Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Science Fiction Month! Cosmic Encounter

Cosmic Encounter is a game that brings me back 20 or more years. We played it in my friend's basement in high school and in the common lounge in college. It's taken me a week to finish this entry because each time I start I begin to remember people and events associated with playing this terrific game. Clearly this is part of a particular personal era for me, and also a cultural era for the country as a whole. I don't think you could release a game called Cosmic Encounter today without some sense of irony but in 1977 the folks at Eon Publishing probably used the words "cosmic" and "encounter" on a daily basis. The game was a huge hit in the 1970's and has been reprinted several times, most recently by Fantasy Flight Games. Is the new version true to it's roots or is it twisting the knife of nostalgia in my chest?

In a game of Cosmic Encounter each player plays a different alien race. In the original version the races were completely alien- they resembled gas clouds, thorny hedges, or plankton. Cosmic indeed! In the new version the races are modified to resemble classic science fiction beings or creatures- insect-like or lizard-like in many cases. Sorry gramps, times change. Each player controls five cardboard planets. In the course of the game your goal is to get tokens representing your race onto five planets owned by one or more of the other players. If you have five such "colonies" then you win.

In a player's turn they draw a card from the Destiny Deck. The Destiny Deck tells you which player your going to try to invade using the Hyperspace Gate. Who ever loses the battle has their ships sent to The Warp! Man, I can't write this without breaking out laughing, it's such a trippy game. So why should anyone who didn't live during the 1960's and '70's play it?

The rules are actually incredibly simple. They're ultimately the same as the card game "War," the higher card wins. In this case there are a few tricks. One is that you can ask other players to help. You can invade Grant's planet and ask Mia to be your ally and loan you ships. Then Grant may offer Mia a better deal and ask her to be his ally, or he could ask Anand for help. Other players may or may not join in the fray and it's great fun to beg or wheedle people into joining in. As an aside, this is also a time for parents to step in and help a child who is doing poorly, just to prevent sad feeling at the end of a game.

After choosing allies the players draw cards from their hands and reveal them. You add the number of allies you have to the card and the higher number wins the encounter. If the attacker wins they get to land on the planet. Losing ships get sent to a waiting area, The Warp, where they can be retrieved later. The cards allow another trippy 1970's event, however. One or both players may play a "Negotiate" card. If both play this card then all allies go home and the two players have a chance to reach a deal. If they can within the time limit then both sides benefit. If they fail both sides are penalized. If only one player tries to negotiate then that player loses the encounter but gets compensation cards. This dynamic of negotiate or fight is the subject of millions of dissertations and studies since it touches on such a fundamental issues- "should I be aggressive and risk defeat, or try and negotiate, knowing that I could lose out if the other person is aggressive?"

Finally, the game gives each alien race some special ability. It may be to lose fewer ships in an encounter, to look at other player's cards, or some other trick. The alien abilities add variety to the game and deliver lots of replay value. In addition the publisher has given the alien abilities a rating with some being appropriate for beginners and some better for more experienced players. I think that's a very nice touch.

The deck of cards also includes special event cards of various sorts. These can temporarily change your power or add some new effect to the game. For example the Cosmic Zap (heh) card can take away someones alien power.

I am pleased as punch with the new edition of Cosmic Encounter. It remains a terrific game in several ways. It's simple. There's room for victory through negotiation. There's huge variety and replay value. The concept of allies allows parents to make sure no child loses catastrophically. Finally a lot of the unique '70's quality of the game is retained. I do miss the old aliens but in the scheme of things the new publishers have done a very respectful job of updating this old classic. This is a great basic strategy game for multiple players and might be considered a top 50 classic game in it's own right.

Cosmic Encounter is available at Pandemonium Books, Games People Play, Hit and Miss in Lexington, among others.

Pros: simple, many ways to win, could have multiple winners or cooperative successes

Cons: expensive game, although well worth it in my opinion

Beyond the Basics: endless replay value and multiple complex strategies are possible.

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