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Cosmic Encounter» Forums » General

Subject: Cosmic Theory (Let's Talk Aliens) rss

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Patrick Davis
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Cosmic Encounter is a game that occupies an especially niche space in my imagination. On the one hand, it’s by far my favorite board game on this mortal plane, swirling together a brilliant combination of strategy, chance, choice, cooperation, and the human factor that makes it the ideal party game for the nerdier crowd. I’ve studied the game for so many hours, trying to glean whatever I can from it in terms of game design and theory. On the other hand, I’ve only ever played the online version and therefore have only ever seen a small handful of the elements and features that go into your average game of Cosmic, and that doesn’t even get into the versions of the game that preceded the current one or the fanmade additions. To make the situation even more troublesome, Cosmic has proven to be the single most obscure piece of media on the Internet with critical acclaim that I have interest in. Though I’ve managed to find a few good resources that provide info on all the game mechanics, it always feels like I’m scrounging when I find something new or interesting about the game I hadn’t considered.

This game is a bright light shrouded in darkness, a paradoxical miracle that has captivated me intermittently over the course of the past ten years, perhaps exclusively due to the game’s main selling point: the alien powers. The current version of the game has a total of 166 alien powers, and I’ve taken it upon myself to try and understand how all of them fit together in the Cosmic Universe to make “the game with infinite possibilities”. According to the majority of opinions I’ve been able to sniff out, some powers don’t. They just don’t fit. Or perhaps they could if they were modified in some way. Or perhaps they could if they were completely reworked. Opinions do make a splash online, even in shallow pools.

I want to add to the Cosmic discussion. I want to share my Cosmic with the people who know real Cosmic, the understanding of someone who only knows 4-player matches with no flares, no kickers, no reinforcements, no detailed art, and one of the selectable aliens being Dork. I’ve extensively run through the entire gamut of alien powers through all FFG expansions and compiled my own ideas on how they mesh with the rest of the Cosmos. I want to lay out a brief outline of how I feel about them gameplay-wise and theme-wise, then conclude if they meet my particularly snobbish standards or not, if they are sufficient to join my so-called ‘Cosmic Federation’. If I feel it’s not up to such standards, I’d like to share my own ideas of how the particular power could be improved or reworked.

It’s my understanding that Rob Burns is already going through the herculean task of examining each of the aliens in great detail, noting every facet of the power and essentially creating a reference guide for them (In a less rulings-focused way than the Cosmodex). My intention is slightly different. By sharing my own ideas, I want to stimulate conversation and learn more about the deeper elements of this game that I know I’m missing. Given my inexperience with the game, I have no doubt that many of my ideas or thoughts about certain aliens are misguided or misinformed. They may even seem a little pedantic or persnickety to someone who thinks differently. With the game going on 50 years and so many people learning the ins and outs, I may only be dawning on ideas that other people had decades ago. I want to learn what I’m missing. And what better way to learn something new than to be wrong on the Internet?

That all being said, I suppose I can begin. Starting with the first alien on the list:

AMOEBA – POWER TO OOZE
Uses Wobbly Ships

It’s so strange for me to see an alien list in alphabetical order that doesn’t begin with Anti-Matter. But then, I guess Amoeba came first anyway. Being one of the first original Eon powers, Amoeba’s had a lot of time to iron out its kinks. Only this power never really had any. It’s exactly the same as it was back then. Add ships if you’re looking for a boost. Remove them if you’re feeling uneasy. It’s a gamble either way, and it can always backfire. What interests me is the timing of its activation. It takes place after both sides have selected cards, meaning your opponent can’t respond to your oozing unless they just zap you, and even then, they have to waste a zap just to avoid playing your game. Your opponent has to guess if you will ooze or not, making it a gamble both ways. Of course, you’re the only one that can go big, meaning you can throw your whole power away with one bad spin. The gamble factor applies to your own allies too, since you may invite them and completely ooze out, thereby throwing the encounter and their trust for the rest of the game. If I were to associate a power with the word ‘amoeba’ it would probably relate to its size. It might end up looking something like Pygmy or maybe an anti-Macron where you can send more ships through the hyperspace gate. In that sense, the power is pretty thematic. Amoebas are small and gelatinous, at least to a layman. You can send as many as you want through the gate. No problem. It also brings to mind a humorous image of Amoeba having these wibbly-wobbly Jello ships that it uses to blow stuff up and invade. Given its time in the oven, it’s pretty much a given that this alien checks nearly all of the boxes to join my Federation. Welcome aboard, Amoeba. I’m sure you don’t need my acceptance to feel like you’re worth something.

