Cosmic Encounter is the best game I’ve ever played.
I’ve felt that way for over a decade now. It’s everything I want in a board game, a full embrace of what makes board games so special as a medium. It also happens to be one of the most influential board game designs of all time, directly informing genre-defining designs like Dune and Magic: The Gathering, and more niche designs like Citadels and Wiz-War. I’ve never been shy about my love either. I’ve written about it on numerous occasions on other platforms, and I even had a chance to interview one of its designers. It’s the best example of how board games can embrace social interaction, subtly brilliant design, and endless variety into something that still manages to be approachable and fresh with every new game.
But not everyone feels the same way. I’ve had a pretty high success rate introducing it to other players, and I’ve gotten down explaining this huge game to a science. Games may be for everyone, but the truth is that no single game is for everyone. It felt like a gap to not yet have an article on this blog about my favorite game of all time, but rather than simply gushing about it for a couple thousand words I thought it might be interesting to think of reasons why someone might not like Cosmic Encounter very much. I believe that all of these things are true about this wonderful game, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find it enjoyable.
It’s a really social game.
I’ve never played a strategy game that embraces every facet of social interaction in quite the same way Cosmic Encounter does. Lots of games embrace certain kinds of social interaction, whether it’s hardcore negotiation, alliances, cooperation, competition, or deception. But to me what separates Cosmic Encounter from all of them is that you need to be pretty good at all of those things without ever totally committing to any one of them. You certainly can play it as a very cut-throat game, but the situation will often call for a softer touch than that, and open collaboration can be extremely effective. Likewise open honesty can win just as well as deception. There isn’t one sort of social interaction that carries the day. A really good player needs to know how to switch between all of these modes, sometimes from turn to turn.
Without this embrace of these “soft” skills of negotiation, socialization, and collaboration Cosmic Encounter can seem pretty thin. It’s the sort of game that really needs those elements to function well. But the truth is that not everyone likes engaging that way. For some people heavy social interaction is a source of anxiety, and board games represent a way to put some limits on interaction. If you are one of those people, then you might find Cosmic Encounter to be a uniquely irritating game. It’s not just that it is highly interactive, it’s that the kind of interaction can shift quickly.
It’s a chaotic game.
Cosmic Encounter has a lot of mechanics that inject variety into the design. There are the artifacts and flares, cards that can change the game state unexpectedly in myriad ways. There are the vagaries of alliances, which shift every round. Most of all there are aliens, unique powers given to each player at the beginning of the game that allow them to break a specific rule. By themselves, each of these mechanics would make a varied and interesting design, but together they can create a chaotic maelstrom where things change instantly without warning. This represents the sci-fi setting better than anything, where there are always new interactions to discover and bizarre effects that I still haven’t seen before. It truly is a game about the unexplored edges of space.
Rather than attempting to temper this insanity, Cosmic Encounter leans into it. Wild reversals are common, and it can be hard to know what is and isn’t really happening in the game. No gain is permanent, and no setback is truly debilitating. It exists entirely in the moment, not caring much for the future or the past. Powers and card effects can fly fast and furious, and it only amps up with more players. Besides that, it’s just silly. This is a game that is comfortable making the players do zany things like call everyone “sir” and “ma’am,” or permitting a certain player to whine about how badly they are losing. There’s even a card that gives the possessor permission to cheat, and makes it easier if they get caught. It’s a strategic game, but it’s not a very serious one. It is perfectly fine being loony, and if you aren’t this one might really grate on you. It is possible to tune the game by excluding certain cards or limiting the number of players, but even then the game will threaten to go off the rails. New players should definitely be aware of this tendency before diving in.
More than one player can win.
In my experience this might be the single most controversial design choice in Cosmic Encounter. Through a system of alliances and card effects, it is entirely possible that two or more players can win simultaneously. Such shared wins are not really understood as ties, but simply as multiple winners. This is a weird design choice, but it’s also a necessary one. Cosmic Encounter is driven by a hand of cards, and with cards the deal is everything. It’s surprisingly difficult to get new cards too, so a bad deal can be devastating. Shared wins tend to come through negotiation and cooperation, and so they represent an out for players who were dealt a hand of garbage. They also tie back into the myriad forms of social interaction, allowing more non-competitive people to win in a way that they find appealing. If you are the type who plays with big groups, shared wins are also just about the only way to get a victory with six or more players. You really need someone’s help to walk away with a victory at that stage.
As far as I’m concerned this is a feature, not a bug. And for people who don’t like it I don’t get the impression that it’s a deal-breaker (so to speak). But I think a lot of those people can point to endings they found particularly lame, when two people suddenly decide they will win together and no one can stop them. If you are the competitive type, such an ending can be deeply unsatisfying, but to remove the shared win entirely puts the players much more at the mercy of their cards, dooming bad draws to likely defeat. So you’ve been warned.
(Another complaint that I actually have about my favorite game is that the end can happen a little anticlimactically if you aren’t experienced. New players will often find themselves in a situation where things are rolling along and, oh, the game is over I guess. I think Cosmic Encounter is one of those “journey before destination” games, so I’m not including it as a deal-breaker. But it’s definitely there.)
It’s easy to have a lousy game.
I love Cosmic Encounter, but I will admit that there are a lot of ways it can go wrong. Almost all of these boil down to the alien powers that are in the game. With all of the expansion content released for the current edition, there are lots of them that are, well, kind of lame. Lots of others are riffs on the same basic concept, and still more are only good in specific situations. That last one is, I think, the biggest impediment to having a good experience with Cosmic Encounter. A lot of powers are only good if there are a certain number of players. Still others would be great, were it not for that other power in the game that basically renders them useless. It’s not much fun for a new player to sit in a game and not be able to use the thing that makes their experience unique. Besides that, a deeply social game like this one makes it uniquely vulnerable to bad actors. Some people just want to ruin the fun for everyone, and this is a game that does allow some of that.
I don’t want to overstate the volatility here. The issue of jerk players is one that would be much worse in the hands of lesser designers. But there are checks on that sort of behavior baked into the game, like how it uses a destiny deck to determine which player will have an encounter with which other player. The alliance system, whereby players join with the offense or defense to get rewards or move closer to victory, forces players to keep a lose grip on grudges. But the issue of weird power mixes is one that I’m afraid is endemic to the design. You could always remove powers you don’t like (I don’t, but I’m lazy that way), but unless you handpick everything you play with you will sometimes just end up with a dud. Not too often, but it’s definitely a thing that can happen. If that happens to you enough, you might just swear off Cosmic Encounter altogether.
Let me be perfectly clear: I think you should play Cosmic Encounter. It’s a brilliant game filled with laughter, surprising strategy, and constant interaction. But because the game is so special to me I think it’s important to set expectations. Travelling through the galaxy and meeting alien species is treacherous work, but if you know what you’re getting into you might just discover that it’s the only game you’ll want to play.