We rate Cosmic Encounter really highly as part of the modern wave of board games, but its history actually stretches back to being first published in 1977. It takes something special to stick around in an increasingly packed industry that long… and Cosmic Encounter is very special indeed.
So special, in fact, that it's top of our list of the best board games. That's because this game of semi-hostile planetary takeovers is as variable as it is frequently silly. At its core is a serviceable but basic game of battling another player, one turn at a time. But every player also has a special alien power that quite intentionally breaks the game's own rules, and you choose these power randomly at the start of each game. This means you can play it over and over, for years and years, and never quite know how things are going to turn out.
But that unpredictability is built on a simple and solid foundation of rules that are really easy to learn and to teach – the combination is a key part of its longevity, and is why it's so much fun to introduce new people to.
It's like Mario Kart: at its heart is a simple and understandable game that you can practice and get better at. But on top of that is a series of special powers that mean that even beginners have a chance of beating pro players to the finish line. That means that throughout a game you'll have any number of instances of wild, satisfying little victories. And it means that it can leave you wailing in frustration when defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory, but it won't stop you immediately demanding another game.
Cosmic Encounter review: Price, and who it's for
Cosmic Encounter is kind of a wargame for people who don't like war, or a strategy game for people who don't want to get think too hard about strategy. It's bright and friendly from the off, with designs that feel more like a cartoon show than they do Risk.
It costs around £45/$60, which is not a small price, but isn't bad value at all when you factor in that it supports up to five players out of the box, has quite a lot of components in total, and has so much replay value and variation. In terms of the hours of fun it'll give you, it's a good buy.
Officially, it plays with 3-5 players, though most experienced players will tell you that four is the sweet spot, and we're inclined to agree. Playing with three can be lots of fun, but the game's creator recommends using a shortened version (detailed in the rulebook) and playing more games – more like a speed version of the game.
Five players is great in that more people means it's even more chaotic, but it also means more time per game. It's always fun, but our experience is that the balance of fun and length is best with four. You should expect around an hour for playing with four players, but a game with five players could
Cosmic Encounter's official age rating is for 14 and over, which we think is playing it a little safe, but it'll depend on the teenager. Learning the basic rules isn't too hard at all, but the way the game works is that these basic rules get disrupted in lots of weird ways, and that's where it gets more complicated. If an adult's involved to help a younger player out with any of the more intricate parts, then younger than 14 should be fine.
We said that the game can get intricate, but one its smartest features is that the alien powers all have a 'difficulty rating' in the corner – green, amber and red. Green are the easiest to understand in the context of the games rules; red are the hardest. So when playing with beginners, you just stick with the 'green' aliens only, since they're the least likely to leave people scratching their heads. And then hardcore players can go in with red aliens.
Cosmic Encounter review: How it plays
As we've mentioned, the core of Cosmic Encounter is fairly simple. Every player has five 'home planets', and you have twenty little spaceships to assign to those planets. The ships are something you'll want to get into players' hands as quickly as possible, because they're just brilliant: they stack together like alien poker chips, and are a lot of fun to fiddle with.
The aim of the game is to be the first to get have five 'colonies' on other people's planets – a colony is simply having one or more of your spaceships on another planet.
You can get a colony either by winning a battle, or by negotiating – these are basically the two things you can do when you have an 'encounter' with another player. On your turn, the first thing you'll do is flip over a 'Destiny' card, and it will tell you another player that you're going to have an encounter with. You are the 'Offense' player, and you'll take the big pointy 'Hyperspace gate' and will aim it at one of their planets – they're the 'Defense'.
You'll then load up to four of your spaceships onto the Hyperspace gate. To win a battle, you'll choose a card from your hand with an attack value on, as will your opponent. Whoever's card, plus their number of ships, is higher is the victor. Easy! If the Offense wins, they get to land their ships on the planet and gain a colony. If the Defense wins, they destroy the Offense's ships, and get to take a reward from a mini menu of useful things.
But… with this game, there's always a 'but'. But you can invite allies to this fight, to bolster your chances of winning – they basically get to add extra ships to yours, pushing up your total slightly. If their side wins, allies get the same rewards as the player whose turn it is.
But there are also cards you can play after the battle looks lost that will boost your total, and anyone in your mini-alliance for that turn can play them, so if everyone on the table gets involved in a battle, the outcome can be massively unpredictable.
I mentioned that there's also the ability to negotiate, though. You can take a nice peaceful approach to your encounters… maybe. You see, to negotiate, you have to have a Negotiate card in your hand, as does your opponent, and you both have to play them instead of attack cards. Then you have a limited time to make some kind of deal – a common choice early in the game is to allow each other to have a colony on your planets, since it's mutually beneficial.
What if one of you plays a Negotiation card and the other plays an attack card? The would-be negotiator automatically loses the fight. But the player who loses in this way gets to take compensation from the attacker, in the form of taking cards right out of their hand. This gives two new interesting options: maybe you say you want to negotiate and then screw over the other person. An easy win, except you lose your precious cards. Or maybe you throw a battle intentionally, because you could do with a hand top-up and you weren't going to win anyway.
You can already see how Cosmic Encounter is a game with a million possible outcomes to any turn, and it's a game where the more people talk the better – convincing people to ally with you, encouraging someone to negotiate (or persuading them not to)… it can be a social game as much as a battling game.
