Cosmic Encounter: How to have a great first experience

I believe Cosmic Encounter is one of the best games ever made. However, not everyone sees it that way. Many have approached the game only to have a terrible experience. Hence, I’ve decided to write a guide, not so much about strategy, but about how to have a great experience with it, from your first play.

PHILOSOPHY

In an ironic twist, those who struggle the most with Cosmic Encounter tend to be entrenched boardgamers. Cosmic goes against many of the modern conventions of the medium. It’s wild, comedic, extremely interactive and occasionally unfair. Those used to Wingspan or Terraforming Mars will see a completely different side of the hobby.

Cosmic Encounter is neither difficult nor complex. It is, however, a heavily social experience. It mixes elements of negotiation, bluffing and hand management in an ever-changing landscape. These features make for a compelling experience but also makes it more demanding of its players in a myriad of ways.

Unlike other games, which present a heavily controlled environment, Cosmic is wild. The situation changes rapidly and is different each time. Taming the game’s chaos is part of its appeal and I recommend keeping an open mind. Don’t be afraid to try new things. The game is designed to reward out-of-the-box thinking and creativity.

Most importantly, try not to write things off. Nobody is going to win because they had a stronger alien or drew slightly better cards. There’s more to the game and its strategy than meets the eye. Dismissing it as silly or poorly designed is not only unfair, it will prevent you from learning its nuances.

I can only recommend giving things a try. If you can use your alien power, use it. If a card seems useful, give it a try. Things may not pan out as you expected them to, but you will learn. And it’s better to learn early than to play for an hour without knowing what’s wrong.

SETUP

In order to have the best experience with Cosmic Encounter, play with four or five. While it is possible to play with more or less, it’s not optimal. Three is awkward because there’s just a single ally. Six gives fewer turns to each player, which reduces the amount of hand management and promotes overalliances, a common beginner mistake.

I recommend using the standard setup, with five planets and flares. The latter are not necessary but greatly enhance the game’s depth. I always use them unless playing with children or my non-gamer family. Do not add the technology deck or any other variant. Their quality is mixed and they present an important barrier to new players.

Most importantly, I would only use “green” aliens. One of the best features of Fantasy Flight’s edition is the “alert lamps” system. Green aliens are simpler and better for new players than yellow and red ones. It’s not a matter of power – some of the most powerful aliens are green – but simply how difficult it is to understand the power.

Let me use an example. One of my favourite aliens is Philanthropist, who has the power of giving. Mechanically, it’s easy to understand- you just give cards to other players. What’s difficult is knowing how to leverage that generosity in our favour. Most newbies see it as ridiculously underpowered even though it’s actually quite strong.

Newbies are also attracted to aliens like Seeker (Asks “yes or no” questions), only to realize they don’t know how to use them. That’s not a fun place to be. In my experience, sticking to just green aliens with new players is better. I regret the times in which I taught the game with yellow and red aliens as they increased the chances of a misfire.

Ironically, the only green alien I don’t like for newbies is Greenhorn. The power to make beginner mistakes is hilarious, but surprisingly unfit for an actual beginner. After all, learning the rules is harder when you are allowed to break them.

TIPS

When introducing Cosmic Encounter to new players I try to stress a few things. The first is that several players might win. In fact, it’s more common to win this way than on your own. It’s even possible for everyone to win except you, especially if you are Erik Twice and Cosmic is one of your favourite games.

Now, overalliances are, by far, the most common reason why games of Cosmic fall flat. It’s such a common issue that I even wrote a full article explaining why it’s such a mistake. Do not invite allies, in either offense or defense if you don’t have a good reason to. It’s not worth it and they get far bigger benefits from it than you do.

The second is that players don’t draw cards every turn. Barring the use of an alien power, there are only three ways to obtain more:

  • Playing every Encounter card in your hand
  • Using a Negotiate
  • Receiving rewards for being a defensive ally

The first is, by far, the most important. It’s the most common way to draw cards, it applies to all the aliens and it has crucial implications to hand management. If we are to play all the cards we have, that means accepting our bad attack cards and planning our defeats so we can make the most out of them. Don’t get stuck with just a Negotiate as your last card!

Flares are not discarded after use, but returned to your hand. They open up all sorts of possibilities so try to use the ones you have. Note that they can be stolen with a Negotiate. If your opponents have good ones, that’s the easiest way to stop them. Keep an eye on who has yours, having your own Super Flare is a huge advantage!

Don’t forget that turns are a resource. If you win or successfully make a deal in your first encounter, you get a second one. This means doing the whole turn again, from recovering ships from the warp to fighting another player. However, if you run out of cards, you won’t get a second encounter, delaying your new hand until your next turn.