As a side note, I did want to mention the flares. Having never used flares in a game, I don’t really have a handle on how they affect the gameplay. From what I’ve seen, they essentially serve as wild cards that throw people off and can occasionally turn situations on their heads. While there’s a bit of luck involved in who gets what and which ones are used, once they’re in play, they appear to ‘harden’ into a part of everyone’s strategies since they generally aren’t discarded until a new hand is drawn. I’m a fan of the concept, but since I can’t really gauge how they affect gameplay too well, I only want to note how they fit thematically and if I think they step on any other alien’s toes. From my perspective, a thematic Wild flare carries the ‘essence’ of an alien’s power. Even if it doesn’t invoke a weaker form of the power, it still manages to evoke the feeling that alien provides. Meanwhile, a thematic Super flare makes that alien ‘overflow with power’. In other words, if someone has their Super flare, everyone should make a mental note. It should never be the kind of thing you can ignore (unless you have some kind of perfect counter to it.) Amoeba’s flares have also remained unchanged since the beginning. Its Wild lets other people use its power, but only up to four ships. I like the idea. It makes their ships wibble and wobble, but doesn’t shrink them to fit more in the hyperspace gate. It captures the essence without just flat out giving them the power. And the Super flare lets Amoeba use its power as an ally, still before the reveal. Certainly useful, but not exactly something the enemy will pay much mind (unless they’re just scared of Amoeba’s power in general). I’d actually be willing to see this one let Amoeba use its power after the reveal instead. It would remove the biggest downside of Amoeba’s power, the fact that it’s a gamble, and it would still be limited by the number of ships it has outside the warp. Even if it could win by sending all of its ships, if it goes overboard, it can end up losing its power altogether.

So, I suppose that sums up my thoughts on Amoeba. You can respond with your own thoughts or feelings if you want. I know you have them. Don’t you go oozing out on me!

Federation Status: ACCEPTED
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Rob Burns
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Always fun to get others' thoughts on the aliens!

Amoeba is a true classic, and one of my Top 20 personal favorite aliens. "Oozing out" of an Encounter you "just know" you're going to lose helps you conserve your ships, which are your greatest resource. I've seen Amoeba players gamble on "oozing in" early in the game, but a smart Amoeba picks his battles carefully. Pile on an opponent with a weak hand and no allies... Amoeba doesn't want the end game to come with a ton of ships in the Warp. A Mobius Tubes in hand means all the difference for Amoeba, and if you're negotiating a deal, don't be afraid to ask for one.

Good potential for "head games" with Amoeba. You can work hard to let your opponent (and your allies) think you're going to ooze in, even (especially) if you're not -- or that you're going to ooze out of a losing battle, and then ooze in. "Head games" can be a double-edged sword, so use with caution, but at least you can play them.

I just like Amoeba's flexibility. If I'm Amoeba, and I feel like I can read the other players well enough (an imporant skill in Cosmic, and especially for Amoeba), then I should be able to shepherd my ships until the Encounter when I really need to "go big". Amoeba has quirks to discover...
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Patrick Davis
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Amoeba's in a strange place as one of the two original aliens that I've never played with (along with Chronos). My first thought when analyzing this one was what I'd be thinking if I were playing offense or defense against this one. It's a total gamble power, but I'd probably be hoping every time that he decided to 'ooze out' since I can't respond after he does so. I'd also say it's one of those powers that I'd feel less confident trying to beat with a middle-range encounter card since he could ooze in at any time. If I were playing as Amoeba, it might go the other way. I might be tempted to get overconfident about playing middle-range cards and using ships to compensate. Losing a few times with that strategy could be pretty devastating though. What strikes me about this power is that it looks to be the type that no one pays more attention to than the person with the power. I could see an argument being presented that it's underpowered, that the benefits aren't worth the risk, but I think this one classifies as one of the more subtle powers. Generally, it isn't the kind of power to launch massive assaults and take on all four opponents at once for its solo victory. It's quieter. It's smaller. It's always there, but people don't really notice it that much until it sneaks up and gets them. Really good for the theme.
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This is not my user name.
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There should be a Word Games Subdomain, or at least a Word Games Forum!
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MagerBlutooth wrote:
The current version of the game has a total of 166 alien powers,

I believe that's 165.

Of course, the latest version of the Cosmic Encounter Alien Song has 198 - which includes the aliens from the Eon and Mayfair editions that have not yet been published in the FFG edition.

And then there's The Warp. You may have a bit of reading to do. Enjoy!

Flares are an interesting addition to the game that I was highly skeptical of, at first. I first encountered them in the Mayfair edition, where they were significantly different from how they are now. Mayfair's flares (Mayflairs?) were one-use-only, so they were similar to Artifacts (Edicts). Eon/FFG style flares change the dynamics of the game beyond simply adding a few wacky effects. They give a significant boost to the value of Compensation. They are an extra bargaining chip in deals. A credible threat, or a credible bluff. They give a player in an otherwise bad/hopeless/useless situation a bit of flexibility.
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Roberta Yang
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Amoeba is fantastic, and is one of the most quintessentially "cosmic" powers. It's not one of the strongest aliens, but it's strong enough to be an alien power, and I think the "soft advantages" (i.e. the way it influences your opponents to play around it) are stronger than they at first seem. You can't afford to ooze in with 15 every encounter -- but you could ooze in with 15 any encounter, and that threat is relevant even in encounters where you don't actually use your power at all.

MagerBlutooth wrote:
And the Super flare lets Amoeba use its power as an ally, still before the reveal. Certainly useful, but not exactly something the enemy will pay much mind (unless they’re just scared of Amoeba’s power in general). I’d actually be willing to see this one let Amoeba use its power after the reveal instead. It would remove the biggest downside of Amoeba’s power, the fact that it’s a gamble, and it would still be limited by the number of ships it has outside the warp. Even if it could win by sending all of its ships, if it goes overboard, it can end up losing its power altogether.

