Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler



A review by Allen Varney

[This loving review of my favorite game appeared in Gamer magazine #1, Jan/Feb 1992 -- not the Gamer from Tuff Stuff Publications in 1996-98, nor InQuest Gamer from Wizard Entertainment (popular magazine name, right?) -- but rather, the short-lived Gamer from InPrint, Inc. (Los Angeles), edited by Scott Haring]

Cosmic Encounter: Published 1991 by Mayfair Games, Inc. Designed by Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, Bill Norton, and Peter Olotka; revision by Jack A. Barker, David Guon, Sean Rhoades, Richard Sheaves, and Mark Simon; $35.

Do you hear it? That distant chorus of joyful shouts? The reason is simple: Cosmic Encounter is back. And it's back with style!

For years this abstract, intensely social multi-player game has taken pride of place in my library, in the exact center of the Intense Personal Admiration shelf. A hundred times or more I have started in one of its planetary systems and tried to conquer the universe with my unique Alien Power. In all those contests I have never tired of the design's elegance and charm. Cosmic Encounter is, among all games, my favorite. Now, thanks to Mayfair Games, you have a new chance to share the fun.

This game's originality is apparent at a glance, its brilliance clear with the first turn. Each of two to six players (more is better) owns a system of five planets and a force of 20 tokens. By seeking alliances and playing challenge cards, each player tries to win by establishing five bases outside the home system. Play is highly interactive and constantly shifting, somewhat like Risk in flavor but much more lively and less brutal. "Edict" and "Flare" cards produce unusual effects; however, the real magic of the game lies in the Alien Powers.

Each player in Cosmic Encounter is one of 48 alien races, with a unique power that allows him or her to break the rules of the game in one specified way. For example, players must be invited before they can join an alliance -- except for the Parasite, who can jump in even when unwanted. Losing players in a challenge go to the Warp (aieee!) -- except for the Zombie. And so on: The Amoeba, the Anti-Matter, the Clone ... Fungus, Insect, Laser ... Mutant, Pentaform, Sorcerer, Terrorist ... Vacuum, Vampire, Will, Worm -- this menagerie of powers produces billions of different set-ups, each unpredictable.

The history of the game itself has been no more predictable.

A Cosmic History

1972: Four longtime Risk players, Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, Bill Norton, and Peter Olotka, design "The Universe Game." Plastic models represent its six alien powers: early versions of the Virus, Zombie, Insect, Empath, and Mind, plus a version of the Plant (now dead). Each has a unique planetary system; if you conquer a system's "secret planet," the owner loses his or her alien power. Parker Brothers, publisher of Risk, buys the game in 1976, but the company sales force vetoes publication because "science fiction doesn't sell." Other companies are equally apathetic.

1977: Demonstrating the redesigned game, Cosmic Encounter, at science fiction conventions, the designers meet investor Ned Horn, who helps them publish the game themselves as the newly-incorporated Eon Products. The box includes 15 Alien Powers and components for four players. The first run of 10,000 copies costs $27,000, and through inexperience the new company loses money.

1978-1983: Eon makes it into the black by publishing nine expansion sets for CE, adding components for a fifth and sixth player plus 60 more Alien Powers, Flare Cards, Moons, and Lucre. CE becomes an authentic hit, but Eon never pushes its margins high enough to make the company lucrative. (Bill Norton leaves Eon in 1978.)

Eon also publishes Darkover (based on the Marion Zimmer Bradley novels); Quirks ("the game of un-natural selection"); Borderlands, a brilliant game of diplomacy, conquest, and resource management; Hoax, a game for impostors; and Runes, a clever word game wherein players guess secret words based on parts of their letter shapes. The Eon designers create Dune (and, later, two expansion sets) under contract to The Avalon Hill Game Company.

1984: Eon Products grows dormant as the exhausted partners move into software. Their new company, Eon Software, designs such games as Lords of Conquest and Pathwords for the Commodore 64. The Eon Products game line, including CE, eventually goes out of print and is sold to West End Games.

