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Looking Back: Cosmic Encounter

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As a board game reviewer, I have a tendency – and in some ways, an obligation – to always be looking forward. What’s new, what’s coming, what’s going to be worth your time? These are the questions I ask myself frequently, because I’m trying to help new and old gamers alike find their next great game.

Recently, however, I’ve found myself more and more drawn backward. My eyes have turned toward my shelf of games that I’ve elected to keep over the years, revisiting old favorites and rediscovering the games I loved that maybe hadn’t got as much playtime. In some cases, I rediscovered my love for those games; in others, I learn that I’ve moved on for various reasons.

Looking Back is a series dedicated to personal reflection on those games; why I keep them, why I love them, and in some cases why I’ve decided to move on. These are not reviews – for that, check out our Shelf Wear series of game reviews after around 50+ plays.

Cosmic Encounter. Perhaps one of the most polarizing games in print, sitting at or near the top of many a prominent game reviewer’s top 100 while absolutely hated by others. The game is Poker mixed with Risk mixed with a whole lotta weird. It’s easy to see why some people dislike it. Fair Isn’t Fun, is the designer’s mantra in defense of the 150+ aliens with wildly varying and imbalanced powers now available through the base game and expansions.

But Unfair is often not particularly fun either, and when you’re sitting down with a group of players there’s some reasonable expectation that you all have a chance of winning without the game itself taking sides, so it can be overwhelming when your pitiful alien power doesn’t seem to stack up against another’s.

I haven’t had a chance to play Cosmic Encounter very often in the past few years. The game is best with 5, good with 4, but downright pointless with 3, so when you have a 4-person gaming group with one player that doesn’t take to the game, it’s not going to see much time. And in fact, the last time I had played things were wild as usual, but something somehow felt off. I began to question whether, if Cosmic Encounter came out today, I would even like the game. Was it only nostalgia for one of the first games I purchased getting into the hobby? Was it truly too random and chaotic to give you any sense of control over your destiny?

At a recent small-time gaming convention I had the opportunity to run a game of Cosmic Encounter with complete strangers, and I did something surprising. Instead of including all the expansions, I cut things down to the basics: specifically, the base game and the Cosmic Incursion expansion only.

What I discovered was that I still love Cosmic Encounter.

This links with my changing feelings about expansions over the years. Back in 2012 I loved expansions and included them at all costs. This is possibly directly tied to my positive views of Dominion (which lays claim to many excellent expansions), as well as my love for big, beefy, clunky games like Twilight Imperium and Battlestar Galactica which utilized expansions to fix some of the clunky or less-fun elements of the core game.

Cosmic Encounter is a game ripe for expansion, and it’s certainly got a glut. Each box adds new aliens, new components, and new ways to increase the chaos. The Hazard Deck adds unpredictability to the whole galaxy; space stations grant players an additional ability that can be traded or stolen. The defense deck, the best of the additions, adds unique rewards you receive only when helping other players defend their planets. The aliens themselves step up in increasing complexity, adding new tokens, cards, and wonky once-removed-from-the-game abilities.

It’s all too much, really, unless you play Cosmic Encounter every week. If CE is the game I could see why a group would love all that stuff.

But when I pared everything down to the core, it’s less about all the wonky powers – which are fun, but the more of them you have just makes the game more obtuse to less experienced players – and more about playing your hand, and playing the table. That’s what I love about Cosmic Encounter.

The powers are imbalanced, yes – but the game begs the players to rebalance the universe. Yet, not in a way that simply requires optimal play from all players to keep one from running away. The emphasis on table talk, alliances, and bluffing – that’s what makes it possible. One powerful player still needs to avoid the board turning against him. Players must pick and choose who they ally with carefully.

This is also why I like to include the Cosmic Incursion expansion, which includes the Defensive Rewards deck. The toughest thing to teach new players is not to always ally with the Offense. Gaining a colony is tempting, but play carelessly and it really does fall to the player with the best hand at the right time in the turn order. Defensive Rewards encourage people to strongly consider what’s usually the smartest strategic move: ally with the defense. Make players, especially strong ones, fight for their points.

Beyond that, finding clever ways to use your powers is just fun. Even if you don’t have the strongest power, there’s always something you can do. Sometimes the things that seem simple are actually the tools that can help you win.

Are there some fun and exciting powers in the expansions? Sure. And I could pick and choose which to include in the pool, avoiding the ridiculous or over-complex that drag the game down or fill it with tedious layers to work through. But 50 alien powers – 70 with Cosmic Incursion – is plenty to last a few dozen hours of gameplay.

So despite not hitting the table as often as I’d like, Cosmic Encounter is a keeper, forever. Hopefully one day I can convince the fourth member of my gaming group to give it another try with the pared down game so it can return to its former glory at the center of my table.

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

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