Cosmic Encounter is a classic game of space combat and negotiation where players take on the role of a unique alien race as they attempt to spread their influence throughout the galaxy. Players must navigate shifting alliances, making the most of their resources as they position themselves to be the first to reach five foreign colonies. Whichever player, or group of players, reaches five foreign colonies first will be victorious!
At the beginning of the game, each player will select a color and place five home planets in front of them, stacking four of their ships on each planet. The main deck of cards is then shuffled and 8 cards are dealt to each player. The game is played over a series of rounds, known as “encounters.” There will be an active player for each encounter, with play passing clockwise around the table after the active player has completed two encounters, or failed an encounter.
An encounter consists of the following phases:
- Regroup – The active player may retrieve one of their ships from the Warp, which is the central graveyard for all destroyed ships.
- Destiny – A card is drawn from the Destiny Deck, which will show either a color matching one of the players, a wild, or a condition for selecting a player such as “most cards in hand.” The color chosen by destiny indicates the player that will be attacked during the encounter. A wild Destiny Card gives the active player their choice, and drawing their own color allows the active player to either attack foreign colonies on their own planets or choose to redraw.
- Launch – The active player points the Hyperspace Gate at one of the planets in the home system of the player selected by destiny (known as the Defense). The active player (known as the Offense) then takes 1-4 ships from among their colonies to place on the Hyperspace Gate, committing them to battle.
- Alliance – Both the Offense and Defense now have the opportunity to invite any other players to ally with their side. Players must be given an invitation in order to join, and may choose to accept or decline. Players joining the Offense can send 1-4 ships onto the Hyperspace Gate, while players joining the Defense place 1-4 ships next to the planet being attacked.
- Planning – Once all alliances are locked in, each Main Player (the Offense and Defense) will secretly select an Encounter Card from their hand and play it facedown. Encounter Cards come in three types:
- Attack – These cards show a number, ranging from 00 to 40, with an irregular distribution (40, 30, 23, 20, and various smaller values).
- Negotiate – These cards are all identical, simply showing an “N” for “Negotiate.”
- Morph – There is only one Morph card in the base game, indicated by an “M” and a background that is half Attack and half Negotiate.
- Reveal – Once the Offense and Defense have locked in their Encounter Cards, they reveal them simultaneously. A Morph card immediately becomes a duplicate of the opposing Encounter Card. The result then depends on the combination of the types of Encounter Cards played:
- Attack vs. Attack – If both players played Attack cards, the Attack values are added to the number of ships on the corresponding side. Both the Main Players and allies will have the opportunity to play Reinforcement Cards to further modify the totals, and the higher total will be the winner.
- Attack vs. Negotiate – The player with the Attack card automatically wins the encounter. However, the losing player will receive “Compensation” in the Resolution phase.
- Negotiate vs. Negotiate – All allies are returned to existing colonies and the two Main Players have one minute to agree to a deal. A deal can consist of the exchange of cards in the players’ hands, and/or the establishing of a single foreign colony in the opposing player’s home system.
- Offense Won – All the Defense’s ships (including allies) are sent to the Warp. The Offense’s ships and all offensive allies move onto the defending planet, establishing foreign colonies. If the Defense played a Negotiate card, they collect Compensation by randomly taking cards from the Offense’s hand equal to the number of the Defense’s ships that were lost. The encounter is considered successful for the Offense.
- Defense Won – All the Offense’s ships (including allies) are sent to the Warp. The Defense retains their colony on the defending planet, and all defensive allies return their ships to existing colonies, collecting one Defender Reward for each ship returned. A Defender Reward is either a card drawn from the top of the deck, or a ship retrieved from the Warp, and the rewards can be taken in any combination. If the Offense played a Negotiate card, they collect Compensation from the Defense’s hand equal to the number of the Offense’s ships that were lost. The encounter is considered failed for the Offense.
- Successful Deal – If players reached an agreement, they fulfill the conditions of the deal now. The encounter is considered successful for the Offense.
- Failed Deal – If an agreement could not be reached, both players must lose three of their ships to the Warp. The encounter is considered failed for the Offense.
