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Subject: Family Focus Reviews: Cosmic Encounter rss

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Ryan Metzler
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Hello all. The purpose of this series will be to provide a review of varying games from a family gaming perspective. No...this series will NOT examine the intricacies of Monopoly or Risk, Scrabble or Yahtzee. Instead we will look at popular BGG games, and how these games work in the context of a typical family (2 parents, a child, perhaps additional relatives).

Fifth on my review list is the variable player power style game, Cosmic Encounter:

Cosmic Encounter was actually my re-introduction, and my families initial introduction, to the world of board game play. We came across this game at a small FLGS in a mall in the Milwaukee, WI area, tried a sample game, and bought it. That led us down the road we are now on, buying, trying, and reviewing board games. However, enough nostalgia. Cosmic Encounters is a variable player power game, meaning that each game may result in a different play style for the individual players. At the beginning of the game each player is given a random choice (via a deal of two cards) of two possible alien powers to use. The player must then chose a power and game play continues. The point of this game is to utilize your power, attack cards, and alliances between players to establish colonies on the "home planets" of your fellow players. Each player has 5 planets, each of which starts with 4 space ships on it. These ships represent your military power on that planet. On each players respective turn, they draw a card from the destiny deck which dictates which player they must attack that turn. The player then places ships in the attack region of the game area, and alliances can be formed between players. Attacks are resolved utilizing a deck of card which contains attack, negotiate, and other special power cards. A successful attack results in the destruction of the defending ships (and allies) and an established colony for the attacking player (and allies), while a successful defense results in the destruction of the attacking ships as well as a reward for allied defenders. Game play continues until one player establishes 5 foreign colonies.

The review of this game as a family game will follow the same guidelines as the rest of my series. Aspects of this game have been broken down in to the following categories:

1) Ease of Play: I must preface that as a family we play this game using only the "basic" rule set. I find this is appropriate for this review, as the game can scale from basic to advanced...providing the ability to play at different levels. After getting through the rules, the play style of this game is pretty easy. At the start of a turn, you draw a card. This card dictates who you must attack. Ships are placed and allies formed. Attack cards are played and resolved. Offensive wins result in colonies, defensive wins result in defensive rewards for allies. A second attack can be taken if the first was successful. If not play passes to the left. There are some other MINOR rules, but for the most part this is the flow of the game. No-one within the family has any trouble remembering the order, the mechanic, or the details of how to take their turn. All-in-all I have to give this game a good review on ease of play. Complications could arise in the medium or advanced games, but the game does scale down for a reason...

2) Clarity of Rules: I had to read over them a few times before I really got it. The rule book is kind of large and clunky and doesn't include a brief player guide or anything of that sort. Once you learn the rules, the game goes well. However, there are some situations where you aren't sure what is or isn't allowed by the game (Can you have more than 8 cards in your hand? How many are max? etc.). Overall, the game is understandable. On the other hand, I would not give this game the distinction of being "user friendly". Cosmic Encounter gets a negative in this point, mainly because I do not think that my parents would be able to decipher the rule book on their own.

3) Visual Appeal: This may well be another area that Cosmic Encounter kind of lacks in. I will grant that the pieces are nice, the planets look decent (all though very similar), and the artwork on the alien cards is interesting. However, I just don't think it has that "jazz" that you get from most of the other games I have reviewed. That said, producing a game which lacks a real "board" may complicate the manner of having a highly visually appealing game. My parents, and girlfriend, like the images on the alien power cards...but that is really the only interesting point in terms of the visual appeal of Cosmic Encounter.

4) Quality of production: I am becoming a big fan of the high production value I see in the majority of the games I buy. This game is no exception. The plastic pieces, although the ARE plastic, are well made, sturdy and colorful. The cardboard pieces are thick and sturdy, and the cards and alien powers sheets are of a good stock. My only gripe, again, is the lack of a decent insert for the game. It has places to hold the cards...and that is it. No-one has any complains, aside from the parents who think that the little space-ships may be a tad too small and fiddly. Perhaps a larger size on these pieces could make them more friendly both for older adults and younger children.

