Why You Might Not Like Cosmic Encounter

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.)

This is from The Walking Dead. It is notable for the shirt, and also for the fact that it looks so much like me it makes me wonder if I’m being followed around.

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.

Azul

azul cover

At its very best, German game design understands the power of a single decision point. One of the reasons it came to prominence in the late 90s and early 2000s is because it was able to present players with several choices between two or three compelling options. This is a delicate balancing act, one that is harder than it looks from a design standpoint. It’s possible to not have enough interesting options, presenting the player with what is essentially a false choice, one good option that is too obvious. The other extreme is to give the player too much choice, something that might be interesting for some, but also can be completely paralyzing. I’ve played countless games that have erred in either direction. That’s why it’s such a pleasure when a game like Azul comes along and shows us how to do it right.

I view Azul as something of a culmination. For most of the 2000s, European games trended more and more complex. There were always simpler titles, but they weren’t driving the conversation. But since the advent of crowdfunding I sense a shift has taken place. Complex game design has veered into more thematic territory, leaving the nakedly mechanical European design school to rediscover simplicity. This has manifested in titles like Splendor and the Century series of games. Like many of the games from the 90s, they revolve around one or two main mechanics, end in roughly 30 minutes, and don’t worry much about providing context for their mechanics. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that such games, notably Splendor, work so well in app form.) Azul is in that tradition, but to me it stands out because it feels like there are two different games going on at the same time. The pleasure comes from watching these two games interact with each other, which they do admirably.

Azul game in progress
The tile draw on our giant scuffed-up table.

The first “game” in Azul comes in the tile selection, which is basically a draft. Tiles are drawn randomly from a bag, and divided into lots. The players then each have the choice of taking every tile of a specific color in one lot, leaving the rest in the middle, or taking every tile of a specific color from the middle. As is true in a lot of great German game design, this is the kind of choice that has a couple layers to it. The first is what you yourself need. As we’ll examine in a minute, you yourself have tiles that you need in specific number. But the other side is that whatever you leave behind can easily be picked up by other players, perhaps combining with other leftovers to create something truly tempting. There’s also the mechanic of giving the first player to pull from the middle the starting token, along with a slight scoring penalty.

The second “game” is how you arrange those tiles on your board. Each player has a 5×5 grid of the five tile colors in front of them, and each row has, in essence, a staging area where tiles of a single color can wait before going on the grid. Once that “staging area” is filled, one of those tiles is moved onto the grid. There are about three different mechanics intersecting here, the first of which is the different sizes of the “staging areas”. The top row only requires one tile to move over to the right, but the bottom row requires five of them. Then of course there’s the scoring, where each new tile placed on the grid generates points immediately, and at the end of the game depending on their final pattern. Finally, there’s the penalty for not being able to place the tiles you took from the draft. If you get a bunch of tiles and have no place to put them, you can take on water in a hurry.

In isolation, these mechanics are well-executed but not particularly brilliant. You might even be wondering why I just spent over 300 words breaking down some pretty standard mechanics. The pleasure is that all of these elements mesh together flawlessly, making a game that goes down so smooth that it takes a while to see how good it is. But then you start noticing the effects of those mechanics. There’s the way you can stick someone with a pile of tiles they can’t use in the draft, forcing them to take a heavy point penalty on their grid. You might start filling a row to move something to the grid, and then you might not see the tiles you need to actually complete it and move it to your board. There’s the different end-game bonuses that can tilt the draft and the grid play in different directions, allowing the player to pursue strategies that won’t pay off right away. Azul isn’t particularly innovative, but its polish and use of established mechanics makes it something perhaps even better: exemplary.

(To be fair, the way tiles move to the grid is pretty interesting, and I can’t really point to another game that does the same thing. But even if it is unique, it’s not very flashy.)

People tend to respond to good game design, which would explain why Azul has been such a huge hit with my friends. Several people have sought out their own copy after playing mine, and it is not uncommon to set up a second game and immediately play again. It functions well with the full range of players, making it a flexible game that not everyone will love, but that most people will at least like.

Azul endgame
The end of a game with my wife. If you look at her score in the upper right corner, you can see that she snuck ahead of me for the win.

