"[C.E.] has been rejected by every single game publisher on the planet."
March 9, 2016 9:24 AM   Subscribe

The story of Cosmic Encounter is about a flash of creative genius in the early seventies, followed by four decades of struggle to see that vision fully realised. Despite the rapturous critical acclaim Cosmic Encounter has accrued in the 39 years since its first publication, it has not been followed by commercial success. Indeed, the creators of the greatest boardgame in existence have never made a living off it. The making of Cosmic Encounter, the greatest boardgame in the galaxy
posted by Rustic Etruscan (43 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
My favorite. I wish I could justify the money to get the original set.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:25 AM on March 9, 2016

Oh, the hours that my friends and I spent playing that game.. There's a reason for its reputation.

Unfortunately every reissue I've ever played (and there've been a few over the years) makes changes and virtually always for the worse. I can't fathom buying the rights to reprint one of the most acclaimed boardgames ever published and then changing the game, but time and time again that's what the reissues have done. So if you've only played the reissues and not the Eon original and don't get what the fuss is all about -- well, in book you haven't been playing Cosmic Encounter (and you probably never will, because the odds of finding anyone with a complete set in playable condition who is willing to part with it are pretty damn small.)
posted by Nerd of the North at 9:32 AM on March 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

The current edition is pretty nice, though I've only played once, with two newbies, and just one power each, from among the powers they recommended as best for newbies... so I haven't yet enjoyed the sublime crazy chain of reversals and side effects as various elements are enabled or triggered that makes Encounter so great.

(If you're in this thread and a you're a Bay Area-ite, this Berkeley-ite is up for a game.)
posted by Zed at 9:34 AM on March 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

Wasn't there a browser-based version of this game somewhere? Was that unauthorized?
posted by Think_Long at 9:43 AM on March 9, 2016

Such a good game. Everyone gets to do stuff every turn, and victory tends to go to the player who plays best, as opposed to who has the best stuff (a fact which is not always obvious). If it has a downside it's that it can sometimes take too long for modern gamers.
posted by surlyben at 9:47 AM on March 9, 2016

Wasn't there a browser-based version of this game somewhere? Was that unauthorized?

There was! One of the game's designers ran it. As far as I can tell, the underlying business went bust. The website now advertises the Fantasy Flight reprint and the version you can play on Steam using Tabletop Simulator.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:56 AM on March 9, 2016

If it has a downside it's that it can sometimes take too long for modern gamers.

I can scarcely imagine a game too long for modern gamers. Is one of the rules "Wait until the heat death of the universe to draw"?
posted by Etrigan at 9:56 AM on March 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

I have a copy of it from when Mayfair Games had the license, and I had no clue until this article that the people who made the game got no royalties from it.

Great game, but now I'm feeling like I should buy the new version.
posted by nubs at 9:59 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

so much fun. i can't ever get anyone to play, though. the inherent ambiguities in the rules, which creates the actual fun of the game as everyone haggles over how to implement them, is an apparent turn-off. what a shame.
posted by mwhybark at 10:00 AM on March 9, 2016

Blast from the past. What a drag that it didn't make the creators the money they richly deserved, because that was a great game, one that was both chaotic and exciting and also rewarded skill and nerve.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:11 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

victory tends to go to the player who plays best, as opposed to who has the best stuff... If it has a downside it's that it can sometimes take too long for modern gamers.

It's a game of politics rather than a game of mechanics; you certainly need to understand the mechanics in order to properly weigh the politics, but the best way to have the most and best stuff is to bring along other people's stuff by way of alliance. The important 'play' is about reading other people's positions and negotiating with them. It's balanced around the expectation that players will read the board and make informed choices, considering each other player's relative position, rather than being balanced around the positions (or alien powers). It then adds random chance in the form of cards (not dice), though, so even negotiating correctly doesn't guarantee a win, and a badly timed stab can lead to the game dragging on for a while as alliances shuffle around.

Which is both its downside and its strength: a lot of people don't like negotiation games. And, despite it being a negotiation game, it's not purely a negotiation game -- random chance (in form of the cards, not dice) can still screw you over, so people who want a game that's purely political may not like it (Diplomacy, by contrast, is purely deterministic...and also takes much longer to play than C.E.). I'm, personally, in that camp: I like C.E., but what I like about C.E. I like more in other games, so I'm never particularly interested, today, in playing C.E -- that doesn't make it not a good game, mind you. Absent Diplomacy, though, none of those games existed in 1977. Most did not exist in 1987. Not many existed in 1997. Which is why the historical importance of C.E. is so huge: it did a lot of innovative and neat stuff really early. It's easy to overlook that, so kudos to the article's author for driving home that point.
posted by cjelli at 10:11 AM on March 9, 2016 [9 favorites]

I can scarcely imagine a game too long for modern gamers.