- Artifacts – These cards are special effects that can be played during the indicated phase. The effects vary from releasing all ships from the Warp, to preventing specific players from joining an encounter as an ally, to “zapping” a player’s alien power, preventing it from being used that encounter (more on alien powers later).
- Flares – There is a Flare card for each alien race in the game, and the Flares for all of the aliens being used (as well as some extras) are always shuffled into the deck. These cards provide a special ability that can be used during the phase indicated on the card, but a player may only use one Flare per encounter. Unlike Artifact cards, however, Flares return to the player’s hand and can be used again in future encounters. If the Flare matches the player’s alien, they will use the “Super” ability listed; otherwise they will use the “Wild” ability.
Whenever players establish new foreign colonies, the score track along the edge of the Warp board is updated to reflect the current progress of each player toward five foreign colonies. In addition to Encounter Cards and the Reinforcement Cards mentioned above, there are a couple of other card types that players might have in their hands:
When players no longer have any Encounter Cards in their hand, they will discard their remaining cards and draw a new hand immediately when either their turn starts, or they are selected as the Defense in an encounter. Play will continue around the table clockwise with encounter after encounter, until one or more players reaches five foreign colonies. Since multiple players can gain a foreign colony simultaneously due to offensive allies joining the Offense on the defending planet, it is possible for more than one player to win the game.
As hinted at, each player also has a unique alien race that gives them an asymmetrical ability. These are selected by dealing each player two random Flare cards at the beginning of the game, and each choosing one. The powers tend to be drastic and what seem to be game-breaking effects such as multiplying your ships and attack card instead of adding, causing all destroyed enemy ships to be removed from the game instead of going to the Warp, or getting to look at your opponent’s Encounter Card before selecting your own. Every game is going to have a completely different flavor depending on the combination of alien races that are in play, and it is up to the players to balance the game through strategic, careful, and ever-shifting alliances. The alien powers are what take a mediocre game of bluffing and negotiation and turn it into a sandbox of crazy possibilities.
What Is It Like to Play?
Cosmic Encounter is a game of constantly trying to position yourself so that you have a chance at reaching five foreign colonies first. The approach to this strategic positioning in influenced by a variety of factors:
- Your Hand – One of the central mechanisms that drives Cosmic Encounter is hand management. The cards in your hand are your most important resources, and also one of the few variables that are unknown to other players. Not only does this mean you need to plan how to approach the game with the hand you’ve been dealt, but you also need to consider what you want other players to know about your hand. Suppose I am dealt a hand with several Negotiate cards and a few low Attack cards. I am not in a very good position to win battles through brute force, but I also probably don’t want anyone else to know that is the case. Perhaps I look for an opportunity to sacrifice a battle in order to gain Compensation, hoping to get some key cards from my opponent’s hand. Or maybe I try to push for my opponent to negotiate so that we can make a deal. But there may be even more exotic ways for me to approach the hand… Maybe my goal is to draw a new hand as soon as possible, which requires me to get rid of all my Encounter Cards. I could make a deal with a player, but add a clause that in addition to gaining a foreign colony, they must take my whole hand. Or maybe I can convince a player to play a Negotiate, and then backstab them with a low Attack, causing them to take four cards from my hand as Compensation. This kind of strategic hand management is hugely important if you want to do well in Cosmic Encounter, especially because at the end of the game, you want to have a hand that can carry you to victory. The interest of the hand management is increased by the fact that only Encounter Cards prevent a new hand from being drawn. Suppose I have a couple of really powerful Flare cards that synergize well with my alien power. I can use these Flares repeatedly (as they return to your hand), but only as long as I can keep the hand going with Encounter Cards. This presents a situation opposite of the one described above: I want to find ways to gain more Encounter Cards, so that I can keep using the Flares as long as possible. This could be done through Defender Rewards, requesting cards as part of a deal, or maybe I happen to have an alien power that is helpful in acquiring new cards (such as the Kamikaze, who can send ships to the Warp during the Planning phase in order to draw two cards per ship lost). It is very easy for new players to feel helpless with the cards they are dealt, not feeling like they have a lot of control over their fate. However, as players become more experienced, they will learn that there are a lot of subtleties to the strategies that can be used to influence the management of their hand, and how to better bluff and keep their opponents one step behind.
