Cosmic Encounter Review - From a rocky start to my favorite game.
CE is hard to describe. At its face, it's pretty simple and even reads as a pretty boring game - each turn, a player is randomly assigned an enemy to invade. After determining how many ships to send (each ship is worth a point for their side of the conflict), a free-for-all negotiation starts where every player can be invited to join the opposition and defense. Promises can be made and alliances are formed, each player commits ships to their chosen side (if they were invited and if they accepted the invitation) worth one point towards their side of the conflict. Then each player plays a card, an encounter card worth a certain number of attack points or a negotiate card. If both players played encounter card, they add the number on the card to the ships committed by plays on their side -- the player with the higher number wins. If one player played a negotiate card, then they forfeit the round and draw cards (while all ships, including the allied ships, are lost). If both players play a negotiate card, then everyone takes their ships back and the players have a minute to broker a settlement, generally exchanging cards or points. Then, the next player draws who they randomly have to attack, and play moves forward.
As you can imagine, the game has everyone interacting through most of the game. Here's where the game gets crazy -- each player one of fifty unique and amazing special ability that completely breaks the rules of the game. One alien, The Loser, before the cards are flipped, can decide that the loser of this round actually wins and the winner actually loses. One alien has the ability to multiply the number of ships by the attack card, instead of adding them together. There are fifty aliens in the base game, so each game feels very different and the ways each alien interacts with each other creates a game unlike any I've ever played before.
Additionally, each player has a special card in the deck they can possibly draw. If someone else draws your card, it gives them a one-time-use ability that is similar to your power. If you get it, though, there is extra text that enhance your power beyond belief.
My gaming group had a rocky start with this game.
Our learning game went very well. We were excited about the idea of the game and the negotiation and betrayal mechanics. I had stressed that shared victories were equal to single victories, which my group found interesting. We had two players ally early and ride their alliance to a shared victory. It was exciting and fun. We only had a few rules questions that were quickly cleared up by searching BGG, but it got my group jazzed to play again.
Our second through eighth game ranged from mediocre to outright boring as we started to see a pattern. Certain players would offer to ally early and, if you could convince that player to stick with you, you could ride the alliance to victory very consistently. My gaming group consists of four to five people, 3 men and 2 women, who are very close and have known each other for over a decade. Two people in my group found this tactic was the path of least resistance both socially and mechanically – you don’t have to worry about the blowback from a betrayal and possibly hurting someone’s feelings and you will do better in the game.
I tried to break my groups meta by setting up a big, dramatic opportunity for betrayal. One game, I convinced one of the ally-prone players to form an alliance early in the game. We agreed to both negotiate when forced to attack each other and trade points, we would always agree to allow them to join our attack and warn them off of a losing defense. I was on my second turn, following a successful first turn, and set up to soundly win. At this point, I do NOT invite the player with me in a sudden and jarring act of betrayal! Everyone was shocked, even though I spoke about how important betrayals are every game, and my up-till-now ally was very hurt. We played through the round and I won, hoping to teach everyone the importance of not trusting each other. He said, “Well, if two people winning is the same as one person winning, why not just bring me along?” Everyone in my group was a little mad at me.
I apologized to the player and explained that it wasn’t meant to be personal, and I was trying to shake up the game a bit to make it a bit more exciting. He understood, but it was very hard to get the game back to the table for the next month. I was worried that this game just might not be good for my group – everyone is different and can handle different levels of confrontation, and we are sensitive to the needs and comfort of our group.
I read about similar problems on the forums for this game and got an idea of how people dealt with it. I also read about the mechanics and purpose of the game, and came up with a plan to hopefully get my group to like it. One game night, I brought out CE and said that I had an idea that might make the game more fun for everyone. There were no objections as I think everyone wanted to like the game, so I launched into a new explanation. This is approximately what I said:
“CE is a game of negotiations based on the prisoner’s dilemma.” I gave a short explanation of the thought experiment and how it is used when making business decisions and in real-life high stakes negotiations. “The most important part of it is that there are something at stake. Without something to lose, the whole purpose of the game falls apart. I think we’ve been thinking about the shared victories incorrectly.”
“Imagine we needed to ante into this game and ended up with a pot of $100. The winner of the game gets to keep the whole thing. If two people share the victory, they don’t both get $100 – they split the pot. The more people you share the victory with, the easier the game will be to win, but the less of the pot you get to take home. You should only share a victory under two conditions: you couldn’t possibly win without it or someone forced it on you with their powers or a card.”
My group seemed to really take to this idea and I think a few lightbulbs lit up. I gave a few more suggestions:
1.Be careful about early alliances as you do not want to give the other players a free point without having them spend a card.
2.From what I’ve read online, holding onto the best cards till late in the game seems to be an extremely potent strategy against newer players. Let’s just keep that in mind.
3.This game will only get better the more competitive we are about it. I understand that people can’t help how they feel – if betrayal hurts personally, I understand and I want everyone to feel comfortable. That said, this is just one game where we are going all out to win, so I hope everyone will do the same!
4.Some powers are much better than others and it is our job to work together to combat that through alliances.
5.Your ally should betray you when it is best for them to take the solo victory, so be aware of that!
Whoa, did that fix my issues. The first game was tense and two players started an alliance that lasted a few rounds, only to have them betray each other on the same turn while everyone at the table was SCREAMING with excitement. Each alliance became fragile, tense, and opportunistic. Each game we’ve played has made us braver and smarter about alliances and betrayals. I’ve since bought all the expansions and it is now my favorite game! Being competitive also allowed us to explore the more nuanced strategies around alien powers and hand management, something we weren’t able to scratch the surface with until we decided to play more competitively.
There were a few other things I want to mention:
• The game stagnated a little bit around alliances related to defense. I took a suggestion from the BGG forum to get an expansion with the rewards deck. It fixed the problem completely. The risk aversion equation changes dramatically when you have a deck of cards that strong to draw from that you don’t have to share with the defending player. I highly recommend it to anyone that has a few games under their belt and still loves that game.
• Familiarity with the aliens and flares became very important to our enjoyment. Certain aliens are very strong, but it is hard to see how strong they are until you’ve played against or with them. Also, we found some aliens seemed weak, but can be used extremely cleverly and even won the game in an upset a few times.
• Not all player counts are made equally. We found four to five is really great, but more than that really strained the mechanics for us. Some powers only trigger when you are the main player while others trigger when you are not, so how often you are the main player really changes the power dynamics.
That’s how the game went from my sell pile to one of my most loved games. It will not work with every group, but if your group can be competitive, social, and willing to be nasty, the game is brilliant.