Cosmic Encounter is my favorite game of all time, and I’m having trouble understanding why.
With most excellent games, you can easily point to something incredible about their design – Codenames’ simplicity and replayability, the Legacy games’ storytelling – but Cosmic Encounter is built from a lot of components that simply shouldn’t work. There’s a heavy chance element, Mario Karting (everyone ganging up on the player in first THIS IS THE NEW TERM I CALL IT) and kingmaking are serious problems, and some of the species are way more powerful than others.
Even weirder, Cosmic doesn’t succeed in spite of these issues, it succeeds because of these issues. I feel like if precautions were put in to make the gameplay more “strategic” or “balanced”, you wouldn’t have Cosmic Encounter anymore, you’d have a watery Euro that you’d forget about five minutes after you left the table.
So let’s get right to the point: What makes Cosmic Encounter so good???
Note: The rest of this article assumes that you vaguely know how to play Cosmic Encounter. If you don’t, Fantasy Flight has a rulebook here, and also you should really play, it’s a fantastic game!!! Hit me up on Twitter and I’ll bring over my copy.
Cosmic Encounter is a game of very short-term politics. Unlike Game of Thrones or Diplomacy, where your alliances are expected to last for at least three or four rounds, the political situation in Cosmic will shift every single turn, both through foreign colony numbers and through the whims of the Destiny deck. This makes backstabbing a lot less serious, and having the ally who helped you win last turn suddenly become your mortal enemy is something to laugh about. It’s memorable, but not painful.
In my opinion, the smartest game design decision in Cosmic is the idea that multiple players can win at the same time. Games with heavy player interaction and the ability to see that one player is about to win frequently end up with everyone else piling on the player in first place. Munchkin uses single-player victories in a political game similar to Cosmic, but since everyone has a reason to take down someone at level 9, the game slows to a crawl.
Because of the way alliances work, instead of “all against one”, games can quickly turn into “The We’re About To Win Empire against the We Only Have Two Colonies Rebellion”, which then continue to shift as the scrappy underdogs crawl up and destroy their opponent’s foreign colonies. Of course, if someone feels like they’re up for it, they can easily refuse to ally and go for an “all against one” solo victory, but that’s by choice and not necessity. Every game ends differently, depending on the alien species and setup. Which brings us to…
It’s Different Every Game
The thing people most often mention when they talk about Cosmic is its dozens of alien species, each of which has an interesting power that busts the loose framework of the game in two. I love these, and I could go on forever talking about my favorite powers (Human, Leviathan, Pentaform, Lunatic, Claw, etc.), but Cosmic’s variability goes beyond whatever 4-6 aliens have a galactic slap fight. Variability is built into the system at a level that goes far beyond modern designs.
Because the game’s end isn’t something inevitable, it could take a long time for anyone to clinch victory, or someone could rocket ahead two or three colonies on their turn in a come-from-behind win. Card variety and hand sizes make it so even if two aliens have an ally-free encounter three times, each match will end differently. And of course, not only are the alien powers themselves game-changing, but so is the way they interact with each other. A Healer (stops ships from dying) in a game with a Zombie (can’t die) and Fungus (absorbs dead ships) will operate very differently than one in a game with a Masochist (desperately wants all their ships to die).
This, of course, means that some games aren’t going to be fun: They’ll be ponderously slow grindfests, or a couple of players will utterly crush everyone else. It isn’t ideal, but if I were given the choice between a game where, if I played 10 times, I would kind of enjoy all 10 games, and a game where 5 times are good, 3 are terrible, and 2 are pulse-poundingly amazing, I’d pick that latter every time.
It’s Really, Really Social
I think what truly makes Cosmic Encounter my favorite game is that everyone gets to participate constantly. Other games – Race For The Galaxy for example – have also experimented with simultaenous play and low downtime, but in Cosmic, everyone means something to each other, no matter how few cards or colonies they have. Even someone barely participating in an encounter can change its course through their alien power or a well-timed Artifact.
I play a lot of games, but Cosmic is one of the few where, even when it isn’t their turn, every player is engaged and talking. If we simplify and say that the point of board games is to give people a combined social experience, it’s hard to come up with any game that better accomplishes this goal.
Lately, I’ve become convinced that the games I need to design aren’t “elegant” or “strategic”, but truly unique experiences on their own. When someone gets up from this kind of game, they don’t quietly shuffle the experience into their mental file drawer – it sticks with them. It makes them smile for the rest of the day.
Cosmic Encounter is something unique and amazing. After a game, I don’t say to myself “I played a board game”; I say “I played a game of Cosmic Encounter”. The aliens and their interactions will remain with me for a long time. More than anything, it’s this kind of experience I want to create and this kind of game that will inform my design.