Cosmic Encounter and Expansions Review

Cosmic Encounter and Expansions Review Hot

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Cosmic Encounter was one of the first hobby board games I owned, back when I was a teenager. It was the Games Workshop edition. I can still remember being baffled by the rules. It looked and smelled like a conquest game: there were battles and alliances and units died. But what the hell kind of conquest game made you draw and card to determine your target instead of you picking on the weakest player? Where was the fun in that?

Oh sure, you could still make alliances. The encounter each turn with your random opponent allowed each side to invite people to help out. Sure, there was still excitement, with combat determined by the number of ships on each side plus the play of a numeric card. And the draw of a different alien power for each player was a fascinating idea. But where was the sense of narrative, of slowly building friendships and enmities?

It had rave reviews so we played it anyway, and it fell flat as a pancake. We played a couple more times, waiting for excitement to leap out of the box like some snarling predator. But it never came. It quietly went back on the shelf, and I went back to miniatures and role playing.

Fast forward twenty years and Fantasy Flight released a new edition. And again, it got rave reviews. So I figured I owed it another chance.

This time, when I read the rules, the acclaim made more sense. I still couldn’t understand why you drew a card to determine your opponent for the turn. But this edition had more and better aliens for the players. Each with some ludicrous powers which recombined to make an ever shifting strategic backdrop. It had flares, special power cards that were missing in GWs neutered version of the game. They add a lot of flavour, variety and excitement. It had more interesting combat cards, with things like reinforcements to add tension to negotiation and combat.

And it was better. No doubt about it. But we played it, and it still felt lacking in a certain something. It still looked and smelled like a conquest game. But compared with its genre peers it felt brief and tame. There was little trash talk. Little sense of the epic.

So away it went again, but this time the box nagged at me from the shelf. The game that so many praised to the heavens was in there somewhere. I could feel it lurking, like treasure buried beneath the silt of a river. I just couldn’t figure out how to grasp it and pull it forth into daylight.

What might help, I figured, was seeing experienced players get down to it. But everyone I gamed with seemed as clueless as I did. Until, that is, the Shut Up & Sit Down team posted a video of how they played.

Watching that, the missing piece of the puzzle finally clicked into place. Cosmic isn’t a conquest game. It does look and smell like one, but it isn’t.

 

Cosmic Encounter is a negotiation game, pure and simple. What’s more it’s an early European style one, before the first actual Eurogame and way before those games got buried in an avalanche of mathematics. It’s just that in Cosmic you’re negotiating over lives and territory, instead of florins and crates of sauerkraut.

The enabler of this brilliance is, of course, the random selection of an enemy each turn. There’s no long-term alliances in Cosmic because, just like in finance, it only hurts if you hold on to them. If you’re buying and selling it doesn’t matter who sold you what yesterday, or whether it made you a profit. All you care about is the deal on the table, right here, right now.

It helped that I had some expansions on board this time round. The two most important are Cosmic Incursion and Cosmic Dominion. Both have the best aliens of all the available expansions. Both have 32 “reward” cards which can be drawn by players who ally on the defending side in an encounter. Reward cards work like normal combat cards, but are more powerful and add a lot of zest and variety to the game. They’re a great addition because allying with the defence isn’t the most attractive proposition in the original, since it does nothing to help you win the game.

There are other expansions, too. The only other one I’ve played is Cosmic Storm. This set got a lot of flak for featuring a poor line-up of extra alien powers. Some of them do look to be poorly designed. Some others look to be close copies of powers from other expansions. But there are a handful of good additions on offer. Plus the set features space stations, which are a bit like another alien power you can wield, tied to your ownership of one planet. While the selection of just ten gets repetitive these are otherwise a great addition, adding an element of tactical position to the game. You now have one planet you especially don’t want to lose.

Cosmic Encounter has its own special alien power, the power to fascinate. Some gamers are so hooked by its exotic intoxication that they play hundreds of games, rarely playing anything else. With so much potential variety, so much interaction in the box, it’s not hard to see why. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those fanatics. Somehow the game feels a little too brief, a little too convenient. But I’m glad I understand where the game is coming from now. It’s brilliant and unique, and it’s hard not to love a game that lets you play as The Filth.

Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.

