[Review] Cosmic Encounter Online
- Cosmic Encounter is one of the all-time greatest board games
ever made. Whether one dislikes the game or not - there's no
denying that it hasn't had, for the past twenty-seven years, a
profound influence on the world of games. And the fact that when I
bring it out it still has a feeling of freshness and pure fun - that
says volumes about the quality of the game. When I was in the
process of procuring a set for myself about two years ago, I saw on
the internet how that an online version of the game was underway.
After a long time (or so it seemed), Cosmic Encounter Online
(www.cosmicencounter.com) opened - one year ago. I initially went
and played out my free month, and then didn't pay much attention for
a while, but have recently started playing again.
I don't usually write reviews of online board games, as I
much prefer to play them face to face. And still, I'd rather play a
game of Cosmic Encounter in person than online. However, that's
not always possible, and I've really enjoyed (almost becoming
addicted) to playing Cosmic Encounter online. The game has some
differences from the board game but plays incredibly smoothly. In
fact, timing and the interaction of different alien powers (two
points of occasional contention of the board game) are eliminated in
the online version. Cosmic Encounter Online is the definitive way
that all online board games should be and is definitely worth the
Each game of Cosmic Encounter Online (CEO) has four players,
and computer "bots" fill up any gaps if players are not wanted or
available. Each player starts with four planets of their color,
with four ships of their color on each one. Each player randomly
starts with an alien power; all of which allow them to break one
rule of game play. Each player also starts with seven "pods"
(cards), which can be attack pods, negotiate pods, or artifact
pods. One player is randomly chosen to go first, and the game
On a player's turn, the first thing they get is one ship
back from the "warp" (killed ships), if they have any there. They
then become the attacker in an encounter (one of their opponents is
chosen randomly); this is the player's target for that turn. The
player picks which planet of that opponent that they are attacking
and decides how many ships they will attack with (maximum four).
They also decide if they want any help attacking, asking either or
both of the other two players if they want to join them. The
defending player can also ask for help in the same manner. If a
player is asked for help, they can decide whether they want to help
or not (sending up to four ships), and who to help (if asked by both
players). The attacking and defending player then each chose an
attack or negotiate pod simultaneously. The pods are revealed, and
- If both players play an attack card (numbers range from -4
to 40), the number of each attack card is added to the sum of the
ships on that side and the side with the higher value wins.
- If one player plays an attack card and the other a negotiate
card, the player playing the negotiate card automatically loses but
can "take compensation" (steal a pod) from the hand of his opponent
for each ship they lose.
- If both players play a negotiate card, they have ninety
seconds to make a deal (exchanging planets, pods, etc.), or they
both lose three ships.
All ships on the losing side go to the "warp", where they remain
unless freed by an artifact pod. If the defender(s) win, all
attacking ships are destroyed, and each ally who helped the defender
gets one pod as reward for each ship they contributed (these ships
are then returned to where they came from). If the attacker(s) win,
all attacking ships are placed on the planet, forming a "colony",
and all defending ships are destroyed. The first player(s) to get
four colonies is the winner! (There can be a joint victory). If a
player wins their first encounter, they get one additional
encounter; otherwise play passes to the next player.
There are a few other rules in the game: Each player cannot
draw new pods (except for compensation and defensive awards) until
they use all attack and negotiate pods they currently have, at which
point they get seven new pods. Also, artifact pods can be played at
certain parts of the game, having different effects:
- Cosmic Zap: Cancels an opponent's alien power, once.
- Mobius Tubes: All ships in the warp are returned to their
- Force Field: Allows a player to reject allies from joining.
- Stellar Gas: Cancels compensation
- Emotion Control: Changes both attack cards to negotiate
By far, the most important part of CEO are the alien powers.
Currently there are twenty-eight aliens in the game: Anti-Matter
(lowest total wins instead of higher), Calculator (subtracts one
card from the other), Clone (can keep his own cards), Empath (can
change opponent's card to negotiate), Filch (can steal opponent's
played cards), Healer (can save destroyed ships to get more pods),
Laser (chooses opponent's pod in an encounter randomly), Loser (can
switch the winner and loser), Machine (can have more than two
encounters per turn), Macron (each ship is worth 4), Mite (can
threaten the opponent), Martian (cancels opponent's power), Mind
(can see other player's hands), Mutant (always has at least seven
pods), Oracle (sees the other player's pod before playing theirs),
Pacifist (wins with a negotiate), Parasite (can always join as an
ally), Philanthropist (can give cards to other players), Sorcerer
(can switch played cards), Trader (can swap hands with opponents),
Tripler (can triple value of certain pods), Vacuum (can take other
ships to warp with it), Virus (multiplies pod by ships instead of
adding), Void (totally destroys opponent's ships), Vulch (takes all
used artifact pods), Warpish (is +1 for every ship in the warp),
Warrior (gets experience points for battles), and Zombie (ships
cannot be destroyed, only relocated). Each player can use their
power at certain points in the game (some powers are automatic).
Some comments on the game...
1.) Interface: The team that designed CEO took a long time to
get the game set up, and it really shows. John Kovalic (famed
artist of Dork Tower) did the artwork, doing an exceptional job.