Given the way games like this tend to translate well to smartphone apps, it’s sometimes a fair question to wonder why they aren’t just made as apps in the first place. It’s good then that Azul stands out as a physical product. The game is graphically wonderful. Everything from its blue-red-yellow color scheme to its intuitive design makes this a very pleasant game to play. Best of all are the tiles, which all have a pleasant mass and nice glossy finish. Crucially all of this comes together in a package that is relatively affordable, especially as the cost of games keeps being driven higher by component demands.

On a personal note, Azul has been something of a nostalgic trip for me. This is the sort of game that got me into the hobby, with its reasonable price, nice graphics, and rock-solid gameplay. I eventually moved away from fare like this as I embraced more thematic and more complex games. I still tend that way, but Azul is a good reminder for me of why simple, clean German design is so effective. Designer Michael Kiesling has been active in the German game market for decades now, and his work, particularly with Wolfgang Kramer, speaks for itself. This is an accomplished design. Azul is the sort of game that pulls a few different threads into a polished, attractive whole. It’s the sort of game that I would recommend to people who are entering the hobby for the first time, and it’s a great choice for old hands like myself too.

Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization

box cover

As a genre, civilization games always draw from a couple of really big influences. The first is the original Civilization game, designed by Francis Treshem and published by Avalon Hill in the early 1980s. That game takes a lot of DNA from Avalon Hill’s Diplomacy, with its map full of different empires that interact with each other through warfare and trading. Another major influence is that of Risk, one of the most influential designs of all time, full stop. Any time you play a game with army men and dice, you are probably, on some level, playing Risk. The last big touchstone is that of Sid Meier’s Civilization, with its emphasis on the full sweep of history, the creation of great wonders, and the combination of short term and long term goals that make that game so addictive. On one level or another most civ games are recombining these different elements in various ways. It’s hard to break out of the legacy of a single major design, let alone three of them.

Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization manages to stand out above the crowd. Originally published as Through the Ages in 2006, it represents perhaps the best complex design by Vlaada Chvatil, as well as his first real notable work as a designer. After a revised edition in 2015, it has come into its own as perhaps the most important civilization board game today. What’s striking about it is what it chooses to abstract, what it chooses to emphasize, and what it chooses to avoid. It’s a complex card game that is at once cumbersome and streamlined, violent and passive, infuriating and compelling.

What stands out to me the most about the game is its victory condition. In purely mechanical terms it boils down to victory points, but in game terms those points represent culture. You will get them in several ways, but the bulk of them will be generated by building structures like theaters and religious buildings, and by creating wonders like the Pyramids. I like this emphasis a lot, because thematically it’s hard to define what victory is in a civ game. How do we determine what civilizations have “won” in our own history? The ones who made the most money? The ones who conquered the most territory? Who knows? In Through the Ages, culture seems to represent that abstract quality of being remembered, regardless of how that legacy came about. Maybe your civilization made all sorts of amazing monuments. Maybe they created great works or founded an important faith. Maybe they used their military might to push their neighbors around. All of those ways ensure the memory of a civilization will live on. In its raw mechanics it’s just about finding different ways to generate victory points, but this focus on legacy says a lot about what we consider “great” in a civilization.Compared to something like, say, the multiple victory conditions in Sid Meier’s Civilization, Chvatil is doing something similar. The difference is that rather than giving us several different sub-systems that flow into different goals, we have a bunch of ways to get to a single goal. The only important thing is to be remembered, regardless of how you do it.

Most people who see Through the Ages for the first time will notice that it has no map. This is a pure card game, with any boards only serving as ways to make card play easier. It’s a design decision that almost seems a little flashy, like someone who’s right-handed using their left hand. But I think there’s a thematic purpose here too. Civilization games very often become displays of military might, with armies sweeping across continents and territories changing hands every couple of turns. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and games like Clash of Cultures have made hay out of being primarily games of conquest.

But here’s the thing about warfare: it’s expensive. It takes an enormous amount of resources to move people across the land so they can effectively kill other people. A lot of games seem to treat it as the default mode for countries. Every technology feeds back into it, and the design rewards warmongering above all else. It’s not a serious trade-off to commit to the military, and for a lot of people it’s just more fun. In Through the Ages the resource cost to invest in military is severe. It represents resources and workers that will not be invested in other places. Of course there are plenty of ways to make that investment more efficient, but that’s true for the other aspects of the game as well.

