Planet Earth is so last century. Why not build a civilisation on a drifting asteroid, instead? That’s the core of Cosmic Colonies, a 2020 release from Scott Almes. He’s the maestro behind the ‘Tiny Epic’ series, published by Gamelyn Games. He’s made everything from Tiny Epic Zombies to Tiny Epic Dinosaurs. (Click here to read my review of the latter!)
So Cosmic Colonies is like a Tiny Epic game, huh? Tiny Epic… Asteroids? Well, no. This isn’t tiny. The box is ‘Ticket To Ride’ size. It takes up a considerable amount more room on your shelf. Bigger boxes come with bigger expectations. Is it epic, then? There’s only one way to find out. Plug in your oxygen tank and strap on your moon boots. Let’s find out if Cosmic Colonies is prime intergalactic real estate or a waste of space…
Building A Home In The Stars
Cosmic Colonies is a gateway-plus game. It features a blend of hand management, card drafting and polyomino tile placement. There’s a fun twist with the card drafting, which – spoiler-alert! – is my favourite part of the game. Cosmic Colonies plays two to five players, with there also being a solo mode available. The latter player count has grown ever-more popular during the coronavirus pandemic.
Each player begins Cosmic Colonies with their own player mat. It’s an asymmetrical asteroid, comprised of 60 squares. Your asteroid’s not a perfect rectangle; it’s a hodgepodge of a grid. Bits stick out, and the surface consists of four types of terrain. There’s 20x squares of purple mountains, 15x two-tone (grey/orange) quarries, 10x blue ice, and 15x barren terra firma. All types sit scattered across the asteroid. The ultimate aim in Cosmic Colonies is to cover your asteroid with building tiles. The fewer of those terrain squares that remain uncovered, the more points you’ll score.
There’s a main board, which is like a public market for buildings. On it are five types of building silhouettes, which are familiar polyominoes. They each comprise of four squares – an ‘L’, a ‘Z’, a ‘T’, a line, and a 2x2 square. One building tile per slot on the board gets placed at the start of the round. This market board is double-sided for player-count scaling purposes. More buildings are available per round in a 4-5 player game.
There’s also four different resources (like ‘currencies’) to construct said buildings. These are purple Minerals, blue Water, green Organics, and yellow Power. Each player starts with one of each. At the start of each round, you add as many resources of each type as there are players. (So in a 3-player game, there’s three Minerals, three Waters, and so on, sitting in the market.) Last of all, each player gets dealt a hand of four Worker cards (from a deck of 20). Excess cards aren’t used in this game.
We Built This City On Rock And… (No, Just Rock)
There is no ‘start player’. Instead, everyone plays a Worker card in a simultaneous manner. The cards have unique bonus actions on them, ranging from mediocrity to super-powerful. (More about these in detail, later.) They also have a number attributed to them – 1-20. This is a direct correlation to the strength of the bonus on the card. (1 is weak, while 20 is strong.) Whoever plays the lowest number gets to go first. Then the next-lowest card goes second, and so on.
On your turn, you do one of two things. You can either claim one type of resources from the market. (The quantity of how many you claim is on the card you played, ranging 2-5.) Or, you can buy one of the polyomino buildings in the marketplace, placing it onto your asteroid. You need to pay the designated resources. Buildings costs three resources, total – two types of one, one type of another.
Everyone then plays a second card. Again, turn order occurs in an ascending manner. Then comes the twist! Usually, in a card drafting game, you’d pass your remaining hand to the player on your left. (And in turn, receive a hand from the player on your right.) In Cosmic Colonies, it’s the opposite. You keep your hand. Instead, you pass the two cards you played to your neighbour. Theme-wise, these cards are freelance space workers. Once they’ve done their job for you, they float off into orbit (into your neighbour’s hand).