Allowing post-reveal use is a possible alternate Amoeba super, but I'm glad it's not what they went with. Amoeba is interesting because of the uncertainty it creates. The opponent needs to choose their encounter card based on how they think the Amoeba will ooze, and then the Amoeba needs to ooze based on how they think their opponent chose their encounter card. There's a lot of extra bluffing and tension at each stage of the process.

But if the Amoeba can be used post-reveal, it just boils down to a very straightforward flat +12ish combat bonus power. It will always ooze out if it would lose and will ooze in if doing so will give it a win. Reinforcements can mess with that a little bit, but the vast majority of what makes the power interesting is gone. There's no bluffing, no tension, just raw strength.

Using the Amoeba as an ally can be risky, since you don't know what encounter card your main player is playing. But combining the Amoeba's combat strength with another Main Player Only alien like the Oracle, or receiving 15 defender rewards at once, gives it a lot of potential. And once everyone knows you have your Super flare, you're an attractive ally and anyone you ally against needs to respect the threat you pose. (Of course, you also need to watch out for your so-called allies playing Negotiates to get your whole army killed.)
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Jack Reda
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My favorite game is Cosmic Encounter.
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166 includes Demon, only available from CosmicCon.

I believe that flares are the best thing that was added to the game (the reward deck being second best!). I love flares for several reasons:
1) They give new incentive to play a negotiate, because you may want to try and get a flare out of an opponent's hand, either because it's too powerful for them to keep, or because it will give you an edge you want or need.
2) It's extremely clever to be able to have a card with an artifact/power-effect that doesn't just get used once and discarded. The threat of being able to play it again and again is a great deterrent, negotiating tool, deal component, etc.
3) You have a wide range of effects that could be in a game, but don't know all of the ones that are there. And some effects you DO know are there... Parasite is in the game? That means that insidious Parasite wild effect is in the game too.
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Patrick Davis
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salty53 wrote:
Using the Amoeba as an ally can be risky, since you don't know what encounter card your main player is playing. But combining the Amoeba's combat strength with another Main Player Only alien like the Oracle, or receiving 15 defender rewards at once, gives it a lot of potential. And once everyone knows you have your Super flare, you're an attractive ally and anyone you ally against needs to respect the threat you pose. (Of course, you also need to watch out for your so-called allies playing Negotiates to get your whole army killed.)


You bring up an interesting point I hadn't considered. Though the original flare still carries the risk Amoeba normally brings to the table, it makes it much more noticeable as a power since it can essentially use its power every turn if it wants. I suppose since the power itself is a gamble, making it a bigger gamble does fit with the concept of its power overflowing. Plus, getting a ridiculous number of defender rewards is exactly the kind of absurd use of a power that I was overlooking. If Amoeba's meant to be a small fry, making it more noticeable does seem pretty 'super.'

I had considered the mechanical drawbacks of an after-reveal Amoeba. Normally I'm not one to get behind the idea to make a power "better but less interesting". If we were talking an alien's actual power, I'd never want to go down that route. I suppose I was thinking that completely turning Amoeba's power on its head and going from high-risk to very little risk would make it feel definitively 'super' and worth stopping. That's fine, though. I prefer engaging to efficient. If wobbly allies really do make a difference, I can get behind the original Super Flare.

Phil Fleischmann wrote:
I believe that's 165.

Now I understand. All this time I've been thinking the odd one out was Engineer, but then I noted its presence in Cosmic Dominion. Turns out it was the Demon all along. That explains why I never recorded it in my Cosmic Logbook.

Phil Fleischmann wrote:
And then there's The Warp. You may have a bit of reading to do. Enjoy!


I do use the Warp as a reference tool for some of the resources I can't find elsewhere, but for the moment I'm focusing on the aliens in the current game. That way I have a 'known' universe I can use as an anchor when comparing powers against each other. Getting overwhelmed by every alien that could potentially exist is only going to teach me a lesson in showing more restraint.

The Warp wrote:
I believe that flares are the best thing that was added to the game (the reward deck being second best!). I love flares for several reasons:
1) They give new incentive to play a negotiate, because you may want to try and get a flare out of an opponent's hand, either because it's too powerful for them to keep, or because it will give you an edge you want or need.
2) It's extremely clever to be able to have a card with an artifact/power-effect that doesn't just get used once and discarded. The threat of being able to play it again and again is a great deterrent, negotiating tool, deal component, etc.
3) You have a wide range of effects that could be in a game, but don't know all of the ones that are there. And some effects you DO know are there... Parasite is in the game? That means that insidious Parasite wild effect is in the game too.


My original problem with the inclusion of Wild Flares was that they made powers feel less unique. Powers are something that you, and only you have (barring power-stealing effects), and wild flares allow someone to pop in with a poor-man's version of your power and make you feel just a little less special. I think I've rationalized the idea with the conclusion that ultimately the power you get from the flare doesn't add up to the genuine article, and thematically I appreciate the idea of harnessing an alien's essence into an abstract container of energy (though I am still wary of wild flares that seem better than the actual power.) And Super Flares act as an uncommon occurrence that makes an alien that much more dangerous, which I also really appreciate, provided the increase in power is fitting enough for the rarity of the event.

