Cosmic Encounter ★★★★★ | Review
If I had to keep a single title in my collection, it would be Cosmic Encounter. No other game represents everything I love from our medium as well as it does. It’s fun, challenging, social. Whenever I play it, I laugh and, win or lose, I come out refreshed and enriched from the experience. Chaotic and irreverent, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s one of the greatest games ever designed.
MAGIC FROM A TOP HAT
In Cosmic Encounter, we take control of an alien species. Our goal is to establish five colonies on planets belonging to our opponents. Each turn, we’ll flip the top card of a deck to see who is going to be our target. We send a few spaceships and prepare to engage with the enemy. However, this can be done, not just by force, but also compromise and guile.
When we meet another player, we can play two types of cards. The first is an attack. Whoever has the highest sum between the number on their card and their ships, wins. Simple enough and yet, tricky. The numbers on the cards are very close together, enough that a slight push could decide the battle. And there’s a way to obtain that, which is to share the spoils with and bring in allies.
However, we may also negotiate. At first, that seems foolish. Negotiation always loses to attack cards, no matter their value. However, it entitles us to compensation. For each ship our opponent destroys, we steal a card from their hand. And, unlike most games, these cards aren’t replaced at the beginning of our turn. Rather, we only get more when we play them all, including the bad ones.
That’s fair enough, you could say, but it hardly reads like one of the best games ever created. Sure, there’s a bit of negotiation, a touch of bluffing and some interesting hand management but where’s the magic? Worry not, these mechanics are like a top hat, a seemingly mundane object that turns magical in the hands of a skilled illusionist. Or, in our case, in the tentacles of a strange alien form.
One of them, Chronos, has the power to turn back time whenever they lose a battle. Another, Zombie, has immortal ships and a third, Parasite, can ally even when uninvited. And those are just a few examples out of the fifty different aliens that come in the box. They are all unique, wild and some of the most creative player powers to ever grace our medium.
These outrageous aliens supercharge the rest of the mechanics. Bluffing a powerful attack is one thing, doing it when Sorcerer can change your card with theirs is another. Negotiation can be powerful at the right time, but it’s even more so for Hacker, who can pick its compensation from any player at the table. Aliens turn the whole game upside down and each does it in its own way.
However, aliens don’t change the game in a vacuum. Rather, their powers cross and intersect on different levels, creating unique scenarios. Some matches rely more on card play, others in trickery and a few on raw negotiation. Beating Calculator may require an unusual degree of numerical prowess but Gambler’s bluffing can be a match to it. Which one do you prefer as an ally?
Consider a match I had a couple years ago. There was one alien, Prophet, who earns a free colony if they guess who’ll win a battle. And we better guess right because another, Skeptic, doubled losses if we didn’t. Gambler was in the game, too, trying to pretend its facedown cards were powerful attacks. As for me, I was the Aristocrat. At the start of the game, I could take the whole deck and choose the perfect starting hand. But what’s perfect in such an outrageous scenario?
It’s these complex interactions that turn Cosmic Encounter into a chaotic, highly interactive puzzle. Each match, we’ll all have different strengths and weaknesses. The aliens and cards change and, with them, our understanding of the game. The real skill of Cosmic lies in evaluating these complex interactions and figuring out a way to turn them to our advantage.
Here’s where the mechanics show what they are capable of. The aliens are so powerful that they demand maximum flexibility from the design. And yet, Cosmic never gets bogged down in minutiae. There’s always an out, like one-use cards, alliances, bluffing and even shutting down our opponent’s power. In fact, several players may win at once, a massively underutilized mechanic that gives rise to incredible table dynamics.
It all comes down to Cosmic being one of the few true examples of science fiction in games. More often than not, the label is given to any games with lasers, nebulas or space civilizations, regardless of their actual content. But while Xia might be most accurately called a Western and Eclipse is about applied economics, Cosmic captures the speculation that is at the core of the genre.
NOT YOUR PARTY GAME
Some players, particularly entrenched board gamers, bounce off Cosmic Encounter. It is as groundbreaking today as it was in 1977 and shatters all unfounded expectations of what games should be like. It’s unabashedly social, interactive and occasionally unfair. It doesn’t hold itself back for our comfort and it’s riotously fun in the way adults are often afraid to be.
In fact, it’s possible to ruin your first play. Not understanding your power, forgetting about card management or inviting too many allies can wreck the whole game. I even wrote a whole guide on have to have a great experience with Cosmic Encounter because too many people had a bad one. Cosmic is fragile and far more reliant on a good group than most games in the market.
Still, it’s easy to dismiss Cosmic as a mere party game. I even did so at first. I thought it was fun, but ultimately silly and I passed on it for six years. How could I not? Chaos, joy and opportunism aren’t usually included in the hobby’s definition of depth. And yet, time proved me wrong. Not only is it fun to bring your wacky alien to battle and see how it interacts with your friends, there’s a lot of strategy in it.
Fortunately, the edition by Fantasy Flight is a fantastic package. Not only does it have solid production values, with beautiful artwork and plastic spaceships, it’s well-polished and contains a huge amount of variety. Aliens are even classified by how difficult they are to play, a huge boon for new players. If it has a flaw is how unnecessarily wordy some of them are.
I’ve played thousands of games, digital and analog, and in the 45 years since its release, I can think of very few games as good as Cosmic Encounter. It’s a perennial favourite, a constant source of inspiration and endlessly replayable. It’s everything I look for in games and just plain fun.
|COSMIC ENCOUNTER (1977)|
Fantasy Flight Games
|NUMBER OF PLAYERS||4-5 (Best with 4-5)||SCORE||★★★★★|