The game lasts eight rounds, and in each round, you play two cards; 16 in total. That doesn’t mean you’ll place 16 tiles, though. You can hold up to nine resources in your Warehouse, so it often becomes a balancing act. Collect resources, build; collect, build. Collecting resources from the market (and why you’d want to) is simple. That’s the means to afford the buildings in the first place. Your tile placement is where you’ll win or lose the game. So let’s look at that…
Time To Kick Some Asteroid
You can place your first building tile anywhere on your asteroid. Like Bärenpark and other tile-laying games, your buildings cannot overhang your grid’s boundaries. Your next building has to sit adjacent to any previous-placed tile. (Diagonals don’t count!) You can rotate the tiles, and they’re double-sided. With that in mind, you’re granted a decent range of flexibility during placement.
Why pick one tile shape over another? (Assuming, that is, you have an abundance of resources and could afford one of your choices?) Remember, you’re trying to place them in such a fashion so they cover up the awkward, spread-out terrain. At the end of the eighth round, you’ll tally up your scores. There’s a handy table on your player mat that shows how many points you’ll earn per terrain square type that remains. Any more than five squares of a terrain type still visible at the end scores you zero. The purple mountainous region is the most valuable. If you can cover it all, that’s 15 points right there. The ice terrain is the least valuable, offering 5 points if none remains.
You’ll also score 15 points if you’ve bought one of each of the five different types of building. (It’s possible to do this twice, so two of each building type for 30 points! Tricky, but not impossible.) Last of all, you’ll score bonus points per two particular building types on your asteroid. These are asymmetrical cards dealt out at the start of the game.
As I mentioned, some cards have traits on them, ranging in usefulness. One card, for example, lets you build that turn but paying one less resource. Another lets you treat Minerals as if they were wild (any resource) for that turn. One lets you place a tile where its edges can overhang the asteroid’s boundary. With some smart timing, your turn could evolve into a cosmic combo!
You’ll play a card, then, with many things in mind. You’ll want to make full use of the action stated on the card so it dovetails with your plan. (Maybe setting up your next turn.) You’ll want to play it with the number on the card in mind. The lower the number, the earlier you’ll be in turn order. Market buildings and resources don’t replenish until the end of the round. If you have your eye on a specific building shape, can you afford to not be the first player? In desperate need of Water so you can construct the L-shaped building next turn? Better play a low-numbered card then, to guarantee it…
The Game Within The Game
Your opponents’ resources are public knowledge. You can see what they have, and what they can afford. Herein lies a wonderful little meta-game; a game-within-the-game. Part of Cosmic Colonies is an exercise in memory. At the end of the round, you pass your two most-recent played cards to your neighbour. Meaning, they now have those cards. After a few rounds, you’ll know a bit about their hand(s). You might know who has the lower (or higher) numbered cards, and what actions sit on said cards. You might guess when they’ll play them. Are their cards lower than yours? Should you wait them out? Are they about to pip you to the post?
This is a wonderful back-and-forth. There’s no ‘hate-drafting’ here. (Hate-drafting is when you play a card so your opponent can’t gain from it. A good example would be in 7 Wonders, where you throw a card away to contribute towards building your wonder.) But that doesn’t occur in Cosmic Colonies. In theory, on your turn, you’re going to play your best two cards. The ones that benefit you the most right now. But then you have to pass them to your rival, so they can reap the same future rewards!
Sure, you could hate-hoard, so they don’t get that card. But that’s cutting your nose to spite your face. Instead, if it proves a super-popular card, who knows? There’s every chance you’ll see it in your hand again, later on in the game! To me, this feels like a wholesome, positive spin on card-drafting.
Variants For Every Astro-Immigrant
The two-player only variant has an inactive dummy (third) player sit in on the action. The dummy doesn’t score, but when it comes to you passing cards, you don’t pass them to your human opponent. Instead, you pass them to the dummy player and take two (earlier) cards from them. On the next turn, you’ll then take the cards your opponent gave to that dummy player. This mimics a one-turn delay in your opponent getting the cards you play and vice versa. The solo mode works similar to this, but with a separate solo deck. (However, the solo bot does take actions on its turn.)