- The Aliens in Play – Since the alien powers are drastic and seemingly overpowered, the combination of aliens in play is a huge factor in how players approach the game. As everyone is jockeying to get to five foreign colonies, it is important to have a good feel for which aliens present the greatest threat, and which are good opportunities for mutual benefit. It is very likely that you will need to help other players throughout the game, but you want to make sure you are helping the players that still give you the greatest relative benefit and chance at winning. The Alliance phase is one of the main areas where this kind of decision-making is exemplified. Inviting allies as the Offense gives them the opportunity to gain a foreign colony, which is a huge benefit. On the flip side, defensive allies have the opportunity to collect Defender Rewards, and giving another player four cards is nothing to sneeze at. But the other major variable to consider is what that opponent will think of you. Perhaps I don’t love inviting a certain player to my side, but I also want to be on friendly terms with them so that I can potentially ally with them for my own benefit in the future. And while giving another player four cards is dangerous, giving four cards to a friend could be just what we need to take down a stronger player. On the other hand, backstabbing a player may yield the best outcome within a single encounter, but can you afford for that player to hate your guts for the rest of the game? You certainly want to utilize your alien power to the best of your ability, but there is so much more to a successful strategy in Cosmic Encounter than just optimizing your own play. This ain’t your classic “most efficient player wins” Eurogame; there is whole other layer of the game that is happening above the table, among the players. The ability to combine your knowledge of the group dynamic with the possible moves within the game system is key in positioning yourself for victory.
- The Turn Order – One interesting aspect of Cosmic Encounter is that you will probably only get a few turns over the course of the game. If you have a successful first encounter, you can have a second, but it is very likely that some of your five foreign colonies will need to be acquired outside of your own turn. This makes allying and looking for opportunities to make deals as the Defense crucial, but it also makes the turn order an important consideration. For example, if I don’t think I am going to get another turn, I want to do everything I can to position myself so that I can have a chance to join another player for the win. Perhaps I am at four foreign colonies, and destiny selects the next player in clockwise order, who has three foreign colonies, as the Defense. I could try to go for the win, but the Defense is going to sell out with their strongest cards to stop me, and likely invite all other players to oppose me as well. That is a lot of firepower to go against, especially once you consider Flares and Artifacts that may be in any of my opponents’ hands. What if I, instead, negotiated with the player, offering to give them a foreign colony with nothing in return? Now that player would join me at four foreign colonies, and their turn would be next. Now we have the opportunity to ally together for the win, increasing our chances of beating the opposition. Sure, a win in Cosmic Encounter is sweeter with fewer players (going for a solo win against all other players can be exhilarating), but I will certainly take a win with one other player over losing altogether.
With so many variables changing throughout the game (the cards in your hand, players’ progress towards foreign colonies, your knowledge of other players’ hands, the dynamic of alliances among players, etc.), you must constantly adapt to your current read on the game, and approach each tactical decision with the mindset of “what puts me in the position where I am most likely to win?” There is no doubt that there are a lot of random factors in Cosmic Encounter, and sometimes things outside of your control don’t go your way. But it is the kind of game where you have rich options in making the most of what you’ve got, and clever players can often find a way to escape a bad situation.
The tagline written on Cosmic Encounter’s box is literally “a game of infinite possibilities.” Replay value is the game’s biggest strength, and you will almost certainly never play a game with the same combination of aliens. It is the kind of sandbox where, even after hundreds of plays, you can still run across interesting situations that you have never seen before. For players that enjoy thinking about how a game can change based on variable setup, Cosmic Encounter provides them with a rabbit hole of possibilities to explore. This isn’t to say that certain elements of the game might not feel repetitive after a while, but that core system is always going to be injected with a unique flavor from the aliens in play.
