What do we want from expansions? There are the ones that simply add extra pieces for more players. Some games satisfy themselves with extra maps or scenarios. Others have figured out that if they have enough fans, they can make them purchase something every six months or so. And that doesn’t come close to covering the legion of collectible and expandable games out there that explicitly build constant expansions into their business models. But my favorite kind of expansions are the ones that add new options to the game that it expands. If I really like a game, I’m ready for a new way to play. And the undisputed king of that last kind of expansion, for good or for ill, is Fantasy Flight Games.
And yet, their reprint of Cosmic Encounter has been strangely conservative with expansions. I don’t mean with regards to number, since the old Eon classic has seen three expansions in as many years in its current form. Rather, the scope of the expansions has been rather limited. They have all been small-box affairs, adding several new powers and pieces for another player. Besides that, there have been new variants added to the game that, while impactful, still feel a little slight. More than once I’ve forgotten that I was playing with the Hazard Deck from Cosmic Conflict. This runs in sharp contrast to the rest of FFG’s stable of much-expanded games. Arkham Horror, Talisman, and Descent have all received numerous expansions, each piling more and more rules onto the experience. It’s rare that a game makes it to three expansions while remaining essentially the same experience, but somehow Cosmic Encounter has stayed faithful to itself and to its heritage. The newest expansion, Cosmic Alliance, feels like the safest of the bunch.
Fans of the franchise know the drill by now. Here’s another twenty aliens to throw in the mix, as well as another player color, bringing the player count to a whopping eight. Have you ever tried an eight-player game of Cosmic Encounter? I did it once, and it was completely unhinged. It took us three hours, but I must say that it didn’t feel that long. My experience was one of insane reversals, bizarre corner cases, and ridiculous come-from-behind victories, including two players who literally lost all of their ships to the warp and somehow came back to win. In short, it was Cosmic Encounter at its most Cosmic-y.
To their credit, Fantasy Flight is mindful of the effect that large groups can have on the game. The key addition in terms of cards is an extra stack to throw in the deck with 7 or 8 players. It stretches the deck a little more with large groups, which is a good thing. The new alien powers seem to have an eye towards being usable when it’s not the player’s turn. That’s a welcome move, since the average 8-player game of Cosmic will allow a player maybe two turns of their own. Also added is a new variant, Team Cosmic. The idea here is that the players are divided into two-person teams, and they win as a unit. This one doesn’t quite justify its existence. Is it supposed to make large games go faster? Does it reduce chaos? I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t yet had the chance to play Team Cosmic. It feels unfaithful to the spirit of the game to make certain alliances set in stone, and it’s hard enough to get a big group together to play the normal way. I suppose I could play teams with 4 or 5 people, but I confess that I’m not that interested. But if someone were to offer it, I’d definitely be game to try it.
Almost everything in Cosmic Alliance can be thrown in the category of “more of the same.” That’s not a problem at all, since the game thrives on ridiculous levels of variety and interaction. More powers and another player can only ramp that up. But I find myself disappointed by the rest of the package. While I appreciate the attention to the needs of a large group, it pretty much insures that the expansion is only for people who already own the other two. And the extra cards are good to have, but only in a boring “sensible shoes” kind of way. (Although I do like the unpredictability of another Attack 40 in the deck.)
Don’t misread me, I still really like having this expansion around. The new powers are always in the mix with everything else, and I’m sure that some players felt the game was incomplete without the white pieces. I love the symmetry of having eight players in the game, and I would gladly play again with that many. But we already have two other expansions that added basically the same thing, and those ones added more interesting variants to the mix. This is disappointing because Fantasy Flight is known for adding BIG expansions to a game. They’ve already shown that they know how to be respectful of Eon’s work. This was a chance to really cut loose and take Cosmic Encounter in a bizarre new direction. The original game received a total of nine expansions before bowing out, and that included strange detours like Moons and Lucre. Neither are known for being altogether successful, but I wouldn’t mind a noble failure at this point. Other successful franchises have added strange expansions after a game is established. Carcassonne seemed like an ill fit for a catapult-based dexterity element, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t want something like that in Cosmic Encounter.
But then, Fantasy Flight is not a company that is given over to goofy sideshows. They design in a particular style, and that style is probably at odds with the Cosmic spirit. Still, their track record with Cosmic Encounter has been good enough that I’d be willing to indulge them. The word is that there are two more expansions left to their version of Cosmic Encounter, which means I could yet be proven wrong. I’ll gladly buy every new expansion for Cosmic, but it would be nice if one of the future expansions really breaks the established mold. After all, breaking the mold is the very essence of what Cosmic Encounter is all about.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.