Cosmic Encounter Online Review
Developer: Future Passtimes
Platforms: PC, Mac
Reviewed on PC
System Requirements: Macromedia Flash
Official Site: cosmicencounter.com
You control the fleets for an alien race, desperately seeking room to expand in your painfully cramped corner of the galaxy. Unfortunately, every conceivable site for colonization is already full, mostly occupied by other species. Through force, cunning and needless whining, gain a foothold on four worlds outside your home system to secure your species' future and your own grip on power.
Cosmic Encounter Online is an elegant implementation of the classic board game Cosmic Encounter. The original board game won countless awards because of its simple rules, combined with seemingly endless variations of play and surprising strategic sophistication. At its heart, each of four players has four worlds. To win, a player must place colonies on four worlds outside of his or her home system (all of which are other players' home worlds). Each alien takes turns attacking other aliens' randomly selected planetary systems. Both attacker and defender can invite the other two players to join the fight, and ultimately the player with the highest total of ships (combined with a number on a token in that player's hand) wins. Players can also play tokens allowing for a negotiation, in which nearly anything goes. What makes the game fascinating is that each player takes control of an alien species with a special power – a power to break a single rule. That power might affect the way you determine the victor in combat, force another race to negotiate, or let you switch tokens.
Since every alien has a different game-bending power, there are effectively thousands of combinations of four alien powers, each combination yielding a different set of conditions under which to play that game. The basic rules of play can be quickly read, or learned in a game or two against the AI opponents, but there are sufficient strategic options to keep play interesting for a long time. The game is entirely web based, so a brief sign-on is all you need to get started, and you can sign on for a free account that will let you try the game and give you access to six, randomly chosen aliens. If you haven't ever played Cosmic Encounter, you should sign onto the online version and try a game or two. They rarely take long, and that's all you need to gain an appreciation of the clever game design.
If you enjoy it, or have spent the last ten years wishing you could get your old buddies back together for another marathon session of the board game, you can purchase an account to get access to all the aliens. The pricing is a bit steep, with options ranging from $8.50 for one month to $66 for one year ($5.50/month). That gets you the nineteen current aliens (more are planned) and the ability to track your online play statistics, plus whatever other features are added in the future.
While play against human opponents is superb, and true to the board game, there are also AI opponents, in case you need to warm up, or just fill out that extra needed player. As you might imagine, with so many rule variants, it is exceptionally difficult to program an AI that can perform at the level of a seasoned human. The programmers have done journeyman's work, and the various AI bots perform pretty well – well enough to fill out a game. They do, however, have some trouble with aliens that can dramatically transform the rules of combat, and sometimes play their tokens (such as those that can temporarily negate another alien's power) erratically.
Cosmic Encounter Online is a great game to hop in and play occasionally for a brief session of alien power-mongering, and when other players are available, it can provide nail-biting fun as you jockey to be the first species with sufficient colonies outside your home system. Especially if you've never tried the board game, it's worth grabbing a free account to experience the game. Given that the AI is imperfect and the cost to become a full member is high, more comparable to a massively multiplayer online game's monthly fee than to a casual game, only the most dedicated Cosmic Encounter fans will want to shell out the cash to get access to every alien.