Back in 1977, I was a co-president of my high school’s science fiction club. As a club, we had raised a bunch of money which we planned to use to purchase books for our english department, which had a rather pitiful collection of books to teach. When it became clear that the head of the department had such incredible disdain for the entire genre (in spite of reluctantly TEACHING a science fiction class because it was her turn) and that she would not approve ANY genre book, no matter how mainstream, we decided instead to use the money to attend a nearby science fiction convention. To make things ‘legal’, by school rules, we had an official chaperone (a math teacher, who, pretty much spent the entire convention getting drunk in the hotel bar, to the chagrin of his wife, who also attended).
That was the year that the board game “Cosmic Encounter” was first published, then by Eon Products. I remember every time I went into the dealers room at the convention, there was a big Cosmic game going on. I completely fell in love with the game, so I had to buy it. That evening when I got back to our hotel room, I remember being excited to tell my friends about it, only to discover that 4 of my friends had the same idea. We all had bought the game. Not only that, but while our ‘chaperone’ was busy getting drunk at the bar, his wife was having a grand old time at the convention, had also discovered the game, and also bought it. There was something incredibly special about this game, that included ideas that none of us had seen before.
The game has gone through several incarnations over the years, starting with the relatively chaotic and argument-inducing version by Eon Products. Just about every version since then has tweaked the rules a bit, tried different things with the parts and pieces, changed the artwork to fit a new style, adjusted the wording of cards, added new game variants or special rules or new kinds of cards, and so on. But what all of the versions come down to is that you are a specific alien race, with planets and ships, and you will be using those ships, along with cards in your hand, and possibly allies, to conquer other people’s planets. And the person who controls the planet you are attacking may also have allies and ships and cards to defend himself with. If you ever have 5 bases on planets that are not in your home system, you win the game.
One of the big things that makes CE special is that there are (including the expansions) 165 different aliens to choose from to include in a game, each allowing a player to break the rules in a different way. That means that, with no other frills added, no two games will ever feel the same. Furthermore, Fantasy Flight Games, the current publisher, has helpfully labeled the different aliens so that they are rated with a ‘difficulty level’. IF you have players in your game that have never played before, simply eliminate all of the other frills in the game, and limit aliens to those that are considered ‘easy’. Note that easy does not mean weak, it just means that they don’t require complicated tactics or mechanics to use well. And if you want to have a more chaotic game, there are all sorts of house rules that you can play with (we used to come up with all sorts of crazy stuff to do, some of which are NOT for the faint of heart). A very common house rule that we used,might be that you could have more than one alien power. We’ve also used special rules for distributing and choosing aliens, had ‘hidden’ powers (that is, one or more secret alien powers that only come into effect when you choose to reveal them).
The game can involve a certain amount of diplomacy, bluffing, deceit, deal-making, dirty tricks, and outright backstabbing. You can also end up with multiple players sharing victory. Of course, most people would prefer to win alone. But, especially with more players in the game, that’s not always practical, and certainly can be a bit risky.
In general terms, the game works as follows: You have a hand of cards in it. There are several types of cards, but the ones we are interested in for now are Encounter cards (formerly called Challenge cards). These include ‘Attacks’, which have a number on them (and that number may be 0 or even negative), Negotiate cards (formerly known as Compromise), and Morph cards (a new kind of encounter card that FFG has added to mix things up a bit). On your turn, you will rescue a dead ship from the ‘warp’ (the place where ships usually go to if you lose a challenge), draw a card from the destiny deck, which will tell you who you may attack, point the interstellar cone at a planet in the home system of the player indicated, and commit one to four ships from any of your bases to that challenge. You can then invite any other player (besides the one you are challenging) to help your side, by placing 1 to 4 of their ships into the challenge on your side. But before anyone commits, the defending player can do the same things. Players can normally only place ships with a side that has invited him. In order, allies commit to one side, of the other, or choose to not participate. After that, the offensive and defensive players play a encounter card face down. If they are both attack cards, then you add the total number of ships on your side to the value on the card, and the side with the higher total (tie going to the defender) wins the challenge. All ships that are helping on the losing side go to the warp. If the attacker wins, he and all of his allies place ships onto the planet being attacked. If the defender wins, the defender gets nothing, but his allies get to take rewards in the form of cards from the deck, or ships from the warp.
