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Why Do I Own This? - Part 5

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Why Do I Own This? - Part 5
There Will Be Games

Does Codenames Pictures succeed as much as the original? What makes Cosmic Encounter the best game ever designed? Also, is Cosmic Encounter the best game ever designed? Argue about it with me this week on "Why Do I Own This?"

Codenames: Pictures

How did I get it? I'm pretty sure this was a Christmas present, received from my in-laws. (I have terrific in-laws, by the way.)

Why do I still have it? Owing to the ability of players to directly describe pictures in the grid, and the small grid size, Codenames: Pictures is somewhat easier to play than its big brother. As such it has gotten a lot of play with my kids, who can play it alongside adults really well, and among people who speak English as a second language. It's proven to be highly versatile, and that's without ever having tried to combine it with the original set. (I still have to try that.)

How is it? Because it's easier to play, I think I actually play more Codenames: Pictures more than the original. That's not really indicative of its quality though, because I still prefer the original game, and it's not really close. That's not to say Pictures isn't a good game in its own right. I actually think it has some of the best illustrations I've ever seen in a game, for these purposes. They do a great job at adding ambiguity to pictures that would otherwise be rather cut and dry. But that's just the problem with the game for me: the ambiguity doesn't arise organically. People have all sorts of personal definitions they bring to words that are removed when a picture is drawn. That's why the original Codenames will always be the more interesting game to me, even though Pictures is a compelling game in its own right.

Cosmic Encounter

How did I get it? Shortly after Cosmic Encounter was reprinted in 2008, I bought that first printing with a bit of birthday money. As I fell deeper and deeper in love with the design, I dutifully bought every expansion that has come out for the game. At some point the game became too heavy to fit in the well-loved cardboard box, and I had to a plastic tub that wouldn't collapse under the pressure.

Why do I still have it? I've written elsewhere that if I had to sell off all of my games, Cosmic Encounter will be the last one to go. It's not just an evergreen game for me. Indeed, I live in a perpetual state of wanting to play it. I don't anticipate ever getting rid of it.

How is it? Cosmic Encounter is one of those games that I feel like I could write about forever. Indeed, I've written two reviews of it, as well as reviews of several of the expansions. It's the sort of design that makes me gush, because it squares so neatly with my own loves in game design: interaction, gambling, and heaps of juicy chaos. But for being a game about aliens, it is a deeply human game. It rises and falls on the people around the table, and everything in the design trusts the players to have fun, without failing to provide the structure they need. I've sometimes heard it described as a negotiation game, but while negotiation is a part of it, I think it would be more complete to call it a game about the nature of interaction and conflict, and how you can manage creative solutions in bizarre circumstances. That would be fascinating in itself, but that interactive core masks some really sharp design work that still amazes me. The way it doesn't allow grudges to easily form is so elegent, and how it incentivizes helping other people still feels organic to me. And of course there is the game's endless variety, embodied in all of those alien powers that have made the game something of a Big Bang in game design. I used to say that it was a game for everyone, but I've now seen some people who just want more structure or stability to their games, and that's fine. There's definitely an edge of silliness to Cosmic Encounter that is integral to the experience, and that simply isn't to everyone's taste. It happens to be exactly mine, and so Cosmic Encounter is my very favorite board game. The great thing is that this is such a generous design that you can easily tune it to be more to your liking, emphasizing the negotiation, or the chaos, or everything put together if you're like me. For all those reasons and more, Cosmic Encounter is one of maybe two or three titles that I consider absolutely essential to my collection. As far as I'm concerned it's the best game ever designed.

Diamant

How did I get it? Alright, I'm cheating a little bit here. My version of Diamant is actually the original American version, published in the US as Incan Gold, so I'll use that title here. (I go by the names of BGG entries, and they list Incan Gold as being a reprint of Diamant.) I actually bought my copy, the Eagle Games reprint from about 2010, at Dallas Games Marathon, a terrific board gaming club in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. I think I paid like $10.

Why do I still have it? Like several games I've mentioned, the size, simplicity, and versatility have all been clutch. Incan Gold is particularly well-suited to large groups, because everyone takes their turns simultaneously. It's also the rare game that my six-year-old finds interesting. Like me he has a weakness for risk-taking and big swings of luck.