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Posted: 16 Mar 2015 08:25 by Shellhead #199562
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I played a lot of Shadowfist in the '90s. It was a CCG that was clearly inspired by Cosmic Encounter as much as Magic: the Gathering. Players would bring out locations that provided power, and then fight to take away those sites from each other. By not restricting who could attack who the way CE does, Shadowfist tended to involve strong players attacking the weakest player every turn. In the late game, this forced other players to ally to defend the weakest player every turn. It sucked to be that weakest player, and it sometimes felt like a chore to defend that weakest player. Random selection of defender is a great alternative.
Posted: 16 Mar 2015 09:38 by jgriff #199571
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Cosmic Encounter is the prime example of a game that occasionally produces a howling stinker of a game and then the next time might produce the best game you've ever played. The variation means you have to weather the bad games and hope that the classic play is around the corner. Once you hit that perfect game, then it all clicks together why people love it so much. And then you'll play 20 more times trying to recapture that feeling. Ok, so Cosmic Encounter might be alot like heroin.
Posted: 16 Mar 2015 09:47 by Michael Barnes #199573
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The first couple of times I played Cosmic I hated it. I had the Avalon Hill edition, after literally years of picking up the Mayfair edition in the comic/games shop I used to go to and thinking "we should try this" and then putting it down. By the time I got to it, I thought it was awful, and assumed it was another one of those games like Illuminati that were past their prime (in 1999/2000) and likely beloved only by those who played it when it was one of just a couple of games like that.

Here's the thing. When I played it for the first three or four times, it was also with people who were new to it.

But then, ironically enough, going back and playing the Mayfair game with people who had played it before...suddenly that made all of the difference in the world. I got all of its odd, seemingly too-restrictive rules. I understood why you receive a Cosmic Edict and don't choose who to fight- it's to force you to attack the guy who helped you last time...or to get that feeling of smug satisfaction when you are ordered to attack the guy that just took a planet from you.

Now, Cosmic Encounter is the best game ever published. It is the Ur-game, the One True Game. I would literally ditch my entire collection if I could have only one game and it would be Cosmic. It embodies everything that I would consider to be a "perfect" design.

But Griff is 100% correct...you get those bad games every now and then when the powers, cards and especially the players just don't line up right. That isn't the design's fault.
Posted: 16 Mar 2015 10:02 by MattDP #199574
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Actually I'd say that is very much the designs' fault. But it's an almost unavoidable cost for packing so much variety into one game. No amount of play testing could or should catch all the bad combinations: even if it did, changing one would just impact somewhere else.
Posted: 16 Mar 2015 12:35 by DukeofChutney #199588
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I've only had cosmic flop on two occasions, one with a bunch of non gamers who didn't really get what the object was, and a few times when i've played with the same group a few too many times in a row, and that was more fatigue really. Cosmic doesn't easily fit into most peoples conceptual box of what you are supposed to do in games and that can be a bit jarring. Lets plays can be valuable. I've played cosmic like SUSD play it for a while but i did fine the tabletop episode on Fiasco useful as it demonstrated the tone of the game really well.
Posted: 16 Mar 2015 14:28 by Legomancer #199594
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I've tried several times to understand the CE thing and every time I've walked away unimpressed. Enough people love it that I'm okay assuming it's a failure on my own part, but I've just never gotten anything out of the game. I chalk this up to not really enjoying negotiation and the game requiring a lot of it.
Posted: 16 Mar 2015 14:37 by charlest #199595
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It's kind of an odd thing for a game to produce such a weak first play for a table full of completely newcomers to actually catch on and push through that difficulty to become so loved.

