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Cosmic Encounter is a science fiction card game based on alien races with special powers vying with one another for dominance in each other’s solar systems. Players have a finite number of ships to colonize other systems, while also defending ones own solar system. I want to give a short guide how to play so those considering whether to buy this game might give it a try.
Cosmic Encounter History and Background
This game was designed back in 1977 by Eon Products, who were a collection of guys named Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, Bill Norton, and Peter Olotka. I give full credit to these designers, who I think were designing 21st century games in the late 20th century. These men must have been gods of game design, because their seemingly simplistic game design allows for maximum replay value. Certain later additions have added to that, but the basic game is unchanged.
The original version had 6 alien races and could be played by up to 6 players. From 1977 until 1982, 9 expansions and 60 alien races were added. Flare cards that remain until this day were added in the expansions, while currency, moons, and planetary powers were added. Dean Morrisey provided the artwork.
In 1986, West End Games republished the original set in the United States, while Games Workshop had publishing rights in the United Kingdom. This was a more limited version, as it contained material from the core rulebook and the first three expansion modules.
This was followed by a 1991 release by Mayfair Games, along with their 1992 More Cosmic Encounter and 1995 Simply Cosmic, though the latter edition was more basic. Avalon Hill and/or Hasbro released their own version in 2000, though it only had 4 players and 20 aliens.
Fantasy Flight Games Edition
In 2007, Fantasy Flight Games announced they would introduce their own edition, which appeared at Gen-Con 2008. This version came with 50 alien civilizations in the basic set and supports up to 5 players. The game has been well received and has had three expansions: Incursion, Conflict, and Alliance. This is the game my friends play, so most of my references will be to the Fantasy Flight Games edition.
Cosmic Encounter is one of those games which is easy to learn. In fact, the basics are so simple you’ll be amazed. At the same time, the replay value is high, because of the social dynamics at play when you play 4 or 5 players. (I wouldn’t recommend CE for 3 or less.) Game play is fast and games are often over in 30 minutes.
When I first heard about this game (and I was late to the table), I thought it looked complicated. The stacks of spaceships, which are actually flying saucers, looked like some kind of energy generator or industrial combines, so I assumed it was some kind of resource allocation game. Those are my favorites, but I assumed that would add complexity and time length to playing it. I was completely wrong.
In truth, setup takes about 5-10 minutes. Rules and player turns are easy to learn and easier to remember. The only sticking point might be when intepreting racial powers, but most gaming groups with goodwill and cooperation should have no problem. That doesn’t always describe our group of gamers, mainly because of our buddy, Brian, who nods off during group rule readings, refuses to understand subtle differences like offense and defense, interprets everything to his advantage, and is a bit of a paranoid when everyone “gangs up” on him to interpret them differently. I’m not really ranting about Brian here, since I think most of what I just said is his idea of a comedy bit. The point being, even he can’t lawyer the rules too much in this game, Cosmic Encounter is so elegantly simple.
Back to Setup
The first important thing you do is draw your civilization at random. Each player is given two alien race cards. They choose which one of the two they will play. Amateurs and beginners choose on how cool the alien looks or how cool their power sounds. Intermediate and expert players select based on their rating of which alien races are best. Some can be virtually unbeatable if they’re allowed to get a headstart, though game balance tends to be determined on whether the other sides gang up on the powerful races. Match-ups between the xeno factions also play a large roll, because some powers have trouble against others.
Some powers are alliance-based, while others involve card-collecting, card-tossing, combat, information-based, destiny-based, game mechanic-introduction, turn-altering, prediction-based, ship-controlling, ship-capturing, ship-destroying, and ship-retrieving powers. I’m probably forgetting some examples.
The racial names are easy to remember, because they describe their defining characterstic and don’t involve multi-syllabic nonsense. Race examples include Cudgel, Gambler, Merchant, Macro, and Hate. In fact, the racial names can be quite funny (as well as the art). Sniveler, Loser, and Dictator are a good examples of a funny race powers, while Trader and Hacker both looks humorous, even though they really aren’t. Some races are just cool: Magician, Oracle, Chronos, Warrior, Macron, and Anti-Matter are just a few of those. Even the Human card is cool, as the human looks like a cross between a rocket ranger and a space marine. Watch out for the Virus, because they are dangerous.
Luckily, people can’t really power-game by finding the best race and playing them every time. Also, alliances can form over several games, but one mechanic keeps them from always using strategy as planned.
Guide to Playing Cosmic Encounter
When it’s someone’s turn, they draw a destiny card. Whichever color is on the card, that’s who they must attack. Some cards allow a wild aspect, but this means people are forced into attacks on one another, even if they’ve been allies up until now. The more cards you go without that happening, the greater the chances are a breach of the alliance is going to happen (as the deck dwindles).
Most of the time, it’s alliance forming which determines the outcome of the game. Those attacking and those defending can ask everyone else to ally with them. It’s usually a good idea to do one or the other, because you get rewards from the Reward Deck for winning. Even when a person loses, they might get compensation in certain circumstances. Negotiated settlements are possible with certain Encounter Cards, while wild cards among the Encounter deck and Flare (power) cards can turn things on their ear. If you lose, you send ships to the Hyperspace Gate (unless you’re Zombie), but these can be retrieved through various other actions.
Cosmic Encounter Review
This game is best played with 5 people. Three lets two people gang up on one too much. Four means that 2 races tend to gang up and the other 2 have to oppose them, though alliances are quite fluid late in the game, depending on necessity (mainly who’s ahead and must be stopped). Five creates the best dynamic of aggression, diplomacy, and intrigue. Plenty of twists and turns come in any case.
In most cases, people have a chance to win up until the last few turns. I’ve had a couple of deals in Cosmic Encounter where I simply had no chance to win from the word “get-go”, but most of the time, you’ll have a chance if you play your cards right, pick the right allies, and betray them at the right time. The social aspect to Cosmic Encounter is what keeps me coming back for more. Hard feelings sometimes carry over from one game to the next, but circumstances usually force people to act differently from one competition to the next.
For those who don’t like resource allocation or who get enough personal finance managing their own bills every month, Cosmic Encounter is about battle, conflict, diplomacy, and intrigue. The only resources you have to marshal are those in your card deck, but these are more tactical than economic in nature.
CE is an excellent game for those who get tired of a game you can figure out in a few sittings. It’s easy enough for anyone to learn, but those who get their feelings hurt easy should avoid. Have fun conquering the galaxy.