If both players play Negotiate cards, then all allies go home, and the two main players then have one minute to try to make a deal, which can involve trading cards and/or allowing the other player to get a base in your home system. If a deal is not successful, it counts as a failed challenge, and both players lose 3 ships to the warp.
If one player plays a Negotiate, and the other plays an attack, then the one who played the attack, wins the challenge. But the one who played a negotiate can take ‘compensation’ from the winner, in the form of random cards drawn from the winner’s hand equal to the number of ships lost in the challenge.
Finally, if you play a Morph card, that means that the Morph will be equivalent to whatever card your opponent played. So if he played a negotiate, then your morph will be a negotiate. If he played an attack 10, then your morph card is also an attack 10. If two morph cards are played (only possible with certain expansions), then the cards blow up, killing everyone in the challenge.
And that’s the basics. There are all sorts of other special rules and cards that can be included, like Flares, Reinforcements, and kickers. And there are also special cards known as “Artifacts” (formerly called “Edicts” in previous versions of the game) which can be played at special times and have special effects. Furthermore, all of the above rules can be messed with in different ways. For just about every rule in the game, there’s a potential way to mess with it. The Zombie doesn’t go to the warp when his ships die. Loser can declare an upset, to reverse the results of a challenge. Laser can ‘blind’ a player, by forcing him to set cards aside at random that he cannot play (/edit — I didn’t realize it at the time I originally wrote this, but FFG changed Laser so that it no longer forces you to play a totally random challenge card, like all previous versions did). Amoeba can move ships into or out of a challenge after cards are played, but not revealed. Filch plays a challenge as normal, but can then steal the card that his opponent played and put it into his hand. Pacifist wins with a Negotiate.
And it may seem that some of those special abilities are better than others — but some of the abilities are actually more powerful than they seem, if played properly, or they may simply be partly negated by some other persons ability. But even so, because of alliances, and especially if you have more than 3 players, the game is fairly well self-balancing. If you seem to be too powerful, other players can always try to team up against you. Of course you might counter that by allowing players to ‘ride on your coattails’. But still, barring bad luck, there are ways to counter that.
I would say that, although the game can certainly be a lot of fun with 3 players, 4 or more is best. But keep in mind that the more players playing, the longer the game is likely to last Once upon a time, back in the Eon days, there was a 2-player variant that I did try, but I do not recommend it. I’m not 100% sure if FFG ever published a 2-player variant of their most recent version. But really, with only 2 players, there won’t be any deal-making and alliances and backstabbing and so on. So pretty much, you lose the meat of the game.
I mentioned that no two games are the same — but you can claim that about a lot of games. What’s more interesting is that the dynamics of the game can vary so much from one game to another. There are actual surprises to be found, ways of thinking about tactics in the game that will present themselves to you as you play, simply because of different aliens in each game. For example, my favorite alien power is also one of the most unpresuming ones — “Gambler”. The way the power works is that when it’s time to reveal what card you played, instead of showing the card, you get to see what card your opponent played, but you keep yours face down and NAME the card. You can lie about the card, if you wish, so long as you play an encounter card. You can play a Negotiate, but say that you played an Attack 30. The other player then decides if he believes you If he decides not to question your statement, then your card goes to the bottom of the discard pile, unseen, and the challenge proceeds as normal. If the other player decides to accuse you of lying, only then do you reveal the actual card — if you were lying then you lose as many additional ships to the warp as you had in the challenge. If you were telling the truth, the other player has to lose that same number of ships instead. And the challenge is resolved as normal, based on the card played.