Plus, we can always use more incentive to throw encounters with N cards.
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Just a Bill
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Well, you were right and I should have listened but I didn't and now here we are. So stop saying 'I told you so' and pass the calamine lotion.
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Others have given some great reasons why reusable flares are such an integral part of the game. Related to those is the fact that flares create temporary mini-objectives. When you know somebody has a strong flare that you want, now you have a strong urge to acquire it. Or if you don't especially want it but that player is terrorizing the table with it, then you have a mission to steal or destroy it. And either way, the flareholder is desperate to keep it.

Everyone is eyeing that player's hand with some kind of thought about that flare, and this can make us go down rabbit trails in the game that help wave off any hope of a straight path between here and 5 foreign colonies.

I might have a big attack card that's a very likely winner, but thanks to that flare I want to make a detour and throw a negotiate against you.

But you suspect this, and so you may want to throw N yourself to protect the flare.

And if I suspect that, then I get to choose between a potentially easy win with a low attack vs. a possible deal situation that may allow me to demand your flare — or may just get my ships sent to the warp when I can ill afford it.

Or, maybe I do want to go with that low attack, hoping you'll negotiate and take 4 crappy cards from my hand, diluting your own hand and making it harder for others to steal that flare while I prepare to draw a new hand and come at you again next time.

And all of these interesting dynamics arise because you hold a valuable card whose reusable nature gives it a built-in locator beacon ... one that usually pinpoints the hand but not the card.

It's a beautiful thing.
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Marc Allie
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Wait, WAIT! Flares aren't discarded after use? I have been playing wrong for 20 years...
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Adam Rouse
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I miss Cosmic Encounter Online. I was known as AP there. Played hundreds of games. I still think of that rule set and alien pool (though I usually manage to block out memories of Dork and Brat) when I think of Cosmic. If you're not aware, you can play it on Tabletop Simulator now. It is disappointing in comparison if, like me, you liked the quick, smooth experience of the old game, but it does give you a chance to play with more aliens, flares, rewards, etc.
 
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Roberta Yang
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MagerBlutooth wrote:
(though I am still wary of wild flares that seem better than the actual power.)

I think they've mostly done a good job avoiding that issue. Usually if a wild flare is better than the alien, it's because the alien in question is a really bad one like the Locust that never does anything at all, allowing the wild flare to win by default. The only real counterexample I can think of is the Wild Guerilla, which feels much better than the Guerilla.

djinniman wrote:
Wait, WAIT! Flares aren't discarded after use? I have been playing wrong for 20 years...

Flares were discarded after use in Mayfair's edition. In Eon and FFG they stick around.
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Patrick Davis
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adamxpaul wrote:
I miss Cosmic Encounter Online. I was known as AP there.


I remember you. You were the one who made a top list of the homebrew aliens I posted on the community forum. I think we played a few games at some point.

Moving on to the next alien...

ANTI-MATTER – POWER OF NEGATION
Makes Every Day Opposite Day

Though it’s a really minor gripe in the grand scheme of things, it does kind of bug me that some powers are ‘of’ and some are ‘to’. Feels like that could be reworded to be one or the other. Anyway, here’s another blast from the past, an alien with the simple power to make the lower total win, coupled with the passive benefit of subtracting from its total with its own ships and allies. Best case that can add up to a +8 passive advantage and worst case a +1 (Unless someone’s attacking with zero ships). Since Anti-Matter’s a mandatory power, it’s one of the few aliens that doesn’t benefit at all from having a high-number encounter card unless it’s got a Cosmic Zap handy. It’s also a hard counter to any other mandatory powers that add to totals like Warrior and Human. Of course, I’m of the opinion that hard counters shouldn’t be considered in terms of judging alien design unless they effectively prevent another alien from having a power altogether (And I’m not talking about Plant). As a power, Negation is absolutely usable and noteworthy. If AM’s in the game, other people are going to factor it in to some extent. What I find interesting about it is that nearly all of its strengths are mirror images of its weaknesses. Bad cards are good; good cards are bad. It makes its own bad cards good, but does the same for its opponents (Plus they can still use good cards.) You can zap yourself for an instant win, but if you’re winning normally, you can be zapped for an instant lose. There really is an elegant balance to this power, thrown off only by its passive advantage of subtracting its own ships. I think that’s perfectly fine for making this one a contender.

Negation is pretty much what I’d assign to a power based off the concept of ‘Anti-Matter’, the opposite of existence. I might have gone the route of giving it Void’s power, but negation through ‘reversing’ encounters makes sense too. It’s like firing a laser at someone only for the white space around it to become the new laser. The energy that wasn’t takes precedence. I also love the fact that it’s a mandatory power. Of course you can’t control it. Stable anti-matter doesn’t exist in our universe.

