Not Cardboard Children: Cosmic Encounter

By Quintin Smith on April 23rd, 2011 at 11:23 am.

I have a friend who keeps laughing at the 'Encounter Cards' because she says they sound like something off of Craigslist

Hello! This is not Cardboard Children and I am not Rab Florence. Our Rab is a man much in demand. As well as being a worthy addition to anybody’s Twitter feed, he works in television, which I gather is a bit like being Frodo in Lord of the Rings except instead of the One Ring that you’re questing to destroy it’s your free time.

This week, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about a board game that I bought on his recommendation. It’s called Cosmic Encounter, and it’s a tiny, tidy, intergalactic catfight in a box that anybody can play. It’s also my favourite game in my collection.

Cosmic Encounter is a game where each player controls a different, colourful and (more often than not) cheerfully ugly alien race that’s trying to spread itself across the galaxy like a bad smell in a small flat. Each player starts the game controlling five planets, each bearing a tiny stack of your ships, and the moment your ships – your aliens – can be found on a total of five foreign planets, you’ve won.

But this isn’t some restrictive game of colonialism, or war, or anything like that. Cosmic Encounter is more like a tumble drier full of knives and dreams. On your turn you draw a card from the Destiny Deck that tells you which other alien you’re going to have an encounter with, and you decide what you do in that encounter by playing an Encounter card from your hand. Encounters cards are mostly attack cards, and look like this:

But you’ll have a few negotiate cards, which look like this:

What the game’s doing here is stripping out any dry strategic decisions that would otherwise dominate it. Who are you attacking? You’re attacking that guy, over there. How are you going to do it? With one of the cards in your hand.

Encounters are simple, yet tense. Yourself and your opponent pick a card and place it face down, then everyone around the table goes silent as you both flip those cards. You each add the number on your card to the number of ships in the encounter, and the guy with the lowest total loses all of his ships to the warp in a grand space burp. If the attacker won, he also gets to place all of his ships on the planet he was attacking. Or if you both played negotiate cards you have precisely one minute to broker a deal with all the other players watching. Deals might see the two of you putting a maximum of one ship on one another’s planets, or trading cards from your hand. Or maybe you only said you’d negotiate, and you played an attack card against the other guy’s negotiate, in which case you automatically win. You bastard. Good luck getting anybody to negotiate with you again.

The thing about the cards in your hand, though, is that you don’t get any more of them until you empty your hand completely. If your hand includes four sodding negotiate cards and a +00 attack card, you’re going to have to use them at some point. But when?

That’s the game. If you’re good, you can explain it to a room full of people in the time it takes for a full kettle to boil, plus the time to answer a few questions at the end, like “So home planets aren’t important?” and “Why were you talking so fast?” The answers to which would be “I’ll get to that,” and “Because we’re all dying.”

There are a couple of powerful twists to this framework, however, and these define Cosmic Encounter. The first is that before yourself and your opponent select which card you’re playing, you get to ask other players to be your allies.

Allies can’t play cards, but they can add their ships to an encounter, thereby bumping up your chances of victory. Allies of the attacker also get to put their ships on the foreign planet under attack if they win. Allies of the defender, meanwhile, get to draw an extra card for each ship they have in the encounter. If they win.

Remember four paragraphs ago, when I was talking about when you should play that +00 attack card? One option would be to persuade all the other players to go all in on an attack because “It’s a sure thing!” or whatever, only to play a +00 to try and deliberately fail the encounter, sending all of their ships to the warp. But yeah- that’s just one option. There are also various cards and powers in the game that may give you the chance to drop that +00 into somebody else’s hand of cards like a hot stone.

But don’t be thinking this ally thing is just some extra tactical mechanic. Don’t do it! Because it’s not, it’s an extra social mechanic. It means that in every encounter everybody is trying to persuade everybody else that they should be invited, or that he shouldn’t be, because he’s a jerk. You’re persuading your friends to form an alliance against the lovely guy who’s doing a bit too well. Your significant other is calling you terrible names in front of strangers because you’ve listened to the player who’s promised you that he’s not a threat, because the cards he’s holding are worthless. This mechanic electrifies the air around a game of Cosmic Encounter, and it means that even when it’s not your turn you’ve got something to do. Somebody to flirt with. Someone to harass.

