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[Review] Cosmic Encounter Online

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  • Tom Vasel
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , May 31, 2004
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      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
      subscription prices.

      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
      begins.

      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
      results calculated.
      - 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
      owners.
      - Force Field: Allows a player to reject allies from joining.
      - Stellar Gas: Cancels compensation
      - Emotion Control: Changes both attack cards to negotiate
      cards.

      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
      newcomers.

      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
      universe!

      Tom Vasel

      "Real men play board games."
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