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Cosmic Encounter Duel Gets Lost to Warp - Review

MB Updated July 29, 2020
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Cosmic Encounter Duel

Game Information

2 - 2
There Will Be Games

An overdesigned, overwrought mess.

As I was setting up Cosmic Encounter Duel for my son and I to play for the first time, I excitedly explained to him why Cosmic – the original EON/Future Pastimes design – is my all-time favorite game. I told him how the notion of rule-breaking special powers was one of the most monumental concepts in the history of game design. I told him how Magic doesn’t exist without Cosmic, and how I’ve had no less than four different versions of the original game. And of course, I also explained to him that we’ve not played it because it really demands 5-6 players due to the intrinsic social element of the game and since he’s come of age to play it, we’ve not had an opportunity to play with a properly sized group.

So I was over the moon to get to try this new variation designed by Frank Brooks and published by Fantasy Flight Games, who also did the most recent Kevin Wilson-led version of the game. Seeing the familiar EON names in the designers’ credit was like a benediction for this most unlikely concept, a Cosmic Encounter game designed exclusively for two players.  We selected aliens, delighting in the Barlowe’s-gone-berserk illustrations and I just had to play with the lovely transparent orange ships.

Over the course of the following 45 minutes or so, my elation turned sour as it began to sink in that this game, not to put too fine a point on it, is one of the most badly designed, clunky messes I have played in years. I’m very selective about what I bring to my table and review so my screening standards keep a lot of junk at a distance, so it was shocking to play a FFG title that is just so poorly designed – let alone one with the Cosmic Encounter brand applied to it.

I won the first game but it was one of those “did we really do this right” kind of wins, and we decided to reset it and play again. The second game ended when my son was unable to bring ships to one of the prescripted duels – right after getting hit by a random event card that caused him to lose some ships to the Warp. At that stage in the game, he was beating the absolute snot out of me, 4 planets to 0. This is not an indicator of a quality design. A third game found us questioning why we were playing it rather than any of our other superior two player offerings. I laid in bed all night wrestling with the fact that I just absolutely hate this game. I woke up feeling nauseous – it could have been the crap pizza I had for dinner, but it might have been this game.

Here’s one of the problems. Conceptually, this design is trying to simulate the volatility, wildness, and infinite possibility of the full Cosmic Encounter experience but for a one on one format. On paper, this seems like a good idea. However, Duel completely just does not get Cosmic Encounter. It’s like someone read the rules to Cosmic and then tried to whip up a two player variant based solely on the mechanisms but not the experience.

You see, what makes Cosmic Encounter great isn’t goofy “pass your whole hand to the other player” cards, random event card text, or really even the individual alien powers. It’s in how giving each player an imbalanced, rule-breaking power intersects with a combat mechanism that requires you to form alliances of convenience. It’s in talking two other players to get on board with you for an invasion, knowing full well that you don’t have the cards to win it and you plan to either Negotiate out of it or blow it on purpose just to throw their ships into the Warp. It’s in the metagaming elements that it generates – like the time I Filched almost the entire draw deck and had it in my lap. And it’s in working out how much you want to help other players get closer to winning so that you can get closer to winning yourself.

All of the above requires more than two players. Concrete fact. You’re never going to play a game of Cosmic Encounter Duel where five players win simultaneously and only one loses. You are never going to recapture the excitement of discovering how your power interacts with three or four others, and how you can use that to your advantage. Or, how you can leverage a disadvantage with slick talk, promises, and deal making. This is all reduced to ersatz mechanical faff or completely ignored in this design 

All of those good things above are accomplished in Cosmic Encounter with rules that are surprisingly simple and easy to manage, with a minimum of extraneous components. Yeah, it can get real weird and you probably ought to have a FAQ at hand. But it was never a clunky, overwrought, and overdesigned game.

Which is exactly what Duel is. After the very first duel, it was already apparent that this design was shockingly clunky. The resolution to see who claims a planet is a janky multi-part affair that starts out with players selecting a number of ships (1-4) to send to the planet. It’s done a dial, so the designer likely wanted to nod to the Dune Combat Wheel here. Then, if you’ve managed to befriend an Envoy (which are aliens from the original game that grant powers), you can reveal one – this is how it simulates bringing on allies. Then you’ve got to secretly pick your Plan card (the numbers) and a ridiculous Tactics  marker that indicates how many ships you blow up or defend. The tactics marker is flipped and maybe you have ships left, maybe not. If you don’t, you lose the duel. If you do, THEN you reveal the Plan cards to show your “Clout” and if the planet has a Ship Advantage, you might get bonus Clout. Then players can play Reinforcement cards, which add or subtract Clout, if they’ve gotten any. Of course the alien and envoy powers might fudge elements around.