The base game claims a 3-5 player count, but I really only find myself pulling it out with 5 players. So much of the game’s interest relies on having more alien powers in play and more possibilities in alliances, and both of those criteria scale directly with the number of players. The player count is further extended with expansions, but I find the 5-6 player count to be optimal. Less than 5 loses a lot of the spirit of the game (though 4 player can certainly be enjoyable), and more than 6 starts to dilute the turn order with players rarely getting to be the Offense.
Despite originally being released in 1977, there are really not many games that draw close comparison to Cosmic Encounter. The closest is probably Rex: Final Days of an Empire, a remake of Dune, which is actually created by the same designers. Another space-themed game that has a lot of interaction between players a level above the game and revolves around jockeying to reach a predefined score is Twilight Imperium. It, however, is much more epic in scope, clocking in around 8 hours as opposed to Cosmic Encounter’s playtime that hovers around 60 minutes. Battlestar Galactica is another game where bluffing and player interaction are key, and it has some light hand management as well. However, its focus is more on hidden traitors (cylons) and is also a longer fare at 3 hours. A little more of a stretch might be The Voyages of Marco Polo, which, despite being a Eurogame that is nothing at all like Cosmic Encounter, does take a similar approach of having variable player powers that are radical and game-changing.
Fairly minimal, with a few decks of cards that must be shuffled and players setting up their initial planets. Players will also be dealt two Flare cards to give them their alien choices for the game, and it does take a little bit for everyone to read their options, select them, and then explain each one to the group after they are revealed. However, this alien selection process is enjoyable and feels more like part of the game than setup.
This is a tricky one. The basics of the game are fairly straight-forward, and the consistency of the phases in each encounter helps new players learn the rhythm of the game. However, Artifacts and especially Flares can add some confusion and complexity into the game, and due to hands being hidden information, it can be hard for new players to ask questions without hurting their position. It is definitely best to use a combination of aliens that are easy to understand for first time players, as well as really emphasize the names of the phases while teaching, as many cards will specifically highlight the phase when they can be played. In my experience, it is best to introduce Cosmic Encounter to new players when you can play twice in a row; once to get a feel for the game, and a follow-up that allows them to feel more comfortable and see how differently each game can play out.
Things to Like
This is the biggest draw to Cosmic Encounter. I love teaching the whole game and then saying, “but what really makes things interesting is that each one of us will have an alien power that lets us break the rules in a specific way.” Not only are the powers fun to play with, but they also lay the groundwork for a variety of interesting and emergent situations that are the highlights of the game. But perhaps the best way to get a feel for why this aspect of the game is so cool is to provide a sampling of the powers that are available:
- Oracle – You get to see your opponent’s Encounter Card before selecting your own.
- Macron – Each of your ships is worth 4 instead of 1.
- Zombie – Your ships never go to the Warp.
- Sorcerer – Once Encounter Cards are locked in, you can choose to swap them or leave them.
- Miser – You have an entire second hand that other players can’t touch.
- Pacifist – If you play a Negotiate and your opponent plays an Attack, you automatically win the encounter.
- Masochist – You win the game if all of your ships are in the Warp.
- Void – When you destroy enemy ships, they are removed from the game instead of going to the Warp.
- Mirror – After Encounter Cards are locked in, you may call “Mirror,” which will cause all Attack card values to be reversed (a 08 becomes an 80, the 40 becomes a 04).
This is just a small sampling of what is available, and considering that there are fifty different aliens in the base set alone, you can see how you are never going to play the same game twice.
With all of the crazy alien powers in play, it seems like there would be a risk of certain combinations being extremely unbalanced. But the beauty of Cosmic Encounter’s design is that it gives players the agency (largely through alliances within an encounter) to self-balance the game in a dynamic way. There is a checks and balances around the table as every player shares the same goal of not letting anyone else get to five foreign colonies before they get the chance. The result is that it is very common to have close finishes, where multiple players are just one foreign colony away from winning. Games are more fun when everyone feels they might have a chance until the very end, and Cosmic Encounter’s design naturally leads toward those kinds of tight finishes.
