With box art that is reminiscent of psychedelic album art, I almost expected to see a hype sticker on the front of Cosmic Frog saying “Contains the hit singles Astronomy Domine and Ana Ng. When you Play it, SAY IT!” The stunning artwork attracts the eye like the best Heavy Metal Magazine cover but it is the addictive gameplay that will work into your mind.
The plot of Cosmic Frog immediately reminded me of Japanese videogame RPGs filled with words like Gaia or Esper and include a Tree of Life/Light that was somehow being threatened by living darkness. Don't get me wrong, this is not a bad thing. Much like my first viewing of Akira, my thoughts while reading the background story of Cosmic Frog was “I don't know what the hell this is but I love it!” It all fits into Jim Felli's fever dream universe that includes lesser and greater houses, the First Ones, and locations that will inevitably include Umlauts or a circumflex in their name.
But the creatures we are concerned with are the Rayna, the titular Cosmic Frogs. Two-miles high and immortal, they were created to gather the terrain from the Shards of Aeth. Playing as these world reapers, you will swallow terrain whole, storing it in your gullet until you can discharge it to your Vault. Clashes with other Rayna are almost inevitable and the combat allows you to knock Terrain from other Rayna's Gullet or even raid their sacred vault.
Lime and limpid green, a second scene Now fights between the blue you once knew – Astronomy Domine By Pink Floyd
Every Cosmic Frog starts with a unique ability that sounds like the name of a 80's Black Metal Band- Ravager. Warbringer. Vampiric. Voidshadow. Some abilities enhance harvesting while others accent combat. One of my personal favorites is Mindborer which literally allows you to take over target frog and use them as a puppet. Possibly more importantly, it allows you to yell “Dude, he totally Jim Henson'ed you!” at your friends. Aether Flux surges cause your frogs to mutate, switching abilities during the game. Forget telling someone about how cool the ability “Blink” is and not having it come into play until a the fourth of fifth game. Instead, you'll see regular mutations after the starting round.
Combat is handled using Chaos cubes? Chance Crystals? What does Jim call them * looks in the rulebook * Oh yea...Dice. Hmmm....go figure. Three different sets are used depending on your Anarchy Amphibian's current combat affinity.
Dice, Those little slices of Chaos, How I love them
You would be right if you were thinking that chaos is a thread that runs deep within Cosmic Frog. But before you wander off, clutching your stomach with mutterings of “Too Random” and “Unbalanced”- Behold the great Cosmic antacid: Oomph. Oomph is the true currency of Cosmic Frog as it provides mitigation for luck with well-timed boosts during key moments. You can use it to Overpower combat rolls or to take an additional action on a turn. Remember the “Aether Flux” that causes your Cosmic Frog to mutate? You can spend Oomph to resist the changing of powers. And it ties to all of the critical decisions in the game: Sure, you can use Use Oomph to boost an assault on another Frog and you can even spend additional Oomph if your initial attack fails to take another swing at them. But beware of the Thanksgiving Paradox: Where a frog sits smug, with a full gullet of ill-gotten terrain,and lacking any significant Oomph. Good luck waddling off the shard with a knot of lean, fully Oomphed frogs at your heels.
One of these days Alice, Bang! Zoom! You're going right to the Outer dimensions- The Honeymooners
Turn selection is done via a deck of cards where multiple cards for all of the players are added. This is brilliant on a number of levels. My favorite part about using this deck is that it keeps each and every player focused and invested. Turns are quick affairs, consisting of a single action or, at most, an Oomph-induced second action. You literally never know when your next turn is going to take place and this keeps you, and everyone else, focused. It can also make even the simple act of resting to recover Oomph a push-your-luck proposition. What I like best, though, is that it creates those “moments” that make boardgaming. In one game we had cleared all of the highland and lowland tiles from the shard, meaning the game was coming to an end. However, this happened just after we had shuffled the turn deck. This means the game isn't over until everyone has taken all of their turns. With nothing to scavenge from the shard, everyone's eyes narrowed and drifted to the vaults of the other players. It was going to be a free-for-all. The first card from the deck was my color, Gray. I mounted my assault on my daughter Tegan's frog...A miss! We flipped out a second card...another Gray! Confident in my Warfare Power card, I attacked again. She boosted her defense, another roll of the dice and this time it was a tie: another miss for Gray! We flipped another card and, again, Gray comes up! Tegan, having depleted her Oomph, she was unable to boost her defense. But that deck...that deck stared back at me. I had the “good luck” of drawing three Gray cards in a row but what remained was a bevy of Blue and Yellow card for my foes. This time my attack connected but only succeeded in knocking her back a single hex and not into the Outer Realms that would have allowed me to raid her vault. She grinned an triumphant grin. Revenge was going to be swift and sweet...except we turned over the barren tile that her frog had smashed through: It was a splinter, the final shock needed to trigger the other possible conclusion of the game: the one that ends the game immediately by shattering the shard. In space, no one can hear your Frog croak but I had no problems hearing my daughters laments from across the table as the chance of serving a dish of cold revenge was taken from her. “Dang you Gary!*”
* “Gary” is the official name of the Gray frog in our games. This came about when my daughter misread the names on cards in our initial play while viewing them upside down “We have Yellow, Blue and Gary!”
