(Welcome to The Pantheon, Chairman of the Board’s irregular series about the best games of all time. If it’s in the pantheon, you should own it.)
Let’s forgo any fluffy opening statements and get right to the point because I respect you and don’t want to waste your time: Cosmic Encounter is the greatest board game of all time.
That’s a bold statement, but it’s a statement that’s backed up by the game’s very simple rules, its infinite variety, its quiet complexity, and, most importantly, its ability to get every single person at the table yelling, screaming, scheming and laughing at the top of their lungs. It has a delicious theme worthy of the best American games. It has the depth of your favorite Eurogames. It has the “everyone has fun even when you get your ass kicked” factor of a party game. If you bring Cosmic Encounter to the table, everyone is bound to have a good time.
The set-up is simple enough. Each player (five with the base game, up to eight with expansions) takes on the role of an alien race with five planets, each protected by five spaceships. Your goal is simple: you want to establish colonies on your opponents’ planets and the first person to have five foreign colonies wins the game.
The gameplay itself is fairly straightforward and can be taught in less than ten minutes. When it’s your turn, you draw from the “Destiny Deck” which tells you which player you are going to invade. This means that every alliance is brittle and the whims of the game can shatter even the strongest bonds between allies. Then you declare which of their individual planets you want to attack and request reinforcements, letting other people join in on the invasion. The defender can also call for back-up, with his friends rushing to his aid. Combat is a matter of basic mathematics: you add up the number of ships on each side and each opponent plays a card face down. The card may feature a number, adding more to the attack or defense score. It may be a negotiate card, which can allow everyone to talk it out. It could be something else altogether. If the attackers win, everyone gets to land a ship on the planet and the previous occupants are destroyed. If the defenders triumph, the attackers are toast.
Even if this was all the game had to offer, there would be plenty of fun to be had with Cosmic Encounter. While everyone’s deck of cards means that there’s a certain amount of luck involved in combat, it’s not random luck — it’s poker luck. Ever battle is a tense round of gambling, with both sides attempting to bluff their way into a victory. With no one knowing exactly what secrets the other players have hidden, each battle is a showdown of wills.
Someone says he can beat you, but offers to play a Negotiate card if you will. Do you trust him? Is he telling the truth? If you don’t comply, can he actually crush you? If you’re a lying, scheming bastard who likes a science fiction theme, Cosmic Encounter needs to be on your shelf.
But those basic mechanics aren’t what make the game really special. They’re just the incredibly simple foundation upon which the game’s true greatness is built. You see, you’re not just playing as an anonymous alien race — you’re playing as an incredibly specific alien race with incredibly specific powers. You randomly draw your identity at the start of the game and what you and your fellow gamers pick influences everything about the game. Each character sheet gives your race unique advantages and disadvantages and unique avenues to victory. Some of these races are military juggernauts, with ships that are far more powerful than others. Some are traders and can hold onto additional cards. Many of them allow players to contort (if not completely shatter) the rules of game, like the one that only wins battles by losing battles.
Suddenly, your game of galactic poker warfare has a dozen new layers. Who you choose to request assistance from is changed. The pace of the game as altered in unexpected ways. Every thing you do is coated in doubt and intrigue, as you carefully examine your opponent’s races and wonder how they’re going to twist the game to suit their very specific skills. That’s the beauty of Cosmic Encounter: once you know the basic rules, you can play it forever without any problems, but no two games will ever be the same. With the expansions, there are close to 200 alien races to choose from, meaning that you will never see the same combination skills and abilities at your table ever again.
Many games get old or stale after repeated plays. Everyone learns the board, knows what’s in the deck and can prepare for any situation. Not Cosmic Encounter. It reinvents itself with every play. Even if you’ve owned the game for years, it’ll reinvent itself every time you open the box. It’s magic, guys.
Cosmic Encounter has been around for decades, but the current printing by Fantasy Flight games is the best its ever been. The components are gorgeous and the art is lovely. Everything is nice to touch and the game just looks nice on the table. This is ultimately a game where 90% of the activity is about bartering and talking and threatening, but everything has the gloss of the best thematic war games.
Everyone has their own specific taste in board games, but Cosmic Encounter is the rare experience that has something for everyone. No game has ever offered so much depth and re-playability while being so simple. Few games encourage being this social while forcing thoughtful strategy. If you haven’t played Cosmic Encounter, you just haven’t played your new favorite game yet.