How is it? There are some games in my collection whose quality has taken several years to emerge. My first few games of Incan Gold were not much fun, which says more about me than the game. I found it to be kind of dumb, honestly. It's certainly a simple game. You choose whether or not to go further into the temple, and if you leave you get a cut of the treasure. Of course, if you stay too long you might be forced to leave without anything. It's a very simple binary choice, but it's one that can be genuinely vexing on a turn-by-turn basis. Credit to designers Alan Moon and Bruno Faidutti for finding what this game does well, and underlining it over and over. It's still a rather arbitrary game, and there's a decent chance that rounds can end before anything has happened. It's a hard game to win intentionally, because some games will reward conservative play, while others will shower riches on players who take risks. I actually think that's a pretty good quality in a push-your-luck game like this. I mean, it wouldn't be much of a risk if you knew you'd get something for your trouble, right? But it does have the tendency to make the ending a little bit of an anticlimax, as if the game is shrugging its shoulders and saying, "I dunno, you win I guess." But I'm fine with that, because Incan Gold functions best in its moment-to-moment gameplay. The chit-chat around the table is lots of fun, and the game gives a nice shot of schadenfreude when you get out with some treasure just before everyone else is forced to leave with nothing. Sometimes it's good enough for a game to do one thing well, and that's what Incan Gold (or Diamant if you prefer) does.

Dice Town

How did i get it? It doesn't happen often but there have been a couple of games that my wife has played and instantly wanted to buy. Dice Town was one such game, a fun little game from Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc. The game has since been reprinted in a square box, but our copy is the longer one originally published in 2009.

Why do I still have it? Dice Town holds another distinction as well, as one of the few games I didn't sell, but also didn't take with me overseas, since it just doesn't get played that much. It might make a future trip with us at a later date however, because I have a sneaky suspicion it'd get played more these days.

How is it? I've spent nearly a decade waiting for Dice Town to pay off in the way I think it should. It certainly looks like it should be in my wheelhouse, since I love rolling dice and I like creating poker hands. It also has a generous dose of chaos, especially with how cards change hands constantly. But I actually think that's part of the problem. This is the rare game that I think ends up being just a little too chaotic for my tastes, or at least chaotic in a way that I don't find that interesting. The person who rolls the most queens is given the option of stealing cards from another players, which is an awfully strong move in my experience. If there's a card with lots of points it will make its trip aroud the whole table, eventually conferring a substantial advantage on the player who holds it when the music stops. In general I wish the different rewards were more balanced too. Some of them, particularly the reward for kings, are borderline worthless. There's also a half-hearted attempt at bargaining and interaction to which the game doesn't really commit. I've been told that the Wild West expansion gives the game a little more to do, but I've never played it and I'm not about to buy it sight unseen for a game I only kind of like. But still, I do like Dice Town from time to time. It helps that it's such a great looking game, and I do think its fundamental core is pretty solid. But it's only ever going to be a mild pleasure for me, rather than something that I actively seek out.

Dixit (and Dixit: Journey)

How did I get it? If I were the type who split hairs, I would say that this is actually my wife's game, not mine. I bought it for her several years ago as a present for some event. These days I tend to think buying my wife a game as a gift is a bad look, kind of like the time Homer bought Marge a bowling ball for her birthday. But Dixit is exactly her kind of game, to the point that several years later I bought her a huge stack of expansions for it as a further gift. (One of those expansions was the second base game, Dixit: Journey. While it shortens the game a bit, and has different cards, for us it functioned as an expansion more than a standalone game.)

Why do I still have it? Mainly because of the expansions, truthfully. I'm not generally one to advocate for expansions to games I only kind of like, but in Dixit's case I think it has improved my opinion of the game drastically. I would not get rid of it, because it was a gift for my wife, but it's now become a favorite for our whole family, and it gets trotted out frequently.

How is it? Like Codenames, Dixit plays with our interpretations of different ideas and images. In this it's much more effective than even Codenames: Pictures, because the illustrations are just outstanding. They utilize a sort of dream logic that is as effective as just about anything I've ever seen. That's why the expansions helped out the game so much, by increasing the variety. The base game (which we purchased back in like 2010) had perhaps 60 cards, and after several games we had seen all it had to offer. But amping up the card variety has made the game altogether more unexpected and delightful. This is a less cerebral game than something like Codenames, or other games like Concept, which I think also dampened my enthusiasm early on. It's much more about selecting the right words to explain yourselves to most (but not all) of the people at the table. As I'e gotten older and gravitated toward the more social elements of games, one of my favorites parts of Dixit is just unpacking the round and seeing what emotions and descriptions the cards generated among the players. Dixit has a certain level of poetry in its soul, and that's more than most games can say.

Next week: Nate's favorite epic game experience, and a little bit of time travel.

There Will Be Games
Nate Owens (He/Him)
Staff Writer

After a childhood spent pestering his parents and sister to play Monopoly, Scrabble, and Mille Bornes, Nate discovered The Settlers of Catan in college. From there it was only a matter of time before he fell down the rabbit hole of board gaming. Nate has been blogging since college, and writing about board games since 2007. His reviews have appeared on his blog, sanildefanso.wordpress.com, and on Miniature Market. Nate enjoys games with a lot of interaction, as well as games with an unconventional approach to theme.

