Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cosmic Encounter, or "How To Start A Fight With Your Friends"

There are very few board game genres out there that elicit feelings of seething hatred and wanton destruction as those that include "diplomacy" or "negotiation". There's just something about a game that forces you to make tough decisions that WILL affect your friends at the table that can cause things to get ugly. Fun, but oh-so-ugly.

At any given point in the game you may be allied with everyone at the table, joined at the hip to stop the malicious onslaught of the evil "Mutant" horde or "Clone" flotilla. Before you know it you're ready to jump across the table and stab one of your former "allies" in the neck with a pencil for blatantly drop kicking you in the sack, "with authora-tah". Alliances of convenience, unabashed betrayal, and sneakery of the highest order...such is the game of Cosmic Encounter.

This game has been around in various iterations since the Seventies, which should speak to its staying power. It has been printed by no less than ten publishers, the best and most recent being the venerable Fantasy Flight Games. This latest version is loaded with high-quality cardboard bits, 100 stack-able plastic UFOs, and a slew of cards and "race sheets". The game takes about an hour and a half to play, and seats three to five players at a time, which is a good thing because odd numbered crowds generally make people think twice before starting a brawl. In my experience, four to five players are optimum as three player games end up having two team up and bash the third to death. There can be shared wins in this game, meaning that if two players simultaneously meet the victory condition, they both win.

The concept of this game is really quite simple: you are a space-faring race in possession of five colonies in your home system. The object is to use diplomacy, negotiation, or sheer unrelenting force to expand into five foreign colonies. It sounds simple, but this actually as hard as cutting a bad tooth out of a rottweiler with a broken beer bottle. Which happens to be all fun and games until someone gets bit.

Once all the players' races have been selected, the gameplay consists of several sequential phases that indicate the who, how, and what you get to do during a turn. First, a player will draw a colored card from the "Destiny Deck", which indicates the color of the foreign race they'll be assaulting next. That's right, you don't get to decide who you attack, it's decided for you; which can make alliances very tricky. Next, you will indicate which foreign colony of the chosen color you'll be invading, and how many ships you'll commit to the fray by placing them on the stargate board.

Now that you've established the who and how many, the true fun of the game begins! At this point, the two players about to engage in battle can ask any number of players at the table to ally with them. Common tactics for asking include pleading, offering cards or use of special powers to help the allies. It can also include things like offering to get up and mix a Tom Collins for all allied players. Trust me, I've offered that, and worse.

Once the allies are selected, the attacker and defender both choose a card from their hand to play, and reveal them simultaneously. Generally, the higher card wins. There are some specific cards and powers that can change the outcome, such as reinforcement cards that any player may play to help one side or another. Once all cards and powers have been resolved, the winner takes their spoils, and the losers take their devastated forces to the proverbial "sin bin" of Cosmic Encounter, "The Warp".
There is also a negotiation aspect to the game when it comes to the battle itself. If both the attacker and defender play a "Negotiate" card when they flip their cards, all allies go back to their home systems and the two parties have one minute to strike a deal of any kind, provided something changes hands. If no deal can be reached, they both lose three ships to "The Warp". The rules specifically state that deals can be anything, so offering a ten dollar bill is not out of the question.

The spoils for the attacker's side is that you take the planet as a colony; your allies may join you on the devastated planet bringing them closer to the five victory points needed to win. If the defender and their allies win, the defender gets to keep their planet and the allies get to draw some cards from the draw deck. With little exception, the only way to get new cards is to ally with a defending player - which is crucial. The opposing problem with that is that the only way to get victory points, meaning foreign colonies, is to either defeat a planet alone, or to ally with an attacker.

This is truly one of my all-time favorite games, and if you enjoy games that involve planning, tough decisions, trickery, and potentially having your wife tell you, "That's SO messed up, Pete, you're SO not getting any tonight", this is certainly the game for you. If your wife is calling you Pete, and your name is NOT Pete, then it seems that you should not be playing games at all, and perhaps should seek council from a licensed therapist. That, and I am NOT the Pete she called you, I swear.

Things I liked:
*Great gameplay mechanics, quite a fluid experience
*No downtime as everyone is doing something
*High production values and extraordinary art, even for Fantasy Flight Games
*Incredible replayability, and an expansion set, "Cosmic Incursion" to boot

Things I detested:
*$59.99 MSRP is just too bloody high. There's lots of bits, but this is not Descent: Journeys in the Dark
*The Fantasy Flight Games version is not truly compatible with other publishers' versions 

This is an outstanding game for three to five players, and every person who likes player vs. player games should absolutely, unequivocally own this game.

5/5 Stars


Adam said...

I'm really thinking this will be the next game I pick up for my group (though it won't be for a while, we have enough games to get on the table).

I have a quick question. Is there any rules that say you have to keep your part of any deal? If I say "Pete, help me attack this guy, and next time you get attacked, I'll help you." Is that binding. Can I opt not to keep my word? Same deal for offering cards for defense. Get a card, and not defend. That could make things interesting.

Great review.

=+=SuperflyTNT=+= said...

It's a winner. Great, great game.

As you your question, the rules and FAQ states that at least 1 colony or card must change hands. That being said, the official FAQ states:
"Anything else you choose to negotiate with is up to you. Any other terms you set are not enforced (i.e. if you agree not to ally against each other, either of you may break that portion of the deal.)"

So yes, you can fuck over your friends for fun and profit.

Unknown said...

great review, thanks, other than the comedy 59.99 complaint. Dude, get out a bit, over here thats cheap for a boardgame!