I tend to overuse certain adjectives when describing boardgames. Brilliant. Elegant. Engaging. Non-Edible.
So when I call Cosmic Encounter my “favorite game”, I expect skepticism. “Really?,” you say. “Your favorite game? Haven’t you described a dozen games as your favorite?”
Yes. Guilty as charged. But in all of those cases, I meant the game in question was my current favorite, or my favorite in a genre. Cosmic Encounter is my favorite game. Period.
I got my first set over twenty years ago, and have purchased three more since then. The first was lost in Bolivia, where I routinely played the game with other Peace Corps Volunteers. The second set was destroyed by a dog with a predilection for chewing. The third set is still on my shelf, but when I saw the production values of the new Fantasy Flight edition, released last year, I had no choice but to upgrade.
My first three Mayfair copies.
At its core, Cosmic Encounter has a fairly simple and abstract system. An encounter begins when a player uses a strike force of 1 to 4 spaceships to attack a planet belonging to an opponent, with the number of ships on the planet determining the initial strength of the defense. The encounter ends when both of the main players play cards from their hands and add the numbers on the cards to the ships they have on their side. The highest total is victorious, the ships belonging to the losers go to the graveyard, and a new encounter begins. Winning an encounter as the offense allows you to put some of your ships on the loser’s planet; establish five foreign colonies and you win the game.
Pretty simple, really. But two things greatly enliven (and complicate) things, the first of which is alliances. After the attacking player ponies up his ships, he may ask any or all of the other players to join his side. The defender may then do likewise. Each person who is not already involved in the encounter may then (if invited) add 1 to 4 of their own ships to one side or the other. These ships factor into the victory calculation. The more people who join your side, and the more generous they are when doing so, the more likely you are to win.
The second factor–and this is the element that has made Cosmic Encounter one of the most popular games of all-time–are the powers. Each player in the game represents a distinct alien race, and is allowed to do something that no other player can. Ships belonging to The Zombie, for instance, never die. When Anti-Matter is a main player in an encounter, the lower total wins instead of the highest (and ships on his side are subtracted from his total instead of added). Parasite can join any alliance, regardless of whether he was invited. And so forth.
Giving each player a special ability is par for the course in games today, but was ground-breaking when CE was first released. And where many games include, say, half a dozen special powers in a game that can be played by up to six people, the Fantasy Flight version of Cosmic Encounters comes with no less than 50 (with 20 more in the each of the two expansions: Cosmic Incursion, Cosmic Conflict). Each forces you to approach the game from a new angle, so as to best maximize your unique ability. And the interaction between the various powers can sometimes lead to surprising and unprecedented situations,
The variety might explain why I have been playing CE for a score of years, but doesn’t entirely account for my fondness. What I like best about the game is that it allows players to beat up on one another, but does so in a way that engenders no ill-will. For one thing, a player does not choose whom to attack, but instead draws a card from a special “Destiny” deck that designates the target of the encounter. This alone defuses a lot of the tension–it’s hard to fault someone for aggression when they had no choice in the matter. Also, the constantly changing alliances make grudges all but impossible. And Cosmic Encounter even allows multiple players to win as a team (though the question of whether “shared victories” are somehow less satisfying than “solo victories” makes for frequent and often inebriated post-game philosophical debates).
Those who prefer strategy games often accuse Cosmic Encounter of having too much randomness and politicking. I, on the other hand, find these very qualities a welcome relief from the analytical, themeless, and low-interaction games that I usual play. And there something to be said for history. There is no game on my shelf that I have played or enjoyed more over the years than Cosmic Encounter, and the new version from Fantasy Flight has kick-started my interest once again.
I spoke about Cosmic Encounter on the radio last December, during my annual games segment for KUOW Presents. And you can find much (much, MUCH) more about Cosmic Encounter on the web: Wikipedia, Boardgamegeek, Blogmic Encounter, and Comsic Encounter Online, to name a few.