While all of the negotiation, bluffing, and other player interaction is great, Cosmic Encounter still throws a bone to the types of players (myself included) who enjoy analyzing options to come up with the most logical approach to the game. While there is a good deal of randomness, there is a lot of room for experienced players to use their knowledge of the deck to deduce information about other players’ hands, and then use that information to dictate play of their own hand. There are a lot of meaningful decisions within the underlying game system, and that strong core is what makes the layer of alien powers all the more fascinating.
Each game of Cosmic Encounter has its unique fingerprint, defined by the aliens in play, the players themselves, and the deal of the cards. Since there is so much potential to come across situations that you’ve never seen before, it makes individual sessions a lot more memorable than with many other games. I won’t ever forget the time my sister wiped out everyone’s ships because she had the Machine (which can keep having encounters beyond just two) and the Loser Flare (which allows her to immediately make both sides lose). She would just commit one ship, kill both sides, and then get that ship back in the Regroup phase before doing it again (sadly no other players had a Cosmic Zap or Card Zap, either of which could have stopped the combo). Or the time when my friend was playing Chronos (who can choose to replay an encounter once it finishes), and was matched up against my friend with Gambler (who can state any encounter card and get to use their selection unless the opposing player challenges, risking losing ships if they are wrong). Both were at four foreign colonies, and to my surprise, Chronos played a Negotiate, appearing to be committing suicide! In fact, it was a clever play: all the Gambler needed to do was lie and say his card was a Negotiate, Chronos wouldn’t challenge, and they could make a deal for the win. Worst case, Chronos had the insurance of being able to replay the encounter. The deal was made and they won. And let us not forget the time that we had the Entropy Beast in play (a Hazard Card, which is an event deck from the Cosmic Conflict expansion), which starts blowing up the planets with the most ships whenever certain Destiny Cards are drawn. If ever a player has less than 3 planets in their home system, all players lose. After a long game, it appeared two players were going to win together, only to have their deal shut down by another player that had exactly the right cards to counter their efforts. Angry that the win was snatched from them, they vowed that if they weren’t going to win, nobody was. Armed with the Guerilla Flare, which allows the controlling player to blow up their own planets after they are taken over in an attack, they accelerated Entropy Beast’s threat and after an abnormally long game, everyone lost. Believe me, I’ve had a lot of games of Cosmic Encounter that have fallen flat (more on that later), but I am hard pressed to think of many other games that have left me with such strong memories of specific sessions.
I’ve had the good fortune of most often playing Cosmic Encounter with an experienced group. The kind of group where everyone has a strong knowledge of the composition of the deck, and they all know how to cleverly manipulate the game system to twist things in their favor. I believe that it is with this kind of group that the game really shines. Since so much of the game is above the table and housed in the interactions between the players, the quality of those player interactions is going to have a big impact in the overall fun factor of the game. For groups that are able to explore the game together consistently, Cosmic Encounter has a lot to offer in repeated play.
Things to Dislike
The flip side of Cosmic Encounter being better with a good group, is that it can really suffer if played with the wrong group. More than most other games I have played, Cosmic Encounter relies on the players to properly fill in the social layer that is more than just raw mechanics. And if a group is not exploring that dimension of the play space, they are really just playing half of the game, and setting themselves up for a bad time. While I don’t think Cosmic Encounter is a bad game to introduce to new players (I love seeing their reactions to the alien powers), it can be hard to predict if a group will catch on to some of the interactions that drive the game.
Even if you have a great, experienced group, there is still the potential for games to just fall flat. Sometimes a sequence of events can cause a player to reach five foreign colonies without any real struggle or final showdown. Sometimes a player will have a cool alien power, only to have it never be used in the entire game. When you are playing a game like Cosmic Encounter that has such a limitless play space, you are taking on the risk of a bad session in order to have the potential for an amazing one. For many this tradeoff is worth it, with each game being a shot at amazing and memorable moments, but for others it could be a hard sell. Especially for players that aren’t able to play the same game many times, it may not be worth it to risk the few sessions they have being negative experiences.
