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.