Board Game Encounters: With Cosmic Encounter
As the resident board game enthusiast of Pixels or Death, people ask me, “How should I get into board games?” It’s the stock board gaming question, after all. Faced with the incredible expanse of an entirely new medium of gaming, it’s a natural, and absurd, one. It’s like asking a video game player, “How do I game?”
What the hell do you show them? Do you show them some modern narrative classic, Uncharted or Bioshock or something? Do you play Halo multiplayer with them? Do you give them Super Mario Brothers and tell them to work their way up? How about Kingdom Hearts; Mickey’s in it, after all, so it has to be pretty friendly. God, what a ludicrous question.
It’s the same for board games. Most board game players develop an interest in the hobby by reading about games like Arkham Horror, the massive, unwieldy monstrosities that capture the imagination but aren’t really very playable games. Do you point them towards modern classics like The Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, realizing that their lack of flash might turn a lot of people off?
In short, it’s as difficult a question as any: you need to recommend something with a theme engaging enough to get off the ground with a group of friends, while also something that actually, you know, works as a board game. Shorter than an hour is a plus, too: lots of board games are pretty long, and you don’t want to turn an evening into a slog. Even more importantly, you need a game that’s incredibly varied: it’s unlikely you’ll buy more games until the first one’s sold you.
There are, in my mind, a couple obvious recommendations for new board gamers, outside of the staid Settlers of Catan. The one I want to talk about is Cosmic Encounter.
Cosmic Encounter is, in very short form, Arkham Horror lite. Sure, they’re very different thematically—one has you as occult investigators, the other as a race of bloodthirsty space-faring aliens; you can sort out which is which—but they both share a central core of randomness and absurdity. The central distinction is that it takes five years to explain how to play Arkham Horror, and just about as long to play it, while Cosmic Encounter, rules and all, rarely runs more than an hour.
If Arkham Horror is the board game equivalent of the absurd Bayonetta,Cosmic Encounter, is Super Smash Brothers Brawl, with all the items turned on, an absolute exercise in carnage. At its heart, Cosmic Encounter is a simple game, though, for simple people. Take control of one of the game’s fifty unique races, each equipped with five planets and twenty identical ships. Each turn, you’ll attack one randomly selected opponent; both sides will invite allies to the party to help attack or defend. Allies decided, the two main players will each lay a card face down on the table, which will either give you potentially comic modifiers to your offensive ability or let you negotiate with you enemy. Reveal them, and compare numbers. If the defender wins, everyone attacking dies. If the attacker wins, everyone defending dies and the attackers establish a colony on the attacked world. Establish five colonies and you win the game.
That’s boring, though. It’s all about the races. Let’s see a few. The Masochist, who wins if he loses all his ships. The Macron, whose ships have the power of four others. The Filch, who puts a card in the deck that allows its holder to cheat, legally, so long as they don’t get caught. The Loser, who can decide to win if she loses, lose if she wins before a battle. The Gambler, who can bet the house on whether or not the card she has in front of her, face down, is actually the value she says it is.
The cards are possibly even wackier. The face down attack cards? Well, they’re cumulative with ship strength, with each ship being worth one. The lowest attack card is a double zero. The highest? You’d think it’d be something sane, but nope. Forty. This means roughly anything can happen. Combine these with the alien’s powers (oh, my power’s switching the ones place with the tens place in any attack card. Your forty is now a four) and a collection of insanely powerful “flare” cards which give you temporary powers similar to those of in-play aliens and there’s incredible potential for nonsense.
It’s also a dead simple game. I mean, I’ve pretty much explained the whole thing to you, right here. You take over planets, you ally with people, they backstab you hilariously, and space becomes an occasionally diplomatic bloodbath. Someone will begin the game with the Macron and everyone will gang up on them because they have four times the firepower everyone else does. Someone will get the Void—a race who, when they destroy a ship, it is removed from the game entirely—and the whole experience will take on a completely different tone. Cosmic Encounter is a remarkably variable game.
It’s also hilarious. When someone plays the Masochist and flings her ships into encounters with reckless abandon, searching for losses, you can’t help but laugh. When your buddy lays down the 40 to his opponent’s negotiate card, which the opponent played to doom his three allies lent ships to the warp (that’s where ships go when they die), it’s masterful. More than anything else, Cosmic Encounter is a game to play with friends. It’s not a game they could make a passable online version of, because 95% of the game is negotiation and interacting with your fellow players. It captures that ineffable feeling a good board game gives you, where you’ve just made a social interaction better. It’s not so much a game you play with other people as an activity among friends. Cosmic Encounter does what Settlers of Catan does like this: it’s a game where the other players are as important as the pieces on the table.
That, in and of itself, is board gaming’s unique trait. Video games can give you massive numbers simulations: the utterly brilliant Xcom, for instance, could be a board game except for the other people (and the fact that it would be dead complicated). What separates Xcom from Arkham Horror, a game where you’re moving around a board and determining whether or not you dispel portals or defeat monsters based off percentages? Not a whole lot. What separates Xcom from Cosmic Encounter? Practically everything.
It brings me back to the video game recommendation question, because here’s what I’d recommend to someone who’s never played a video game: something that captures the ineffable nature of the medium. Cosmic Encounter is my go-to board game recommendation not because it’s the best board game, or even the easiest to get into (though it’s close), but because it’s the one that most clearly states the medium’s mission statement. Board games are about interaction, and no game has more interaction than Cosmic Encounter.
(Images with photography from the lovely folks at Board Game Geek, who take too many photographs.)