The flares decide to adopt an alternate definition of the term ‘negation’, making them about denial instead of inversion. It’s an interesting case of being creative and clever without sticking to the original theme. If this were a power like Martian or even Aristocrat, something that deals with powers or flares, I’d buy it a lot more. But having the Wild flare doesn’t feel evocative of ‘being’ Anti-Matter, and getting the Super doesn’t feel like Anti-Matter’s power is going up to eleven. It kind of feels like AU Anti-Matter takes the reins instead. It could be so easy to just have a flare that makes the enemy’s ships subtract from their total instead of add. You could even apply the same technique to Anti-Matter’s Super, making it so enemy allies add to their total instead of subtract, giving you all the advantage and discouraging the enemy from inviting allies.

All in all, wonderful power. Certainly one my Federation would feel incomplete without. Flares could use a little tweaking to keep things a little more centralized, but I see nothing else that could really benefit from any modification. I believe this power has negated nearly all of my criticism of it. What a power.

Federation Status: ACCEPTED
 
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Patrick Davis
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BARBARIAN – POWER TO LOOT AND PILLAGE
Makes Opponents Go Berserk


The mighty Barbarian is a thing of beauty. Its design couldn’t be more evocative of its theme. It’s offense-only, meaning it only starts taking things seriously when it goes on the attack. It only procs after victory, raking its hapless victims across the coals after pulling of a successful assault. It takes what it wants and burns the rest to the ground like a true savage, leaving its opponent with nothing. There’s only one small problem: All of these factors work to cripple it when it comes to the actual gameplay. Not only is it offense-only, but it needs to win in order to do anything. A difficult condition on top of a difficult condition with no additional power to help pull it off. With that kind of mountain to climb, the payoff needs to be spectacular to seem worth the effort, but the actual result is just the opposite. It discards the opponent’s hand, taking what they have for yourself. A good turn of events if they have a good hand, but if they don’t, you’ve just freed them of bad cards and let them draw a potentially better one, gaining little to nothing for yourself. It’s not just a mountain climb. Once you get to the top, you have to win the gamble of your opponent having a hand worth stealing. And that’s not even the biggest weakness of this power.

Unlike win-based powers like Cudgel and Void, this power destroys the hand, not ships. Losing to Barbarian means the losing everything in the enemy's arsenal. Unless they’re overflowing with confidence, there’s no reason for them to hold back and use anything less than their best card against you. Your power pushes them into a corner, forcing them into Berserker Rage mode. If it looks like the encounter will go your way, they’ll use up every card they have to prevent it. So if you do manage to win, you’re taking a hand that’s likely just lost its best attack card, any reinforcements it had, flares that get discarded after use, and possibly even a kicker. If it was a good hand before, it’s probably not as good as it once was. Couple all of this information with the fact that it’s offense-only, and you’re looking at a mediocre power that can only be used about five times a game best-case (unless someone’s picking off foreign colonies). There is, of course, the chance that they’ll play an N in an attempt to save some of their cards, guaranteeing you the win, but that can easily result in a situation where you end up breaking even or even losing cards if they had more ships in the encounter. Not to mention you can easily be zapped, allowing all of your hard work to be for naught.

The biggest tragedy about this power is how well it fits its theme. It makes total sense for a Barbarian to only get serious when raiding someone else’s planet. They don’t like getting defensive. They don’t like hiding behind walls. They want to be aggressive! They want to be feared! They want to loot and pillage! One could propose a fix by letting it incorporate its Super flare into its main power, so it could use it as an offensive ally, but that wouldn’t really solve much. It still only gets to use said power about five times max in a game and now makes other players forced to deal with their opponents in Berserker Rage mode, discouraging players from inviting it. Making the power main-player only like Cudgel and Void may be the most viable fix, but I can’t really get behind it fully. Aside from clashing with the theme, having your opponents always in Berserker Rage mode with no power to help you just doesn’t seem any better. In a sense, it would turn you into the damage sponge, since people would be saving and using their best cards on you, which could indirectly benefit everyone else. On the other hand, it does open more situations for people to throw challenges to you in order to get a new hand, but they'd probably be less likely to make such a risky move on offense.

My proposed tweak is a little unusual, but there may just be something there. If Barbarian loses on offense, make it use its power to discard its own hand. This way, whether Barbarian wins or loses, it always gains cards on offense. Even better, it forces itself into its own Berserker state, as it should be to begin with on offense. Have Barbarian go all out, and if its hand isn’t good enough, it gets a new one. I might even go so far as to allow Barbarian a second encounter if it loses the first. That might be a step too far onto Machine’s toes or otherwise too detached from the original power, but I suppose it’s worth considering in terms of ironing this one out.

The Wild flare does feel evocative of Barbarian’s own power, though I feel like it would get more use than the genuine article. It lets you discard compensation and rewards you don’t want, just like Barbarian can do with the hand it pillages. I’ve mentioned my issues with the Super flare, but I do think it works better as a flare. At least that way, you can get the drop on enemies at least once without triggering Berserker Rage. You probably won’t get away with it more than once or twice anyhow before discarding it, so that’s pretty good all things considered. If I were designing a power based around a Barbarian theme, aside from making it brutish and savage, I’d have the word ‘wasteful’ on my mind. The Barbarian wastes cards and throws them away without a thought unless they have value. In short, it pillages the cosmic deck itself, constantly looking for cards it wants to keep. Perhaps I’d make it based around never giving compensation if designing it from the ground up, but I suppose we eventually got that with Warhawk anyhow.