And there’s a lot of flirting and harassing going on in a game of Cosmic Encounter, because each alien race – and the base game comes with a gorgeous deck of fifty of them – bends the rules in their own special way, making Cosmic Encounter as gleefully asymmetric as a one-legged tennis match. The aliens are also the heart and soul of the game.

That’s an alien card, right there. Click for bigger!

Some of the alien powers are just mean. The Grudge gives special Grudge tokens to any player he loses an encounter with, making him that much tougher next time around. He’s a bastard. The Zombie’s ships are indestructible. He’s a bastard. The Virus multiplies his ships by the attack card to get his combat total, instead of adding the two together. He’s a bastard.

Some powers are game-bending. The Chronos can rewind time and force any encounter the player loses to be played again. The Leviathan can send his actual planets into an encounter as absurd mega-ships. The adorable Losers have the power of “upset”, meaning that when they play out an encounter, the losing side wins and the winning side loses. This makes for headaches when they take on the Antimatter, for whom the side with the lower combat total is the winner.

And some powers are just beautiful. The Prophet can bet on the victor of any given encounter where he’s not involved, announcing his choice before the participants choose their cards. If he’s wrong he loses ships, but if he’s right, he gains a colony.

Precisely how good any one of these powers is is academic, because the moment it looks like anybody’s winning, everybody else gangs up on them, adding yet another social element- trying to convince people you’re not a threat, or that everybody’s going to lose if they don’t start stomping Billy over there playing the Virus like it was going out of style.

Thinking about it, I know exactly what makes me love Cosmic Encounter. It isn’t the fact that all the different aliens mean it’s a different game every single time. It isn’t even the beautiful cards and components, or the fact that instead of a board, the current edition of Cosmic Encounter just has card stock planets, so you play on a table of just about any size or dimensions by pushing the planets closer together. That’s just another good touch in a game built entirely of good touches. The game is a masseuse.

What makes me love Cosmic is the fact that really, this is a game about talking. A good game of Cosmic Encounter – which is almost all of them* – is a humming battery of discussion, cheering, cajoling, imploring, cursing, cooing, threatening, giggling and bluffing, but it’s not groundless. It’s all propelling this Jackson Pollock re-imagining of politics on the table, with players flicking their colours across the stars, struggling for victory.

And ultimately, I suppose talking is what I play board games for. Well, that and the chance to interact with tangible objects which have the decency to actually exist. With video games increasingly taking the path of digital downloading, it’s nice to have something that arrives in mail that you can place on the coffee table with trembling hands. But it’s also nice to talk, from time to time. And cheer, and beg, and bluff.

I’ll close by talking about the two expansions that have been released for the current edition of Cosmic Encounter. In short, the first, Cosmic Incursion, isn’t quite a must-buy, but it’s only one rung down the ladder, or a “yeah-probably-buy”. It adds twenty new aliens to the already considerable deck, but more importantly it adds a Reward deck that defending allies are allowed to draw cards from if their side wins, increasing everybody’s incentive to defend other players and making for a more balanced, spicier game.

The second, Cosmic Conflict, simply adds even more variety to the game. You can buy it without fear if you love the base game, but it could probably be avoided otherwise.

As always, FindYourGameStore.co.uk is ready and able to help you make any purchases.

Right! That’s all from me. I’ll see you guys… well, pretty soon, I guess. What with me working here and all. What have you been playing this week, readers?

* I’m thinking here of the game where we drew an incredible Entropy Beast card from the Hazard Deck on the first turn, and it proceeded to devour the galaxy before any of us got the chance to win. Which was kind of awesome in its own right.

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54 Comments »

  1. gulag says:

    Good to see Cardboard Children back, in any form. I’d hoped the abcence of the irascible Scot wouldn’t mean the end of the one thing that drags me out of bed on a Saturday.

  2. Yargh says:

    oh no, you’re not getting me twice Quinns, I already acquired (and love) Space Alert because of you!

    This one does sound kind of fun though…(must stay strong, bills to pay)

    • Quintin Smith says:

      Space Alert is also a game about talking! Or more like screaming, I suppose.