Lastly, remember you lose your alien power if you lose three or more of your own planets. This is a safety valve that allows you to knock a powerful alien. It can be a good idea to disable powers such as Parasite (Can join as an ally uninvented), which are hard to interact with.

Above all, remember that Cosmic Encounter gives you all sorts of tools to use to your advantage. Anything can be achieved, be it through cards, negotiation, alien powers or just bluffing. All the fun you can have is in your hands. It’s up to you, as a player, to step up and make it happen.

9 Comments

  • Ah, but if you run out of encounter cards after starting your first encounter (even if you win it), you do not immediately draw a new hand. You only draw a new hand at the start of your turn, or as the defense when you reach the planning phase. Great article!

    • So, if you win the encounter and have no encounter cards left, you don’t get a second encounter? I thought you simply started the second encounter, revealed you have no cards at the “Start turn” phase and then ended the turn!

      • From what I understand you only get the Start Turn phase once per turn (right at the start), and since your second encounter starts at the Regroup phase you don’t get that opportunity to redraw as offense.

        Usually this means you end up playing through to Planning then going “sorry I’ve got nothing” and sending everyone home, which can feel kind of timewastey; but if you’re, say, the Mutant, you could start your second encounter with no encounter cards, refill your hand in the Alliance phase, then (hopefully) use your new encounter cards to continue the turn. (And who knows what resources other players might spend thinking you still have encounter cards to play.)

        I’m pretty sure that’s right at least, but it is Cosmic Encounter, so I could be horribly wrong.

        Nice article either way 🙂

        • Wow, I need to check then, because that changes quite a few things. Last game I played the Ace and I thought you would win on the start of your second encounter if I won the first because there’s a “start turn” phase at the beginning of both. I’ll check the rules on BGG.

          • The “Start Turn” only occurs at the start of your first encounter. It does not repeat if you have a second encounter. Very important distinction!

  • Hi Eric – Here’s my 2 cents worth of advice: The best way for new players to learn Cosmic Encounter is this:
    1. Play with 3 players – this means that you are one of the main players ⅔ of the time. Games are fast. You can play 3 games in an a couple of hours and experience 9 different aliens. 3 aliens for your self and 6 aliens played by others. The fact that there is only one ally doesn’t effect how you learn the aliens and the basic flow of the game. Use the COSMIC COMBO Cards to pick game with all different aliens in each game. If you don’t have the Anniversary edition use 9 different green aliens.
    2.The short games are important because the delight of Cosmic is how radically different aliens COMBINATIONS alter the experience.
    3. Do not use Flares. They just get in the way of the basic interaction. They make the game more complex and they make it longer. And they don’t effect players liking the game or not. Never ask players to find a flare and then match it up with their alien. It’s a dismal and confusing way to start.
    4. Agree to play at least two games before making up your mind about Cosmic Encounter….Peter Olotka, designer Cosmic Encounter

  • Interesting piece, but I don’t think it delivers on its intentions at all. Yes, certainly games with newbies should be limited to green powers. Four or five players, check. Don’t use Tech, check. But flares? Are you kidding? Flares are entirely and only for experienced and advanced players, they are far too complicated and, like red powers, require a relatively complete knowledge of not just all the mechanics but all the powers in the game. But if you want to keep new players interested and enjoying themselves, the only optional mechanism you NEED to include is Hazards. Perhaps you just assumed that was a given, but it needs to be said. Never use any other extra stuff with newbies, but ALWAYS use Hazards.

    Let me repeat that for emphasis: ALWAYS play with Hazards, ESPECIALLY with new players!!!

    • I haven’t had problems introducing flares and I feel they add too much to the game to not learn about them.

      I actually don’t like hazards. The hazard symbol is not even noticiable in my edition!

      • I agree the hazard marking is a design defect, and should have been made much more obvious. I’m considering using a marker to fix my set so I don’t have to take off my glasses and hold the destiny card six inches from my face to see it. But if you love flairs that much, it proves you are not a newbie, and as Peter Olatka himself in a previous comment here pointed out, having to sort through a flare deck that is larger than the encounter card deck for a specific flare (or worse, in my opinion, using flares to assign available powers and sorting the other way) is nothing but a lengthy fun-killing delay for new players. There are plenty of “chaos creator” mechanics in CE, and for people who don’t even already have all the artifact cards memorized, flares are simply and clearly outside the bounds of the learning curve that novices should be confronted with for at least the first half dozen full size games. Especially when you consider not the thrill of playing one, but the disappointment of having one (one you’ve never seen, and had no idea existed) played against you. Because hazards effect everyone and are beyond any player’s control, they don’t present an obstacle to warming to the game for newbies, but flares definitely DO, whether you like it or not.

        Thanks for your time. Hope it helps.

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