Barbarian’s the first alien on the list that I wouldn’t accept into my Federation as-is, at least as far as my current theory goes. He needs a little something to account for his underlying toothlessness, be it my tweak or someone else’s. That being said, the theme is really solid. They completely nailed it on that regard, which is why I wouldn’t want to give this one a complete overhaul. I'm fine with it being underpowered. I just want it to feel like a power.

Federation Status: WAITLISTED
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Re: Barbarian

Very good analysis; you've articulated my reservations about Barbarian much better than I've ever dared, AND proposed a good fix. I agree that allowing Barbarian to have a second Encounter even if it loses its first treads on Machine's design space, but your overall fix is fine.

But Barbarian as-is is still good enough. As I believe I pointed out in my Grading the Aliens series, Barbarian's ability does allow it to make proposals to main player opponents with weak hands: "throw the challenge and you'll be getting a whole new hand!" That's not bad, and when you consider that most aliens don't typically fight hard on defense, Barbarian has some leverage. This proposal will be even more attractive if Barbarian doesn't invite any allies, and that's risky because Barbarian really does want to win, BUT many opponents in the mid-game are going to be amenable to this offer. And that's where Barbarian really shines, in my experience. I once moderated a Play By Form game here at BGG where Barbarian started the game, very first Encounter. He played a Negotiate; IIRC his frightened opponent played a fairly big Attack card, losing it and then a bunch of cards to Barbarian in Compensation. When the second round began, Barbarian was in a much better position vis-a-vis the other players.

I agree with you that Barbarian is a Zap-magnet. It's an unfortunate effect of his power.

One more thing to keep in mind, thematically speaking: throughout history, it's been the exceptional "barbarians" who've conquered the great empires...
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Barbarian is a perfect example of why you need to play with Flares.
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I like Anti-Matter, it's a great alien. The clause about opposing main player ships feels a bit clunky, but without that clause it would be a total non-power, so it's necessary. That extra bit of clunkiness keeps it from being a truly quintessential alien in my mind -- the game needs a "try to play low" alien, and Anti-Matter and Loser both fill that slot, but neither feels like it quite needs to be the try-to-play-low alien -- but it's still a classic.

Barbarian feels a bit weak as-is. I think it's very hard to design an alien whose only effect begins with the phrase "As the offense, after you win an encounter" without the alien ending up a bit weak. But playing without Flares certainly isn't doing it any favors.
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salty53 wrote:
Barbarian feels a bit weak as-is. I think it's very hard to design an alien whose only effect begins with the phrase "As the offense, after you win an encounter" without the alien ending up a bit weak. But playing without Flares certainly isn't doing it any favors.

Yes. Offense-only powers are a problem because they can only be used on the player's turn. Which makes them weaker the more players there are.

To compensate for this limitation, they have to have a significant effect when they do apply, which can make them very "swingy" - they change the game state in a very dramatic way, or else they do nothing at all. This adds more luck to the game - and in possibly the worse way of all: before the game even starts! If they just happen to go last in turn order in a many-player game, they might not get to use their power at all.

Granted, there are some classic offense-only aliens that are still good, but in general, going forward, new alien designs should try to avoid being offense-only.
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rjburns3 wrote:

Barbarian's ability does allow it to make proposals to main player opponents with weak hands


Phil Fleischmann wrote:
Barbarian is a perfect example of why you need to play with Flares.


Those would definitely be two areas of the game that I've had minimal experience with, but I could see how they could provide a passive benefit to Barbarian's power. Barbarian doesn't strike me as a particularly talkative power for roleplaying purposes, but I could see it making threats. On the other hand, if Barbarian needs flares in the game to be competitive, that's a problem in and of itself. Not only does it have to have a flare while it's on offense, but it needs to be a flare that can help it win the encounter.
 
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Offense Only should be used only when you have a good reason; they should be aliens that could not have been designed with other timing indicators. Leviathan, Machine, Spiff, and Will all fundamentally only work as offense; you could make Spiff work on defense, but it would need to be reflavored and I think the "it gets a colony if I play too high or too low" tension that exists when it's offense is the interesting part. Ace has a clever use of Offense Only to give the other players a natural window in which to stop it. Voyager technically has an Offense Only timing indicator, but it doesn't behave like an Offense Only alien at all.

Mite doesn't have such an excellent reason, but changing its timing to Main Player Only would, like Brute, be too punishing to whoever draws its color from destiny; it would need to be reworked to have a more permissive timing. Its Offense Only status is a necessary evil, which is a big part of what keeps it a "Middle of the Road" or "Waitlisted" power. Brute should probably have had Offense Only for the same reason.

Coordinator has no reason to exist, and its "Dictator but only for your left-hand opponent" effect makes it by far the worst use of Offense Only in the game. Hate is an ugly design in general, and Love, being less an alien power and more a designer high-fiving himself over how it's just like Hate get it do you seeeeee, is even worse.

Nothing about Barbarian indicates to me that it needed to be Offense Only. I think it could have been a Main Player Only power with minimal, if any, other changes. It's not too punishing to draw its color as offense because it still doesn't do anything unless the Offense was going to lose the encounter anyhow, and it doesn't strip the Offense's hand unless the Offense was already unable to continue having encounters.