It’s an unfun mess- convoluted, with too many ingredients, and over-processed like the facsimile of cheese that is pasteurized processed American cheese product. And it’s made worse by there being a Leader and a Straggler role, which have different effects in different stages related to breaking ties or having initiative. And then instead of the Edicts there are three different Destiny decks, with each previous card determining which deck to draw from next. These have planets to attempt to take over, boring or annoying random events, refresh effects that can totally leave you on the back heel if they never come up, an unasked-for resource mechanism where planets give things based on the color of their icon, or you might have a “contest” (a slightly less complicated duel) to try to befriend an Envoy. 

The Envoys are a disaster. I get it. The aliens bring their powers to the fight and you have to get them on your side, and then hope that the envoy you brought over is actually useful.. But this is such a tentative concept in this design- in our third game, there was one envoy for the entire game that bothered to go to one of our sides. And its power never made a difference. The whole mechanism for increasing or decreasing friendship with the envoys is tied to which cards are drawn in the Destiny decks. I kept looking in the rulebook to see if there were some other way to change the friendship level- which is basically on one side or the other or neutral- but there’s not.

As for the Aliens, it’s a big meh all around.  You can't get the matrix of conflicting powers with only two people and some NPC cards that may never even come into play. They are rated on complexity like the Aliens in the main game, but the three I played were all pretty boring and have exactly the kind of rule-breaking stuff you’d imagine. My son played with Prime on the first one, and was checking the list of prime number cards on his Alien card every play. It was quite annoying.

Another big problem is that the designer apparently thought that bluffing was an adequate replacement for multiplayer dynamics – yet the bluffing is so turgid and dis-interesting that it's not an acceptable substitute. The thing with the doofy double-ended Tactics tokens that destroy or defend ships is at no point compelling. You have five tokens, numbered 1-4 and there’s a refresh option. They are exhausted until you refresh them. So gee, if my opponent’s 4 and the refresh are the only ones not exhausted, maybe I’m not gonna send 4 ships if I don’t have the 4 defense tactic ready on my side?  It’s not a dramatic decision. The cardplay never really feels as wild or exciting as it does in the origins game, the old “fighting to lose” tactic never really comes into play unless you want the Loser effect that some planets offer, which is usually not worth having versus trying to put your ships on it. Even the big surprise card reveals are watered down after al the dials, tokens, envoys, reinforcement cards and so forth.

When it comes down to it, the Cosmic Encounter concept is a multiplayer game. It depends on the group dynamic, it depends on those alliances of convenience and the absolutely brilliant Edict mechanic, which may force you to attack someone that went big on allying with you the turn before or find you trying to make a second subsequent attack work after exhausting yourself on the planet you just won. This game misses all of that by a galaxy mile, and tries to offer an ersatz, artificial experience with none of the humanity, character, or soul of Cosmic Encounter. It’s one of the worst games, one of the most misbegotten designs I’ve played in recent memory. Frankly I’m in disbelief that in today’s day and age of relative high quality such a poor design was released by a formerly influential and innovative publisher. This game never should have happened.

Editor reviews

1 reviews

“Wow, wouldn’t a 2 player Cosmic be cool?”

Top 10 Reviewer 137 reviews
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of and as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #311822 09 Jul 2020 14:24
Wow. It sounds like a lot of layers were thrown on in an attempt to simulate the insane variety of the original game.

It also makes me wonder... how would people feel about this game if they had never played the original?
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #311827 09 Jul 2020 16:53
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #311830 09 Jul 2020 18:09
Well, that’s hugely disappointing.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #311836 09 Jul 2020 20:46
bUt MiChAeL, oF cOuRsE yOu’Re GoNnA hAtE oN a FfG gAmE!
marlowespade's Avatar
marlowespade replied the topic: #311840 09 Jul 2020 23:08
I don't particularly hold Cosmic in any sort of reverence, but I've only ever played it 3p so I probably haven't seen it at its best. And after reading this I'm certainly not about to try the 2p version, which I had been considering. Thanks for the heads up!

That said, this was worth it just for the tag:

"Wow, wouldn't a 2 player Cosmic be cool?"

san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #311842 09 Jul 2020 23:52
Judging by your description, it sounds like the game made the mistake of thinking the "crazy" and "lol random" is the heart and soul of the Cosmic experience. I know that some people do feel that way, but I think it's more what the chaos and interaction facilitate, which is this sense that you are never out of it. There is almost always some trick you can pull, some card you can play, or some deal you can make that might tilt the game back in your favor. It is very much a game that lives in the moment, not one that locks you in with process.

It's also worth noting that the process in Cosmic Encounter is almost all some kind of parameter that manages the interaction. Essentially the rules are guardrails. In other games, the process of playing is meant to be managed in a way the Cosmic doesn't always seem very interested in. I mean, you CAN manage it, and indeed good players will do so, but it defies that sort of management at the same time.

