Posted by: markfender | May 20, 2015

Cosmic Encounter

Cosmic Encounter is the best board game ever.

Cosmic_Encounter_(FFG)It accomplishes this by not being a very good game.

When gamers thinks about games, they often look for systems. This often means creating the perfect economic engine (whatever that economy turns out to be). In games like Agricola and Race for the Galaxy, you’re doing all you can to create a well-oiled machine that will produce a win. There is a sense of playing against the game, a complicated affair that will test your ability to puzzle your way through the mechanics into a winning combination. There’s nothing wrong with a game like this – they can be enjoyable. But they place a distance between players.

Other games go for a more adversarial feel. You are going to engage in conflict with other players, manipulating a new system into defeating your foes. These games often involve a bit of randomness, a useful mechanic to create distance and make the fights low stakes affairs that are more entertaining than threatening. That’s often what dice are for in a game, giving you something to blame when things don’t go your way. But that constant conflict is the center of the game, giving you a short, controlled burst of competition.

Cosmic Encounters doesn’t do any of that. Yes, there are conflicts, but they are decided in so random a fashion that it’s difficult to strategize an appropriate response. Instead, you’re going to need to talk to your fellow players to accomplish anything. The game system itself isn’t fair. The aliens break the rules, some to a greater extent than others. It’s asymmetric, sometimes in an unfair manner. Card draw can randomize too much. Because of this set-up, there’s not a whole lot of game to game.

But that’s also Cosmic Encounter’s greatest strength. The game system is just there to provide a structure for wheeling and dealing. And it’s the social aspect that makes Cosmic Encounter the game that it is. And what’s really interesting about Cosmic Encounter is that the game system, by being kind of lackluster and random, forces the social to be the path to victory.

I can explain this really simply by giving you the perfect strategy to always win at Cosmic Encounter: If someone is attacking and invites you as an ally, go. That’s it. With most groups who haven’t figured out how Cosmic Encounter really works, this strategy will result in you being three or four colonies ahead of everyone else halfway through the first turn. If you ally with attackers, you will win.

Of course, this is the first thing I tell people when explaining the game. Because, once everyone knows the optimal way to win, everyone then tries to stop everyone else from doing it. And that’s when Cosmic Encounter gets good. Because then negotiations happen. Attackers plan to deliberately lose. Defenders become more numerous and present a credible threat. Everyone pays attention to the number of colonies they have but, more importantly, pays attention to the number of colonies everyone else has.

Yes, there are unbalanced aliens (I’d argue that it’s mostly the interaction between the alien powers that actually leads to the imbalance more than an alien power in isolation). And that means you need to crush that alien if you want to have any hope of winning. And to do that, you’re going to need everyone else’s help. Since you can’t necessarily choose who you attack, you are going to require other players to help you in stopping the runaway threat.

And that’s why Cosmic Encounter is a great game – because it forces political situations to develop between players. It is the social aspect of board games that makes them a unique field. Computer games can handle complex economic systems. Roleplaying games can create unique characters experiencing a world. But board games get everyone at the table interacting with each other in a focused, sometimes driven, way. And that social aspect is what Cosmic Encounter excels at. The game itself isn’t all that brilliant. It’s the combination of pieces that create the emergent gameplay that isn’t focused on the game system, but on your fellow players. If you want to play Cosmic Encounter and have any hope of winning, you will need to interact with other players at the table. And it is these moments that create lasting stories of fun.

Almost every game of Cosmic Encounter will have a few stories emerge from it, stories that stick with you far after the game is over, stories that form lasting social bonds between people that might not have even known each other before the game began. This weird mix of plastic spaceships, wacky alien powers, and cards acts as just as powerful a social lubricant as alcohol can.

Cosmic Encounter has other things to recommend it. The alien powers often create an entirely new game mechanic that could be the basis for an entire other game. It plays fast. It can have multiple people win. It makes numerous lists as one of the greatest board games of all time. Originally published in 1977, there’s a reason Cosmic Encounter has survived the vagaries of failing businesses, always getting picked up by a new licensee. Somewhere, in that engine of short, easily grokked rules, lurks the true heart of what makes board games a fun and unique proposition – interaction with your fellow players.


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