This is a gaming classic, originally released by Eon GamesAvalon Hill version has vastly improved the components, but is the game the same or better?

Review by: Greg J. Schloesser

Avalon Hill
3 - 4 Players
Designed by:  Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, Bill Norton and Peter Olotka

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This review also appeared in MOVES Magazine #104

Note:  The author is grateful to Kevin Maroney for information relating to the history of the game.  Kevin is an avid gamer and author and is a recognized expert on Cosmic Encounter.

Every now and then a game is released which has such an impact that it has the effect of revolutionizing the market and influences subsequent game designs for decades into the future.  Examples of these abound:

In the traditional game market, few can deny that games such as Monopoly, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit made a tremendous impact and spawned literally hundreds of 'copy-cat' designs which borrowed heavily from the themes and mechanics these titles utilized.  The game-buying public was practically buried by an avalanche of trivia games during much of the 1980's and 1990's … all born due to the unprecedented success of Trivial Pursuit.

Even the niche markets are not without their ground-breaking games.  The war game market has been heavily influenced by such original designs as Tactics II, We the People, Storm over Arnhem and Squad Leader.  These games are viewed as true 'breatk-through' games and have dramatically influenced future designs and trends in the field.

Cosmic Encounter is also one of these 'pioneer' games.  In the early 1970's, designers Jack Kitteridge, Peter Olatka, Bill Norton and Bill Eberle developed the game, but met with no success in getting it published by industry giants.  Convinced that the game was unique and worthy of publication, they formed Eon, a small game company which subsequently released several other games, including Quirks, Darkover, Hoax, Runes and Borderlands

The game developed a small but fanatic following and gained 'cult' status within the hobby market.  Numerous expansions were created for the game, helping make it a wild and chaotic experience.  West End republished the game in 1984, streamlining the game and eliminating many of the expansion features.  Unfortunately, this didn't sit well with most of the game's core following.  To further complicate matters, the new release wasn't completely compatible with the original Eon version.

Mayfair reprinted the game in 1991 and included just about everything from the full Eon set.  They were careful to make most of the components compatible with the original Eon version. The Mayfair basic set included all of the material from the Eon full set, plus nearly a dozen new alien powers and a new type of card (known as Reinforcements).  Mayfair also introduced some substantial rules changes, but CE purists could easily ignore these new rules and play the game with the original rules.  Mayfair published an expansion set (More Cosmic) in 1995, and an introductory version of the game (Simply Cosmic) in 1996, shortly before going bankrupt. 

Several companies were interested in obtaining the rights to re-release the game, but the rumor was that the license fee was simply too expensive.  Old copies of the game began fetching handsome sums on various internet forums.  It was clear a re-release by someone was in order.

The game was out of print for several years before rumors began circulating that Avalon Hill, recently purchased by industry giant Hasbro, would be re-releasing the game.   Sure enough, plans were announced to do just that and the game made its appearance in late 2000.  Without a doubt, it is the most professional and visually appealing version to be released to date, showing clearly what adequate funding can do for a game.

So just what is Cosmic Encounter and why has it proven to be so popular?  Avalon Hill promotes the game as "The Game of Intergalactic Alliances, Negotiation and Colonization".  Former versions included an ambiguous, yet strangely enticing moniker, "The Game that Breaks its own Rules!

Well, it's not the theme which makes the game unique.  Space-themed games are a dime-a-dozen.  A few bear merit, but most have wound up mainstays at garage sales and thrift stores around the nation.  The theme here isn't much different.  Players act the part of intergalactic Guardians attempting to establish colonies on the various planetary systems throughout the galaxies.  The first player to successfully establish five such colonies on planetary systems outside of his own is victorious.  Nothing shockingly new here.

What makes the game so unique, especially for its time, is that players each represent a race of aliens, each possessing its own unique power.  These powers have the effect of  interrupting the normal rules of the game, creating an interesting and exciting gaming experience.  The new version contains twenty different aliens, each with its own special power or ability.   The variety of special powers and abilities are staggering, making for wildly chaotic games.  Although the phrase "no two games play alike" has been vastly overused, it is very applicable here.

The board, as such, is also unique.  The center 'Warp', which is a round design with saw-tooth apertures, looks nearly identical to a band saw blade.   The four planetary systems, each containing five planets, fit snugly into these apertures with ample room to spare.  It was immediately apparent that the game leaves easy room for an expansion.  Sure enough, Avalon Hill has announced that a 5 - 6 player expansion is planned for late 2001.

