15th Oct2018

‘Cosmic Encounter’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

cosmic-enc-box

If there was ever a list of board games that were most recognised as those capable of conjuring up incredible stories of near misses, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and getting one over on your friends, Cosmic Encounter would be on it. With Cosmic Encounter now over forty years old, the Fantasy Flight Games edition that is currently on sale features streamlined rules, high quality components and a vast number of alien races, upgrades and other features that make it an accessible, good value package. As a weird hybrid of heavy party game or niche contender on game night, can Cosmic Encounter still grab the attention of modern players?

As with all games, it will certainly depend on your group of players, but I can certainly say that it feels as if this version of Cosmic Encounter works hard to make itself accessible to all. There are relatively few rules to remember when it comes to the basic structure of the game, but complexity is layered in because each alien race comes with its own special power, most of which are fairly complicated. To handle this, each of the forty races in the box are colour coded green, amber or red, which signposts how complex they are to play with; and that’s a good start in my book.

The base game is also just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how complex Cosmic Encounter can be, and it already features numerous expansions. Some of the concepts from these add-on packs have been introduced to the base game over the years, but it’s never much more complicated than managing the base rules, the powers and then one or two different kinds of upgrade and artifact cards. The rest of Cosmic Encounter’s weight comes down to working out what to do and when – when to attack, when to negotiate and when to backstab your own best friend, for example. Thankfully, the game aids the players by using an encounter deck that effectively removes the decision about who to interact with, leaving them to focus on what kind of interaction it will be.

At the beginning of the game, each player controls their own series of five planets, each of which has a stack of four ships on it. In the centre of the board is a stylish score tracker that doubles as a graveyard (called The Void) for defeated ships. There’s also a large, arrow shaped Hyperspace tile that indicates the direction and size of any attacking force. Aside from that, there is (at least) a deck of combat cards and an encounter deck which is loaded with cards from each of the colours in play, as well as a few random ones and some others that go in depending on the play mode. Once the game starts, the active player will always determine which other player they’ll interact with by drawing the top card from the encounter deck (unless an ability allows them to do otherwise.)

When a player draws the card that represents another colour, they assess the cards in their hand, the ships available to them and the state of the opposing players systems. The idea is to score points by invading and settling systems, whilst sort of somehow defending your own. Having chosen a system to have the encounter in, the active player will commit a number of ships to the endeavor, then she may invite other players to join her. The rules for what they get out of joining an attack are detailed, but the reward can be as much as a colony of their own, or it might be because the attacking player promised something to them – like an artifact card, for example.

With all attacking ships committed, the defender will place their own ships in defense of the system and invite others to support them (if desired.) Again, deals can be struck here in order to help the defender reach the desired outcome. Once all ships are placed in the appropriate places, each side plays one or more cards (again, depending on what is legal among the cards and abilities available to them) and the combat is resolved. In short, if the attacking force has a total strength that is greater than the defender, it wins. All destroyed ships are then removed to the tile in the centre of the board, removing them permanently – again unless otherwise stated.

In the briefest of summaries, that’s all Cosmic Encounter is – a series of small skirmishes fought based on the cards drawn. However, to pitch it like that would be to miss the point entirely. Cosmic Encounter is really all about the threatening, haggling, pleading and general horse trading that surrounds whatever card is drawn. As a close aside, it’s also about the crazy alien powers and what they introduce to the game. Take the Mirror race, for example, who have the power to switch the value of attack cards so that the first number becomes the first, making a 02 strength attack into a 20 strength one. The Mite race can force their opponent to discard cards or to simply allow a colony to be established without conflict or loss, which is a bit easier to understand, but no less powerful.

Many other races have far more elaborate abilities, including some that actually add or change phases of the game, making them fairly complex. There are also tech cards that range from very straightforward (like cancelling an ability) to fairly game changing. A good example of the latter is the Omega Missile, which simply destroys a planet and removes it permanently from the game, destroying any and all ships on it in the process. With potentially draining rules to contend with, not to mention some deep negotiation and strategy to consider, you’ll be glad to know that Cosmic Encounter only takes about an hour to an hour and a half to play. It’s fair to say that few people who play the game are satisfied with a single round though, and much of the fun is in seeing how different alien races combine to really amp up the chaos.

I should also mention the components in Cosmic Encounter, which I’ve looked at in pictures for many years and found a little underwhelming. I’ll admit right now that I was wrong to doubt Fantasy Flight Games, who, as always, deliver a very high quality set of pieces in Cosmic Encounter, but without any of the perhaps unnecessary embellishments that we often see in games these days. The ships are weighty and stack beautifully, whilst the cardboard planets and tiles are made from a sturdy cardboard that feels capable of lasting for a long time. The manual is reasonably detailed without being overly long and the race cards feature some excellent artwork, as well as a clear description of the special abilities for the creature in question.

I’m actually fairly disappointed with myself for not having picked up Cosmic Encounter sooner. It’s a very fun game that offers nearly limitless potential for players to experiment with different combinations of races, technologies and other minor plugins, not to mention those introduced by the six expansion packs that are already available. It’s a game which is capable of serious gameplay and serious strategic thinking, but it actually doesn’t take its own rules or structure too seriously. As a result, it’s never dull and whilst it’s not at all a party game really, I liken it to one because it generates a feeling of excitement among the players that feels similar to one at times. Cosmic Encounter is deserving of its title as a modern classic.

***½  3.5/5

Cosmic Encounter is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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