1987: West End produces a perfunctory and overpriced edition of CE that quickly bombs.

1991: Mayfair Games produces its edition of CE.

The New Edition

Eon seldom skimped on product quality, and the Mayfair edition of Cosmic Encounter follows its example -- if anything, going Eon one better. Mayfair's basic CE set includes 48 aliens with accompanying Flare Cards, a generous 94-card deck (with several new Edicts), and stylish new system hexes (backed with the reverse hexes from Eon's ninth expansion set).

Bravos: You see the thought that went into this revision even before you open the box. Remember all those dull cover paintings from previous editions? They conveyed a message of hokiness and sterility absolutely contrary to the game's magic. Mayfair has replaced that tacky artwork with a clean abstract design; if nothing else, at least it doesn't turn off the customer.

More important, the components show the same thought. The cards backs are (note well!) compatible with the original Eon cards, so old-time players can mix and match. The large disks of Eon's "Destiny Pile" made for some nice effects, but Mayfair's replacements, a deck of cards, produce some neater ones. (See the accompanying feature, "More New Stuff.")

The most visible change is a set of icons that represent the steps of a challenge. Mayfair scatters these symbols on the Alien power cards and the Edict and Flare cards, neatly eliminating questions of "what works when?" that sometimes plagued the old game.

I viewed the new edition's rules changes with suspicion at first, but after several games they have won me over. The main change, that any Flare card must now be discarded after use, may provoke longtime fans' scorn. But the design notes shows the new edition's thoughtful approach: This change "boosts the importance of the Alien Powers, because these are the only reusable resource. Thus each player has a more distinct feeling." The notes also cite arguments for game balance.

I, for one, was relieved to see that Mayfair has removed some of the sillier Eon elements, such as the Filch Wild Flare (which said "you may cheat" and listed ways to do so) and the Empath Wild Flare (the one that made you call everyone "sir" or "ma'am" for the rest of the challenge). That other bastion of silliness, the new Moon rules and effects, will also be rather more conventional when Mayfair releases its revised version (see below). Thank you, sir -- er, ma'am -- er, folks!

Quibbles: Cosmic Encounter arouses such loyalty that any new edition must run into objections. Mine are trivial: The new planet hexes are slightly small. The light blue and dark blue token colors are too much alike. The rulebook's humorous asides annoy me. The art on the Alien Power cards is now uniform, but it falls short of the original edition's best work; few of these new aliens look like they'd be fun to play. And the plastic box bottom doesn't hold the pieces.

Yeah, I know: picky, picky.

The objection that really sticks about this new edition is that, packed though it is, there's not enough of it. Everyone will have a favorite power from the original 75 that didn't make the cut for this box's 48. ("The Virus! They left out the Virus, those blasted scoundrels!") They also left out Moons, Lucre, and Kickers, and that will probably bother somebody somewhere. (In a world where some people like Jerry Lewis movies, someone must have liked the Moons.)

But these objections only hold until Mayfair's expansion set appears.

Support: That's right, there's another one, More Cosmic Encounter, due out around the time you're reading this. I quote: "Together with the basic game, it will include everything released by Eon plus about 30% new material.... Tentative plans are to include approximately 54 Aliens and their Flares, revised rules for Lucre, revised Moons and Moon rules, a new edition called Technology, more Edicts and Challenge Cards, and possibly an addition of my own -- Special Destiny Cards."

Who said this, and where? A fellow named Mike Arms, editor of the new Encounter magazine. The hardcore Eon audience remembers the company's short-lived 1983 newsletter supporting its games. Now Arms, a software engineer at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, has resurrected the magazine with Mayfair's approval. Each quarterly issue includes new Alien Powers, rules variants, and other features.

With such support, we may hope that, at long last, CE will really fly. But should you be one of those on board?

Who Should Buy?

