Cosmic Encounter's legacy stretches back decades, yet it's the modern iteration published by Fantasy Flight Games that has our attention today. The pedigree of Fantasy Flight is well upheld in Cosmic Encounter's presentation, featuring chunky, robust game pieces with a good tactile feel. In your box you'll find five star systems, five bags of spaceships, decks of aliens to play as and plenty of cards to mess with your fellow players along the way.
The end goal of Cosmic Encounter for all players is to assert their dominance over the known universe by establishing colonies on foreign planets. You and between two and four opponents will be taking on this task, through a timeless blend of offensive strategy, shrewd negotiation and strategic moxie.
A central galactic map, also serving as the dreaded Warp to which felled spacecraft are banished, has a handy counter showing which players are closest to the goal of five foreign colonies, achieved by force or friendship. Pleasingly, more than one, or even all, players can win Cosmic Encounter at once if the game leads to it.
The gameplay follows a simple flow of events, helpfully referred to and illustrated on every card and element involved therein – everything you need to know in this game can be seen at a glance. You begin by setting up your turn, retrieving a number of spaceships lost to the Warp in prior turns, before drawing a card that denotes your next act. These cards are colour coded, and signify who is to receive your next (wait for it...) Cosmic Encounter.
For example, let's say you're playing as the red star system, and you draw a yellow card. That signifies that this turn's Encounter will be taking place in the yellow star system. You'll then choose a handful of your spaceships – not too many that your star systems back home are under-defended – and plonk them on the deliciously dramatic-looking Hyperspace Gate game boardlet.
A typical turn
The Gate has a wonderfully accusatory pointy end that you'll then swing at the chosen planet in the yellow system, and the Encounter truly begins. The yellow player will place a collection of yellow ships at the defending world, then ask for defence from other players, who are free to contribute starship tokens to aid the beleaguered planet at their discretion. Thereafter, you too have the chance to ask for reinforcements, although be wary that doing so invites your rivals to join you in setting up shop on a foreign world – thus advancing their victory conditions – if it all goes successfully.
With that resolved, you browse your hand of cards for an Attack or Negotiate card. The former features a number that signifies attack power to be added to the number of starships on the Hyperspace Gate – the number on the card, plus the number of attacking spaceship tokens, equals the final attack value against the defending player. You'll want that number as high as possible, unless you're instead choosing the more dicey Negotiate card instead – more on that shortly.
Your opponent chooses an Attack or Negotiate card from their hand to defend the star system with, and both players put their cards face down on the table for a succulently tense moment of simultaneous reveal. At the time of revelation, tot up the number of attacking ships and the Attack card number versus the sum of the defending player's same ships and card, adding reinforcement cards from your hand and being likewise countered by your rival's for added hilarity as you each try and urge your numbers higher.
Biggest number wins – successful offence occupies the planet alongside the defender, while successful defence rebuffs the assault, sends the offending ships to the Warp in the centre of the board, and sometimes gets to claims compensation from the aggressor. The politics and bluffing in this alone shows you why Cosmic Encounter was the template for the Game of Thrones board game spin-off!
Those Negotiate cards we mentioned? Ingenious. If a defender Negotiates versus an attacker, or vice versa, they can claim compensation for their diplomacy being met with violence. Yet if both players choose to Negotiate, they have to do just that – talk over the terms of the aggressor player's settlement on the defending world, replete with a gorgeously enforced one minute rule for such talks to go ahead, lest both involved players get penalised. We can't begin to tell you how many arguments a tight time limit has avoided.
And of course, this is before we get to Wild or Tech cards...
Mischief and miscreants
Even with such fine mechanics in place, with rules that allow you to swap out technical elements for simpler games if needs be, the real stars of Cosmic Encounter are its alien races. Distributed randomly, you've no option of picking a favourite, and must adapt your play-style to each alien per game session, whose names helpfully describe their behaviour.
Each alien also essentially breaks the game in one of many intriguing ways, ranging from the Macron's ability to treat its ships as multiples to the loser's ability to declare a lost battle a victory, or the cover-boy Parasite's ability to latch onto alien attacks against other players uninvited. Each alien race is printed on a large card that's superbly impactful, together with outlandish art and a marker by its image from green through amber to red.
That denotes the complexity of an alien's special skill set, and pleasingly the game recommends that you can stick to green aliens for your first few games as you learn the ropes, before graduating up amber and red species.
The true ingenuity of Cosmic Encounter rests here. Though turns proceed as normal, your randomly selected alien race will have an ability that will interject somewhere along the gameplay flow, either at your discretion or as a mandatory action. This gives you your own personal rule set to play by in conjunction with the main game, which is much more fun than it might first sound.
An anecdote by way of example – your humble reviewer's most memorable game. The shuffling of the alien decks bequeathed him the Tick Tock race, a mechanical species patiently awaiting the end of the universe. The power of this robotic race meant that actions taken in the game gave the Tick Tock points towards their end-goal, that being the cessation of existence – and meaning that they had a unique win condition, alongside winning via standard play.
It's no surprise the Tick Tock were wiped out of the galaxy as a matter of urgency once rival players caught on, yet a more canny player may have been able to misdirect rivals into arguing long enough to have them bickering into oblivion.
A final word on expansions – basically, there are many, but they're not essential to play. Cosmic Encounter is beautifully complex yet accessible alone, yet each expansion offers a new series of quirks, rules (all optional, of course), sometimes a new colour of player and often new peculiar aliens to enjoy.
Special mention goes to Cosmic Storm, a recent-ish expansion proffering planet-protecting space stations and alien species like the duplicitous Swindler and the adorable Squee – the latter planning to overthrow galactic order by being too adorable to attack.
Cosmic Encounter - Final transmission
Cosmic Encounter is a finely honed, ever expanding experience that, even if you don't add it to your collection (and in earnest, you should), should be played and enjoyed at least once in your board gaming lifetime.
Its fusion of bluffing, strategy, wits and hijinks make it a grin-inducer every time, and few board games can match the tense delights of a double-negotiate play on the final round as you and your final foe have one minute to discuss who rules the galaxy.