Articles by Nate

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Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #300479 05 Aug 2019 10:10
"These days I tend to think buying my wife a game as a gift is a bad look, kind of like the time Homer bought Marge a bowling ball for her birthday."

*nods sagely*

I never know with my partner. She loves games but predicting her taste is really hard (just like everyone posting here, I'm sure!). Sometimes she just sees something and jumps on it (CO2 Kickstarter, Wingspan) but I wouldn't have known to get her Wingspan, that's for sure.
Anjou Valentine's Avatar
Anjou Valentine replied the topic: #300493 05 Aug 2019 15:01
I've moved around a LOT in the past 10 years, and wherever I end up, I'm the guy with the boardgames.

I am used to, no matter what the game is, everyone ganging up on me because I own the game and I am the "best." I don't mind. I have more fun doing my damndest and losing to my friends than I would ever have steamrolling newbies.

My favorite thing about Cosmic Encounter is how it levels the advantage of experience. There's a running joke that many Eurogames are won by the player who knows the rules the best; CE, with all its vagaries, is won by table talk. Gamers and non-gamers alike, I have had folks request Cosmic Encounter on game night more than anything else in my collection.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #300497 05 Aug 2019 15:36

san il defanso wrote:

Does Codenames Pictures succeed as much as the original? What makes Cosmic Encounter the best game ever designed? Also, is Cosmic Encounter the best game ever designed? Argue about it with me this week on "Why Do I Own This?"

Read more...


The best game ever designed? I can't declare that, but it's one of them, certainly. I often tell new players that CE is the foundation of modern, non-German game design. You want "variable player powers"? This is where it started. Plus, it made a point of breaking the rules, rather than confining the game to them. It's endlessly innovative and appeals to hardcore competitors and casual "have-funners".

Like you, my box could no longer take the pressure, but I've taped the bottom half twice to keep it together, even though I have to separate the top few aliens from the main stack to get everything to fit. Also like you, I will never part with it and consider the reprinting and continued support to be one of FFG's singular achievements.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #300498 05 Aug 2019 18:00
I hope I don't have to turn in my F:AT card, but after trying multiple times to capture the magical experience that everyone else talks about regarding CE, I finally gave up and eBayed it two weeks ago.

Every time it was kind of fun but not really fun. Never felt like I had enough control to negotiate over anything because the system was so swingy.

I am happy to acknowledge the game's influence, but for me it's relegated to a fine game for its era that I gave plenty of chances to.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #300499 05 Aug 2019 18:38
The lack of control is one of the things that makes it so great. It is also screamingly audacious, even decades on, that the game tells you who you have to fight and possibly saddles you with useless cards for the fight.

But when you get in that situation- the cone is aimed at someone whom you’ve buddied up with for a few turns and you have low value or N cards. Or you might be directed to attack someone who is far stronger and has an advantageous power over you. That’s when social skills, taking advantage of powers, and plain old slick-talking comes into play. You might not win the planet. But you might do something like swindle folks into joining a losing battle and putting a bunch of ships in warp. Or you could wind up negotiating out of it. And you might wind up winning with a trash card.

The game puts these hardships on you, and the fun is figuring out what the hell to do. You don’t have absolute control. But I think the most fun games of it are when people get creative and really leverage the diplomatic angle.

I don’t think folks discuss enough how utterly brilliant it is that the game dictates who you fight. That just completely flies in the face of wargaming logic, but it also creates a -different- strategic space. It’s also a self-balancing mechanic so that one player isn’t just wailed on for the whole game.

But I have seen people chafe at it, because they want to attack the weakest player or a player that has aggrieved them...but it just would not fit the game’s ethos or philosophy if you could pick your fights. The whole point is that it is essentially a random encounter generator.

And the correct answer is yes, Cosmic is the best game of all time. There is no other game as completely perfect, inclusive of its whims, quirks, and weirdness.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #300500 05 Aug 2019 19:01
I don't need perfect control, but the whole shebang felt so random that there was nothing to grab onto to offer the other players. It felt like trying to negotiate over getting a six on a d6. It might happen, it might not, but either way there's no point in arguing about it.

Hopefully the person I sold it to enjoys it.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #300501 05 Aug 2019 20:57
I mean, I get it, dysjunct. I've tried with a number of people who just weren't into it. They tried but it never appealed. There are a lot of people who don't want the randomness and mild chaos that the game introduces because that's not "playing a game" to them. For a lot of people, in games there are rules and everyone follows the rules, to one degree or another. Not so for CE, which is what appeals to a lot of other people. But, you play what you like.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #300502 05 Aug 2019 22:01
As a fan of Cosmic Encounter, I think I sometimes struggle to clarify why I like it so much. I tend to emphasize certain elements of the game that I like, but the truth is that Cosmic Encounter is not so good at any one thing to be really mind-blowing from that angle. (I think the way its willing to scramble its own ruleset might be the only exception to that.) By that I mean that it's not a good enough negotiation game, or hand management game, or bluffing game to really be a good example of just that genre. It's real strength lies in its synthesis of those different elements. It really demands players who can play in all those genres in very fluid ways.