5) Fun Factor: Mixed feelings here. Dad really enjoys the game, while I can tell from mom's demeanor that she really only plays it to humor Dad. I kind of have to agree with mom here to a certain extent. While the alien races provide a good deal of interesting combinations, they at times seem to be either extremely over- or extremely under-powered. This can cause for some quick games in which one player dominates the others due to lucky power deals. This may be compensated for in the medium and advanced rule/power sets, but we wouldn't know this at the current time. To mom and I, this marks a big negative for the game. I will admit that we still enjoy ourselves, but the extent of fun doesn't really approach what we get from other games in our lineup. As far as fun goes, I have to rank Cosmic Encounter relatively low. It just seems that all too often we are doing nothing but going through the motions.

6) Strategy: Again, I think we see a limitation here due to the use of the basic ruleset. However, in a family gaming environment such as ours I doubt this is the furthest we will go. Having played mostly 4 player games of CE, it seems that the strategy is to attack...ask everyone to ally...defend...ask everyone to ally...etc. The choices aren't that deep unless allowed for by your specific alien power. The game itself dictates who you attack, how many ships you may send, when you can or cannot use your power, etc. This works well for the family that likes NO choices. However, we are at least beyond that point. The girlfriend, mom and I all think that the limited choice allowed by the game impedes the ability to develop and follow a strategy aside from the one dictated by your power. Dad...well I think Dad is just lost in his blind love for the game. A negative point here for strategy in Cosmic Encounter. (Again, this may be remedied by the additional rules/powers)

Summary:
Although Cosmic Encounter is what reintroduced me to gaming, and brought my family in to the gaming world, it has quickly fallen off of the radar of the majority of the family. We believe this to be because of its lack of strategy in the base rule set, as well as the some-times repetitive game play required by a bad combination of alien powers. Although the game is well produced, and does offer a small amount of fun, it rarely receives any play time anymore. My recommendation with this game would be to check out the advanced rule/race sets and see if your family can follow along. If so, Cosmic Encounter may provide a fun and strategic variable player role game for your family and friends. Otherwise, I might suggest that you look for a little less predictable game so as to include a greater amount of strategic choices and more interesting game play.

Thank you much for reading my review. Stay tuned to my review geeklist for more reviews oriented at gaming within a family environment. The geeklist can be found at:

http://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/46140

NOTE: I have just entered the gaming community and begun gaming with my family. Reviews posted here are based only on games played in a family setting. This series will continue to offer reviews of games which have been played in this setting, both good and bad. I hope that these reviews may serve the BGG community, and perhaps lead others to games which they too may enjoy in a family setting. Donations are not expected, or required, but are always appreciated.
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Big Head Zach
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Thanks for the well-worded review and fair assessment of the game. I was wondering about a few things, and had some comments regarding your experience, not to denounce your viewpoint per se, but to provide additional perspective on what you felt was lacking in the game.

slaqr wrote:
1) Ease of Play: I must preface that as a family we play this game using only the "basic" rule set. I find this is appropriate for this review, as the game can scale from basic to advanced...providing the ability to play at different levels.


Based on this and previous comments, I am assuming you played the Fantasy Flight edition, with Flares (shuffling 10 in the deck), without Tech, and picking your powers from the Beginner/Green set?

slaqr wrote:
After getting through the rules, the play style of this game is pretty easy. At the start of a turn, you draw a card. This card dictates who you must attack.


Initially, players assume that drawing a color means, "I have to attack this person with the intent of winning." However, the existence of low Attack cards and Negotiate cards can easily change this thought to, "I need to steal cards from this person", or "I should try and negotiate, and trade colonies with this person to catch up", or "I need to negotiate and extort cards/colonies from this person", or even "I'm in no condition to beat this person so I should send as few ships as possible and play lay off my worst Attack card, and perhaps sucker some other players into allying with me so they get hosed."

slaqr wrote:
2) Clarity of Rules: I had to read over them a few times before I really got it. The rule book is kind of large and clunky and doesn't include a brief player guide or anything of that sort. Once you learn the rules, the game goes well. However, there are some situations where you aren't sure what is or isn't allowed by the game (Can you have more than 8 cards in your hand? How many are max? etc.). Overall, the game is understandable. On the other hand, I would not give this game the distinction of being "user friendly". Cosmic Encounter gets a negative in this point, mainly because I do not think that my parents would be able to decipher the rule book on their own.