Due to both of the above points, it can be difficult to get new players over that hump of learning the game, and into the more rewarding landscape of experienced play. For most players, a negative experience with a game is enough to form their opinion and not want to try it again. It can help to emphasize these points to a new player and recommend they give it at least 3 plays before forming an opinion, but that can be a hard ask in an age where there are so many amazing games that they could be spending their time playing.
Before I add my thoughts for this point, you have to realize something: I’ve played Cosmic Encounter 184 times, all in person. The fact that it is still a game that I don’t see ever leaving my collection speaks volumes about its replay value. However, I have to admit that it has slid down in my ratings a bit over the years, and I think the main reason is that I’ve just seen so much of what can happen already. Whereas a new player has their mind blown when they hear different alien abilities, I am so familiar with it all that it loses a bit of that excitement. Even now, the game can provide me with sessions that are memorable and exciting, but the chances of me seeing something truly new is just not the same as 100 plays ago. Feels funny having a negative saying that “after 180+ plays it may get a little more stale” as that is likely true of any game, but it is worth mentioning as it is what has transitioned Cosmic Encounter from being a top 5 game in my personal rankings, to falling outside of my top 20.
If you were thinking that a game with “infinite possibilities” is ripe for endless expansion, then you would be right! At the time of this review, Fantasy Flight Games has released six small expansions for Cosmic Encounter, of which I have played the first five. I’ll give my brief thoughts on what each expansion adds to the game.
If you enjoy Cosmic Encounter, then I consider the Cosmic Incursion expansion a must-buy. It adds 20 new aliens that open up all kinds of new possibilities, and also adds orange as a player color, expanding the game to 6 players. I think 5-6 players is the best way to play, so this is a welcome addition. However, the top reason to get the expansion is probably the new Reward Cards.
The Reward Deck is similar to the normal Cosmic Encounter deck, but contains some new and more exotic types of cards such as “Kickers” that allow you to multiply an Attack Card or Compensation, “Rifts” that can retrieve ships from the Warp but are also booby traps when stolen, and even a second Morph card, which introduces the remote possibility of a Morph vs. Morph encounter (causing both sides to lose). These cards can only be gained when taking Defender Rewards, and players can choose to take any combination of cards from both decks. What really makes things interesting is that the new Rewards Deck has differently colored backs, adding an interesting layer of decision-making when taking cards from other players’ hands.
I will leave out the Rewards Deck if I am teaching a new player, but otherwise I use it in every game I play. It just provides more potential for interesting situations, and gives experienced players even more options for clever play.
Have Cosmic Incursion and still enjoying the game? Then I think Cosmic Conflict becomes a must-buy as well. 20 new aliens add more fun into the mix, and you can now play up to 7 players with the addition of black as a player color. But it also adds a module that, much like the Rewards Deck from Cosmic Incursion, I use in almost every game I play: the Hazard Deck. This module is basically an event deck that triggers whenever specific Destiny Cards are drawn (one out of the three Destiny Cards for each player color has the hazard symbol).
Once ships are committed during the Launch phase, a Hazard Card is drawn and read, resulting in effects such as each Main Player drawing two cards that are revealed to everyone, reversing the direction of play around the table, or making both players lose the encounter if they reveal Attack Cards with a combined total greater than 25. I find that these inject a little more flavor and excitement into the game, and I have seen some amazing moments where all hope was lost and a miraculous Hazard saved players from an impossible situation. Plus, there are no extra rules to teach when using the Hazard Deck, simply draw the cards and read them when the time comes.
If you have already bought the first two expansions and are looking for more, you are clearly addicted. You can’t go wrong with Cosmic Alliance which adds yet another 20 aliens into the mix, as well as another player color (white). Additionally, it provides a set of “large group” cards that can be mixed in during 7-8 player games to help keep things balanced. There are also rules for team play, which can be a fun way to mix things up, especially with a larger group. I played with the team rules a few times when we first got the expansion and I remember enjoying it, but I haven’t felt compelled to return to it over the standard game.
Not quite the “must-buy” factor of the first two expansions, but definitely a solid addition to the game.
