It's Negotiation with Tentacles and Freaky Alien Powers! - Cosmic Encounter Review

Kudos to Zee Garcia of The Dice Tower fame for coming up with the title of this review. I love using it as a quick one line description of the game to get people tempted to play it!

When it comes to player interaction, negotiation games take the cake. Where the whole premise of the game involves debating or bluffing your opponent, you can't help but generate a great deal of laughter, banter and trash talk with the whole group. Player interaction is what makes Ameritrash games so much fun though - you're not just sat in your own world ignoring everyone else until the game ends. Now don't take as me being a hater of Euro games, because I like them too and have several classics in my collection as you can see on the blog - but everyone knows that player interaction is lacking in the genre.




Designers: Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, Bill Norton, Peter Olotka
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
# of Players: 3-5
Ages: 12+
Play Time: 60 Minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: #80/7.55
Dice Tower Peoples Choice Rank: 13
Category: Negotiation and Bluffing (Science Fiction)

This game has been around since 1977, which is testament to the popularity of this game in the gaming world. Several publishers have come in and re-printed this game adding in their own personal tweaks. This is the most recent version by Fantasy Flight Games who have a trend for adding a million expansions to every good game they release, and this is no exception. To date there are 4 expansions to this game and I'm making it clear now that this review is for the base game only. I own 3 expansions and have yet to acquire the newest one (Cosmic Storm), but I will definitely be doing so and I intend to review the effectiveness of those in one big review in the near future.

Conquering the Galaxy for Dummies

Each player has 5 planets in their home system with 4 ships on each. These represent 5 colonies that the player owns. The object of the game is to establish colonies on 5 foreign planets across the other players systems. This can be achieved by direct conquest or negotiation, usually a mix of both.

"Warning - Colour Blind Players Beware!"

Each player represents an alien race represented by one of 50 possible choices in the game, each with their own fluff, theme and special ability. During their turn they will draw a card which determines the colour of the player they have to attack (so there's little to no chance of "ganging" up out of spite) and then place some of their ships on the pointy hyperspace gate.

"Am I the only one that gets a Cuthulu vibe from the orange guy?"

Both players are then allowed to invite allies of their choice to the fray who in turn choose their allegiances and place their ships on the corresponding side of the gate.

The attacker and defender then secretly choose an encounter card from their hand and place it face down. These include numbers ranging from 0 to 30 and Negotiate cards. The former represent an attack value which is added to the number of ships in combat. Both values are compared and naturally the higher value is the winner. Negotiate cards throw a diplomatic spin on things by offering the chance for both players to come up with a mutual deal (trading colonies on planets for example) and avoid combat. Of course this only works if both players try to negotiate - if only one tries, then they get bulldozed by the less honourable attacker!

"8 + 4 + 3 = 15, 4 + 2 + 4 = 10 - the defender wins!"

Depending on the outcome, ships are either placed on opposing colonies (the path to victory) or lost to the warp, represented by the giant wormhole piece in the middle, lost in limbo until potentially retrieved later.

Of course allies and players alike can throw some carnage into the fray by placing reinforcement cards (adds to attack value) or utilising special flare / artifact cards that have their own wide range of unique effects to amend the outcome of the battle. Artifacts are essentially the equivalent of action cards from any other game, but flares are slightly different. A flare is an ability that is based off one of the races in the game. Anyone can use the flare regardless of the race they are, but if they happen to already be that race, the effect is enhanced.

The Military Budget

Fantasy Flight Games is good at providing components in their game even if simplistic in their nature. All the ships bear a resemblance to old B-Movie alien films and are designed so that you can stack them on top of each other for ease. The planets, gate and warp tiles are cool to look at though the planets mainly look alike and are purely there for show more than in-game function.

The cards are just text, but they are easy to read (and I used to wear glasses so I know!) and are very good at letting the player know what they are for. The encounter cards state brief rule summaries for combat and any special cards state the "stage" of the turn at which they can be played by use of an time-line bar that highlights the appropriate stage - a nice little aid when teaching new players.

"Negotiate - artifacts - attacks - reinforcements - flares"

But where components really shine is the alien cards. These are gorgeous to look at with very good artwork that range from scary to provocative to amusing across the board.

"This guy is just awesome - the amount of "view screen" jokes I made with that eye when I first saw him!"