Like Barnes, my first play with all newbies and we didn't get it at all. People would invite the entire table to ally and we played very poorly. We ended the game and were really confused on why it was so well loved.
Posted: 16 Mar 2015 15:02 by Shellhead #199596
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I have only played two editions of Cosmic Encounter: FFG and Eon. I only played a couple of games of the Eon edition and found it to be less of a game and more of a debate forum, due to loose rules. We were also playing with expansion material, including both Moons and Lucre, which seemed like unnecessary complexity. Most of my experience with CE has been the excellent FFG edition. Once in a great while an issue will come up with the FFG edition. In one recent game, we had Masochist and Zombie in the same game, and Zombie had a special ability that could prevent Masochist from winning, so we persuaded the Zombie player to draw another race to play instead.
Posted: 16 Mar 2015 15:36 by Jackwraith #199598
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Like Shellhead, my first games were with the Eon edition in college and it was decent, but mostly because it was wacky and played while drinking. I liked it, but not because it was a great game and more because it was a great social game. Then I tried the AH version in the 90s and it just fell flat. It was rote and kinda boring. Also like Shellhead, the bulk of my experience has been with the FFG version and it's been spectacular. Looking back on the Eon edition, I can see where it basically became the foundation of modern boardgame design because it introduced the concept of different players acting within the same system and it was great. FFG has only improved on something that a lot of people thought couldn't be. We've had some odd games that aren't epic in any sense, but the endless variety and those weird situations are part of its charm. It'll always be a part of my collection.
Posted: 16 Mar 2015 18:26 by bioball #199602
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Michael Barnes wrote:
Now, Cosmic Encounter is the best game ever published. It is the Ur-game, the One True Game. I would literally ditch my entire collection if I could have only one game and it would be Cosmic. It embodies everything that I would consider to be a "perfect" design.

If I was forced to burn my collection today, it would be the one game I would use my tears and blood to extinguish the flames. Cosmic is a wonderful game and I think there have been several recent articles and video reviews that have done it great justice. Its still a highly inventive game with little on the market that matches it. And the more that comes out (especially from Kickstarter) the more highly underrated Cosmic becomes.

Need a game that...
Euro or Ameriatrash game? Cosmic- it can be either
Quick with depth? Cosmic- plays shorter than most games of Munchkin & far more enjoyable
Involves table talk? Cosmic - just want what happens when people start negotiating for a hot 4th colony
Your college friends will play or that you can play with family? Cosmic- great with beer but nothing offensive about the design for the little ones.
Plays 4 to 8, but is not Arkham Horror? Cosmic
Will impress your jaded board game elitists in your group? Cosmic
Has a lot replayability AND expansion? Cosmic- 4 expansions and counting, plus one made by fans

I helped teach 3 new folks at PAX South and they haven't looked back. Its become a favorite game of theirs and saw it quickly picked up again at PAX East.
Posted: 17 Mar 2015 15:34 by San Il Defanso #199640
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Obviously I'm in the camp who would get rid of every other game before Cosmic Encounter. I do agree that it can sometimes produce a dud, but this failure level has been very low for me, maybe 1 in 25. I'm not sure if I've ever played a game with so much variety and interaction that could claim to do much better than that.

It nails something about interaction that a lot of games miss, even very combat-y ones. It's the kind of interaction that feels entirely organic. It's not this sort of separate "phase" to the game, but rather something that is woven into every fabric of the design. I think that if alliances weren't specifically put into the game they would emerge anyway, kind of like alliances in Risk. But BECAUSE they are an intentional element of the design, Cosmic Encounter feels incredibly aware of what kind of game it actually is. The only other game that nails its interaction so well is Settlers of Catan, with its trading. I don't know if that makes sense, I haven't played in ages. But a lot of times I think games design interaction into the game like, "Okay, now it's time to play with the other people!" In Cosmic Encounter that's just there the whole time.

But the other side is that it managed really well and doesn't become this behemoth that new players can't grok. I think of games like Bootleggers, where everything is open season pretty much all the time, and it's just a trainwreck. But in Cosmic it never feels stressful to interact. It just feels natural.

It's not the most "narrative" of games, which causes some theme-hounds to underrate it I think. But to me it has always shown just how much board games can actually do. Still the best game ever designed I think.
Posted: 17 Mar 2015 16:15 by Sagrilarus #199641
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I arranged a marriage between Cosmic and my daughter, and shortly after my Piles went away. Truly a remarkable game.

S.
Posted: 25 Mar 2015 18:44 by aaxiom #199963
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I don't believe I have EVER put all of the components to the FFG version (with two expansions) back into the box without a smile on my face, and saying, "This is awesome.... in a box."

I think the game group has the ability to make or break this one, however... but we've never failed to have a bad experience with this one. It's a wild jaunt, replete with surprises, some bad words uttered (or thought), and a TON of laughs. Cosmic Encounter is just a solid title in my view.