The entire interface is very crisp and clean, and extremely easy to
use. Players who have played the board game will very easily be
able to figure out what's going on, and for new players there is a
rulebook available on the site with little flash demos of the game
as insets. I've pointed several of my students to the site, and
none of them have had any problems with the interface; and several
of them have English as their second language. The entire site is
easy to navigate, and games can be started in seconds. Each
artifact pod blinks when it can be used, which helps ease play for
2.) Board Game Comparisons: The biggest change from the board
game is that there are only four planets for each player, instead of
five like the game. This threw me off a little at first, but I
realized that it expedited game play, and didn't really change the
dynamics of the game much, aside from hurrying it along. There are
also minor changes to the alien powers, but all of them are
improvements. Other than that, the game is remarkably close to the
first 1977 edition of the Eon game. That shouldn't be too
surprising, really - because Peter Olotka, part of the Future
Pastimes team (who designed Cosmic Encounter), is the current
president of Eon Games - the company behind this. When the
designers (Bill Eberle - another of the original designers - is also
on board) of the original game are doing the online version, you
know that the same care and devotion will be put into it, and it
certainly shows in CEO.
3.) Pricing: There are quite a few options for a player to
choose when playing CEO. They can play for free (but with only 6
different aliens), or choose from several pricing plans. The plans
are quite varied, ranging from $0.99 for 12 hours to $300 for a
lifetime membership. And if one clicks through using another
member's name, they get extra bonuses, as well as the member through
whose name they clicked - encouraging spending a lot of time at the
site. Frankly, the pricing is quite reasonable; and although I
highly doubt many people will fork out the $300, paying $8.50 for a
month is certainly worth it!
4.) Replayability: Even with the free accounts, one can play
the game quite a bit before it gets boring. And with twenty-eight
aliens already (with plenty more promised to come), the member will
doubtless not tire from the game anytime soon. Cosmic Encounter the
board game was always my first choice of my "desert island" games
because of its high replayability, and CEO is no exception.
5.) AI: If I had a choice, I would always play against humans.
As smart as a computer can be, it's just not the same as playing
against humans, dealing with their emotions, their lies, their talk,
etc. However, oftimes, depending on the time of day, "bots" are
necessary. And the bots in CEO are pretty good; I've lost to them
many of times. The only problem I've seen with bots is that if I
play with one human and two "bot" players, the two humans can form
an alliance, and often beat the "bots". However, the artificial
intelligence is pretty good, and I've seen one "bot" beat three
human opponents (very irritating).
6.) Community: Eon Company is working very hard at creating a
very diverse community online with CEO. Peter himself will come
online and play games (I enjoyed one against him where he thrashed
me soundly), and even Richard Garfield (designer of Magic: the
Gathering) has shown up. Other than that, I am amazed at those who
play the game. I've played against die hard board gamers, but also
people who have played very few other games - this being their
introduction to the gaming scene. Forums and a very detailed
ranking system (one I'm ashamed to look at, as my win percentage is
currently only about 35%), help keep the members friendly and close.
7.) Fun Factor: Cosmic Encounter is a fun game, but certainly
not always a fair game. Several people have complained about this
in the past, and have tried to "balance" the game. Peter's reply,
in an email to me, was this, "I take issue with other editions which
tried to `balance' Cosmic or maker Cosmic fair. The perception that
by `tinkering' with the alien powers or other effects, one could
make Cosmic more balanced and thus better were driven by a complete
misunderstanding of the underlying foundation."
In a nutshell:
a.) Fair is dull
b.) Unfair is funny, controversial, exciting when you win by
defying the conventional wisdom, surprising.
c.) Trying to make Cosmic fair to all is a ludicrous
proposition. The entire game is based on the idea that the alien
powers are situational and it's the millions of different alien
combinations that determine the superiority of an alien power.
Warpish is great until Anti Matter shows up. Virus is fearful until
it is kicked off a planet and has to multiply * 0."
I agree with Peter here. The game is a blast, and most people, when
they first play, think that Virus is a killer alien power, until
they meet the Loser. Then they think the Loser rules, until it
encounters the Oracle. The game is really fun in that way.
8.) Future: The gang at CEO has worked really hard at adding
new items. All new items are thoroughly play tested when added, so
very few bugs are found. I have had almost no problems, and I have
(at the time of this writing), played about thirty games. Flares,
more alien powers, and other goodies are promised for the future, so
it looks like CEO will only get better!
9.) Speed: At first the game might throw some people off,
because of the time constraints of the game. Whenever a player has
an option (like picking allies), a time bar slowly runs out. If the
player hasn't decided what to do by the time that the bar finishes,
then an automatic decision is made for the player (often a poor
one.) This keeps the game flowing smoothly, and allows for a game
to be played in 20-30 minutes. The game also pauses somewhat
dramatically when an alien uses their power, allowing people who
have a Cosmic Zap to know that they can use this.
I highly recommend Cosmic Encounter Online. The pricing is
extremely reasonable, and it's a very fun game to play with an
excellent interface. There are many board games online nowadays;
but I play none of them, because I'd much rather play games face to
face. However, I'll make an exception in the case of Cosmic
Encounter, because the designers have done such an incredible job
and because the game is one of my favorites - one that I'm willing
to play anytime, anywhere. And now that I'm part of CEO, I can.
Come play me, I'm "Voudini", and we'll see which of us will rule the
"Real men play board games."