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Not Cardboard Children: Cosmic Encounter

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, 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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