W. Eric Martin
Are you ready to create a solar system? A solar system that includes the board game Cosmogenesis from Yves Tourigny and Ludonova, a game in which you create a solar system?
While I wish this level of meta was included in the game, perhaps with a tiny image of Cosmogenesis being visible on an asteroid, I'll have to wait until an expansion for it to exist. For now, we have only a well-crafted game about crafting solar systems, a game that had others saying, "I thought this was Exoplanets at first glance" and "How does this compare to Planetarium?" Apparently you can depict cosmic dust coalescing into bodies in only so many ways.
In Cosmogenesis, you are the star — literally. You represent the sun in the system-to-be, and you're going to accumulate bodies orbiting around you, deciding to place a gas giant here, add some moons there, and direct a comet into a terrestrial body to form an atmosphere somewhere within your finite habitable zone. You're not the only star on this cosmic broadway, however, so you'll need to take turns drafting what you want and hope those other suns don't eclipse your choices.
In more detail, you start with a board bearing a few orbital rings and 1-4 asteroids depending on where you start in the turn order. At the start of each of the six rounds, you set up the central board with a number of objectives, asteroids, terrestrial objects, gas giants, and "exotic objects" based on the number of players in four regions of the board, then players take turns choosing objects. Once you've chosen something from a region, you're done with the region for that round. What you do with the object depends on what it is:
• Gas giants occupy the closest empty orbital ring to become a planet. Gas giants have no other reason for existence than to be a planet. That's all they live for. It's a simple life, but one for which they're well-suited.
• Terrestrial bodies, which come in four sizes, can be placed as planets (in the closest empty orbital ring), or as moons for existing planets (assuming the moon-to-be is smaller), or as something to be smashed into an existing terrestrial moon or planet in order to increase the size of the smashee. Why would you do this? Because only terrestrial bodies of size 3 or 4 can have an atmosphere, and you'll likely want to create a few of these in order for life to develop beyond the bacterial stage. There's also the issue of...
• Planetary objectives give you goals in life. Nana Nebula always said it was good to have goals, so you'll acquire four such goals over the course of the game. Once you meet the minimum conditions on a planetary objective, you can spend an additional action to celebrate this stage of existence, revealing the objective and obtaining both immediate rewards and points to be tallied at game's end.
• Stellar objectives differ from planetary objectives in that they're always visible and you score points for them at game's end depending on how well you meet the depicted condition, whether it's asteroids as moons, or gas giants with rings, or planets of the largest size, or moons of size 2, or fifteen other things. What's more, if you outshine each other star in this category, then you receive additional points.
Most of the stellar objectives; how well can you interpret them?
• Comets can collide with gas giants to give them rings (which can be good for both types of objectives) or collide with large terrestrial bodies to create an atmosphere.
• Asteroids can be captured as moons of size 1 or collided with existing terrestrial bodies to increase their size or collided with a terrestrial body to place bacteria on it or combined with each other to create a comet or exchanged for more orbital rings should you desire a big family or placed in the asteroid belt for use later. For hunks of featureless rock, they're quite versatile.
• Exotic objects offer a wide range of benefits depending on what's depicted on them, from asteroids to comets to additional actions to the ability to move intelligent life from one world to another. These objects are all double-sided, so the particular bonuses will determined at random wen you lay out the tiles to be drafted at the start of the round.
Each time you draft an object, you do something with that object, then you can choose to use one or more exotic objects that you possess in addition to taking an optional additional action, whether revealing a planetary objective or using an asteroid or comet that you acquired on an earlier turn.
Time to start round two; here are your choices
After each player has chosen four objects, you return unselected celestial objects to the drafting bag, remove unchosen objectives from the game, advance life one step up the evolutionary ladder (from bacteria to jellyfish to fish to lizards to intelligent life, which may or may not coincide with human beings), then prepare for the next round. After six rounds, you advance once more on the evolutionary wheel, then tally your points on ye olde scorepad, which is as much of a pain as it always is, especially since you need to compute three stellar objectives per player, possibly with bonus points for each. Thankfully we have already reached the evolutionary stage of having an opposable thumb, which allows us to note such things instead of having to remember all of them.
Gameplay in Cosmogenesis — which I've played twice on a review copy from Ludonova, once with three players and once with four — is simple, while the game choices are not, mostly due to you needing to time everything in just the right way so that the bodies mesh in the most effective way possible. You might need a second moon of size 2 in order to finish a planetary objective, but only size 1 objects are available, so you could draft one, then ram an asteroid into it, then on your next turn play the objective, which gives you another asteroid and a bonus comet, so maybe you want to draft a gas giant first so that you can use that comet on something, etc.
The game lasts only 24 turns in packages of six rounds, yet with a possible additional action on each turn, not to mention the exotic objects, your choices explode and expand, leaving you unsure of what's best when. On top of this, you have the standard worries of any drafting game, with you wanting A, B and C, but able to take only two of the three and possibly not even that if someone else takes an object first.
The rules are messier and less straightforward than they could have been because they focus on setting over systems. The rules have sections on coalescence for planet creation and on the capturing of moons, for example, instead of something more flowcharty to mirror what's described above. When playing the game, you'll think, "I took a terrestrial body, so tell me what I can do with it." Or "I took a comet; now what are my choices?"
You want the rules to show the paths on which you can travel, not include a section on colliding that features subsections explaining what happens depending on what is being collided into what. Start with the objects, the things that will be handled during play, and tell us what to do with them. Such an approach would also make it easier to reference rules questions during play. Want to double-check something about asteroids? Turn to the "asteroid" section and you'll find everything there.
Along similar lines, the player aids are either too large and unwieldy or too small and of less aid than one might wish. The rulebook contains image charts that show what happens when a terrestrial body collides with something or when an asteroid collides with something, but the player aid detailing your actions is merely a text list that sort of jogs your mind as to what you can do, but not enough to understand how things actually work.
Aside from these quibbles, the gameplay in Cosmogenesis provides just the challenge that a young naked star needs — to surround yourself with those who will never leave you and who will satisfy whatever oddball demands you might find yourself grappling with.
A quartet of quirky space quadrants