On one level it's pretty interesting to see a two-player interpretation, even one that doesn't work very well. Cosmic is a big enough game that five people can look at it and have five different interpretations on what the "soul" of the experience is. But it sounds like this product wasn't very well-developed or polished, which is an odd oversight for FFG. I hate seeing standalone products like this not work, because I want to see fewer serialized purchases from FFG, but it sounds from your review like this is a total bust.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #311846 10 Jul 2020 04:03
That's unfortunate. On the face of it, the idea of envoys is a good substitute for a mix of alien powers and bluffing is a good substitute for the vagaries of negotiation. I had high hopes for this.

It sounds like those two core concepts might well make the basis of a decent two player CE variant, but it's been buried in an over-complex, over-engineered design. I'd still try it if I got the chance, I guess.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #311854 10 Jul 2020 09:41
decaf espresso
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #311862 10 Jul 2020 11:41
Jeesh. Thanks for the write-up MD. Cosmic Zap DODGED!
cdennett's Avatar
cdennett replied the topic: #311872 10 Jul 2020 15:15
OK, having played 4 games of CE: Duel with my son, I feel like I need dampen some of the negativity being thrown at the game. I will start with the caveat that I've played less than a dozen games of the FFG Cosmic Encounter as my group generally dislikes it as a whole (several people will flat out refuse to play unless forced), so my love or appreciation for the "Cosmic Encounter Experience (TM)" is probably different then a lot of you veterans. I see it as a fragile game that depends heavily on the group, but I've always held onto it due to its reputation and potential. So take my tainted opinion as you wish.

So, as I said above, I've played 4 games of it, and they all were all enjoyable and played quite differently. I will not quibble with calling the game very random, as it definitely is. You sometimes are not in control of your destiny, but you could certainly argue that your decisions also influenced where you ended up. Clearly this was meant to imbue the game with some of the chaos of the original, and I can see why some see this as a negative. But it also allows for some very different outcomes. What was important to me is that I almost always felt like I had interesting decisions to make during the game, even if I could just simply get screwed by a random card that throws all my plans away. Kinda sounds like Cosmic to me, it's just the game doing it instead of another player.

In Barnes' example of being down 4 to nothing and winning due to an event, that may seem unsatisfying. But, that also indicates he was still in it, even while being decimated. And I could argue why was his son so low on ships? Maybe he sent too many ships early on in the game or chose to draw cards instead of retrieving ships from the warp (that's something you have to manage more carefully in this game that you don't need to in CE). But I'm saying this all hypothetically, maybe his son was never able to retrieve any ships and it was all just bad luck.

One example of a CE:Duel game had my son up 4 to 3 on me (you still play to 5 colonies). The next planet duel that came up had the caveat that if the player that wins the duel also wins the game, they actually lose the game. So now my son has to do everything he can to lose that planet, I win the planet easily, saving resources for the next duel. So now we're tied at 4, and the next planet duel that comes up says that no ships retreat at the end and if both players win the game, it's a shared victory. I couldn't blow up all of his ships, and thus we ended with a shared victory. That was a satisfying series of random events.

And to say base CE isn't random, let me recount one of the last times I played CE. Another player and myself were at 4 colonies and it was his turn. Much effort was spent by the collective group to keep him from winning that encounter and he was narrowly defeated. And then on my turn, I drew the flare card that just lets you get a foreign colony for simply playing it, which I did and then won the game. My friend, who was playing his first game of CE, was incredulous that I basically won simply because I drew the "you win" card from the deck. And I can't say he was wrong (yeah, I guess if someone had a Zap it would have been different). Anyhow, I've always though CE had a strong element of randomness, so not sure why it's such a harsh criticism here.

My biggest complaint for CE:Duel is that the alien powers seem a bit tame compared to CE, though some are more interesting then others. My last game I could steal played cards from my opponent and put them under my Alien or take a random card from under my alien and force him to use it without either of us looking at it. That led to some mind games about did he play a good card or a bad one (expecting me to take it).

I guess I'll just say if you can try out the game (hard to do in a pandemic, I know), I wouldn't completely write it off. But by the same token, you need to go into it with the right expectations.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #311873 10 Jul 2020 15:25
Appreciate another take on it, cdennett.
BackBurnerGames's Avatar
BackBurnerGames replied the topic: #312392 23 Jul 2020 15:02
I have to differ from this review, at least in part. Yes, the Cosmic Encounter Experience (TM) is a unique one, and is best cultivated through playing with a group of people. The mechanics in this version, I think, do a good enough job of creating options for 2 people that want to play a form of CE without the pandemonium that can come from discovering another player's abilities to break the game. It makes the game less social and more about tactics and strategy; I don't think that weakens a great game, but rather, creates a new variant of play.

I don't like CEDuel as much as CE, but that's a really tall order, as CE is one of my Top 5 All-Time Board Games (TM). For what it is, though, CEDuel gives you a good taste of the CE world if that's what you're in the mood to play, but don't have the people to play it. I will never NOT want to play CE, but there will be times I won't be in the mood for CEDuel. A 2-player version of Cosmic Encounter was never going to be like the original, so I choose to take the game for the merits of what it is, not what it isn't.