You might be surprised, actually. While it is definitely true that modern boardgaming had a lot of help from early adopters who were into games with hefty playtimes (3-5 hours or more), the trend for the last decade or more has been much shorter games. I did a survey a bit back, and broadly speaking a bare majority of people preferred games below 1.5 hours, and a substantial (3/4) majority preferred under 2 hours.

A lot of '80s and '90s games that are considered part of the canon of modern board games are, in fact, way longer than the average player is interested in nowadays.
posted by tocts at 10:11 AM on March 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

Oh yes, the game that starts fights and makes everybody who plays it enemies for life. It ought to called Chance Encounter Years Later With Someone You Played Cosmic Encounter With At A Party Who Starts Cursing You Out On The Sidewalk.
posted by lagomorphius at 10:13 AM on March 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

My favorite game. My pieces are well-worn from many games in the 1980s/90s as are the cards, the gold has flocked off my gold tokens to make them nearly indistinguishable from the silver, and I never did buy the "moons" expansion.

I also own the Fantasy Flight edition, though I have not really played it much. I was thinking with my son turning seven, it may be time to introduce him to Cosmic Encounter.
posted by fings at 10:13 AM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I can scarcely imagine a game too long for modern gamers. Is one of the rules "Wait until the heat death of the universe to draw"?

Practically speaking, I've seen tons of games of face-to-face Diplomacy degenerate into draws or an unofficial win because everyone realizes there's no time to actually finish a game by-the-book (and because the people who have already been knocked out of the game look like they're having a lot of fun doing Other Stuff) -- even four or five hours is enough time to narrow the field to several probable winners, but often not enough to actually decide between them.

Twilight Imperium, at 'a day or two,' is probably the winner for 'longest game that people actually do play,' but I've never witnessed that first-hand.
posted by cjelli at 10:16 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've got a complete copy of the 1st edition of that game sitting in my basement that I picked up at a yard sale years ago for a quarter. Still haven't played it though, as I haven't been able to convince anyone to try it.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:17 AM on March 9, 2016

I have a complete Eon set, all nine expansions, which I haven't played in probably 20 years. I never had the heart to sell it. Anyone around Oakland up for a game?
posted by waytoomuchcoffee at 10:21 AM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I wonder if it would be possible for the creators to pull off a kickstarter for an complete Eon set reissue...
posted by fings at 10:21 AM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is the edition I have. Fifteen bucks seems reasonable.

Here's a completist version history. The newfangled ones with little toys look fun.
posted by mwhybark at 10:25 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

And oh yeah, when I read "Player of Games" i always wonder, hm, did Banks know Cosmic Encounter?
posted by mwhybark at 10:26 AM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

and lastly, previously.
posted by mwhybark at 10:29 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm on the bay area as well and would love to play. Never played before mind so if you're looking for old salts only I wouldn't be a fit. Someone with a set want to post on IRL?
posted by Carillon at 10:37 AM on March 9, 2016

Somewhere I have a set that I've had for decades, along with expansion packs? Did I imagine those? Stickers to put on the back of player hex boards that alter the gameplay, with new aliens and some new rules? Anyway...

We used to play this all the time, but I haven't even thought about it for ages until just now. I wonder which closet that box is hiding in.
posted by hippybear at 10:55 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm in the Bay Area (Fremont) and have the Fantasy Flight edition with one of the expansions. I used to play a friend's copy of the game a lot when I was down in San Diego and bought my own copy when I moved up here a few years ago, but have never found a group of boardgamers to play with. Would definitely be down to play, but you really need a group of 5 for the game to really shine.