    • Yargh says:

      Space Alert is 10 mn of total panic, and talking very fast, followed by 20mn of forehead slapping when your character spends several turns running into a bulkhead before firing a laser into empty space (then we all died horribly).

    • Alexander Norris says:

      Space Alert is also ten minutes of being mocked by other players for not firing your laser when it was their fault because they moved too many fuel tokens during the real-time phase only to get the smuggest one-up on them when it turns out you fired at the very last second and saved the ship from death by asteroid, which shuts them up real quick.

      Then you die ripped to shreds by a space-maelstrom.

  3. shinygerbil says:

    Ahh…memories of playing my dad’s old Games Workshop edition… :)

    • maybe an idiot says:

      I was reading this article and thinking I’ve place this game before and I couldn’t work it out. Thanks for jogging my memory there. Still got the old version around somewhere and now I want to dig it out and give it a go again. I think it’s still got the flyers for GW in the box as well.

  4. Maldomel says:

    I love Cosmic Encounter, haven’t played the expansions but still the basic game is pretty cool in itself. The number of combinations and plans you can make based on your hand, power, tech and global situation of the game is amazing, and while you can make a great start, seeing your allies teaming up to colonize your planets makes a good bit of alliance/treason going at all times :3

  5. JB says:

    Sounds a bit like Neptune’s Pride in boardgame form. But more fun.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      That’s not a bad comparison, in an odd way.

      It’s a splendid game, and well worth playing.

      KG

    • Quintin Smith says:

      Take all the ice-cold misery of Neptune’s Pride and convert it into joy and yeah, you’re half-way there.

    • JB says:

      Yeah, i suspect this would be less likely to devour your every waking moment than NP.

    • Reivles says:

      You jolly well demanded I register on this site, sir, over this.
      This style of reporting is excellent. I wasn’t really interested in this game before, but after hearing this style of report about it, I’m terribly tempted to go buy it. You evil man. :P

  6. Kingofspain says:

    I do love the Cardboard Children columns. The BSG review got me into board gaming and I’ve bought many games since then on Roberts recommendation so if he’s too busy to do Cardboard Children, Not Cardboard Children will have to do!

    Thanks guys, keep the board game reviews coming. I always check RPS on a Saturday just for the latest board gaming news.

    Oh and is there a Letters from Whitechapel review coming soon? It does look good and I’m interested to see what you lot think of it,

    • Quintin Smith says:

      I don’t know about a review, but I definitely want to play it. I own Fury of Dracula and the invisible player that everybody else is hunting mechanic is too beautiful for words.

    • Schadenfreude says:

      I have an old copy of Scotland Yard lying about that I get out for a game every now and then. Lot’s of fun. Might give Letters from Whitechapel a spin some time (Once I’ve got Mansions of Madness out of my system).

  7. Daave says:

    Are you (or any other writers) planning to come to the board game thingy that Siri’s organising. I’m thinking about bringing blood bowl and horus heresy, but I’d love to play something like this.

  8. Chris D says:

    Excellent. I was just trying to figure out how to explain to my cardboard children why Uncle Rab doesn’t love them anymore, but Uncle Quintin will do nicely. What can I say? Kids these days, no attention span.

    “Cosmic Encounter is more like a tumble drier full of knives and dreams.”

    Somebody get this man a games journalism Oscar, or whatever it is we’re calling them these days.

    I haven’t bought any board games in a while, partly because Steam has been eating all my money recently and partly because I have a backlog of games that we haven’t played yet, or at least played enough. My not entirely successful attempts to introduce the group to role-playing hasn’t helped with this. I was going somewhere with this, bear with me. Oh yeah, I haven’t bought any games in a while but I think Cosmic Encounter just went on the list.

    • Chris D says:

      Alas, my days of being down with the kids are clearly behind me and I am unable to decrypt the mystic pictograms they use.

      As far as I can tell it appears to be a picture of the loch ness monster, which I am unsure how to interpret. I’m hoping it’s a good thing.

    • Buckermann says:

      The \m/ is a fist making the horns sign and may also mean “rock on.”

      At least that’s what Yahoo Answers says.

