Some of my favourite games are the ones that encourage a lot of player interaction throughout the game. BattleStar Galactica is filled with discussions of trust and traitors. Bohnanza is all about trading and negotiating for better deals. Resistance is entirely built on agreements and lies. Your only chance of winning co-operative games like Pandemic, Forbidden Desert and Elder Sign are based on the players working together to maximise their team's potential.
In Cosmic Encounter, players form and disolve alligences to gain colonies in a bid to expand across the galaxy. Players start with five home planets in their own system, and a random alien race from a massive stack of possibilities. The objective is to gain five foreign colonies among the other player's home systems.
Gameplay is actually fairly basic. On each players turn they draw a destiny card that directs who they will attack. Then both the Attacker and Defender, collectively refered to as the "main players", declare if they will accept allies. They can be selective with their choices, or simlpy declare that they're accepting help from all sides. Starting on the Attackers left, the other players then choose who they will ally with, based on invitations, or opt to sit this combat out if they're unsure of the results. Allying with a successful side grants rewards, the most important of which is a colony if the Attacker wins. Because of this, players will generally ally with the Attacker early on, but once a player is close to victory, they usually stop recieving Attacker ally invites. We'll come back to this in a minute.
Once allies are all declared, the main players play an encounter card face-down in front of them. This modifies the attack value granted by the ships committed to each side, and can reinforce a victory, flip a seemingly hopeless fight, or initiate negitiations. Once these are revealed, other cards can be played in to affect the final outcome, adding to values, cancelling deals, zapping cards and more. Even alien race powers can often activate at this point. Unless otherwise stated, at this stage, anyone can play cards, evevn if the player isn't directly involved in the battle.
If the Attacker wins, she and all her allies gain a colony, destroying the Defender and his allys, sending their ships to the Warp, a zone in the centre of the board from which ships can be recovered for future roles. If this was the Attackers first attack, they then have the option of a second attempt, starting by drawing a new destiny card to see who they will attack. Thus, they can potentially get a maximum of two colonies in a full turn.
If the Defender wins, all the Attackers and her allies go to the Warp, while the Defenders allies get to claim rewards. The Defender gets nothing, except the glory of a planet defended.
And that's it! Every turn is "declare attack, declare allies, play an encounter card, resolve encounter". It's pretty straight forward, but the immense joy of Cosmic Encounter is in the player interaction, and the huge variety of alien races on offer.
The core box comes with 50 races, each with their own unique rules and play style. That alone allows for a huge number of possible play variations, meaning that you'll rarely see the same set of aliens vying for victory. But each expansion adds between 20 and 30 new races, so that, at the time I write this, with all the expansions, I have a total of 165 alien race to chose from! It is so much fun watching races interacting with each other. No two games are ever alike. Some races make small changes to the base rules, while others can be more dramatic, even affecting other players actions. Alien races are sorted into three colours; Green, Yellow or Red. This represents their overall difficulty, though in my experience, most regular boardgamers will be able to just right in a play with any of them. Really, red aliens just have a slightly more complex ability, or one that requires the player to keep track of things during play. Most of the wording on the cards are clear and it's easy to understand how they effect the gameplay.
The other aspect that really changes every game you'll play of Cosmic Encounter is the level of player interaction. Players are constantly discussing who they and the others should ally with, the benefits of joining one side or the other, the effeect of another power on their turn and more. Discussion and debate takes up the majority of the playtime in Cosmic Enounter.
Do you ally with the Attacker and gain a colony yourself, but allow him to gain one too? Do you even invite allies as the Attacker, knowing you're giving them a colony out of their turn? Do you invite allies, knowing that you're going to lose, but hopefully hurting others in the process?
While you're trying to make these decisions, other players are negotiating for power. How confident is the Attacker in his hand of cards? If I help you now, will you help me later? No, but I won't help her either!
Victory is just five colonies, and can be shared by more than one player. If you're on your Attack turn, are you willing to share victory with the Red player? Is he willing to take a shared victory over going it for himself on his turn? It's all about tenuous verbal agreements that don't have to be upheld.
In a game where victory is a point based system that is clearly visible to all at all times, the endgame can drag out, as no one is willing to help the player in the lead. It happens in Monopoly and Settlers of Catan, and it happens in Cosmic Encounter as well. As stated earlier, once players get close to victory, they stop recieving invites. But in Cosmic, this only serves to keep everyone together, such that, at the end of the game, we've often had all the other players with four colonies apiece. Also, as mentioned, shared victory is always an option, so good negotiations can offset the slow endgame with a powerful, unstoppable alligence of races.
There are problems. Victory can sometimes come simply because players have spent all their cards stopping the others before it gets to your turn. With all the powerful cards in the discard pile, you can win by attrition. That being said, a sure victory can be snatched away at the last moment, as has happened to me several times before. It all looks great until your opponent Morphs your Attack +40, or another player steps in and Cosmic Zaps your alien race ability.
Overall, I love Cosmic Encounter. Games range from 45 minutes, where the last player in turn order didn't even get a chance to act as the Attacker, to three hours of back and forth negotiations, as players gain and lose colonies, and races combo off each other in interesting and complex ways. Finally, Cosmic is also one of the few games I own where I completely love the expansions. While each one does add some new components, like space stations, new decks or or additional tokens, it's the extra races that are most fun, and those are worth paying for alone.
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