I'm now really curious about this first edition. The Fantasy Flight one is a lot of fun, although some alien species can be really OP.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 10:56 AM on March 9, 2016

Hippybear, you are not imagining Expansion #9 (thanks mwhybark for the complete version list). I had the Oracle box -- my box is now long gone, though I still have the contents -- plus Expansions 1-4 & 6-9.
posted by fings at 11:02 AM on March 9, 2016

That game has been sitting at the top of my Amazon cart this week, but I haven't pulled the trigger only because the BGG entry on it says that it's best with 4+ players. Does it work well with 3? 4+ player games only happen at the eyeballkid house when I can wrangle schedules to get people to come by and play. (and I have a backlog of those)
posted by eyeballkid at 11:04 AM on March 9, 2016

This is a simply beautiful game. We played it a great deal in the late 70s, and I always regretted not picking up a copy. Diplomacy, Awful Green Things From Outer Space, 221B Baker Street, Car Wars, Illuminati, Combots, Nova's Ace of Aces, Lost Worlds, just about anything that came from AH, TSR, VG... so many fun games back then.

It's an excellent strategy game, but the strategy is in understanding your opponents. You had to know how to play them far more than you needed to know how to play the game. Loved the simple mechanics of play, and the way the powers interacted to alter the rules.

Yes, you can play with three. We did it all the time. Better with four or more, but fine with three.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:16 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Cosmic Encounter is directly responsible for my career. I went to my first SF con because Peter Olatka was a friend of my dad, and offered to drag me to this Boskone thing. He was going to Boskone in part to sell Cosmic Encounter. I met my online friend circle at New England SF cons; one of them introduced me to TinyMUD in college; I met San Francisco friends on TinyMUD. Eventually moved out here and found out I could work in tech.

Also it's a great game.
posted by Bryant at 11:22 AM on March 9, 2016 [10 favorites]

I know I had a copy of this in the early 90s. Time to check the closet and see if I still do.
posted by mogget at 11:24 AM on March 9, 2016

I've got a battered copy of the Eon edition sitting around, and the lovely Fantasy Flight edition. I used to play the Eon edition like weekly. The FF edition is great, it really feels like the same game. Except so much prettier.

You definitely need 4+ players. It is a game about shifting alliances. When there's only one person to throw in on either side of a particular combat it's really not that interesting.

Personally I have two win conditions for Cosmic: "actually involved in winning" and "broke the game in an interesting manner". It's just complicated enough, even without all the optional parts (which I usually play without for various reasons), that you can create interesting situations that require a few minutes of rules lawyering to resolve. If I manage to do that, then I feel like I have gotten what I came for, regardless of whether or not the consensus is for or against me coming out on top because of this weird little edge case.

(Oh wait, there's a third win condition: losing in a way that completely works with role-playing whatever crazy alien species you are.)

But then again whenever my boyfriend is with me when it comes out, he will warn everyone that I am an absolutely treacherous bastard in it who is not to be trusted. To which I will protest innocence and then be absolutely fair in my dealings... unless of course I see an opportunity to win that fucks everyone over.
posted by egypturnash at 11:25 AM on March 9, 2016

Does it work well with 3?

Depends on who those three players are and what they want out of the game. It is entirely balanced around the ideas that players will scheme and ally to win, and with three players the politics are very different than with four (there's not much difference between four or more players). I've seen games where two people realize that they can just ally and win (given the board position at the time), which can feel kind of crummy for the third player. It works better with three players if everyone treats the goal as winning by themselves, which is (ironically) one of the things the game aims to avoid, by explicitly calling out alliance wins as of equal weight as solo wins.

It also either suffers or benefits from (depending on your perspective) a perverse incentive to do badly early in order to foment an alliance against the leader, so you can sometimes get weird games where everyone is almost racing to the bottom instead of the top, which isn't true with four players -- if #2 and #3 ally against #1, #1 can often offer some incentives to get #4 on board, say. So it can feel bad to be ahead, and it can feel bad to be behind, and it can leave people feeling like they're not making progress right up to the end of the game. But that's not a criticism unique to Cosmic (Munchkin is another popular game that has this problem, for example), and it's only a problem if it bothers you.

My personal feeling is it that it doesn't work well with three players, no. You really want four or five to see it shine, and if you only have three then you should look elsewhere -- or, more positively, get it for those times you have four players! But I'd stress that for some people a long, protracted three-way power struggle is exactly what theywant in a political board game, so it might work perfectly well for your three players, even if it works badly for my three players.
posted by cjelli at 11:31 AM on March 9, 2016

It works better with three players if everyone treats the goal as winning by themselves

cjelli is correct that it very much depends on the composition of your game group. My particular group would see a two person victory as an admission that they couldn't beat the third person, and consider it a loss.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 1:04 PM on March 9, 2016

They really really need to make this tablet playable, and developed by the same folks who made the Ascension App. That App has greatly increased the longevity of that game in my life, and allowed me to build a much stronger hatred for my European playmates.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 1:25 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to chime in and profess my love for this game too. Since getting into modern board gaming a few years back, I've probably played over 100+ different games and this is quite likely my favorite.

