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".
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.