Defense Only is the only timing indicator more inadvisable to use. It has all the "your power works too little of the time" issue that Offense Only has, and it also runs the risk of being too punishing to whoever draws your destiny color. Squee is a prime offender here and a perfect example of how not to design an alien: clunky, rarely active, punishes a single opponent without doing anything to help the user.
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MagerBlutooth wrote:
if Barbarian needs flares in the game to be competitive, that's a problem in and of itself.

I could understand that conclusion if flares were an optional add-on, but in this edition they are a standard component. So while your criticism might have been apropos in previous editions, I don't think it's reasonable in this one.

Imagine if a group of new players decided to play their first couple of games without artifacts (we have heard of this being done) and then said Vulch's dependence upon them was a problem.


salty53 wrote:
Coordinator has no reason to exist, and its "Dictator but only for your left-hand opponent" effect makes it by far the worst use of Offense Only in the game.
...
Defense Only is the only timing indicator more inadvisable to use. It has all the "your power works too little of the time" issue that Offense Only has, and it also runs the risk of being too punishing to whoever draws your destiny color. Squee is a prime offender here and a perfect example of how not to design an alien: clunky, rarely active, punishes a single opponent without doing anything to help the user.

Sadly this basic lack of common-sense design principles is why a lot of players perceive that particular expansion set as a shoebox full of homebrews. Peter Olotka has said it's a good set for children, and I've come to accept that, so now I just tell myself I'm not in the target audience for it. Although I guess I'd have say maybe it was the first FFG Cosmic set that actually had a target audience; the previous sets all seemed to work for all of the players I've heard from.
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Bill Martinson wrote:
Peter Olotka has said it's a good set for children

Yeah it's probably an okay set for people whose brains have literally not developed enough to notice it's a bad set.

What exactly about the Bulwark and Grumpus makes them more fun for children than an actual good alien would have been? How is the clunky mess that is the Patriot particularly suited to young kids? How was this, the fourth expansion to a reboot of a game from the 1970s that has endured heavily on nostalgia and with no kid-focused marketing, intended to reach its target audience?

There are a couple of ~wacky~ aliens like the Dervish where I could kinda see what he's getting at, but must of them are just bad in a way that isn't particularly interesting even to kids, and claiming they were designed to appeal to kids comes across as a post-hoc way to deflect criticism. (And that's not even getting into the cringeworthy out-of-touch attempts of an old man to be down with the kids. Let's print a 1337speak joke in 2013, that's totally what them kids are all about on their world wide webs.)
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Bill Martinson wrote:
MagerBlutooth wrote:
if Barbarian needs flares in the game to be competitive, that's a problem in and of itself.

I could understand that conclusion if flares were an optional add-on, but in this edition they are a standard component. So while your criticism might have been apropos in previous editions, I don't think it's reasonable in this one.

Imagine if a group of new players decided to play their first couple of games without artifacts (we have heard of this being done) and then said Vulch's dependence upon them was a problem.


Given that flares were added to the base game of the FFG version, I'd say it's fair to think of them in the same vein as artifacts, where playing with them is the 'standard' that you'd follow if you were playing in a tournament. I was just thinking it rather unfortunate that a power unrelated to flares requires flares to hold its own, especially since it needs to draw the right ones and hope the opponent hasn't drawn better ones to even gain the advantage from it. It's kind of like another passive weakness to an already lacking ability. That being said, if Barbarian was designed with flares in mind, it would make sense to factor them in to the analysis.

Now, onto alien #4:

CALCULATOR – POWER TO EQUALIZE
Always Shows Its Work


You know that nerd from elementary school who grew up on anime and children’s television, teaching them that when it comes to fighting, brain always beats brawn? And then they get in a real fight and quickly find out raw power and skill actually do make the biggest difference? Calculator is that nerd. But every so often, when the timing’s right, this little nerd manages to get into that one scuffle where his opponent stands underneath the sandbags. That’s when the trigonometry comes into play, and Calc manages to squeak out a victory by technical knock-out.

Calculator is yet another gamble power, taking a page from Amoeba’s book of techniques. After the cards have been played, it can choose to subtract the higher card by the lower card without getting to see either beforehand. The opponent has to guess if the equalization will take place, and if so, which card it should play to use the ability to their advantage. Because if Calculator plays the higher card, it’ll just end up hurting itself in its confusion. On the other hand, if the opponent’s planning on playing something like a 40 or a 30, they probably don’t have to worry about anything Calculator has to pull. They can just overpower the subtraction through sheer brute strength, unless Calculator actually manages to pull off an extremely risky high card equalizer. Seeing one of those pulled off may just be the epitome of high-risk gambling.