To anyone who is curious, two of my favorite features:
1. People are forced to battle based on a card draw, so conflict-averse people (me) can just sort of roll with it, instead of feeling uncomfortable about attacking someone else.
2. On each turn, everyone at the table is usually entreated to join in on the conflict on one side or the other, so there is no downtime. Sitting around waiting for your turn can be a major buzzkill, especially if you play with people who take a long time thinking about their options.
posted by yobgorgle at 1:43 PM on March 9, 2016

Ah, Cosmic Encounter. I remember a game where everyone except me won. In fact, the last player deliberately made that move, even inviting players they didn't need into the coalition, just to see the expression on my face. I'm sure there's a German word for being impressed at the elegance with which you got screwed. I was feeling it.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 1:59 PM on March 9, 2016

Cosmic Encounter was my main gaming group's favorite go-to thing in college early-mid 90s. The chains of reversals and flips and interrupts and counter-interrupts going in waves round the table, and the negotiation phase of almost every attack and defense, complete with bluffing and reading people and throwing off peoples' reads after giving them false ones. Some of my favorite negotiation phases were ones where attacker or defender would tactically refuse any help; calmly eyeing the table and saying "I don't want you, and won't have you. You can ally with them if you want to lose, doesn't bother me at all," and winning because of people concluding they didn't want to run the risk was delicious; even moreso when you actually did have a card sequence that did horrible things to every opposing ally and could shrug sadly and tell them "I did warn you" as stack after stack of tokens went into the void.
posted by Drastic at 2:28 PM on March 9, 2016

I had an Eon set back in the day, with a couple of early expansions. It was OK. When Hasbro/Avalon Hill put out their 4 player only, over-produced and hard to physically play due to components, I passed on that one. Had totally missed the Mayfair Simply Cosmic, Cosmic Encounter, More Cosmic Encounter years completely. The new FFG version is cleaned up, has wonderful FFG Art/components, and a bunch of expansion packs to add players, additional aliens, and usually some cool new mechanics.

Worth a purchase.
posted by Windopaene at 3:42 PM on March 9, 2016

Oh man, I remember playing this in high school. It was fun, if weird, and I think we didn't really understand a lot of the subtleties (we were primarily a Shadowrun group, and even that we played pretty loose). I will say that I don't think we ever finished a game. To be fair, I don't remember us ever really finishing a game of Risk either, but the framing away from military conflict I think made it more conceptually ambitious than a bunch of greasy Dew-hounds in a cat piss basement were able to handle.

On the other hand, I'm currently helping a non-profit deal with reforming their bylaws, and part of why I think I'm helpful on this is games like CE giving me an ability to think about how applied rules function in process.
posted by klangklangston at 8:03 PM on March 9, 2016

After playing CE in college I visited home (winter break, I think). Several of my friends from high school had independently found CE at college, too! So we played. In what would obviously be the final conflict, I pointed out the choices that could result in a simultaneous all-player group win! Yay!

They were disgusted with this suggestion, everyone else averring that they'd sooner lose than participate in a... tie.

I am still friends with the people I played CE with in college. That must have been about the last time I saw my high school friends.

(I view CE as a sort of cooperative game... and one of the things we're up against in our cooperation is the baked-in competitive structure. Group wins for the win.)
posted by Zed at 10:42 AM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm in Oakland, and would be totally down for a cosmic encounter mefi meetup. We're so a games night at my place in Wednesday nights, which could easily be repurposed sometime...
posted by kaibutsu at 6:27 PM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

A couple of points from game industry lore:

1. CE is the core text for exceptions-based game design: a game has a really simple set of rules, and then introduces multiple ways to futz with that, with components and cards that add a variety of new rules and twists. It was one of the major inspirations for Magic: the Gathering.

2. Reputedly, the product designer of the Mayfair edition only learned that they were colour-blind after the game came back from the printer. "Some of these colours are really quite similar" "Really? They look fine to me."
posted by Hogshead at 5:59 AM on March 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Well, Oakland is between Berkeley and Fremont, and just across the water from Carillon in San Mateo. I could certainly come up on a Wednesday sometime. We probably should have done this on IRL to really make it happen, though.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 8:07 AM on March 11, 2016

Created a tentative IRL event!
posted by Carillon at 10:18 AM on March 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

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