Players begin the game by selecting an alien to represent.  This can be selected by the players, or chosen at random.  The rulebook provides a chart giving recommended aliens depending upon the experience level of the players involved in the game.  This is a nice touch and should help beginners ease into the game at a less mind-boggling pace.

Each player begins with four ships on each of his five home planets.  As mentioned, the ultimate objective is to establish bases on five planets outside of your home planetary system.  The first player to accomplish this is victorious.

The mechanics of the game are actually quite simple.  On your turn, you must initiate an encounter with an opponent.  However, the choice of which opponent to encounter is not made by the player.  Rather, it is determined by revealing an 'order' disc.  There are twelve of these discs, three in each of the four colors.  The top disc is revealed and the player must initiate an encounter with the player who represents the exposed color.  I, for one, am not a big fan of this method as players are often forced to attack opponents they would rather avoid.  Further, this method makes it difficult to assault the perceived leader, making quick victories not uncommon.  However, I do concede that this mechanism is an essential part of the game.  Without it, the entire face of the game would be altered.

Although the opponent a player must encounter is determined by the order disc, the player can choose the planetary location where the encounter will occur.  He may choose any planet in any system, including his own home system, where the opponent mandated by the order disc has at least one ship.  Having a ship on a planet is known throughout the rules as possessing a "colony".

To begin an encounter, the player moves 1 - 4 of his ships from any of his colonies to the Mothership, a beautifully crafted piece in which the individual player ships fit snugly … and a bit too tightly.   Choosing which planets from which to remove ships for the approaching encounter is a critical decision as it has the effect of weakening the contributing planet.  Thus, that planet is more vulnerable to attack by opponents.  Further, one must exercise extreme caution when removing ships from your home planetary system.  If a player loses control of three of the planets in his home system, he also loses the ability to invoke his special Alien Power.  This can be devastating. 

The Mothership where attacking ships are placed has three 'wings'.  The player initiating the encounter places his ships into the center wing, while the two exterior wings are reserved for his potential allies. 

Allies?  Yes, the player may call upon his fellow players to join him in an attack.  This is where diplomacy, negotiation and deal-making enters the game.  Players can craft any deals they desire as long as they don't specifically violate the rules.  This gives players quite a bit of latitude as the rules leave a fairly wide berth as to what is acceptable or not. 

The main incentive an offensive ally has is the reward of placing any ships he contributes to the encounter onto the newly conquered planet, thereby establishing a colony of his own on that planet.  It is quite possible … indeed, likely … that more than one player will have ships on a particular planet, thereby sharing the colony.  You see, you must have five colonies outside your home planetary system in order to win.  It doesn't matter if these colonies are being shared with other players or not!

Of course, an offensive player must be extremely careful when requesting allies.  By achieving a victory in the encounter, not only is he moving one step closer to the required five planets and victory, but his allies are also achieving the same thing!  So, although allies can help achieve the numbers necessary for victory, the price is often too high.

The downside, of course, is if the attacker loses the encounter.  In this case, all ships involved in the attack are exiled to the Warp.  Only one of these ships are returned to the owner each turn, so it can take quite awhile to retrieve all of one's ships from the Warp.

After a player commits his ships and indicates the planet he will attack, he may then issue the call for allies.  The player specifically states which other players he is requesting to join the attack.  The players DO NOT answer yet, as they must then wait for a possible call for aid from the besieged player.  Following the attacker's plea for allies, the defender may then implore other players to come to his aid. 

There are several reasons why a player may wish to rush to the aid of a besieged player:

· Following a successful defense, the defensive player may return the ships he committed to the defense of the planet to ANY colony he possesses.  Thus, this provides a convenient manner in which to re-distribute his ships amongst his colonies.

· There exists the possibility that if the attacker is successful, he will acquire his fifth colony, thereby winning the game.  Thus, coming to the aid of a defender may be necessary to prevent an opponent from achieving victory.

· If successful, every defender may draw a card from the deck or retrieve a ship from the Warp for EACH ship he committed to the planet's defense.  This is a nifty fashion in which to acquire new cards.

