What can I say about Cosmic Encounter? This is THE GAME. This game is as close to perfection as I have ever experienced. Why else would it still, 35 years after its original production, be so highly regarded all over the world?
If you’ve never played Cosmic Encounter, stop reading this, go on Amazon.com, and order it right now. Now that you’ve done that, allow me to give you some background on the game. Cosmic Encounter was designed by a bunch of white people in 1977, the same white people who make the classic game Dune. Taglined as “the science fiction game for everyone,” it has been reprinted many times by many companies, and still remains one of the most well-loved games in history. I’m not here to give you a compare / contrast between editions; there are plenty of those reviews already out there. What I want to do instead is talk about the forgotten Cosmic Encounter, my personal favorite, the Avalon Hill version from 2000.
The overall concept of the game is this: each player represents an alien faction struggling for dominance within the galaxy. Through clever alliances, bluffing and deception, and trying to get into your opponents’ heads, you vie for stakes in foreign planets. Each turn, one of four colors is selected, corresponding with the four colors of planetary systems controlled by the players. The active player must then launch an attack with a number of spaceships against the defending forces already on that planet. A simple, card-driven combat is resolved between players, and the winner of the encounter gets some bonus.
Players begin the game with 20 spaceships, divided evenly among their 5 starting planets. A player wins if they have presences in 5 other planets, outside of their own system. Simple enough. However, the game shines bright through its player interaction. Cosmic Encounter utilizes my personal favorite game mechanic: variable players powers. In this game, each player’s alien faction has one or two special abilities, unique to only that player. Perhaps it is a rule they are allowed to break or the ability to keep ships out of the Warp (a sort of limbo zone where ships go after they lose in battle). Thus, the real beauty of the game is that every player is better than every other player in one respect or another. I may have an advantage in combat, but your ships may be tougher than mine. I may be able to pick up cards you discarded (potentially a huge advantage), but you may be able to see what cards I have in hand.
The other side of the player interaction, the engine that really makes this game run, is the alliances. When one player is encountering another player in combat over a planet, both sides have the ability to invite allies to join them in the fight. If I’m one planet away from winning the game, and I’m launching an attack on the last planet I need to seal the victory, you’d better believe my opponents will put aside their differences to make sure I don’t succeed. Likewise, alliances can be used as a sort of diplomatic bargaining chip; “Remember last encounter, how I allied with you? You owe me one, now.” Let me tell you firsthand, this is fantastic. The whole element of psychology makes the game a rich, memorable experience. How can you make it so that other people work for you without realizing it? Get those fools to do your intergalactic bidding!
The Avalon Hill version of Cosmic Encounter looks amazing, as you can see. This is a large part of why it’s my favorite. Even though there are only a handful of alien factions and no expansions, the visual component of this edition is head and shoulders, knees and toes above the others, even the Fantasy Flight edition. Gorgeous, hard plastic sculpts of abstracted colony ships, the mothership that holds up to 12 colony ships, 4 defense ships that each hold 4 colony ships, a board that looks like a spiral galaxy, made out of nice, thick cardboard, awesome CG artwork… This is it.
Take my word for it, Cosmic Encounter is the kind of game you will play 100 times and still enjoy. It is extremely friendly to learn, easy to pick up, and it is an absolute must play.
Overall Rating: A+