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Interview: Peter Olotka on Cosmic Encounter and D*ne

W. Eric Martin
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(In light of yesterday's news item about Peter Olotka's attempt to organize a community-designed expansion for Cosmic Encounter, I thought I'd reprint a Boardgame News column from September 18, 2007, which ran shortly after Fantasy Flight Games licensed the game and two others from Eon.

I've edited the formatting, but kept all other details – including previously announced release dates – intact. If anyone wonders why a publisher would shy away from announcing release dates, here's yet another example why.)


Fantasy Flight's announcement of new editions of Cosmic Encounter (due out in Summer 2008), "Dune" (Winter 2008), and Borderlands (Summer 2009) made many people very happy, while simultaneously enraging others. To find out more about what gamers can expect to see next year, I turned to Peter Olotka, co-designer of all three games and founder of Future Pastimes, LLC, which runs Cosmic Encounter Online.

Asked about previous editions, Olotka says, "Avalon Hill never got its act together as far as we could see." Even though the Eon crew – the folks who created Cosmic Encounter – offered advice to the AH development team, the Hasbro edition of CE was released with a relatively small number of alien powers, planetary systems incompatible with previous editions, and an upper limit of four players. "We begged them not to do it that way, and there was very little acceptance of the Hasbro design in the Cosmic community."

While twenty aliens were too few for modern buyers of Cosmic Encounter, that's more than three times the number originally in the game. "We thought this game up in 1972 here on Cape Cod, and it predates Dungeons & Dragons, predates Magic: The Gathering, predates all of these things that have exception-based rules," says Olotka. "When we did the design, we had no clue of its expandability for a long time. For years it had six aliens and that was hard enough and interesting enough for us because of the variability attached to it. We didn't realize that it was so unlimited." (That early version, by the way, was also limited to four players.)

Olotka has different expectations for what's possible with Fantasy Flight. "We have a company who we can really work with, one that understands the genre and how to make good product," he says. "Cosmic Encounter has an audience of both hardcore and casual gamers, and we want to be able to reach them all. While at most conventions, it's 99% men, when we had tournaments running, 50% of the players would be women."

Besides, says Olotka, "none of us who were the original designers played those hardcore games".

As for what the new FFG version will include, Olotka says that gamers themselves will have a say in the contents. "We're tapping into players and fans for their suggestions, which I think is very appropriate. There are a bunch of aliens online that we want to release for the first time in the board game."

Admittedly some aliens work only in the online game, such as the Brat, which can skip the game into the next game state and skip over opportunities to form alliances or use alien powers, and the Dork, which floats across a player's computer screen obscuring parts of the interface. Says Olotka, "Perhaps someone can wave his hands in front of an opponent's face..."

What he really hopes to see, though, are alien powers that create some kind of synergy between play online and in the board game. "We're excited to cross-promote the board game with Cosmic Online, so what if buying the board game gave you some kind of advantage online?" he asks. "There are a ton of advantages in both media: With the boardgame you have the social experience; online, you don't have to count everything and you can just play the game for the purity of it."

Online play is also a good argument prevention measure: "I personally know there are no conflicts between the aliens," says Olotka, but most players – okay, everyone not named Bill Eberle and Jack Kittredge – lack his level of knowledge and experience. CE Online will also experiment with a partners version in the next league, and Olotka expects to add Team Cosmic to the board game as well.

Olotka encourages CE fans to visit the Cosmic Encounter Online forum, specifically the thread labeled "Fantasy Flight Cosmic Board Game Wish List" and post your suggestions. Kevin Wilson from FFG visits the site, so your ideas could play a role in the appearance of the final product.

FFG's ability to release editions of the game in multiple languages around the world through its publishing partners is a nice bonus from Olotka's point of view as it might prevent unauthorized knockoffs, the existence of which he discovered after talking with CE Online players located in Brazil. "I traded a Hasbro game for a Brazilian Cosmic Encounter that I never knew existed," he says.

•••

While new versions of Cosmic Encounter and Borderlands were greeted with almost universal excitement, the decision to use the "Wheels within Wheels" game system of Eon's Dune in a new game set in the Twilight Imperium universe was met with an equal mixture of excitement and outrage. As of mid-September 2007, a petition asking Brian Herbert to license Dune to FFG had gathered more than 3,300 online signatures.

"I don't disagree with what [these petitioners] are saying," says Olotka, but he doesn't expect it to have any effect either. "I know of two or three other companies that tried to get the license. You can't dig out that license. It's like talking to mud. It's not there."

As for the hubbub over the nigh blasphemous notion of stripping the Duniverse from the Dune game, Olotka doesn't understand the fuss – but that might be because the game system wasn't designed for Dune in the first place.

"We wanted to do a Dune game and it turned out that Avalon Hill already had the rights, so I called Jack Dodd or whoever it was, and they said they had someone," says Olotka. "That was that."

Time passed, and Avalon Hill came back to Eon because it didn't like the game created by the other designer. "So the deal was that we would design the game, and if you didn't like it, fine, but we're doing it our way," says Olotka. "We had a game created earlier called Tribute and that's where we designed the Wheel system, so we lugged that out and retrofitted it to the Dune characters."

Tribute was set in Rome, and the wheels in that earlier game had Roman numerals. "We had a king among a million other characters, and whoever played the king had to wear a crown," says Olotka. "So we took the whole thing and added ancillary stuff, plugging in leaders. We stole heavily from Cosmic Encounter when we designed Dune; the idea of having these well-defined and different powers, we applied it to Darkover, to Dune, and to Cosmic Encounter."

So the greatest meshing of theme and mechanisms in game design history is, in fact, just another example of a thematic paste job – albeit one with glue so strong that no one previously suspected as much.

"We would love to see the existing game reissued, but after years of trying, it's just not going to happen, so you take another track," says Olotka – and if anyone has the right to say that a Twilight Imperium reinterpretation of Dune is a good idea, it's one of the game's co-designers.

"Dune is one of my favorite games that we've designed," says Olotka. "We used our gaming system that we had developed independently for this Tribute game, added some stuff from Cosmic, and used the Dune setting to place it in. It has all of these nuances, and to transplant the game play into another world is a very interesting idea. It shouldn't be disallowed. We're the guys who did stuff that was different. We did Quirks and Cosmic Encounter and Borderlands and Dune and Runes and Darkover, and each of those games didn't have a copy then and doesn't have a copy now. They exist in their own definition."

Olotka also takes credit for one aspect of Dune game history that doesn't please fans. "When the movie was coming out, we convinced Avalon Hill to reissue Dune with a new box cover that had someone who looked like Sting on the cover, along with two expansion sets. After the movie came out – which was the biggest bomb ever – Dune just stopped selling. It just stopped. That was it, end of story."

In any case, Olotka is excited to see these games in print once again, and if all goes well, he says, "maybe we'll get into a couple of other old games as well..."
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