Sometimes, a board game is simple, quick, and to the point; other times, they are complex epics that you spend hours strategizing over with a rulebook open and a wiki at hand. It’s rare to find those games that you can play in an hour that still offer a semblance of that big board feel. Cosmic Encounter not only packs an epic space conquest into a small time block, but also manages to be one of the most replayable games in my repertoire. Read on to find out how.
The goal is plain- be the first alien commander to lead your fleet, peacefully or by force, to establish your race on five planets outside your own solar system. The turns are simple- draw to pick a solar system (destiny), gain allies as offense or defense (ally), then attack/negotiate and play power cards to get your colony onto a planet (encounter). The mechanics are… different for every player, almost every time you play. The alien you are in the game determines everything about how you play. I’ll go more in depth on some alien powers and strategies further on, but know that few aliens work the same, but they all seem to work.
Each player starts the game by getting two “flare cards”. Every flare card matches an alien race and the player picks the alien they want to be and then gives back both cards to add into the main deck. There are 50 flare cards/aliens in the base game alone. So that this isn’t lost on anyone, that’s 50 different, strategic, game changing alien powers in a game without touching on expansions. This is what makes a simple game so complex in an effective way, every game is quick, but each game is a unique experience. Since the largest portions of the game are easy to learn and repeated every turn, play becomes simple to grasp even for beginners, while the complex alien powers add the depth that will keep the more hardened board gamers in it to win it.
Alien Powers and their Flares
I keep mentioning powers, so I’ll go ahead and explain them now. I can’t explain all 50 powers, but I want to stress the important of range. Most powers affect a phase within the game- destiny, ally, or encounter (attacking or negotiating). Some powers are mandatory, and some of purely optional. The Human, for instance, may add 4 attack power when attacking or defending; the Human’s power also causes him to win any encounter if someone, including himself, plays a card that cancels his power. The Sorcerer has the ability to swap attack cards with the player he is attacking or defending against, before they reveal them (allowing you to play low and swap, or play high and not swap to fool them). The Will ignores the destiny phase and can attack anyone on any planet. The Parasite can ally with people against their will (see: Piggybacking). The Reincarnator becomes a new alien every time he loses a battle… and on and on for 50 aliens. I’m going to plug expansions for this game, because each expansion adds 20-30 new aliens with new game-changing power, which only increases the replayability of this Cosmic Encounter.
Flare cards are their own beast. Each flare card has a “wild” power that applies to anyone holding the card except the named alien, and a “super” power section that gives a bonus to the named alien. These cards typically don’t get discarded and get used over and over until stolen or forced to discard in another way. An example is the Reincarnator’s flare card. It’s wild power allows other players to give it to a player that just lost and force him to change aliens, while its super power allows the Reincarnator himself to NOT change aliens when he loses a battle. It’s optional, and the Reincarnator could wait to use it until he had an alien he enjoyed. Every flare is different, and usually the wild powers are better than the super powers, so don’t be sad if you don’t draw your own.
Diplomacy and Interaction
Seeing as I’ve brought up allies and negotiating, maybe it’s time to explain. One thing I love about Cosmic Encounter is the interaction between players. Every time someone fights another player, both players are allowed to request help. The attacker can request assistance to add additional strength to his side and both players will gain a colony if they win; the defender can do likewise and the defending allies draw extra cards equal to their committed defense. This allows for a lot of interaction. Impromptu agreements to team-up on the winning player, long term alliances, etc. Additionally, players can encounter other’s attack cards with a negotiate card. This causes them to immediately “lose” the battle, but they get to draw their cards from the opponents hand, allowing them to steal vital cards to that players strategy. If both players play negotiate, it starts a 1 minute timer where they can play hardball (or not) and come to ANY agreement of cards and colonies with the other player; if they can’t agree in 1 minute, they immediately both lose 3 of their ships. This type of open play really opens the game to real life dealing and emotional moments where players get angered or feel accomplished based on their interactions with the opponents, which I personally find quite satisfying.
Who Needs Expansions?
So, I already recommended adding on to the game with more aliens and some new mechanics, but there is yet another reason this game works so well- it has built in expansions. Some games offer variants to the base rule set, but I feel Cosmic Encounter goes a step further. In the back of the rules there is an entire section on additional rules to implement for advanced players. One of those sets is more than just “additional rules”; technology cards (included with the game) are an entirely new set of cards that don’t even fit into the base game. They are an expansion straight out of the first box you buy that add a new level of bonuses for when the game starts to feel repetitive. I have to hand it to the designer when I realized the extra level of effort that went in to fully developing this game.
The Experience that Led to the Article
Before I wrap up this raving review, I want to share an experience that brought me here. I took the game to work where I had to work overnight. I knew we would have some downtime and wanted to let two friends of mine have a go. About 20 minutes into the first game we had two other people wander in and sit down to watch. Within minutes one of them said “this looks fun, can I play the next game?”. By the end of the game we had three new onlookers. I’m going to make a long night very short, but after I left and went to bed, six people who had never played board games outside of Milton Bradley played long into the night. In the morning I was bombarded by crazy moments, overpowered alien powers that got destroyed by ridiculous plays, and a group of guys who barely slept because they kept starting new games.
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This was a first for me. In my years of board games it is not uncommon for me and friends of mine to stay up all night playing games… it is EXTREMELY uncommon for newbie board gamers to become so enthralled with a game that they literally ask where to buy it and if I can bring new games to play. It’s hard with that to recommend any game over this one currently. Any game that can pull a crowd and force them to want to play is a major winner in my book.
If you read this far, this conclusion is unnecessary. Huge replayability, built in expansions, simple to learn (rules seem complex, but trust me), attracts new players, player interactions, short time frame…. the list goes on… games are hard to come by, and Cosmic Encounter nails in on the head.