But we haven't even talked about the alien powers yet. The game we've talked about above is interesting, but the alien powers make it cosmically good. Their sole purpose is to break the rules we've described above in some weird way, and the game comes with 50 of them.
Here are some of our favourites:
• The Masochist can win the game the normal way, or they can win if all of their ships have been lost, so will they try to win a battle or throw it? Would you ever dare ally with them? If you like to play mind games, it'll suit you nicely. Or if you're terrible at games.
• The Pacifist weaponises Negotiation cards, so that instead of automatically losing a fight where you reveal one and your opponent attacks, you automatically win. This makes them weirdly terrifying to go up against: 'I have a huge amount of attack power, but what if they… speak to me!?'
• The Zombie's ships can't be defeated in the normal way, simply heading back to they player's planets after losing a fight. Other players will be weakened over the course of the game as fighting takes its toll on their ship totals, but the Zombie numbers just never seem to dwindle…
• Fido is a very good space dog who, when cards are discarded after an encounter, fetches them and offers them to another player. If the player accepts, Fido gets a reward of taking a new card itself, or gaining back a defeated ship. This is great fun for the less confrontational player – you get to be everyone's little buddy!
As a final flourish, the alien powers are not intended to be balanced at all – if you look at one and go 'Hang on, that seems unfairly good!?', it probably is. The game wants the other players to think and talk about how they can keep that one player in check… but, of course, you'll also want to break out and be the ultimate winner. That said, Cosmic Encounter is one of very few games with joint winners. You'll just have to decide if you're willing to share.
Alien powers might also combine in interesting ways. Remember the Masochist who wants to lose ships? Sounds like a total nightmare to play against? Well, another alien power is the Healer, who can choose to save other player's ships from being destroyed, and actually gets bonuses if they do so, really spoiling the Masochist's day. Or there's the Warpish, where the more ships that are destroyed, the more powerful the Warpish becomes in battles, so as the Masochist goes about their business of losing as many ships as possible, the Warpish quietly becomes an unstoppable force. Of course, the Healer would also ruin the Warpish's plans if all three were in the same game, so the Healer goes from being a nice power that's mutually beneficial, to being villain number one for these players to probably join up against…
You can see why we say that Cosmic Encounter has a cosmos' worth of variety to it. And this is still the most basic version of the game – it actually comes with two extra options in the box you can choose to optionally play. The first is a deck of 'Tech' cards, which give you big extra abilities, but take time to develop – it's just another way to add more unpredictability.
The second is 'Flare' cards, which are all paired with a specific alien power. They get mixed into the main deck of cards, and give whoever holds them a mini version of someone else's alien power than they can use… unless you hold your own Flare card, in which case you get to use a special 'Super' version of your power.
Cosmic Encounter review: Verdict
I've said a lot here, but only because Cosmic Encounter gives you so much to talk about, despite it all being built on the reliable foundation of a high number winning a fight against a low number. Every time you play, that basic structure is twisted into a new shape by the combination of alien powers you end up picking – familiar, yet always something new to explore in each game.
I also like that it has an element of flexibility about how you play – you can try to negotiate your way to victory, you can try to play social games and form alliances, you can just scheme and battle on your own. And for people who don't like to mean to others in games, Cosmic Encounter is still something they tend to enjoy, because it kind of forces you into confrontation – you get permission to be mean from the fabric of the game itself.
The unpredictability will mean that it isn't for everyone – you have to accept that things are going to get a bit silly and maybe even unfair, and some people like their games to be more knowable than that.
But this is my favourite game partly because it forces people to take it a little less seriously. I can play it over and over for a whole evening with friends because you don't mind when you lose, and you want to rack straight back up again to see what the next game throws your way.
Cosmic Encounter review: Also consider
Survive: Escape from Atlantis takes the 'permission to be mean' aspect of Cosmic Encounter and puts in a a much simpler game overall, but still with various random elements that mean it's quite replayable. Each player takes control of a series of little people, all of whom are standing on tiles that make up the island of Atlantis. But it's collapsing rapidly, and you all need to get your people to the corners of the board, where it's safe. The twist is that not only do players control their own people, they also control which parts of the island collapse, and the movement of the sea monsters that appear throughout the game and eat other players' people. It's silly, and pretty fast to play.
Small World is kind of like a less zany version of Cosmic Encounter that will appeal to those who like their board games more traditional. The idea is to take over as many spaces on the board as possible with your little civilisation, pushing out other people as you go like a truck squeezing down the middle of a highway. But what your civilisation actually is will change over time – when you've taken one as far as it can go, you'll dump it for a new one! And like Cosmic, there's some randomness here – each civilisation will be an adjective mixed with a noun, such as 'Mounted' plus 'Dwarf' or 'Hill'' plus 'Skeletons'. Both the adjective and the noun have special characteristics, so what your civilisation is good at is kind of unique. But whereas in Cosmic the powers are designed to change the game, here they just make you especially good at certain tactics.
Dune is another game that's been around for decades, like Cosmic Encounter, and has a new up-to-date version. Like Cosmic, it's about players with different powers battling for supremacy, but it's not so unpredictable – you know who everyone else is, and what they can do. The trick is the game is totally asymmetrical: your abilities are so separate from each other, that even though you're playing on the same board with the same rules, it's like you're playing your own game… that other people keep getting in the way of.