This week is a special column, as I've always wanted to do an "Ameritrash Hall of Fame" series of articles. My hope is that a series like that would generate considerable discussion and passionate responses, as we'd be talking about some of the giants, the lynchpins, the key games that define our portion of the hobby today. And folks, there are fewer bigger ones than this week's entry--the legendary Cosmic Encounter. Join us, won't you?
I'll admit that as a reviewer who finds himself with new games to review week in and week out, it's nice to slow down, not only be wrapped up in whatever is new, but to talk about those games that honestly stick with you, that stand the test of time, that make us the gamers that we are today.
It is without compunction that I present to you entry #1 in the Ameritrash Hall of Fame:
Cosmic Encounter has a storied, highly decorated history. From Wikipedia, here's the description:
"Cosmic Encounter is a science fiction-themed strategy board game, designed by "Future Pastimes" (collectively, Peter Olotka, Jack Kittredge and Bill Eberle, with Bill Norton) and originally published by Eon Games in 1977. In it, each player takes the role of a particular alien species with a unique power to break one of the rules of the game attempting to establish control over the universe. In 1992, a new edition of Cosmic Encounter won the Origins Award for Best Fantasy or Science Fiction Boardgame of 1991, and placed 6th in the Deutscher Spiele Preis. The game was inducted into the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame in 1997.
Cosmic Encounter is a very dynamic and social game, with players being encouraged to interact, argue, form alliances, make deals, double-cross, and occasionally work together to protect the common good. Most editions of the game are designed for three to six players, although official rules exist for playing with as few as two, or as many as eight, players."
Cosmic at its core is such a simple game, deceptively so. Everyone has a number of home planets, each with four ships. On your turn, a random card is drawn to determine who you will attack. You can commit ships from your colonies, up to four. Then, each side pleads for other players to ally with them, to increase the strength of attack or defense. Once that negotiation's done, each player plays an "Encounter" card, most often with a printed strength, to boost their values. Once the scores are totaled, if the defender wins, the attacker's ships (and all allies) go to a central location called "The Warp." If the defender loses, the attacker (and his allies) get to establish a foreign colony on the attacked planet, while the defender's ships go to The Warp. Once ships go to the warp, the successful attacker has the choice to repeat this process one time, drawing a new card for whom to attack.
It's important to note that ships sent to The Warp aren't gone forever, you can retrieve one ship from there at the start of each of your turns, but while they're there, you're much weaker militarily.
The first player to establish a set number of foreign colonies wins; because attackers share the rewards of colonization when victorious, it is possible to share the win.
And that's basically the game. But oh, the devil is in the details, as they always say.
First, the cards themselves aren't always purely numeric strength boosters. There are all sorts of special power cards in the deck, doing powerful things like preventing players from allying during attack and defense, or perhaps one that instantly frees all ships from The Warp, to others that can turn losing into winning. There's the Negotiate card, which can be played during battle to automatically concede the loss, but allowing you to randomly get cards from the attacker's hand as "compensation." If both players Negotiate, then all allies are sent home, and the attacker and defender have one minute to come to some sort of agreement (frequently, this involves "colony for colony", with both players gaining a foreign colony.) If they fail to come to an agreement within one minute, then both of them lose ships to the warp and they each gain nothing.
So you take even the Negotiation mechanism which has you "throwing" the fight. Couple that with the ability to invite allies on defense. Mix in an invitation to player(s) you don't like. They greedy ally with you, looking for free card draws for a successful defense. Instead you negotiate, losing the fight for both you...and all of your allies...while you get card draws.
Folks, there ain't no more delicious backstabbing in the world than that right there.
And we haven't even begun to talk about the best part of the game in the form of the alien powers. Gamebreakers each and every one, the sky is truly the limit to what some of these crazy alien powers do. From simple things like peeking at your opponent's hand of cards, to "clinging" to an opponent and fetching extra ships and cards, to "whining" about your fate in the game and getting free ships from the warp or free cards or...
Seriously, one of the pure joys in the game is being surprised by some new crazy alien power. Want to use your home planets as giant weapons? Sure. Want to WIN THE GAME by losing all your ships? Yep. Hey, let's make winning combat losing and losing combat winning...