Dysjunct, I totally get your underwhelming experience with it, because the game really gives the players a shocking amount of control over what kind of game it is. Played with four or five players, who are all serious gamers, it can have a lot of depth and tactical richness. But you can just as easily make it a goof-off game where nothing means anything. The game shifts between those poles pretty suddenly too. If someone decides this game is going to be silly, it gets silly in a hurry.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #300503 05 Aug 2019 22:04

Michael Barnes wrote: The lack of control is one of the things that makes it so great. It is also screamingly audacious, even decades on, that the game tells you who you have to fight and possibly saddles you with useless cards for the fight.

But when you get in that situation- the cone is aimed at someone whom you’ve buddied up with for a few turns and you have low value or N cards. Or you might be directed to attack someone who is far stronger and has an advantageous power over you. That’s when social skills, taking advantage of powers, and plain old slick-talking comes into play. You might not win the planet. But you might do something like swindle folks into joining a losing battle and putting a bunch of ships in warp. Or you could wind up negotiating out of it. And you might wind up winning with a trash card.

The game puts these hardships on you, and the fun is figuring out what the hell to do. You don’t have absolute control. But I think the most fun games of it are when people get creative and really leverage the diplomatic angle.

I don’t think folks discuss enough how utterly brilliant it is that the game dictates who you fight. That just completely flies in the face of wargaming logic, but it also creates a -different- strategic space. It’s also a self-balancing mechanic so that one player isn’t just wailed on for the whole game.

But I have seen people chafe at it, because they want to attack the weakest player or a player that has aggrieved them...but it just would not fit the game’s ethos or philosophy if you could pick your fights. The whole point is that it is essentially a random encounter generator.

And the correct answer is yes, Cosmic is the best game of all time. There is no other game as completely perfect, inclusive of its whims, quirks, and weirdness.


I hesitate to say there is one defining mechanic in Cosmic Encounter, but if I had to pick one I would actually say it's the hand management. Someone who is able to cycle cards and use them really well, especially outside of encounters, stands the best chance of victory.

Once I got to sit in on an online conversation with Peter Olotka, who made the point that it's really important to call the turns "encounters," because that really emphasizes the different direction the game can take. If you don't like fighting, and would rather come up with a mutually beneficial outcome, you can totally do that. That's why I feel like the idea of focusing on the conflict does the game a disservice. It's all those things at once.
Joebot's Avatar
Joebot replied the topic: #300511 06 Aug 2019 13:37

dysjunct wrote: I hope I don't have to turn in my F:AT card, but after trying multiple times to capture the magical experience that everyone else talks about regarding CE, I finally gave up and eBayed it two weeks ago.

Every time it was kind of fun but not really fun. Never felt like I had enough control to negotiate over anything because the system was so swingy.

I am happy to acknowledge the game's influence, but for me it's relegated to a fine game for its era that I gave plenty of chances to.


Same.

I bought the game a few years ago (probably because of gushing reviews here on F:AT). I played it 5 or 6 times, and the game never once clicked for us. After that, I couldn't get it to the table because nobody wanted to play it. I kept saying, "But it HAS to be fun! Everybody says it's the best game ever."

I dunno. I can't even articulate why it flopped for us, but it did. I sold it off without much remorse. I can SEE the genius in the game. But we never actually FELT that genius, if that makes any sense.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #300512 06 Aug 2019 14:02

Michael Barnes wrote: I don’t think folks discuss enough how utterly brilliant it is that the game dictates who you fight. That just completely flies in the face of wargaming logic, but it also creates a -different- strategic space. It’s also a self-balancing mechanic so that one player isn’t just wailed on for the whole game.

But I have seen people chafe at it, because they want to attack the weakest player or a player that has aggrieved them...but it just would not fit the game’s ethos or philosophy if you could pick your fights. The whole point is that it is essentially a random encounter generator.


As a Shadowfist player, I totally appreciate the random encounter aspect of Cosmic Encounter. Shadowfist is a CCG that is strongly inspired by Cosmic Encounter and Magic: the Gathering, which in turn is also inspired by Cosmic Encounter (and Wiz-War). Shadowfist is approximately multi-player Magic, except that you are fighting over the land. As in CE, Shadowfist players can invite allies to join either the attacker or the defender. Since Shadowfist doesn't restrict or randomize the choice of attack, most Shadowfist players tend to "attack the weakest player or a player that has aggrieved them," and it diminishes the game because the weakest player is often not going to have much fun. Sometimes players will gladly join an attack on the leader, and that can drag the game out. Cosmic Encounter eliminates both leader-bashing and preying on the weak, and the game is better for it.