Like any abstract game, Cosmic Encounter is not for the fan of Simulation Uber Alles. This game has less to do with space conquest than Monopoly does with real estate. Furthermore, the gamer who has no handy opponents, or even one or two, should not hold high hopes for CE: It's unplayable solitaire and pale with less than four players. Finally, those who prize a careful strategic game, along the lines of chess, may find little charm in the freewheeling randomness of a typical CE game.

But for fans of social games -- of interaction, creativity, diplomacy, and replay value -- Cosmic Encounter is the finest example of the form, without exception. The game is uniquely excellent at giving each player a chance to take the spotlight, yet keeping everyone involved even on other players' turns. Also, players are not driven out of the game before it's over (the signal failing of Risk and its ilk). And you can finish a game in 45 minutes. What more can you ask?

Well -- a lower price. Mayfair charges $35 for its CE box, and the expansion set should be in the same range. You do get a lot for the money, but it's a lot of money! That said, this much seems clear: If you have three or more other gamers to play it with, you will definitely get your money's worth from this game, no matter how cheaply you price your fun.

And should the fans of earlier editions spring for this one? The answer depends mainly on the condition of your old game. If it's in good shape, you don't need the new one, unless you lack the Eon expansion sets incorporated in this edition. (Note, though, that Mayfair's new powers are pretty neat.) On the other hand, do you suffer from shredded and discolored cards, dirty tokens, a split and grimy hyperspace cone? If you have put CE in the closet for these reasons, rejoice! A new day has dawned. Once again, the cosmos stretches before you, ripe for conquest.


The New Powers

Mayfair's new edition of Cosmic Encounter includes nine new powers, some very neat. Here are thumbnail descriptions to whet the appetite of devoted fans:

Cavalry: Plays a challenge card as an ally to help its side.

Chosen: After cards are revealed, can discard its card and use the top card of the deck instead.

Connoisseur: Whenever it gets cards, it picks twice as many and decides which ones to keep.

Mirror: Can call "reverse" before cards are revealed, transposing the digits on both cards, i.e., a 15 becomes a 51, and an (0)8 becomes an 80!

Pentaform: Picks five other powers not in game; uses each according to how many bases it has (uses the first until it gets one base, the second until two bases, etc.).

Phantom: Has "ghost tokens" on its star that add to any challenge it makes.

Subversive: As main player, after challenge cards are revealed, moves one opposing ally's tokens to its side and resolves the challenge from there.

Symbiote: (Yes, it should be "symbiont.") Uses an extra set of 20 tokens not in play, making 40 total.

Vampire: Turns over tokens lost by opponents and uses them as its own, until they are freed by Mobius Tubes or Warp Break.

There are also minor changes to two existing powers. The Aura now makes just the two main players expose their hands. The Will draws a Destiny Card to find whether to use the cone or the reverse cone; it can still attack anyone anywhere, as before.

The More Cosmic Encounter expansion set will include almost 20 more new powers among its 50+ aliens.



Other New Stuff

Edicts: The new deck includes all of those from the Eon expansion sets, plus Space Junk (take the card most recently discarded); Edict Zap (nullify an Edict); and Hand Zap (discard your hand and draw seven new cards).

Flares: These have been extensively revised. As noted in the main review, Flares must now be discarded after use.

Destiny: The Destiny Pile of star disks is now a deck of cards, including reverse-cone cards (viz. the stickers from Eon's ninth expansion set). There are two "wild cards" that let you choose which system you will attack.

Reverse Warp: The Mayfair edition revises some of the reverse system hexes from Eon's ninth expansion. That set's "praw" is now a multi-colored "limbo" fan. Tokens lost in challenges go into limbo, occupying the bands of the fan in sequence; they cannot be retrieved or freed by Edicts. When the Destiny Cards reveal a color, that color's tokens slide into the Warp. Then they can be retrieved normally.


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Copyright ©1992 InPrint, Inc.