Once the players have had a chance to weigh the alliance offers from both the attacker and defender, they must announce their decision.  If they opt to aid the attacker, they move from 1 - 4 ships from any of their colonies to one of the exterior wings of the Mothership.  If they opt to rush to the aid of the defender, they place 1 - 4 ships from any of their colonies into their carrier (again, a cool miniature spaceship) and move the carrier onto the besieged planet.  Of course, the player could opt to decline both pleas and sit back and observe the ensuing carnage.

Once the battle lines and allies are established, it's time for the actual battle to commence.  Battles are won or lost with the use of Encounter and Artifact cards.   Encounter cards come in two varieties:

· ATTACK CARDS.  These cards carry a value ranging from 4 - 30, with most being in the low to mid-teens.  The value on the card played is added to the number of ships committed to the attack (player plus allies) to determine the overall strength of the attacker or defender.

· NEGOTIATE CARDS.  These cards represent an attempt to forge a deal and avoid bloodshed.  If both players play Negotiate cards, all allies return their ships to any of their colonies and move their carriers back to their home planetary system.  The main players then have one minute in which to reach an agreement.

The deal possibilities are virtually endless.  Players may agree to swap cards, aid each other in future encounters, etc.  Also, they may allow the establishment of one colony on any one planet where they themselves already possess a colony.  Creativity and persuasiveness can be richly rewarded.

The penalty for failure to reach an agreement is severe:  both players lose three ships to the Warp and the attacker's turn ends.

If only one player plays a Negotiate card, that player has surrendered and his allies have been betrayed.  All his ships, as well as those of his allies, are sent to the Warp.  However, the defender does get some spoils from the belligerent attacker.  He may take one card from his hand for each ship he lost to the Warp.  The hapless allies receive nothing!

The actual attack procedure is, again, quite simple.  The attacker and defender each choose one card from their hand and play it face down to the table.  Once both have done so, the cards are revealed.  If both players have played Attack cards, each adds the number on their card to sum of their ships plus their allies' ships.  The player with the highest total is victorious.   The spoils of victory, whether on offense or defense, are outlined above.

If one or both players have played a Negotiate card, the procedures outlined above are followed.

Once an attack has been resolved and the spoils obtained, the attacker, if victorious, may, if he so desires, initiate a second encounter.  If he chooses to do so, the same procedures are followed.  If he declines to do so, his turn ends and play passes to the next player.

The decision to launch a second encounter can be a tough one.  Often, victory is within one's grasp, only having to establish a colony on just one more planet.  However, with fewer cards in one's hand, the odds begin to grow dimmer.  Further, opponents are much more likely to come to the aid of the defender when one player is on the verge of victory.

So how does one acquire these valuable Encounter cards?  Well, it's not easy.  The Encounter cards and Artifact cards are mixed into one deck and each player receives seven cards at random at the beginning of the game.  No cards are drawn to refill your hand until one of several possible situations occur:

· If you are the offensive player and have no Encounter cards (no Attack or Negotiate cards) at the beginning of your turn, you must play or discard any Artifacts, then draw seven new cards and continue your turn.

· If you run out of Encounter cards during your turn as the offensive player and you are required to play a card, your turn ends immediately.  Any ships committed to an attack are returned to any of their colonies and play passes to the next player.

· If you are the defensive player and you must play an Encounter card and have none, you then must play or discard any Artifacts and draw seven new cards.

You must always keep a very careful eye on the Encounter cards remaining in your hand and try to time your battles so that you will be able to draw a new hand of seven cards before a battle begins.  The more cards you can hold in your hand when entering a battle, the greater your flexibility and options.

So just what are these Artifact cards I've mentioned?  These are special cards which allow players to alter the outcome of encounters.  These are usually played prior to or during the course of an encounter and can have a variety of effects.  Here is a brief sampling:

COSMIC ZAP:  Whenever another player is about to utilize their Alien Power, you can play this card to cancel the effect of that power for the remainder of that encounter.

PLAGUE:  Play this card against one opponent.  That player must send three of his ships to the Warp and surrender an Attack, Negotiate and Artifact card to the discard pile.

MOBIUS TUBES:  As an offensive player, you play this prior to beginning an encounter.  It allows all players with at least one colony to retrieve all of their ships from the Warp.

STELLAR GAS:  You may play this card whenever any player is about to claim compensation following an encounter.  That player loses the right to claim compensation.

