So most of you have heard is absolutely true. It’s a bona fide classic of designer board games; it made possible many of the design principles that we now take for granted; it inspired Magic: The Gathering. Okay, so two out of three are great.
Many critics also praise Cosmic Encounter to the skies, praise that I think is entirely well-deserved. I love the game and will play it at pretty much any opportunity. What I find strange, though, is that I’ve seen next to no discussion of Cosmic Encounter’s many shortcomings. But surely those that have played it often have seen the same things that I have. Maybe they forget out of fond feelings for the game, or maybe they decide that the warts are relatively small next to Cosmic’s manifest virtues. But the warts are still there, and I think it’s incumbent on everyone–especially those of us that love Cosmic–to discuss them.
Before I proceed any further, though, allow me to say this: whatever else I have ever or will ever say about Fantasy Flight Games, their edition of Cosmic Encounter is a masterwork. Their card design and their editorial choices have been brilliant, and even if the aliens in some expansions have been mediocre for the most part they’ve done an amazing job. Timing issues and rules ambiguities have been kept to a minimum, and while Cosmic will always be a beautiful mess FFG’s take on it is more beautiful and less messy than any previous edition by a light year. You can quibble with some of their details in Cosmic, but you can’t seriously dispute the claim that theirs is the best Cosmic.
…but Zombie still deserves compensation…
Let us be truth-tellers, even about those we love.
1. Many people hate Cosmic Encounter.
I find it staggering that no one acknowledges this when recommending Cosmic to new gamers. I mean, it’s demonstrably true–a substantial proportion of people, even when exposed to Cosmic under ideal conditions, will dislike the game. It’s a chaotic experience with lots of deal-making and rules-parsing, and that’s a pretty specific bag. It’s a testament to Cosmic’s brilliance that it isn’t more of a niche product. I’m hesitant to put numbers to it, but let me put it this way: I can’t remember a game with new players where at least one of them didn’t have serious misgivings about the game and was generally unengaged and/or annoyed. You might be inclined to think that that is just because playing with me is a lousy experience, but my generalization has held in every game I’ve seen where I wasn’t playing.
2. It has rules that are difficult to remember.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a neophyte, a hard-core consim player, a veteran of crunchy Euros, whatever–I’ve seen gamers of all kind get utterly stumped by Cosmic’s rules. I’ve also seen people of all stripes take to it like a fish to water, which makes experienced gamers’ confusion all the more interesting. The distinction between defender rewards and compensation, the timing for alliances (or indeed the timing for about anything), what allies get, when to get new cards, etc.–I’ve seen lots of confusion over lots of legitimately confusing things. I once had to explain to someone totally at ease with heavier Euros what the Regroup phase was five separate times. And this is before powers start interacting with other powers, and flares, and… Sure, the latter stuff is all interesting and part of the game, but a player can’t engage with the fun rules questions unless they first have a solid understanding of the core rules. And Cosmic is a game many people have difficulty grokking on a basic level. Some people are intrigued by these intricacies, but some aren’t, and point #2 helps to explain some of point #1.
3. Some alien combinations are not fun.
For me, a good game of Cosmic is one where everyone got to use their power interestingly at least once. That’s a pretty low bar, but sometimes it’s not met–you can counsel that new players avoid the Offense Only and Defense Only powers, and that helps, but sometimes the power mix is just unfun. For example, Healer is a classic power (heal some ships, draw a card) that becomes rather unfun when Remora (whenever someone gets good stuff, you also get a little bit of good stuff) is in the game. Every time the Healer draws a card, the Remora gets to as well–additionally, the Remora is getting all sorts of other benefits on the side and doesn’t have to heal anyone for the privilege. Sure, there are mild side benefits that the Healer can exploit that the Remora cannot, but let’s be frank here–one of the primary appeals of the Healer is the influx of cards. In my estimation, the Remora power isn’t inherently problematic (the more common design intent is that when other players are drawing, say, three cards, the Remora draws only one), but it seems to just trump the Healer in a lot of respects. It becomes a lot less fun to be the Healer. And that’s not even remotely the worst example! Some powers are pretty much directly invalidated by another merely being in the game. For example, Masochist (win when all your ships are in the warp) can’t win when Healer is in the game. Oh, sure, Masochist can sit on a Cosmic Zap, and try to time it just right, but let’s be honest. Masochist is widely regarded as a pretty bad power, sure, but the point stands. Even if you cull a lot of aliens, unproblematic aliens become very problematic in the wrong configuration. It’s an almost inevitable consequence of Cosmic having so very (very, very) many configurations.
4. Some hands are not fun.
In an average game of Cosmic (yes, I know that sounds silly), you’re only going to get a relatively small number of cards. And sometimes those draws will suck. I don’t mean weak–that’s a different problem–I mean they’ll suck. The last time I played a player drew nothing but middling attack cards. No flares, negotiates, artifacts–you know, the fun stuff. That’s bad enough, but what if that player had been the Pacifist (win when you play a negotiate against an attack)? Cosmic works as a game in no small part because of the hand management, and I wouldn’t ever want to change that. But it is unfortunate that some hands just aren’t very fun to play.
5. The Destiny deck looks stupid.
I adore the Destiny deck so much–it eliminates whining (“She’s winning! Attack her, not me! I’m not winning.”), it allows for powers that manipulate it (oh, the sweet pain of a douchey Dictator), and helps distribute aggression roughly evenly so hopefully no one gets too picked on. But it looks stupid, and I’ve seen more than one gamer write off Cosmic when they heard about the Destiny deck. Okay, maybe this isn’t a shortcoming of Cosmic Encounter after all–but I just wanted to talk about how amazing the Destiny deck is and how it’s underappreciated.
There you have it. Allow me to reiterate–I love Cosmic Encounter. You should try it if you haven’t. But even I would never tell someone they’re wrong for disliking it, and I am in the unfortunate habit of telling people they’re wrong. And if you’re going to recommend it to people, you need to issue at least some mild caveats.