    • Chris D says:

      Aha. I see it now. I spent ages squinting sideways at it to see if it was any facial expression known to man, but it only worked if the man was a horribly scarred mutant with a quiff.

    • Malawi Frontier Guard says:

      Filthy satanist.

    • Fameros says:

      No, it’s a Vampire Grin.

  9. McDan says:

    I’m also totally in love with Quinns for recommending Space Alert, play it so much, it’s brilliant. This Cosmic Encounters sounds like Neptune’s Pride: the boardgame? But in a really good way, and obviously not exactly the same.

  10. pakoito says:

    We can play online for free here: http://www.cosmicencounter.com/screens/home.html

    There are also videotutorials to mak everything easier.

    Anybody up?

    • Quintin Smith says:

      You know, I spotted that earlier in the week but found it completely unplayable. Not to mention that it kind of jettisons a large chunk of the social side of things.

    • pakoito says:

      And there’s no Vassal module either…weird.

  11. Chris D says:

    Public Service Announcement:

    Anyone who’s been pining for more Florence goodness owes it to themselves to check out Burnistoun on either iPlayer or Youtube if they haven’t done so already.

  12. cypher says:

    Sounds awesome. Another good geeky ‘party’ games to sit alongside shadowhunters and munchkin in my collection XD

  13. fredrik_s says:

    Love these articles. Makes a great break from the delicious PC fare dished out. Go, Quinn, go!

  14. nemryn says:

    Some other alien powers: each ship you add to an encounter counts as 4; any time you have the fewest ships, colonies, or cards in hand, you can Whine about it and get some more; and I think there was a guy that made your opponent subtract ships from the card played instead of adding.

  15. Spoon says:

    I’ve been watching FFG’s upcoming page for like 2 months waiting for the reprint of this game. I’m buying it as soon as I don’t have to pay $90+.

  16. Bobtree says:

    I met Bill Eberle (one of the original designers) a few years ago, but failed to recruit him to our sometimes boardgaming group (he lives in the area and didn’t already have one). We’re fans of CE of course, though I only own the (smaller, year 2000) Hasbro edition. Bill was working on an online (Java?) version of CE at the time, and I do happen to have his business card here.

  17. nindustrial says:

    I’d heard and read a bit about this game before, but this review wriggled inside my brain and instantly forced me to order the game. Thank you

  18. malkav11 says:

    I’ve mostly played older editions – if there was one released from GW, I don’t recall that, but I’ve seen a couple of others because I play at a games party hosted by an inveterate collector. It got pretty weird with all the flares and moons and comets and things flying around. I think the revamp does a better job of balancing and keeping the core gameplay simple to extract the maximum value from the alien power mechanic. That said, I personally don’t find a single alien power to offer enough to keep my attention. A simple house rule to draw three powers, keep one, discard one, and pass the remaining power to one’s right (or left, however you prefer) complicates things nicely while hopefully avoiding genuinely unbalanced power combinations.

  19. Kdansky says:

    Is there anything about the new version that would make it better than the original? There are no expansions, but frankly, there was no need for them either.

    • malkav11 says:

      Which edition are you talking about? The original edition was made by Eon Games and had nine expansions. (Also, I have discovered the source of my confusion re: Games Workshop. They published one edition of the game in the UK that was published by West End Games in the US.)

      It would appear that the version I am most used to playing is the Mayfair Games release.

    • Kdansky says:

      Oh, there are multiple. The Mayfair one it seems from pictures:

      http://siskoid.blogspot.com/2009/07/memories-of-cosmic-encounter.html

      This one.

    • malkav11 says:

      That one also had at least one expansion (More Cosmic Encounter). And yes, it’s good. I think the FFG version has better rules, components and is significantly easier to come by, though.

  20. Coccyx says:

    This looked interesting until I realised that it costs at at least £35 (amazon). For a board game? I’ll pass.

    • Bradford says:

      That’s not too high for a board game, really. If you have friends you regularly play games with you can split the price amongst yourselves.
      And given the sheer replayability of games like Cosmic Encounter, you’ll probably get more for your money than you would from most PC games.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Cosmic Encounter is the same price on amazon.co.uk as Arkham Horror, cheaper than Agricola, etc.