In the advanced variant of the game, you play with a different deck of action cards. These have two actions on them: Day and Night actions. The first card you play in the round triggers the Day action, alone. The second card you play triggers its Night action. The Night actions tend to be much-improved equivalents of the Day action. In short: you’ll wish you could always do the Night action! This variant adds in an extra layer of decisions, without changing too much.
The asteroid Player Mats are double-sided. On the reverse is the advanced variant, with further asymmetrical layouts. The scoring differs; here you earn 1 extra point per barren terrain you leave uncovered. (In the standard game, barren terrain is moot.) This adds deeper considerations for tile placement. The base game is by no means a dull dance (gearing you up for this Advanced variant). Families and casual gamers will get more than enough kicks out of standard Cosmic Colonies.
Fifty Shades Of Grey
Talking of player mats, they’re made of thin strips of flexible, non-tear plastic, with a semi-sheen. I’m confident they’re waterproof (I dared not test this, though!). A handy antidote to drink spillages. But talking, then, of clumsy players – we all know one! – the mat’s surface has zero friction. One nudge and placed tiles could go flying. (You could say the same about any tile-placement game though, without dual-layered boards.) They’re a little on the dark side, lots of moody grey and purple. But then, how bright can you make a desolate asteroid in the void of space?
One way is to fill it with bright buildings! The polyomino tiles are of standard card stock. They’re drop-down views of buildings, and they’re colourful. Technically speaking, these are Habitats, Greenhouses, Atmosphere Generators, Power Plants and Entertainment Centres. Observe the tiles in detail or the background of the market board, and you’ll notice. You’ll now doff your cap to Tristram Rossin’s art. But will you refer to them as said building types while playing? No. They’re ‘the T-shape’ or ‘the purple square’. The theme floats off into the ether, in this regard.
In Space, No One Can Hear You Theme
The resources, though, are stellar. They’re diddy, squishy plastic components. Water are individual, overflowing blue barrels. Minerals are purple, jagged, pure crystals jutting out of rock. Organics green, trimmed, miniature trees, sitting in triangular crates. Power is a yellow solar panel, angled up towards a sun. These could have been meagre cubes… but they’re not. They’re adorable. I’m not suprised: Floodgate Games know how to do components. (Check out Sagrada, and Bosk, for further examples.)
To build a ‘Greenhouse’ (the T-shaped tile), you have to pay two Organics and a Water. That’s a tick in the thematic effort. Problem is, there’s no mention of that T being a greenhouse – not on any card, nor anywhere within the game. It’s labelled as such within the rulebook’s components list. I found it because I looked for it. But is that good enough?
The worker cards are 20 human/robot characters in a cheerful-enough cartoon style. There’s a pleasing array of protagonists of diverse backgrounds, ranging in ethnicity, race and gender. One character, for example, works in a space wheelchair. I applaud this, but again, I can’t sit here and argue the theme being an overwhelming one in Cosmic Colonies. You could substitute any other theme in here and you’d feel no difference.
Scott Almes takes card drafting and flips it on its head. That’s my favourite part of Cosmic Colonies, by a rocket’s length. The tile-placement is a familiar challenge akin to Bärenpark, Patchwork, Arraial, and so on. It’s quick, with games lasting about 30-45 minutes.
There are some gratifying modular features in Cosmic Colonies. I like that some cards aren’t present in some games (player count, depending). That forces you to adapt your strategy to the quota of cards in rotation.
The theme feels like an afterthought; I didn’t even believe I was building a space colony. It felt like I was completing an efficiency puzzle – but an enjoyable one at that. You have to accept that eight rounds is deliberate; it’s not enough time to do everything. This isn’t the first – nor will it be the last – tile-placement game I’ve played that provides this itch. But like I said, Cosmic Colonies is all about that card draft. Or rather, ‘orbit-drafting’, as it states on the box. That’s what makes it shine bright.