Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The long dark night of the dice rolls #1: a little light relief

I mentioned last Tuesday that I've played hundreds of games during the months of my depression, nearly 600 in fact. Still getting back into the swing of things here at RD/KA! as I am, I thought I'd run through some of the highlights of that epic series of games, and cast a quick eye over some other games which I've bought recently.

Ivanhoe, Ivanhoe and yet more bloody Ivanhoe!
The impressive statistic of nearly 600 games played since last September is put in its proper context by the fact that more than half of those were games of Ivanhoe. My neighbour Liam (last seen swigging wine at Sioux's gallery launch in May last year) came round on xmas eve keen to play a game to which he'd taken an instant liking way back in October 2009. We played a 24-game session. And so began a marathon run of 325 games, all but 9 of which were played in the 6 months up to May. That's averaging 14 games/week, in a couple of sessions each week. Whew!

I've written before about how much I like Ivanhoe. I still like it, but I never would've imagined that there could come a point when I'd be scunnered at the suggestion of playing again. That point came sometime in May I seem to recall, when we played 12 sessions. Luckily something came along to break Liam from his obsession with Ivanhoe before I broke down completely!

A pleasant sufficiency of Alhambra
Alhambra is a game I first played a couple of times at a DiceCon in Glasgow way back in the days before RD/KA!. I enjoyed it quite a lot, and remember it as being something of a brain-burner in which my every move was foiled before I could make it. Seeing some slightly battered boxes going cheap in Static Games a couple of years ago, buying a copy was a bit of a no-brainer. As so often happens, the game then gathered dust on the shelf until I finally got it to the table one Sunday last November.

Bits, dear boy, bits
I won't give a detailed review. In short: Alhambra is a tile-laying game in which players have to collect money cards to buy their tiles (for more info, see the video on the game's page, via the link above). The rules are very straightforward, although they contain one or two of the little 'fiddles' which some gamers take as characteristic of Euros and which they dislike with varying degrees of intensity.

A major feature of Alhambra is that there is no direct player interaction, so that the game is something of a multiplayer solitaire puzzle. Even though I'm an avid wargamer I don't mind this a bit: random tile and money draws; the uncertainties of market conditions as you wait your turn; coupled with often fraught decision-making in poor markets; these all add up to a game I'll be happy to play a lot more.

Not nearly enough Cosmic Encounter
"We come in peace for the benefit of all humanity"
Cosmic Encounter is one of the classic multiplayer boardgames of our time. It was first published in 1977 by Eon Games and has since seen 16 editions. 'Uncle' Martin (last seen around xmas 2009 introducing me to the delights of Pandemic) owned the original- and all its expansions IIRC, back in the early 80s. We played the game endlessly, and viciously, for hours and hours at a time. It was in my first ever flat- which I happened to share with Martin, and I have one of those peculiarly vivid memories of us all sat playing around the kitchen table; peculiar because I can see the scene from outside, as if out of body.

"Eat plutonium death, you disgusting alien weirdoes!"
The original Eon edition
Looking for something new to bring to the table for birthday gaming, I treated myself to FFG's 2008 Cosmic Encounter revamp back in March. For the uninitiated, Cosmic Encounter works like this:
  • Each player is an alien species with a system of 5 home planets and 20 spaceships.
  • The game is played by playing cards in encounters to establish colonies on your opponents' home planets.
  • The winner is the first player to have 5 such colonies.
  • Encounters work like this:
The hyperspace gate
  1. The target system is chosen at random.
  2. You place up to 4 of your ships in the hyperspace gate and point it at the planet of your choice in the target system.
  3. You invite any other players to ally with your attack.
  4. The defender also asks for allies.
  5. The other players decide in turn if they'll ally, committing their spaceships as they see fit.
  6. You and the defender each secretly choose an encounter card from your hands; these can be Attack cards or Negotiate cards (there's one other kind of encounter card, but I'll leave that out for simplicity).
  7. Cards are revealed, with the following effects:
Sample Encounter cards:
sneaky, mighty, median
& mediocre
  • Attack v. Attack: the highest total of card plus ships wins; all losing ships go to the warp (the deadpile).
  • Negotiate v. Negotiate: allies are sent home; the main players have 1 minute to make a deal involving swapping cards and/or bases; if no deal is struck, each player loses 3 ships to the warp.
  • Attack v. Negotiate: the Attack card wins automatically; the player who played the Negotiate receives 'compensation'.
To the victor the spoils
The warp: home of
the rash, the luckless
& the unwary
The spoils of victory are:
  • Attacker and allies: all gain a colony on the defeated planet.
  • Defender: survive to fight another day.
  • Defending allies: rewarded with 1 new Cosmic card and/or ship freed from the warp for each ship committed to the defence.
'Compensation' means that the player whose Negotiate card lost to an Attack card takes 1 random card from the winner's hand for each ship lost to the warp.

"Take us to your leader"
"My card? No, your card."
"I hit you with my planet."
Readers unfamiliar with Cosmic Encounter might by now be wondering why the game is such an enduring favourite if its core system is a simple as I've outlined above (and it is). There is a bit more to it, naturally enough- namely alien powers: each player has a random alien power which allows them to break the normal rules in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. Some are apparently quite weak and therefore subtle in their applications: who'd want to be the Philanthropist, with the "power of giving"?. Others are so mighty to behold that you wonder how you'll ever stop such behemoths in their galaxy-conquering rampages: who could hope to resist the Leviathan, with their "power of Worldships" which allows them to take entire planets through the hyperspace gate, for +20 attack.