Calculator’s in a similar boat as Amoeba when it comes to strength in combat, only the gamble it offers is less risky for itself and often times less substantial. The only thing at stake is the win of the current encounter, so Calculator could equalize every single time if it wished with no additional risk. However, the fact that the power is optional adds an extra layer of strategy to its use. Players may be more hesitant to play their upper mid cards against you if they don’t have their own combat power to counter yours. Being a power based around the theme of a calculator, making it math-related is a given. If I were designing it, I might have opted to do something like the Wild flare, where you call odds or evens and then subtract from your opponent’s score or vice versa if you call it right or wrong respectively. Of course, this essentially turns your encounter into an almost 50/50 gamble, slightly more strategic than Trickster’s power (and we’ll get to that one later). I think making the power based around your opponent’s card is the better idea, though. Being a math-based power, having unknown variables to solve is pretty thematic. Calculator has one to solve (the enemy card), while its opponent has two (Calculator’s card and whether it will equalize). It gives Calculator the advantage, but only by that single variable. If the opponent correctly predicts you will equalize, you’ll be on even ground.

One thing I struggle to visualize about the theme of Calculator is why it invokes a Loser-style idea of weakening the stronger card. The flavor text says they learned how to turn strength against itself, but for some reason that includes its own strength. It makes the power difficult to imagine beyond the abstract ‘subtracting the high number from the low number’ concept. Perhaps on their jungle home world, the Calculators learned to survive in an environment where literally every creature that attacked them was physically stronger, so their power never had to adjust for a weaker opponent. I wonder if their power creates some kind of negative space that makes the stronger one “all muscle”, allowing them to be outsmarted to an extent. In any case, even if it did make more sense thematically for it to never backfire, there’d be no reason for the power to be optional, and then we’d lose a huge chunk of the power’s strategy. If nothing else, this power needs to require some brain power to use.

The flares evoke the feeling of Calculator as well as they should. The Wild gives you a chance of getting Calculator’s benefit or penalty, only with more randomness involved, as if you found the device Calculator uses to activate its power, but you have no idea how it works. The Super flare lets Calc equalize as an ally, also just like Amoeba. It makes things riskier for both sides, so once this flare comes out, your ally invitations will be entirely up to the type of people you’re playing with. I kind of prefer the idea of a Super flare that buffs the equalizing power to subtract two or three times the smaller number, making it much more likely to win through equalization for whomever pulls it off. It could make someone that much more likely to think you’ll activate it, making them much more likely to play low numbers, even if they have the 40 card. It feels kind of weird that Calculator doesn’t actually get ‘smarter’ when it goes Super. It just becomes a math tutor. And even then, that would be more thematic if Calculator let its ally borrow its power instead of just using it on its own.

It might be clear at this point that I like Calculator about as much as I like Amoeba. It’s a gamble power that only risks its chances of winning a single encounter in the hopes of increasing its chances of doing so, all the while limiting its opponent’s card choices ever so slightly. Perhaps it’s a little too abstract in design, and perhaps the Super flare could use some improvement, but it definitely evokes the feeling of a math nerd bringing a calculator to a gun fight. If nothing else, my Federation could use an accountant.

Federation Status: ACCEPTED
 
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MagerBlutooth wrote:
Phil Fleischmann wrote:
Barbarian is a perfect example of why you need to play with Flares.

On the other hand, if Barbarian needs flares in the game to be competitive, that's a problem in and of itself. Not only does it have to have a flare while it's on offense, but it needs to be a flare that can help it win the encounter.

You missed the point. Barbarian doesn't need a flare to help it win the encounter. The existence of flares in the game makes its victims hand much more valuable to plunder. Sure, your opponent can use up his highest attack card and all his reinforcements, but you can't hide those juicy flares.
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I never cared for Calculator, especially this version of it - the same as the original Eon version IIRC. The Mayfair version subtracted *twice* the lower card from the higher card.

In most cases, subtracting card A from card B is not functionally different from doubling card A. So a 08 vs a 12 can become 08 vs 04, which has the exact same effect as 16 vs 12. Either way, the first card ends up 4 higher than the second card. So effectively, Calculator's power is like adding a x2 Kicker to your card - except that it's far worse, because sometimes it will backfire, and it will essentially add a x2 Kicker to your *opponents* card!

Compare this to the Deuce: The Deuce adds in an additional card - which *never* gets added to your opponent's total, only to yours. You'd rather play two 08's against your opponent's card (for a guaranteed 16 card total), than "equalize" and maybe subtract 08 from your opponent's card, or maybe reduce your 08 by your opponent's 06. Deuce's power benefits you whether you play a high card or a low card, whether your opponent's card is greater than, less than, or equal to your card.

So IMO, Calculator is an unreliable, weaker variant of the Deuce.
 
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Phil Fleischmann wrote:
Compare this to the Deuce: The Deuce adds in an additional card - which *never* gets added to your opponent's total, only to yours. You'd rather play two 08's against your opponent's card (for a guaranteed 16 card total), than "equalize" and maybe subtract 08 from your opponent's card, or maybe reduce your 08 by your opponent's 06. Deuce's power benefits you whether you play a high card or a low card, whether your opponent's card is greater than, less than, or equal to your card.

So IMO, Calculator is an unreliable, weaker variant of the Deuce.

Playing two 08's is the ideal case of Deuce, not the average case. Often your play will be more like a 13 and a 04. Deuce screws up your hand management, doesn't provide nearly as big a bonus as you want it to (especially if your hand isn't full), and doesn't have the soft advantage of encouraging your opponent to play low.

I'm surprised you didn't go for the much more obvious point of comparison when Attack card multiplication is on the table: the Virus.
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