The Enduring Legacy of Cosmic Encounter

Poker with Spaceships

image (c) Fantasy Flight Games

Have you ever played Cosmic Encounter? Yes? Kudos to you.

No? What kind of science fiction fan are you? You are missing out on quite the sci-fi experience.

Cosmic Encounter is an Ameritrash board game heavy on theme but with certain elements of a party game and even a few of a Eurogame.

In fact, Cosmic Encounter is the granddaddy of modern board games. The original version came out in 1977. Modern game designers cited it as an influence, notably Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering.

The objective of the game is to be the first player to establish five colonies in a planetary system not your own. Victories can be shared.

In order to win, the player needs to use attack cards, or better yet, negotiation cards. If two players play a negotiation card, they have sixty seconds to reach an agreement. If no deal is done within a time frame, negotiation is canceled.

The game is interactive, asymmetrical, and more importantly, fun. Did I mention the whole point is negotiation?

some of the colorful game aliens. Art by Umberto Mognetti ©Fantasy Flight Games

Back when I listed my top ten board games, I listed Cosmic Encounter at the top. I described it as ‘poker with spaceships’, which is an appropriate description since you use the spaceships as game currency, and bluffing is mandatory in order to win.

Unsurprisingly, it is my favorite game of the forty and counting board games I own. Partly due to its incredible replayability.

Did I also mention the game has incredible art, lore, and components? If you play games with storytelling elements, I must say, the lore behind each alien race is ancillary but still appreciated. It shows the creators cared.

Therefore, we should ask the question, is Cosmic Encounter the best game ever? And how can a game released over forty years ago remain popular?

Let us explore them.

Anarchy in a Box

the original edition of Cosmic Encounter, “the science-fiction game for everyone.” Image:

People who like games with straight rules and order will certainly dislike Cosmic Encounter‘s chaotic rules.

The game does have rules and phases of gameplay that need to play in a particular order. So far, good.

Likewise, the Destiny Deck of cards tells the player who to attack to reduce picking on the weakest player. Again, no problem.

However, if the gameplay was only playing poker with plastic spaceships, it will be regarded as a novelty from the 1970s and be forgotten instead of being the ever-popular, pop-cultural icon it has become.

As a matter of fact, it is the kind of game you will remember and talk about years after.

Why is that? Simply, this game is basically anarchy in a box.

The base game comes with fifty aliens, each with one different power which allows them to break one game rule. More with the expansions. Better yet, it is up to the player to decide when to reveal their alien.

Every single rule of the game can be broken. How cool is that? Or how much mayhem is that?

The aliens make the game. (c) Fantasy Flight Games

For example, the Loser wins by losing. The Filch steals other players discarded cards.

The Philanthropist gives away one card to either player in an encounter. The Calculator reduced the higher attack card by the value of the lower one.

The Mirror reverses the digits of attack cards. The Machine can extend its turn. The Zombie never loses ships to the warp.

Those are a few examples, and yes, some aliens are overpowered. How you and your opponents deal with it is up to you.

Although the game is for three players and up, it shines with a higher count. For me, a six-player is the magic number but there is also a team variant with eight players.

Once you add bluffing, backstabbing, and double-dealing, the game becomes truly lawless. No wonder some people find it too mean. Indeed, it can be mean; and yet, it can also be lots of fun.

Of course, the level of fun relies heavily on player interaction.

Play it with the right group, you are going to want to play more rounds, laugh, and have a good time. Like most party games, play with the wrong crowd… It falls flat.

Why Cosmic Encounter is the Best?

I think green won this one. Photo of one of my games.

Modern board games are incredibly fun and engrossing. What is about Cosmic Encounter which makes it “the best” in my eyes? Despite its inherent science fiction/space opera theme.

As stated earlier, I will venture it combines elements from the three main branches of modern games.

  • For example, like Ameritrash, it has miniatures (those spaceships), it is heavy on theme, and has that “take that” element of gameplay.
  • Although hardly a Eurogame, it shares with them the emphasis on trading, cooperation (or alliances), and negotiation, as well as the psychological strategy of trying to read your opponent.
  • Like a good party game, the social interaction and hidden character/information gameplay. Also, the average game lasts about forty-five minutes to an hour which is enough to play several games in one evening.

No, Cosmic Encounter is hardly perfect.

Cosmic Encounter box art. ©Fantasy Flight Games

Any game can fall prey to kingmakers and ‘everyone attacks the leader’ tactics. Also, a bad starting hand can be a pain. Nonetheless, finding creative solutions to those situations can be satisfying.

Certainly, what elevates Cosmic Encounter is its emergent gameplay.

When you have x amount of players with an equal amount of spaceships, cards, and rule-breaking aliens anything can (and does) happen.

Not two games of Cosmic Encounter are the same. It is this variety and versatility which makes Cosmic Encounter special.

Whereas some games you can play a few times or dozens of times before you get bored, you can play Cosmic Encounter for years without it getting dull.

Cosmic Encounter 42nd anniversary edition ©Fantasy Flight Games

But do not take my word. Visit your local gaming store, play it, and buy a copy. Or order directly from Fantasy Flight Games. Their 42nd-anniversary edition was recently released.

Play Cosmic Encounter. Colonize the galaxy! You would not be disappointed.

Reader, have you ever played Cosmic Encounter? Are you a fan? What was your experience? Share them with us.


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March 2023