As with the other special cards, they explain when and where you can use their abilities and even provide a little nudge to theme with a fluff paragraph at the bottom. Considering the sheer amount of aliens you can get in the base alone, let alone the expansions, you can tell a lot of thought went into them. Granted the names aren't the most original in the world (some aliens are just called "warrior" or "oracle"), but they sometimes help to give an indication of what the race is like to play - do you think negotiation is on the cards with a race called "warrior"?

The rulebook looks like it's suffered a little bit however in the budget front. It's not overly large and I feel that it doesn't do a perfect job of explaining the rules for new readers - some aspects are mixed around and difficult to locate and there is no index. I pride myself on being very quick at picking up rules, but this took me a few reads to fully understand the terminology and timings to a point where I could explain it and it can be overwhelming for some new players to gaming. I recommend printing a few player aid sheets for new players - you can find some good ones on BoardGameGeek.

Variety is the Spice of Life

The game designers boast that no game is ever the same. And even if you think my simplistic explanation of the game mechanics suggests otherwise, this boast is true. You've got 50 aliens in the base game which means a ton of combinations across games and each alien has a unique ability that has a drastic effect on the course of the game. Some aliens make fighting against them or with them detrimental or even desirable. Each alien also has a "traffic light" system which indicates the complexity of their abilities (i.e. green for beginners, red for experienced)

Each ability seems completely different from the next. For example in my last game, one player could pull himself and allies out of losing combats, another got stronger as time went on, one could choose who he attacked rather than use the destiny desk and I could force the opponents to play their attack cards face up gaining foresight in the battle. As you can see, they're all very different and yet have a dramatic effect on the game. And that's just 4 of them! Some may argue that balance could be an issue, however (a) it's not usually noticeable in-game and (b) if you perceive a race to be unbalanced - well you can always choose to fight him when possible or refuse to ally with him!

"And that's just 50. . . . add 20. . . .add 20 again . . . and another 20. . .and 25 . . yeah!"

The rulebook also provides several variants which adapt the game to your choosing including a neat "technology" deck which allows you to commit ships to researching new technology that will provide you with unique abilities.

"Insert cheesy gadget name here - chances are it's in there - where's my Photonic Cannon??"

You Appear to Want to Kill Me. . . . . Can We Talk About This?

The essence of this game however is down to the genre itself - negotiation. The game is constantly about trash talking, negotiating, pleading for allies and in a lot of case, just outright lying! You can say what you like, but unless you've made a deal in negotiations it's not binding so angry players might want to be cautious before playing the game - but then to be honest you should be aware this could happen just by reading the game fluff!

As such the player interaction in this game is top notch. Downtime is kept to a relative minimum because even when it's not your turn, you're likely going to have to make a decision on whether to act as an ally or not. This keeps you involved in what's going on and it's never a dull moment when you have a choice of who to ally with and taunt both players on your decision.

Negotiating adds a nice twist to the game by allowing players to take a non-aggressive standpoint, though it's funny how often people lie about wishing to negotiate. . . . . yeah how about that?

Verdict

Cosmic Encounter is one of my favourite games in my collection. Fact. And it's No 13 in the Dice Tower 2012 People's Choice so it's a shared opinion. It has to be said though, the rulebook could have been set out better as the game is a lot more enjoyable once you've got a solid grasping of the rules and terminology. So it can depend a lot on the quality of the guy doing the explaining. Be mindful that some rules can be difficult to clarify in-game and this can slow things down. People with Analysis Paralysis can also slow the game down when choosing their encounter card, though this is usually attributable to players new to gaming in general.

Once you conquer those hurdles though, the game is a blast, topping the charts for player interaction where you are constantly going back and forth not only with your direct opponent, but also with all the allies that join. You HAVE to like negotiation games before trying this though - if the genre is not your thing, you aren't going to fall head over heels for this game. I personally like the genre as one of my main reasons for playing games is the social atmosphere between players - a reason why even though I like Euro games, I find myself playing Ameritrash more.

There is a huge amount of longevity in the game due to the 50 aliens provided in the box and the random mix means that literally no game is the same, you'll never play this game enough to get through the sheer amount of combinations and I haven't even got to the expansions yet. There is humour to be found in some of the aliens and people do have a habit of almost role-playing their aliens at times.

My only flaws with the base game other than the less than perfect rulebook is that it's capped at 5 players . . . . but that is a problem that's soon rectified as you will see when I come round to reviewing the four expansions! This is a game that's usually regarded as one that you should play before you die - and it's easy to see why, try this game if you're even remotely tempted. Failing that, come find me at Southampton or Portsmouth and I'll teach you it - it's always in my bag!




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