Not that what I'm about to say should in anyway give FFG a pass on rules clarity, but in comparison to previous editions, the rules given are much cleaner and well-structured. The fact that aliens have highlighted phases in which their powers work, most cards have written text describing their use (also with highlighted phases), should limit most rules questions to "how does this Flare interact with this power / other Flare?", which can be said of any game with a multitude of exceptions/special cases - in Cosmic's defense, no other game handles such squabbles as well as it does.

The hand size question gets asked a lot, and the fact of the matter is - the rulebook never states that there is a hand size; people assume that you only draw to 8 cards when redrawing your hand, that it implies there is a limit. The same goes for colony sizes - just because you start with colonies of 4 ships apiece, does not imply that colonies cannot have more - it's just how the ships are evenly distributed at the start.

In addition to the reference on the back page of the rulebook, you'll find plenty of "quick reference" documents in this BGG entry, which you can print out and use. I would say FFG could have bothered to include some (the aborted Avalon Hill edition did), but it's not a sore point for me as the game was so easy to learn with some gentle prompting.

slaqr wrote:
3) Visual Appeal: This may well be another area that Cosmic Encounter kind of lacks in. I will grant that the pieces are nice, the planets look decent (all though very similar), and the artwork on the alien cards is interesting. However, I just don't think it has that "jazz" that you get from most of the other games I have reviewed. That said, producing a game which lacks a real "board" may complicate the manner of having a highly visually appealing game. My parents, and girlfriend, like the images on the alien power cards...but that is really the only interesting point in terms of the visual appeal of Cosmic Encounter.


Nolo contendere on this point, as it's more a personal taste thing, which I won't dare to debate. Again, in comparison, the FFG version of Cosmic is vastly prettier than previous versions, yet retains (and actually enhances) the functionality of the components. Ships are now plastic figures instead of tiny colored chits, planets are movable objects and not affixed to hexes, and cards have better layouts (if only a tad less durable, due to rising production costs these days). You can now play FFG Cosmic on a small bar table, or any flat surface really, which is something most board games of its complexity can't promise due to large boards or structured tableaus.

Historically, Cosmic has been loved for its functional components and flexibility of gameplay moreso than immersive visuals and theme, which FFG even managed to give a semblance of a backstory. If you need a thick, gooey premise to enjoy your games, I can see why CE might fall short of your expectations.

slaqr wrote:
5) Fun Factor: Mixed feelings here. Dad really enjoys the game, while I can tell from mom's demeanor that she really only plays it to humor Dad. I kind of have to agree with mom here to a certain extent. While the alien races provide a good deal of interesting combinations, they at times seem to be either extremely over- or extremely under-powered. This can cause for some quick games in which one player dominates the others due to lucky power deals. This may be compensated for in the medium and advanced rule/power sets, but we wouldn't know this at the current time. To mom and I, this marks a big negative for the game. I will admit that we still enjoy ourselves, but the extent of fun doesn't really approach what we get from other games in our lineup. As far as fun goes, I have to rank Cosmic Encounter relatively low. It just seems that all too often we are doing nothing but going through the motions.


For the record: Cosmic Encounter is not a self-balancing game. Because of the nature of the unique alien powers, what constitutes strength in one configuration (Virus) is a weakness in another (Anti-Matter). I'll go into this more in the next response.

slaqr wrote:
6) Strategy: Again, I think we see a limitation here due to the use of the basic ruleset. However, in a family gaming environment such as ours I doubt this is the furthest we will go. Having played mostly 4 player games of CE, it seems that the strategy is to attack...ask everyone to ally...defend...ask everyone to ally...etc. The choices aren't that deep unless allowed for by your specific alien power. The game itself dictates who you attack, how many ships you may send, when you can or cannot use your power, etc. This works well for the family that likes NO choices. However, we are at least beyond that point. The girlfriend, mom and I all think that the limited choice allowed by the game impedes the ability to develop and follow a strategy aside from the one dictated by your power. Dad...well I think Dad is just lost in his blind love for the game. A negative point here for strategy in Cosmic Encounter. (Again, this may be remedied by the additional rules/powers)