      Making real stuff (a stack of printed cards, custom-cut cardboard bits, custom plastic bits, etc) is expensive, particularly when you aren’t selling zillions of units. Stamping out a bunch of DVDs in cases is much cheaper.

  21. Josh Brandt says:

    My friends used to have various crazed house rules and variants that they used to make the game more interesting (EVEN more interesting).

    They’d do things like have each player with 2 powers (one of which could be the power that gives you 2 powers, thus giving you THREE powers), or 2 powers, one of which was kept secret as long as possible (until it was used, generally) , and so on. We played some epic games…

  22. Ribonizer says:

    Damn you! I had to buy Survive! last month. And now Lord of the Rings, the Living Card game is coming out this month. And now I also have to pick up this game -_-
    My entire collection of board games is in the kitchen cuz I’m moving shelves around and when it’s all pilled up together it dawns on me how monstruous that collection is. And thanks to these articles I find myself unable to resist and adding more unto my collection :(

    (I’m still glad about them articles)

  23. D.H. Lawrence says:

    I’m Commander Shepard and this is my favorite column on RPS.

  24. Tachikoma says:

    I’d heard of Cosmic Encounter thanks to the Dice Tower top 100, but until reading the column, I never really understood what was so great about it. Now I must have it. Also just read your article about Space Alert. Wow, that game sounds super, insane and incredible. And apparently there is a reprint around the corner too. Hooray!

  25. Tssha says:

    Oh yes, I’ve played this game. Once. The game ended in a five-way victory in the end, with one invasion. Yes, we all had 4. Yes, everyone allied against the defender. Yes, he was the only loser. And yes, it was all decided in that one battle. But that’s not even the most outrageous part.

    The outrageous part is the guy we beat was in a wheelchair. We all ganged up on and beat a guy in a wheelchair.

    I know, it sounds wrong…somehow (pick your reason, I’m sure there’re many to choose from), but he was targeted at random and I’m actually good friends with the guy. That’s how I met him. Over a game of Cosmic Encounter. A game he lost. Good guy too.

    • trjp says:

      Y’realise the only problem here is that you singled him out for comment because of his disability – you have to mention that despite this he’s your mate.

      News Update: he KNOWS he’s in a wheelchair, the trick is not reminding him of it – not making a deal out of it – not having to mention it for any reason other than the obvious ones…

      Beating him in the game is just – well – a game – he wins when you stop seeing the wheelchair…

    • Tssha says:

      I’ve heard that attitude, but I don’t really agree with it. Quite frankly I don’t care that he’s in a wheelchair, and we’ve even had some fun with that wheelchair, and I felt this story was funny and worthy of making a joke about and retelling that joke.

      When we can make a joke about it but hurt no one’s feelings, THAT’S when we know we’ve won.

      I don’t think he cares about being in a wheelchair any more than I care about being half-deaf (I can’t hear anything in my left ear). It’s just something you have to deal with, that’s all. It can get in the way sometimes, and disqualifies us both from military service, but heaven help anyone that puts that up as a barrier to our success.

      So no, I don’t agree with your attitude at all. He’s in a wheelchair, that’s visible. To not see the wheelchair is to deny reality. When we start having to pretend that he doesn’t have a disability just to not hurt his feelings, THAT’S when we’ve lost. When we accept the disability along with the person, THAT’S when we’ve won.

      You’ve got it backwards. Don’t put blinders on to ignore someone’s visible disability. Just accept it. If you have to accommodate it to accommodate him, then do so even if it’s extra work. Hell, we had to lift him up the stairs after that game. It was extra work, but I wouldn’t cut him out of my life just to avoid it.

  26. Fumarole says:

    Sounds like this has the same social dynamic of Illuminati. If it has the same power to make players give the double deuce and throw dice at fellow players I’m in.

  27. Temple to Tei says:

    Time to start spamming the RPS boardgame meet that Siri has organised in London.

    http://rockpapershotgun.com/rpsforum/topic.php?id=4493

  28. Keith Nemitz says:

    Long ago, Avalon Hill hired the Cosmic Encounter peeps to make a game based on Dune. It was very good, and used the CE mechanic to reflect the characters of the six factions and the dramatic tension between them. Great game!