Mark Thomas, never accused of being a good painter, managed to make them look this good. Imagine what YOU could do!
(Special thanks to Mark for letting me use his picture)
Assembling terrain in your vault gives you some marvelous choices. Not only all your trying to create lines of the same type of terrain, you'll also want to be gathering a variety of the different types (both which give points during the end game scoring), you'll also want to create Siphons.(or, as I'm sure Jim Felli will appreciate, what my daughter calls “Ice Cream Sandwiches.”). When you create a siphon, it gives your Cosmic Frog a trickle of Oomph at the beginning of each of your turns. The Highlands chits are constructed of a thicker material where the lowlands use a thinner stock. So, like an ice cream sandwich, a siphon is a Highland (Thick) between two Lowlands (Thin). Any man that calls the currency to enhance turns and combat “Oomph” has gotta love calling them Ice Cream Sandwiches, right?
What self-respecting game would allow other players to raid their literal scoring system and rip out opponent's well thought out scoring pattern? Can you imagine someone leaning over and plucking some the dice out of your nearly completed Sagrada Board? Cosmic Frog does and it is just as evil and delectable as it sounds. As you get more games under your belt, you'll see strategies emerge like burying high-scoring tiles beneath lesser tiles to thwart vault villains. If you are still hesitant about Raiding, there are a few balancing rules to keep them from being TOO punishing when you are knocked into the Outer Dimensions (which unlocks your vault). You may be out(er dimension) but your not down for the count.
You've got a nice vault here. It would be a shame is something happened to it.
The absolute first thing everyone should do before you start their first game is grab a handful of Terrain, both lowlands and highlands, and assemble them in a vault. No, do not play with the awesome Frog Minis, there will be time for that later. Then have everyone score the vault and then swap some pieces, making sure to remember you can put more than one tile in a space, and score them again. This will give everyone a concrete idea of exactly what they are trying to achieve in their vault. It even says to do this in the rule book...on page 13.
Which brings me to the Two negatives I have to say about Cosmic Frog. The first is the Rule Book, which comes in at an intimidating nineteen pages. CF does not need nineteen pages of rules. It doesn't even HAVE nineteen pages of rules: plenty of the book is filled with examples and explanations of play. It feels like Devious Weasel erred on the side of “You can never have too much information.” and I hope the scattershot instructions do not scare anyone off. I do like the strategy tips section especially “It takes several actions to fill your gullet by harvesting, but only one action to attack a frog with a full gullet.” Or, if you speak fluent meme: “It takes forty-two muscles to frown but only four to extend your arm and slap the terrain from a frog's gullet.”
The second thing that I disliked is a portion of the end game scoring (I use the past tense for a reason). Your score can vary depending on the removal of your tiles as you score. (This will probably be confusing for anyone who hasn't played the game but I'll do my best to explain.) For example, you may have have an option to remove 2 mountains and then 2 swamps that do not overlap the 2 mountains. That would be 5+3=8 points. If there was another mountain in line with the 2 mountains you removed already that was revealed when you removed the swamps, you would then get another 2 points for a total of 10 points. BUT, If you had taken the swamps first and then revealed that mountain you could have then taken the 3 mountains in a line for a total of 3+9 = 12 points. I disliked the idea that two players could have the exact same configuration of terrain laid out in their vault but come up with two different scores when totaling up. It felt like a needless mini-game added to the end of the actual game that can determine the winner. But (and this is probably going to sound completely contradictory to what I just said) I do love scoring multiple layers of terrain and the (optional) use of tiles that reward you for having multiples of specific type of type because you can factor that into your strategy. Now, the reason I use past tense is that I reached out to Jim Felli and we messaged back and forth on Twitter in regards to this. At some point we realized I was having everyone total up separately (and at the same time) and revealing our scores and declaring a winner. Jim noted that when they played, everyone looks on as each player scores out their vault and everyone helps them to maximize their points....which is brilliant and totally addressed my concerns. It gives the game a, dare I say it, cosmic symmetry where you begin by collectively creating the shard and end by collectively scoring. Let's all link hands, sing kumbaya, while we play “Cosmic Harmony: a 3 to 5 player cooperative game about reconstruction with your frog friends.” I am kidding but it does lead me to this point: Cosmic Frog is as combative as you choose to make it. Nothing stops you from simply minding your own business and gathering tiles...but that shady other frog just snagged the final Mountain hex and you REALLY wanted it to complete that line of Highlands... Flicker, Flicker, Flicker, Blam Pow, Pow – Astronomy Domine: As Covered by Voivod
The reference in the opening paragraph to They Might Be Giant's “Ana Ng” was not a random comment. Jim rolls in the board game universe like They Might Be Giants does in the musical world: Quirky, almost entirely unique, and with something undeniably catchy about everything they do. We are just walking in the glow of his majestic presence. Which is why I had the couth and grace to make it though this entire review and never call Cosmic Frog a pick-up and puke game.