The basic ruleset (by that, I mean 5 planets and 10 Flares) has plenty of opportunities for strategy - but I think strategy isn't the appropriate word to describe how you do well at Cosmic; tactics is more of what goes on. Because each game potentially has a completely different configuration of powers (2.1 million unique 5-player combinations), the way you play a particular power changes. The game is won by the player who can best adapt to the constantly fluctuating game state. Whenever someone gains a Flare, loses a power, or plays a Zap, it has the potential to change how you go about winning. Similarly, the cards you are dealt determine how you go about acquiring your 5 foreign colonies. The appeal for Cosmic, at least to me, is that there's no alien that's unstoppable, no power that's broken, no card that wins you the game everytime.

slaqr wrote:
Having played mostly 4 player games of CE, it seems that the strategy is to attack...ask everyone to ally...defend...ask everyone to ally...etc. The choices aren't that deep unless allowed for by your specific alien power. The game itself dictates who you attack, how many ships you may send, when you can or cannot use your power, etc.


A very common and understandable newbie perspective. Almost every game I teach usually has new players a bit confounded about the alliance mechanic, and just arbitrarily invite other players (a 5 player game adds a little more diversity in this regard because there's an odd number of allies, potentially). What you learn by doing this is that you're giving other players a free ride to the finish line (offense), or a good amount of hand/ship strength (defense) when you invite...later on you start to realize that it does not help you or your opponent to invite people unless you really need the assistance. For example, you should rarely invite players on offense who are closer to their 5 foreign colonies than you, especially if doing so would allow them to win on their turn in 1 or 2 successful attacks. On the other hand, opponents with fewer foreign colonies with you (offense), or players who have bad hands or small hands full of powerful flares who don't want to get a new hand (defense), will be more than eager to join - what you have to decide is how willing you are to let them catch up in those aspects, and if it's worth the risk going it alone.

"The game determines who you may attack": The Destiny mechanic is an intentional luck factor, meant to discourage direct ganging up on leaders (or worse, someone else out of spite), something that you definitely don't want in a family game. The notion that each player only shows up three times in the deck also adds a memory/counting aspect to the game, so you can get an idea of who may or may not be involved in upcoming encounters.

"The game determines how many ships you may send" - I like to think of the 4-ship limitation as a bet limit in poker, to prevent someone with outrageous board position (chip leader being compared to having the fewest ships in the warp) from muscle-ing his way to an ultimate victory. Ships are chips; putting in just 1 or 2 ultimately may not mean the difference in whether you win or lose the encounter, but controls your losses, AND can telegraph your intentions/confidence to other players. So much can be read/interpreted by the number of ships players launch with, which planet in particular they point the cone at, and how many ships allies commit.

Also, the yellow Amoeba alien breaks this very rule, and can go "all-in", "all-out", or anywhere in between, at his discretion; not sure if you saw that one.

slaqr wrote:
Summary:
Although Cosmic Encounter is what reintroduced me to gaming, and brought my family in to the gaming world, it has quickly fallen off of the radar of the majority of the family. We believe this to be because of its lack of strategy in the base rule set, as well as the some-times repetitive game play required by a bad combination of alien powers. Although the game is well produced, and does offer a small amount of fun, it rarely receives any play time anymore. My recommendation with this game would be to check out the advanced rule/race sets and see if your family can follow along. If so, Cosmic Encounter may provide a fun and strategic variable player role game for your family and friends. Otherwise, I might suggest that you look for a little less predictable game so as to include a greater amount of strategic choices and more interesting game play.


My suggestion is to purposefully not use the powers you find distasteful, boring, or "bad combos", and explore the other powers some more - the game does not demand you play it the same way twice, and in fact discourages this by its very nature. Green powers are green because their effects are straightforward, and I can see how that could lead to boredom if you just used those (this I see with people judging the Avalon Hill version on its own). The game really shines from repetitive play, because you see just how many different possibilities there are, even in the base game. If you approach it from the idea that no card is unbeatable, no strategy without weakness, all plans must be adaptable, your hand dictates how you approach each and every encounter you're involved in, not all encounters are meant to be won (and won in the same fashion), and alliances are never long-term, your opinion of the game might alter slightly. Still, it's good to hear from someone who gives a thorough, well-grammared, and insult-free review, and I welcome your response, whether you choose to post it here or send it privately. Thanks!
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Ryan Metzler
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I know that isn't how it should be done...but it is how a typical family member approaches the idea of allies
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Mark W
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lol...I knew CaptainCosmic would comment on that.

