Last night, I managed to play a little Cosmic Encounter with my wife and her parents, and I won, and it was delightful, and it got me thinking about game mechanics, and I guess I’m going to talk about them. So that’s where we find ourselves… hello there. Let’s stop by page nine of the rule book, shall we?
Cosmic Encounter is a very… let’s call it a mechanistic game. It’s not that there isn’t a theme, (alien colonization and expansion) and it’s not that the game doesn’t make use of the theme, with its multitude of alien powers and abilities, and it’s not that the components don’t reflect that theme beautifully (and indeed, it is a beautiful game), but at its core, it’s about the rules in a way that, say, Arkham Horror isn’t.
If you stripped away the alien powers, for instance, it would be a perfectly suitable abstract game, no less worthwhile than chess to be played and studied and talked about. Five spaces, twenty units, unknown cards, secret decisions, and rules that are, let’s be honest here, thematically arbitrary. Wherefore the destiny deck, which forces you to attack a particular player instead of freely choosing where you aim your forces? Wherefore the rule allowing you to attack a second time if your first one ended in victory? These make sense from a mechanical standpoint, but from the universe’s standpoint it’s all a bit… strange. It doesn’t necessarily follow, and any attempts to incorporate them into the narrative are, well, sort of lame.
Which makes the rules which do make narrative sense all the sweeter, which is why I’m a big fan of the one above. It taps into the confusion of battle, and the threat of unknown forces, and more than anything else, paranoia: if he’s attacking my space, where I have three units, and he has four, then what card is he going to use to try and buff this attack?
He’s got the numbers, but just barely, so will he aim high? Or is he going to trust that, because he’s got the numbers, he’s going to win, so he’ll aim low? OR, alternately, is he assuming that I think he’s going to aim high, so he wants me to use a high card, while he’s just throwing these guys away to get a low card out of his hand? He must attack, after all, and he must use all his encounter cards, so why oh why wouldn’t he want to get rid of that darn 01 attack, which means countering with my 20 attack is so much wasted effort that I could use on my turn to take out someone else’s planet and get some points?
Gosh. It’s a struggle, to be sure. And the rule goes out of its way to re-enforce this moment, the emotional beat of the situation. you see, there’s an extra step here. Place the cards face down, THEN reveal them. On the one hand, this allows certain alien powers to easily slide into the order of turns (the Oracle forces her opponent to put his card down face up, the Sorcerer may switch the cards after they’ve been placed on the table, so on and so forth), and on the other hand it prevents players from jumping the gun and showing their card so quickly that the other player gets to readjust their plans. But on the gripping hand–the hand which would make this an excellent rule even if there were no alien powers–it gives the players an extra second to sit there, reveling in that paranoia, before they can resolve things. Oh yes. It’s an emotional moment for everyone at the table, and it’s the place where the mechanics and the theme really do overlap.
It’s a thing of beauty.