Eleven Game Changers: Cosmic Encounter

Welcome to the third episode in the Eleven Game Changers project I’ve been working on for this year.  The games I’m covering in this series are games that I see as having a massive impact on the hobby that kind of transcends the actual game itself.  The first one I covered was the Sid Sackson classic Acquire, from 1964.  The second one was the game that started the roleplaying game movement, Dungeons& Dragons, released in 1974.  Today, we’ll go to 1977 with the release of

image by BGG user Duglis

Cosmic Encounter is a game that was first published by Eon and designed by the design collective known as Future Pastimes – Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, Bill Norton, and Peter Olotka.  It was a science fiction game, but more than that, it was an experience in asymmetry that really set in motion a lot of what we see in the hobby today.

In 1972, Future Pastimes was formed, and their first official game (Eins, Zwei, Drei) was published in 1976 by Ranvensburger.  However, their sights were set on something bigger and they were trying to get a large science fiction game published.  After Parker Brothers did not publish it, the group founded Eon Games, and Cosmic Encounter first hit the market in 1977.  The game was originally released with 15 alien races, and over the next six years, 60 more alien races were added through 9 different expansions.

In 1986, Cosmic Encounter was republished in the US by West End Games.  This version of the game was essentially the same as the original Eon edition, plus five more roles from the first two expansions.  Mayfair got the rights in 1991, and republished the game with 49 aliens.  It also was playable with up to 6 players (the original only went to four).  An expansion entitle More Cosmic Encounter was released in 1992, and a simplified version called Simply Cosmic came out in 1995.  With these three combined, it was possible to play Cosmic Encounter with up to ten players.

In 2000, a new edition was published by Avalon Hill, which had then been acquired by Hasbro.  You may remember that the first two games I talked about in this series, Acquire and D&D, also got republished by Hasbro subsidiaries, but in this case, the results were NOT well received.  This version scaled back the game to a four player experience, came with 20 aliens, and removed flares (special abilities that could be used outside of the inherent racial abilities).  It never got any expansions or new content, so while the ships were very nice, this version is not the one people prefer.

Other than Cosmic Encounter Online (which came out in 2003), there was nothing new for Cosmic Encounter until 2008 when Fantasy Flight came out with their version.  The base set had 50 aliens, reintroduced flares, and was for up to five players.  Over the course of six expansions, FFG has added 146 more aliens and player colors so you can play with up to 8 people.  Many people consider this to be the definitive version of the system.

West End edition – image by BGG user Psauberer
Mayfair Games edition – image by BGG user Astinex
Avalon Hill Edition – image by BGG user Astinex
Fantasy Flight Edition – image by BGG user Surya

In Cosmic Encounter, the goal is to get five colonies on foreign planets.  Each player has five planets in front of themselves, each occupied with four ships.  On a player’s turn, they will draw a card from the Destiny Deck.  This will tell them who they are attacking this turn, and they will send 1-4 ships to attack a planet in that player’s system.  These ships can be taken from any planets containing the attacker’s ships.

The offense and defense may then ask for allies.  You can invite some people not involved in the battle, or all of them, or none of them.  Any invited player decides if they want to join the fight, and choose 1-4 ships to contribute to the cause.  Once allies have joined, the active players play one card from their hands simultaneously.  These usually have a number on them, and if that number plus the ships on their side is greater than the total for your opponent you win.  Players do have a chance to add reinforcement cards to their side, but the high total will win.  Any losing ships are lost to the Warp.  If the attacker wins, she and all her allies get to place their ships on the relevant planet, establishing a foreign colony.  If the defender wins, he gets nothing (other than keeping his ships), but his allies get to claim rewards in the form of cards or ships back from the Warp.

Of course, a player could play a Negotiate card in the battle, which loses the battle but gains him compensation in the form of cards taken from his opponent.  And if both players Negotiate, they have a minute to make a deal, which often involves a trade of colonies.  If the current player wins the battle or makes a deal, she gets a second encounter before the turn moves to the next player.

Eon Components (upper left) – BGG: King Kolrabi
Mayfair Components (upper right) – BGG: manowarplayer
Avalon Hill Components (lower left) – BGG: ArtEmiSa64
Fantasy Flight Components (lower right) – BGG: Steve99

What really makes Cosmic Encounter compelling is the range of alien powers in the game, and this is the element that I think lands this game solidly in the Game Changer category.  The sheer number of aliens that you could play – from 15 in the original edition to the 196 you could get (with all expansions) in the FFG version – means that every game plays out differently.  That variable player power thing is what makes Cosmic Encounter such a great game – you can play the same race over and over to really get a feel for it, but you still have to figure out how to wield it against the numerous other aliens that it could face.  This was something completely new – in this article from Eurogamer.net, designer Peter Olotka notes that really only Chess had so many different powers in a game.

Besides the variable player powers, there were many things that set Cosmic Encounter apart from other games of the time.  There was no board, for one thing, and no dice.  That’s certainly not to say that there was no randomization – the values on the attack cards range from negative numbers up to 40, so you can get extremely unlucky or lucky just on the card draw – but the chaos is controlled by a destiny deck.  Rather than choosing who you’re attacking, you let destiny decide, which was another innovation of this game.  Also, there’s no player elimination – you keep playing, even if you’ve gotten beaten down so much that your powers don’t work anymore.  This was unusual for a conflict-based game – the designers have noted how much it stunk to be eliminated in a game like Risk and have to sit around for hours while everyone else finishes up.

Over the years, a number of designers have cited Cosmic Encounter as a major influence on their work.  Notably, Richard Garfield stated in a 1994 article that Cosmic Encounter was one of the most important influences on a little game called Magic: The Gathering.  You can also see its influence on one of his later works, King of Tokyo, where players don’t choose who to attack.  Mechanically, variable player powers, a lack of player elimination, and modular/absent boards are all hallmarks of modern game design.  And so in this, the 42nd anniversary of Cosmic Encounter’s first release, we have to say that it was indeed a Game Changer.

That will do it for this third part in the Game Changer series.  Thanks for reading!

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