This was my introduction to Cosmic Encounter. My friend and I were around 14, gainfully employed as paperboys and looking for a way to use some of our excess cash. (At 14, pretty much all our cash was excess cash.) He had picked the game up off the shelf at the toys and hobbies store we were wandering through. He put it back down, but I thought it deserved another look. “What the heck,” I thought, and bought it. Then we played it for the next week solid, and thus began a life-long addiction. (As a matter of fact, one of the endearing qualities of the girl-who-is-now-my-wife while we were dating was the fact that she, too, was an avid Cosmic Encounter fan.)
Cosmic Encounter has a long and storied history (which you can read about on Wikipedia, if you like) and has passed through the hands of Eon, Mayfair, Avalon Hill, and now Fantasy Flight Games. The version I picked up all those years ago was the Mayfair edition. I quickly snapped up More Cosmic Encounter (Mayfair’s expansion to the game), and recently the glorious Fantasy Flight reprint. More about that later.
Cosmic Encounter (“Cosmic” or “CE” to its friends) is an incredibly rich game with an incredibly simple premise. You have 20 ships and five planets, all of one color. You also have an Alien Power that lets you break one rule of the game. Your mission: be the first one to get five bases outside of your home system, by any means possible. Sure, you can just do the attack-defend-play-cards thing, but if you want to really get ahead in the cosmos, the name of the game is dirty, underhanded double-dealing.
You’ll need people’s help to get those precious bases, and the only way they’re going to help you is if it’s in their best interest. An ironic side effect of this “every-sentient-creature-for-themself” mindset is that there are very few games that end with a single player winning it all: Everybody knows when you’re about to win, and they’ll do anything they can to stop you…unless they can win at the same time. Expect the final few rounds to be flurries of cards as people attempt to block, unblock, re-route, or reverse each other’s grabs at victory.
And when all-out attacks and shrewd political maneuvering don’t do the trick, there’s always the Alien Powers. Cosmic Encounter has about 70 different options, one of which is dealt to each player at the beginning of the game and allows them a permanent advantage, and an opportunity to ham it up. Expect a player who is playing as the Oracle to speak in mysterious, cryptic phrases, while the Symbiote will start referring to themselves as “we”.
But the game also teems with other tricky, sneaky, and sometimes downright awesome ways to defeat your enemies. In one game a player smiled sweetly as all her opponents teamed up to conquer one of her planets. As we were all settling into our nice new bases she then sweetly revealed a card she’d been waiting to play: a bomb that blew up an entire planet and every ship on it. We all agreed it was a thoroughly awesome move, even as we were sending our ships to the Warp (the dreaded holding bin for defeated ships).
Speaking of the Warp, one of the delightful side effects of playing CE is the “in crowd” vocabulary that fans start using. I once asked a CE-playing friend what happened to the desert lizard that used to live in his now-empty terrarium. “He got sent to the Warp” was the response. Now I want that on my headstone.
When I started playing CE our “ships” were little cardboard dots that tended to jump to light speed if anyone at the table sneezed. While we loved the game, Fantasy Flight’s new version gives the physical aspect of Cosmic a much-needed overhaul. The Alien Power cards are beautifully designed and decorated, with wonderful flavor text and helpful info strips to let you know exactly when you can use your power to crush your opponents (check out the Genius from Fantasy Flight’s website). The ships themselves have evolved from the cardboard dots of the Mayfair era into thematically perfect plastic flying saucers that stack nicely. All the cards are top notch. While it’s true that the pieces don’t really make the game you do spend a lot of time looking at them and playing with them, so it’s nice when they’re fun to look at and play with.
Will you like CE? Try it. Play it with a group of people that doesn’t mind casually forcing each other over the brink of extinction, and see how it goes.