I believe Cosmic Storm is easily the weakest of all the expansions released for Cosmic Encounter. It adds 25 aliens, a bump up from previous expansions, but I found it to be the weakest set of aliens yet. There are a few exceptions, but overall there just weren’t a lot of notable powers that brought something new, interesting, and worthwhile to the game. In addition, the “extra” content of the expansion is the Space Station module, which, while kind of fun (stations are placed on specific planets giving them abilities), is not something I found myself ever wanting to add in.
Overall, I think this is the expansion to skip, and only come back to pick it up if you have all of the others and still want more aliens.
After the disappointment of Cosmic Storm, I was happy to find that Cosmic Dominion not only added 30 aliens, but it was also one of the best sets of aliens in any expansion to date! It also adds new Reward Cards for the deck from Cosmic Incursion, which I ended up being a little torn on. It adds some new cool things, but I found that it made it harder for the group to have a grasp of all the types of cards that could be in play, and it also made introducing the Rewards Deck to new players even more challenging.
In the end, I left some of the new cards in, but opted for the simpler distribution in that deck. There are also several new variants with custom ships abilities, but I haven’t tried them and can’t speak to their value. In short, I think the 30 new aliens alone make Cosmic Dominion a great expansion for any Cosmic fanatic.
This is the one expansion I haven’t tried, but it follows Cosmic Dominion’s lead by adding yet another 30 aliens to the game. This means that the total alien count with the base game and all expansions has now reached 195!! It also adds dials that allow you to play with hidden alliances, meaning players must select their side secretly, and then reveal simultaneously. This sounds like a really interesting twist, though I imagine that it would follow the path of some of the other modules and variants: fun to try out, but not something that sees regular play.
Despite the expansion looking really solid, I have hard time deciding to pick it up for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not sure I will be able to fit it in the box! I have managed to keep all of the expansions so far in the base box, and I’d like to keep it that way if possible. Second, I just don’t play Cosmic Encounter as much as I used to. I have so much content already, that moving from 165 to 195 aliens starts to have diminishing returns on how it impacts the game. But for many that have come this far down the cosmic rabbit hole, it will be worth it to complete their collection.
Game Design Perspective
Cosmic Encounter is 42 years old. The fact that, after all that time, I have a hard time thinking of games that are even close to it in style and mechanics, speaks a lot to the originality of the design. It is one thing for a designer to think “I want a game where all the players can break the rules in unique ways,” and another for them to come up with a robust system that creates such a rich play space to explore with various rule-breaking abilities. The flow of the game over “encounters” with a strange foundation of area control across the systems of planets feels fresh, even among all the games that have come out since its inception. That takes a truly special design.
A common problem with trying to add drastic player powers to a design is how to make sure that the game stays balanced. One approach is to play test aggressively to the point where you feel that the powers have been “proven” to be balanced, but that is rarely a surefire method. Cosmic Encounter takes the other route of giving the players the agency to self-balance the game as it is being played. A power like the Virus (who multiplies its attack card and ships instead of adding) is so clearly overpowered compared to many of the other alien powers, but the other players know it is unbalanced and can team together to offset it and remove any advantage that the Virus would have had. And once the game has been designed so that the powers don’t need to be perfectly balanced, the designers get to go crazy with their imaginations and crank out all kinds of exotic abilities that push the boundaries of what is possible in the game.
Cosmic Encounter is a weird game. It doesn’t fall neatly within any one genre, and it can be hard to predict which players will love it, and which will hate it. But as a designer, I find games like this very inspiring. We can expect to see many new releases each year in comfortable genres like worker placement, deck-building, tile-laying, etc. and they can provide great experiences. But every once in a while, a game comes along that challenges the trends of the industry and really does something fresh and different. Cosmic Encounter is that kind of game; it just happened to come out 40 years before modern board game trends developed.
Cosmic Encounter is a polarizing game, and one that may be worth trying before buying. There is nothing like it, and in the hands of the right group, the endless variability is going to lead to experiences that simply can’t be found in any other game. I may not play Cosmic as much as I used to, but I treasure the memories it has produced and get excited when there is an opportunity to get it to the table. And who knows, someday down the road I may have kids that I can introduce to the game, and that is a scenario that has me grinning at the possibilities.
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