Make no mistake though, military here is a vital part of the experience. You need to have some situational awareness of what the military situation is, because countries that are too weak will get pushed around with no real recourse. The game provides several ways to make up that difference quickly, whether through a strong leader, advanced technology, or one-time bonuses, and you’ll want to use those for fear that your opponents will use them. Of course if everyone else is avoiding it, you can just focus on racking up points. Then again, you could also be the military giant and push them all around. Military and warfare is just one of the routes available in this game, but it remains a vital part of the game. Through the Ages feels like it is grasping the scope of how nations leave their mark by capturing all the ways it can happen, and that’s one of its biggest strengths.

Of course there are a lot of clever bits of mechanical design here. The one that I find most impressive is how it handles all of the resources and buildings that normally go into this genre. Yellow cubes are used to represent workers, who essentially become buildings when they are put into play on a card. There they will generate resources every turn, represented by blue cubes. So a yellow cube on an oil well, which generates 3 resources every turn, will generate one blue cube worth 3 resources every turn. Yellow cubes can also become military units when places on military cards, which then generate a certain amount of static military strength. It sounds complicated, but it’s very intuitive when you see it in play, and it keeps the game from getting too cluttered with shuffling resources. There’s also a system of corruption and happiness, meant to keep players from producing too inefficiently or from churning out too many mouths to feed. Even with this in play, one sometimes feels like they’re spending half of their time moving cubes from one spot to another. It’s staggering to think what it would have been like if the game didn’t use these multi-use cubes.

The other mechanic I want to praise is the line of cards. There are 13 of them available every turn, but they function like a conveyor belt. When cards are bought, everything to the right slides left and new cards come in at the right end. Cards closer to the end cost fewer actions to take, but some of them also fall of the edge at the end of every turn, so timing is a big factor. This is a great feature, because it sets the pace for the game. Once you internalize the not-inconsiderable ruleset, the game has a great flow. Each of the three ages feels like it’s over at about the right time, and the selection of cards never stagnates. I might have appreciated just a little bit more flexibility to go with this dynamic flow, since there are times when, for example, you need a really good production card and it just won’t come up. But that comes down to making sure you use your actions wisely, which sometimes means you need to just splurge and take something early. And anyway, the tradeoff of a more dynamic experience is well worth any minor frustration.

That touch of frustration is part of what has kept me coming back to Through the Ages over and over again. I understand the game mechanically, but it’s a very subtle design. Small decisions made early on might seem insignificant, but they can add up quickly. You can find yourself behind in some vital area like science or military, and not be quite sure how you got there. A lesser game would punish you for the rest of the game by just making you play from behind. But Through the Ages provides cards that become more and more efficient as you go, so you can use an area of strength to shore up what might be an area of weakness, sometimes literally, since it’s possible to get workers moved to different places on the board in a pinch. Then of course there’s the long process of learning what cards are best, and how they interact with each other. All of this adds up to a game that is surprisingly intuitive, but that will require lots of experience to get better at.

through the ages app
A game in action on the excellent app.

Vlaada Chvatil has, since the original release of Through the Ages, become known for his punishing design philosophy. Games like Galaxy Trucker and Space Alert contain phases that actively try to destroy what the players have accomplished. Through the Ages is, in this regard, a gentler game. Still, this is also quite a complex game, and it will take a while when played face to face. Fortunately there is a terrific app, probably the single best board game app I’ve ever played. It is easy to connect with friends, and it supports asynchronous play well. Most of all, it removes the need to physically move cards and cubes around the table. I do prefer the game face-to-face, but this is not an easy one to get played for my lifestyle, so I appreciate having the app there for me. There’s also an expansion coming out later this year that will add new wonders and leaders. The latter will be especially welcome, since the variety of leaders in the original game is disappointingly Euro-centric. Hopefully the expansion will address that.

It’s easy to over-invest in civilization games. They are at their best when they are lengthy and complex, because such gameplay is appropriate for the full sweep of history. But in that class, I think that Through the Ages is probably the most strategically rewarding game, and it feels more thematically satisfying to me as well. It’s a great example of how Euro design ideas can revitalize and refocus old genres to create something unique and satisfying.