What’s interesting about that is that IF the other player actually knows that you have a certain card, you might think that you’d have a disadvantage because of that. But the way it actually works out is that you can end up playing, essentially, the same outrageously good card several times in a row (which I’ve managed to do) because that player doesn’t just suspect that you have that high card, he knows that you do, and is going to be less likely to challenge you because of that. It’s a cool mind game. So I’ve actually managed to play my attack 30 4 times (Without actually playing it), and was only challenged (finally) the 5th time (and luckily that was the time I actually DID play it). And, btw, no one in my gaming group ever underestimated that power again. That’s just one example, but there are lots of other. CE can bring out the creativity in people.
As far as the most current version of the game is concerned, Fantasy Flight Games version is a little different, but still of decent quality — the destiny ‘pile’ is now a deck of normal-sized cards. Instead of hexes with all your planets printed on them, you have disks for your home planets that you place in front of you. Ships are little plastic flying saucers that you can stack. The Warp now is a large disk with numbers around the perimeter, that you can use to keep track of how many outside bases each player has (no more ‘stealth’ victories). Instead of just having different colors shown on the cards, there are now special destiny cards — wild cards let you choose which color to challenge (still only on that player’s home system). You may be instructed to challenge the player with the fewest ships in the warp, for example. The base game also comes with a new optional addition, “Technology”, which are special effects or abilities that you can ‘research’ (obtain after a specific number of turns). Unlike the Eon game, Flares, and Reinforcements are now considered to be standard to the game (although, you can obviously remove them, especially when playing with beginners). Eon added them in a later expansion, so were always, up till now, considered optional.
Flares are cards that have the name of an alien power on them, and two different effects listed on them: ‘Wild’ and ‘Super’. If you have a flare, and also the alien power listed on the card, then the “Super” effect is what’s relevant. If you don’t have that power (even temporarily, hint hint) then the “Wild” effect is what’s relevant. They are similar to Artifacts, in that the instructions tell you exactly when or under what circumstances you can play the card. But unlike Artifacts, once you use that card, it returns to your hand. You’ll have to discard it when you have to draw a new hand (along with unused artifacts). But otherwise, it stays in front of you. Reinforcements are cards that have a number on them that can be used to shift the results of a challenge after the challenge cards are revealed, and can be played by ANYONE involved in the challenge (main player or ally), to EITHER side.
So far there have been 5 expansions to the Fantasy Flight Games version. Each one adds new powers, and new special rules and new cards. My old favorite, the Kicker is back. A kicker is a card that you can play face down next to your challenge card. If you play a kicker, the other player has a chance to decide if he wants to pay one also — a kicker will multiply the number of an attack card, or the amount of compensation you get from playing a Negotiate, or the penalty to the other player for not making a successful deal, should both players play Negotiates. There’s a special Rewards deck that you can add into the game — an alternate deck of cards that victorious defending allies can draw from for rewards. There are ‘Crooked’ Negotiate cards, which are simply better versions of negotiates. There are Rift cards, and Intimidate cards and Retreat cards and Space Stations, and so on. Two things from the Eon Products (and Mayfair) versions of the game that have not been included (yet, at least) are Lucre, and Moons. Lucre was, essentially, money (and there were special powers associated with Lucre as well). And Moons were alternate locations that you could land your ships on, that would have secret effects that you’d only discover if you landed on them. Moons were highly random and some were quite silly, and the use of either one or both of Moons or Lucre could make games last longer than normal, so it may be that FFG is not intending to reintroduce them into the game. Or maybe they will come up with a clever way of adding them that would make them a more positive addition to the game. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.
Regardless, Cosmic Encounter is a great game that I love. If I can convince even one person that this is a game that you should try, I’ll feel good about it. Let me know in the comments if you’ve played the game, and tell me about your experiences with it, or let me know if I’ve convinced you to give it a try. Also, feel free to post any questions you might have about the most current version of the game.