attack or deal he may take a second turn, as long as he has at least 1 encounter card in his hand. A player may only take one additional turn per round in this manner, unless he has an alien power that says otherwise.
The first player to establish 5 foreign colonies is the winner, and yes, it is perfectly possible for multiple people to get five at the same time for a shared victory.
Is that it?
If it was this game would be effectively about who had the highest card, i.e. pure luck. However, the Alien Powers mess all that up. For example, the Sorcerer has the power to switch cards with the opponent before the cards are revealed. So now you could play a low card and hope he switches, but if he doesn’t you’re screwed.
Each individual power makes the way you play entirely different and once you add in Flares to the equation things get really chaotic.
It may sound like this game is entirely luck driven and it could be if you play it as such. It could also be incredibly broken if you always play your best card every time because then the “best” alien power is bound to win.
However, if you play this game the way it is intended, it’s incredibly tactical. Each and every card in your hand has a time and a place to be played. There is a reason that this game has endured for 30 years. This is not a game about Alien conflict, this is a game about people. Can you outthink your opponent and if you can’t can you convince another player that it’s in his best interest to help you win.
There are so many varied paths to victory, you don’t need to be the strongest player, you need to be the most cunning. For example Tick Tock needs only to wait for the universe to end in order to win. For every successful defence or deal he moves closer to winning. Therefore it might well be in your interest to jump into bed with the defence or play a card which forces the current players to make a deal.
There are so many options and powers and combos in this game that I haven’t tried everything, but everything I have tried I’ve loved. I love that each card tells you exactly when it can be played in the turn sequence. I love that the game has three different difficulty settings on the alien powers so that you can make things simple for new players and complex for veterans.
I love the fact that there are expansions right there in the box, use them or don’t use them, but you have the option and that’s great.
The fact that the gameplay mechanics are so simple, so streamlined, really appeals to me. When it comes down to it there is little more to understand than what happens when you flip over your Encounter card. But because the gameplay is that simple, it can twisted this way and that by all the powers until it is something entirely different.
At the end of the day, this is not a game, this is a scheme, a plan, this is a competition as to whom can be the most conniving Alien at the table and get away with it! And that’s the important part, getting away with it!
I may have owned the game twice, at significantly different price points and with significantly different results, but now, Cosmic Encounter has earned its place in my collection!