Is Cosmic Encounter A Perfect Board Game?
Hey guys, I'm taking a look back at many of my board game reviews this week to see how they measure up a year or two later. Look for my Looking Back sections at the bottom of the page!
My Gut Says "Maybe"
Cosmic Encounter is a board game for 3-5 players. It's made by Fantasy Flight Games, a company famous for its excellent component quality and solid game design. I've reviewed one of their games already, and it was also quite good.
The game itself is actually a reworking of a much older game from 1977, but the internet agrees that the Fantasy Flight version is the best.
Every player starts with five planets and twenty little plastic ships. The goal of the game is to get five ships on other player's planets. So far, it's pretty simple. But now I get to tell you about the aliens.
At the start of the game, players are randomly dealt 2 aliens from a deck of fifty. Each alien has a wildly different power that will break the game in either very small or very large ways. They're rated on how difficult they are to play by a light on the top of their card. Green is easy, yellow is medium and red is hard. Don't think that being green makes that race weaker than a red race; it means their power is simpler and thus easier to for beginners to play.
And sometimes, it's not easy being green.
If aliens had designed this game instead of Fantasy Flight, would the game be better or worse?
A Beautiful Thing
This is where the real beauty of the game begins to shine through like sunshafts from Heaven itself. You'd think that throwing a pile of variables together into a game would make it break down, resulting in staggering, drunken gameplay. On the contrary, the races work so well against each other that it's like those weird YouTube mashups where they take two or three totally different songs and make a new song that sounds curiously good.
You wouldn't think there were so many gameplay mechanisms to tweak in this game. I've explained the basics (though I've left out some parts), so you can see for yourself that there's not much to the rules. These aliens races, though. They change EVERYTHING.
To paraphrase Quinns and Paul from Shut Up & Sit Down, this game is everything that board gamers love about board games. There are little poker chip-like pieces to push around. The social interaction gives players something they really can't get from video games: face-to-face, sweaty-palmed negotiation. Punches in the arm or face. High-fives. Rivalry in this game is a thing of beauty. The aliens give the game so much variability that no two games are alike. After you play this, you're gonna have stories to tell your friends. I can't get over just how simple and wonderful this game is. It's tactile, strategic, social and unique.
For my purposes, this might as close as I'm ever going to get to a perfect board game. And I own many board games.
- Theme is perfect for the gameplay, not tacked-on afterwards
- Exceptionally clear rulebook
- Card art and graphic design is top-notch
- Gameplay feels balanced despite itself
- Easy to learn but hard to master
- Every session is different thanks to alien races
- Only takes about an hour to play
- Delightful amount of variety
- There are three expansions, each adding 20 new races. I don't own them yet
- Makes other games seem poorly-designed
- There's a small chance this game has damaged my objectivity
- I'm not playing Cosmic Encounter right now
Looking Back: One Year Later
I bought this game as a birthday gift for my brother-in-law last year. Since then I've played the game more than a hundred times. That's not some silly number I just made up. I've literally played this more than a hundred times, making it my most-played board game of all time. Here are my thoughts after a year with the game.
• It's still fresh. Between the myriad of aliens (especially with all of the expansions), flare cards and player personalities, this game might very well have unlimited replayability. No two games are the same. Trust me.
• I'm still not an expert. Despite my experience with the game, new players have a good chance of winning. The game has enough randomness to reward creative problem-solving and flexibility more than mechanical maneuvering. Anybody can win. Everybody can win.
• Easy setup and breakdown. Even with all of the various expansions, the game is mostly cards and can go from box to table in about five minutes.
I know that this kind of game isn't for everyone, but if you have the right group I wholeheartedly recommend Cosmic Encounter. I maintain my original rating of 10/10 even after so many plays.