Alone, most of these powers are crazy, but mix them in a cauldron of six players, each with their own game-changing power? Man, that is just awesome sauce. Because of this, no two games of Cosmic Encounter will ever play the same.
Cosmic has been through several editions over the years, starting back with the Eon edition in 1977 all the way until the incredible Fantasy Flight edition that is on store shelves currently. The Fantasy Flight version has 50 aliens in the base set, tighter definition of the phases of the game, along with an extremely nice production with thick tiles and cool plastic ships. FFG has since released two expansions for Cosmic Encounter that add special decks as well as 40 MORE aliens total between the two sets, pushing the grand total of available alien powers to 90. Yes, NINETY.
Why is this my first selection for my Ameritrash Hall of Fame? Quite simply folks, this is the grandfather of the lion's share of games that we enjoy today. Variable player powers, rule-breaking cards, negotiation, backstabbing, direct and frequent player interaction as the cornerstone of every turn. In short, Cosmic Encounter is the essence of what we enjoy about games.
Its influence cannot be overstated. Pivotal games such as Wiz-War, Magic: The Gathering, even the venerable Dune by the same design team all owe a tremendous debt to Cosmic Encounter.
The notion that you have a basic set of rules waiting to be broken with each card play...the idea of wildly variable asymmetrical playerpowers...it all began right here, folks.
Let me take a few moments to address the two most common complaints I hear about Cosmic, as a pre-emptive defense mechanism. First is the random attack--you aren't in control of who you attack on your turn. But at its core, it solves a lot of the issues with multi-player conflict games in terms of vulturing weak players or the whole "let the whole table ally against the leader and extend the game another two hours."
That's not to say that the ability to vulture or gang-up on someone doesn't happen--but now, it's not a common mindtrap for players to fall into.
Also, with this forced attack, there is no turtling. Multiplayer conflict games also can suffer from the Cold War mentality of a massive troop build-up--"don't attack me, or suffer the consequences." However, this isn't possible in Cosmic Encounter. You are forced to do battle, forced to stretch yourself more thinly than you'd like, and most of all, forced to fight someone that may not have been of your choosing. Such is Cosmic.
Lastly, this removes a portion of the whole "whining" phase that inevitably takes place in multiplayer games. "Attack him! He's winning! Don't attack me! I didn't do anything to you!" (Ever hear any of this before? Yeah...I've been guilty of it myself.) You eliminate that whole blabbering, pleading phase and get straight to the combat, which is out of the hands of both players. Oh, you'll still get the whining when it comes time to ally for and against, but that's the constructive kind of whining, when the ships are already hurtling to war, lasers blaring, drowning out the bleating of the conquered.
The other complaint is the lack of a real map--with each players having abstracted planets in front of them, with no other geography. Of course, we're talking about ships capable of tunneling through Warps to random planets, so distance and geography aren't as important, but this distillation of geography allows the best part of the game to take front and center--the battle, the interaction, the card play. In baseball terms, it's the pitcher-batter duel, and it's one of the most important things in the game.
I love geography in my games; I'm a big fan of Dudes on a Map. But this is a case of Dudes on an Abstract Map that truly works. The decision to attack, the wheres, the logistics of proximity and location--all of that has been handled for you. Now, all that's left is the battle. The negotiation. The begging, pleading, whining, backstabbing. That clever use of an alien ability to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. Hearing the groans of your would-be allies as you condemn them to the Warp with purposefully weak cardplay.
Cosmic Encounter is, quite frankly, fun in a box. It's a pioneer and grandfather of so many of our games today, but unlike some of those dustier titles, it's still worth playing today, and often better than its would-be replacements.
With Fantasy Flight's fantastic treatment of the game, there is no excuse not to own this game. It is a landmark title, worthy of addition to any collection. Unlike so many of the new games that get reviewed week in and week out, Cosmic Encounter will still be played and talked about 20 years from now.
Cosmic is one of my "perfect games", and was an easy choice as my first selection for Ken B.'s Ameritrash Hall of Fame.
Thanks for reading, I'll see ya in seven.