More cards, more sneaky tricks
Some useful cards
filling out the deck
The aliens and the encounters define the core of Cosmic Encounter gameplay. The basic game is filled out with some more cards in the Cosmic deck:
  • Morph: a unique card which dupiclates your opponent's encounter card.
  • Reinforcement: any player(s) involved in an encounter can play reinforcement cards after the main cards are revealed, to change the outcome; any number of these cards may be played in an encounter.
  • Artifacts: these are 'event' cards which have various useful effects, some of which can tip the balance in an encounter.
Flares & tech:
more power;
more chaos
In the familiar tradition of FFG box-stuffing, there are 2 further decks of cards in the basic set: flares and tech cards. Flares are intended as part of the core game and are cards you can play for effects which will vary according to whether you have the power matching the flare- 'super', or not- 'wild'. The flares were an expansion for the original Eon edition. Tech cards are new to the FFG edition as far as I know, and are optional.

The rules for tech in Cosmic Encounter are simple enough: each player starts the game choosing 1 of 2 random cards. Tech cards have to be researched before you can use them. Researching a tech card involves placing ships on the face-down card- 1/turn, until the player chooses to reveal the card. If the number of spaceships on the card is greater than or equal to the card's research number (that number in the bottom right of the cards), the card is complete. Whether the tech card is complete or not, the ships on the card are returned to the player's colonies.

Surprise, surprise: an expansion!
I also picked up the Cosmic Incursion expansion set for the sake of a potential 6th player. Cosmic Incursion adds 20 new aliens to bring the total number up to 70, and a new rule: 'Cosmic Quakes'. A 'Cosmic Quake' happens when a player has to draw a new card and both the Cosmic deck and the discard pile are empty. All players must discard their cards, then new hands are dealt to each player. This will be rare, but no doubt entertaining and frustrating in equal measure when it does happen. There is also another deck of cards: the optional Reward deck. Players can choose to draw their cards from the Reward deck instead of the regular Cosmic deck when they receive rewards for participating in a successful defensive alliance.

Rewards: a gold
standard loyalty
There are lots of neat cards in the Reward deck, but this could prove to be a double-edged sword for 2 reasons: the back of the reward deck cards is different from that of the regular encounter cards- so your opponents could always choose to pick a reward card if they were allowed to draw a card from your hand; and there are a couple of real turkeys in the deck, including the 'Attack -7', the lowest valued attack card in the game. Still, there are only 2 bad cards in the 32-card Reward deck, and some of the good ones are very good indeed:
  • Kickers: these multiply your attack card value, compensation and/or opponent's ships lost due to failure to make a deal (just watch out for the 'Kicker x0').
  • Rifts: free ships returned from the warp- always good; with a sting in the tail if your opponent steals the card from you- better still.
Individual planet counters
& the new spaceships
The FFG edition of Cosmic Encounter is excellent. In fact it's one of the best new editions of any game I've ever seen, up there with GW's 2nd and 3rd editions of Space Hulk and 3rd edition Blood Bowl, which have long held my prize for best new boardgame editions. FFG's familiar high production values are nicely brought to bear: their thick cardboard makes all the counters and other pieces nice and chunky; and the little plastic spaceships are just lovely, with the added bonus that they stack perfectly and are easy to handle for those players who are all fingers and thumbs.

New destinies
to explore
There are also some neat additions to the destiny deck (from which you draw to decide the target system for an encounter). These are: 'Wild'- any system of your choice; and 'Special'- particular systems according to certain specifications, eg. the player with the most ships in the warp. I don't know for sure if these were in previous editions; they're certainly new to this player of the original Eon edition.

If there was nothing more to FFG's new Cosmic Encounter than some new aliens, cards and high production values, then it would be good but not excellent. What makes the new edition excellent for yours truly are several small additions in particular, much more important in play than their unassuming appearance might suggest. These additions are:
  • Text on the alien cards to remind players when they can use their powers and whether use of the powers is optional or mandatory.
  • The timing strip which appears on all relevant cards.
Those pleasing
little details
These additions- and the rules for resolving timing conflicts, mean that players will always know when and how to use their alien powers; and that there should be no problems dealing with the complex interactions of the wide variety of card effects in the game. Clarity of this ilk is important enough in its own terms in any game. It's doubly important in Cosmic Encounter. Why? Because timely cardplay — to zap powers and to trump or cancel opponents' decisions or other game effects — is at the heart of the fiendish tricks which constitute so much of the tactics in a game as chaotic as Cosmic Encounter.

All-in-all then, this new edition of Cosmic Encounter should be sought out by all fans of highly interactive multiplayer games with serious screwage; sought out, cherished, and played- a lot! ;)

- The long dark night of the dice rolls #2: light at the end of the tunnel


Anonymous said...

Good to see you back.

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

Thanks Aneliya. And it's good to see you still reading. ;)

Dangerous Brian said...

Wow. You really are back in a blogging mood. I seem to remember laying Ivanhoe with you once or twice five or six years back. Did I win? i cant even remember.