You get the idea.  There are eight of these Artifacts and they can dramatically alter the outcome of an encounter and change the momentum during the game.

As mentioned earlier, what makes the game so unique is the seemingly infinite ways in which the Alien Powers and Artifact cards can interact and alter the basic flow of the game.  Since we've examined a few of the Artifact Cards, let's take a moment to review just a few of the twenty Alien Powers:

TRADER:  Trades hands with an opponent.

MACRON:  Each ship is worth 4 points.

VULCH:  Collects discarded Artifacts.

FILCH:  Takes opponent's used card.

ANTI-MATTER:  Lowest total in an Encounter wins.

PACIFIST:  Wins with a Negotiate card.

Some of these powers are simply amazing and many seem formidable.  However, with repeated playings, it becomes evident that each has their benefits and weaknesses, especially in how they relate and interact with the other powers.  For the most part, they seem to be well balanced, with no single power far superior to another.   In fact, all but a few of the powers were included in the original Eon CE several decades ago.

The new Avalon Hill version harkens back to the original Eon version.   In addition to most of the Alien Powers, all of the Artifact and Encounter cards are identical to the original.  The rules are based on the Eon rules, not the modified Mayfair rules.  The rules are also written with great clarity and are chock-full of illustrations and examples.  Someone completely unfamiliar with the game should have little or no problem understanding and playing the game after spending only fifteen minutes or so with the rules.

To further aid players, there is a full page of strategy hints at the rear of the rulebook.  So, not only can players new to the game get an idea of some of the tactics and strategies they should be pursuing, but even experienced players can learn a thing or two from these helpful pointers.

The biggest differences between the Eon basic set … and, for that matter, all of the reincarnations which followed … and the new Avalon Hill version is the quality of the components.   The new AH version is filled with an abundance of beautiful injection-molded plastic.  In addition to the attractive Mothership and four carriers, each player possesses twenty ships, which, when stacked, look astonishingly similar to a Christmas tree!  The artwork on the board is average, yet attractive, while the Alien Power plaques contain artwork which is quite stunning.  To add to the atmosphere, these plaques are placed in stands so that the artwork is visible to all players, while the back of each card details the use of the power to the players.  A nice touch.

There are some omissions, however.  Gone are the multi-colored Order tokens which allowed a player to choose which opponent to attack.  These cards gave a player more control over his ultimate plan and often helped speed a game to conclusion.  Some have also lamented the elimination of Flares, which were cards mixed with the Encounter deck. These Flares granted special, temporary powers during the course of the game and added further rule-bending twists and chaos. 

The Reverse Cone has also been banished.  This card would reverse the rewards allies received following an encounter.  Allies of a victorious offensive player would return their ships to their colonies and draw new cards or retrieve ships from the Warp, while allies of a victorious defensive player would receive colonies on the defender's planet.  Apparently, in an effort to make the game more assessable for neophytes, the powers that be on the Hill opted to remove some of these extremities.   I wouldn't be surprised to see some, or all of these features included in future expansions ... IF the game sells well and the new incarnation of the Hill survives.

Although the game says it can accommodate from two to four players, it is truly best played with a full contingent of four.  With less than four, there just aren't as many clever and intriguing intermingling of the various Alien Powers and Artifacts.  Plus, it truly reduces the negotiation and alliance aspects of the game.  So, to truly get the best taste of the game, I'd recommend only playing with four.

When Hasbro gobbled … er, purchased … Avalon Hill nearly two years ago, there was much skepticism, criticism and lamenting amongst gamers.  I was one of the most vocal.  I saw the darker side of such a venerable company as the Hill being absorbed by the maker of such forgetful titles as Gooey Louey, Pokemon Monopoly and Electronic Mystery Mansion.  I figured the Hill was gone forever.

I'll gladly eat some crow.  Although the old Hill is gone, in its place has emerged a company with deep pockets, seemingly willing to give old games a much-needed face lift and produce top-quality, professional games.  The more hard-core war games are now being licensed to other companies, so there is hope that many, if not most, of those beloved titles will have a future. 

Cosmic Encounter is a game which was richly deserving of the new Avalon Hill professional makeover.  This new version may be a bit too much vanilla for the seasoned CE legions, but it is well positioned to introduce many new people to this recognized classic.  Let’s just hope they propertly market and advertise the game.

- Aug 27, 2002