To experienced players of this game, "always invite allies" sounds a lot like, "In basketball always shoot if you have the ball." It might be seem like a good strategy to a naive beginner (no offense), and at least you're trying, but there are far better ways to play.

The simple reason is that when you let other players - the guys you're ultimately trying to beat - ally with you, you're potentially giving them free stuff. If they need the free stuff more than you need their assistance in the combat, you're the one helping them! When you have to estimate your chances of winning and figure in how potential allies will act, a whole world of possibilities opens up. (I was writing a few more paragraphs to explain further, but I'll have to cut it here, for now.)
 
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Ryan Metzler
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My thanks to both of you for your comments. I understand that always allying or offering alliances to everyone is not a great tactic. I was merely explaining the idea that my FAMILY has of the game...they seem to think it is nearly ALWAYS beneficial to ally.
 
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Mark W
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slaqr wrote:
My thanks to both of you for your comments. I understand that always allying or offering alliances to everyone is not a great tactic. I was merely explaining the idea that my FAMILY has of the game...they seem to think it is nearly ALWAYS beneficial to ally.


Which is fair enough in and of itself, but you then say your family needs something deeper, and you give the game a negative point for its lack of strategy. If your family plays chess by refusing to move any pieces but pawns, because that's just the way they play, I don't think you can fairly criticize chess for its lack of depth.
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Ryan Metzler
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NeonPeon wrote:
slaqr wrote:
My thanks to both of you for your comments. I understand that always allying or offering alliances to everyone is not a great tactic. I was merely explaining the idea that my FAMILY has of the game...they seem to think it is nearly ALWAYS beneficial to ally.


Which is fair enough in and of itself, but you then say your family needs something deeper, and you give the game a negative point for its lack of strategy. If your family plays chess by refusing to move any pieces but pawns, because that's just the way they play, I don't think you can fairly criticize chess for its lack of depth.


But I CAN fairly criticize it in the context of my family, which is what this review is based on. I grant that there is more strategy involved than what they utilize, however I also feel that there is a large limitation in some of the phases of the game.
 
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Kevin Garnica
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Why don't you simply try it again with the more advanced rules and THEN see how your family likes it?
 
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Ryan Metzler
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pacman88k wrote:
Why don't you simply try it again with the more advanced rules and THEN see how your family likes it?


I am not averse to this idea. However, this review is based on several plays with the basic rules. I feel that I am justified in the claims I make. As they may not be everyones opinions, people are going to disagree. That is fine, but the above review is we as a family collectively feel the game plays. End of story.
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Kevin Garnica
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Fair enough. I was just wondering...
 
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Ryan Metzler
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I understand. Perhaps I will try it with harder rules with the family and post a modified review in conjunction with this one! Couldn't hurt...
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CaptainCosmic wrote:
No, no, no, no, no. Alliances should not come in the form of blanket invitations. That's not a recipe for success (or fun). And, the more you play, the more you'll find that it's possible to get a lot accomplished in CE with no (or few) allies.


I've only played one game of this so far (but want to do more - I loved it!) and I have to agree with this as well.

The four people who were playing were all generally experienced gamers, though none of us had played CE before and we all figured this out pretty quickly.

In general, it seemed like the first few attacks were "blanket" invitations, but once we got going this slowed down - both because we figured out it's not always good to invite everyone, and also because the changing game situation made certain players more or less desirable as allies, sometimes because of their particular power or playstyle and sometimes because of the number of colonies they already had...
 
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Yeah, then there's Parasite, who makes it something of a moot point.
 
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pacman88k wrote:
Why don't you simply try it again with the more advanced rules and THEN see how your family likes it?


I'm always skeptical of this suggestion, whatever the game. My general experience with games is that there's either a nugget of a game in there that you love, or there isn't. Adding more stuff around that nugget doesn't (or shouldn't) change the basic fun factor involved. I go the exact opposite way: if I don't enjoy the basic game (of whatever game I'm playing), then I'll probably like the advanced game even less.
 
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mar hawkman
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some games tend to get stale if you only use a simplified version of the rules. CE is one of those.
 
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