A Basic Strategy Guide for Cosmic Encounter
Written by A.C. Donovan
I'm writing this guide for two reasons. The first reason is to share some basic strategies with fellow enthusiasts. The second reason is to defend the game's design to people who dismiss it. Although there are a lot of fans of Cosmic Encounter, there are still many people out there who will unfairly trash it because it's too: random, chaotic, unbalanced, non-Euro-gamey, etcetera. In truth, it is random, chaotic, made in America, and at times, unbalanced, but that doesn't stop it from being a fun and challenging game that requires strategy!
A brief intro to Cosmic Encounter (CE)
If you're considering purchasing CE, let me summarize it for you. The basic game is for 3 to 5 players. You, and your opponents, assume the roles of aliens trying to protect their 5 planets while simultaneously trying to establish colonies on 5 other planets. Game play is simple. Each turn, one player becomes the offense and must have a random encounter with another player. The offense launches up to 4 out of their 20 ships towards one of the defender's planets. Then, each side gets to ask other players to help them in return for various rewards. Finally, the offensive player and the defensive player reveal cards which either allow them to attack or to offer a deal of some kind. Along this process, the offense, defense, allies and bystanders might influence the result with threats, promises or other special cards.
Like I said before, it's a simple game. It's almost child-like. However, there's more. There are 50 alien races in the main set, and each one has a game changing power. It's the combination of these races that makes every game unique.
From this point on, it is assumed that you've at least read the basic rules or played once. The strategies that follow are in no particular order and are far from the final word on strategies that you'll find in Cosmic Encounter. In fact, these strategies don't even include specific aliens!
Strategy #1: Predict the future and speak up, or shut up!
At the start of the game, when everyone reveals their aliens, study each alien power. If you don't understand it, read it again, or have someone explain it to you. Make sure everyone agrees on how each one works. Next, see if any of the aliens work particularly well, or poorly against another alien, or aliens. If it looks like someone is going to dominate the game, SPEAK UP and let everyone know! You will need to gang up on this player to prevent him or her from winning. Likewise, if you have a chance to pick an exceptionally powerful alien, or one that other players will THINK is exceptionally powerful, consider picking the lesser of the two since they may gang up on YOU. If, after your analysis, you think that you will have the upper hand, SHUT UP! Don't attract attention. If at all possible, point out how powerful someone else is to mislead the other players.
Strategy #2: Use them or lose them.
Cards generally get used up quickly through encounters and are frequently stolen or lost through play. It is better for you to use them before you feel the pang of regret when they're gone. Sure, you can hold them for a turn or two, and some cards, like an enemy's flare might need to be hidden until absolutely necessary, but don't be stingy. They're meant to be used.
Strategy #3: When all else fails, talk, a lot.
There will be times in CE when it's not your turn, and you're not involved in the turn at all. Even if you're not an ally, or have no cards to contribute in any way, you are still in the game. Do your best to encourage players to take actions that will benefit them and you. Likewise, discourage players from taking actions that will hurt you and them (See Strategy #5: Give them what they want).
Strategy #4: Know the cards.
This comes with experience, but good players know what's out there. To keep it simple, and in the basic set, there's 1 Attack 40 out there, 1 Attack 30, 1 Attack 23, 2 Attack 20's, 1 Morph, 2 Card Zaps, 2 Cosmic Zaps and at least 10 Flares. There are many more cards, but the cards above are the game changers. However, they're limited and easy to keep track of. Once these cards start to pop up, the random element of the game diminishes greatly and you can start planning your “sure thing” victory. Also, if they haven't popped up, and you have the ability to draw a lot of cards, you might want to try and draw them before someone else does.
Strategy #5: Give them what they want.
You should be talking a lot and negotiating all of the time, not just when a Negotiate card pops up. When you negotiate, I find the best way to sway someone to your cause is to make the deal attractive to them. Yes, it goes without saying that it will benefit you, but make them see how it benefits them just as much, or perhaps more (no, not really!). You could try threatening someone, but being spiteful in CE, just like in life, is unlikely to be fruitful.
Strategy #6: Lie.
It's okay. It's part of the game. Give someone a bad strategy, or say that someone has or doesn't have certain cards. Keep in mind that in CE, you are sometimes allowed to see your opponent's hand, or you may have to give an opponent some of your cards due to Compensation or some other effect. You are almost never allowed to show your opponent's cards, or your own, to someone else. So, unless a card specifically says that you cannot TELL other players what you know, feel free to say anything. Let other players know that a winning player just took your 40 Attack card, their Flare, or your Morph; even if she didn't. Let other players know that the other player, who only had 1 card left in his hand, just took 4 Negotiate cards from your hand as compensation and is therefore vulnerable to attack. You can say almost anything in CE, so use it as a tool. It works on some people, and if you play the type of game where you've been telling the truth so far, it makes a well placed lie very effective.
Strategy #7: Learn to act.
This is hard, but if you're able to master it, learn how to fake smiles and frowns once in a while. A simple thing like smiling when you draw a card from the deck may stop someone from going against you later. Likewise, a pessimistic attitude might encourage someone to put up a weak attack card and neglect to request allies when you attack with just 1 ship.
Strategy #8: Know your enemies/friends.
You're most likely playing with friends who are temporarily transformed into enemies. People tend to play a certain way, so anticipate that and use it against them. For example, you might have a friend who would rather lose than let you win. On the other hand, you might have a friend who wants to help everyone all the time. This is part of the game, and you need to take their personalities into account when playing.
Strategy #9: Take a loss now and then.
Don't be afraid to lose a planet in your home system. Sure, you don't want to throw them away, but it's not worth losing great cards over either. Planets only serve to keep your alien power alive. So, if it's going to be too costly to defend a planet, and you have 4 or 5, let it go. While you're at it, try to invite some allies to defend you as you throw out that Attack 4 or Negotiate card!
Strategy #10: When all else fails, go for the shared win.
We all want the solo win, but it's not worth losing for. If it's a close game, and you're low on resources, but you have a shot at a shared win, take it. It's better than letting someone else get the solo win. Remember, everyone else is a loser. I've played two games where everyone but one player won. I lost one of those games.
Strategy #11: Choose your allies carefully.
When you're on the offense, and are fearful of losing an encounter, you will be tempted to recruit an ally. This should be a last resort, because if you win, the ally wins with you, and gets to place a colony there as well. So, if you must get an ally, try to ally with players who have a low number of colonies. Another variation of this is to invite as many allies as you can and throw the fight with a Negotiation card!
Beware of the “One Ship,” ally. Some people will agree to ally with you, especially with the offense, just so they can contribute one ship to the attack. Basically, these players are just playing a low risk bet with no real intention of helping you. With that in mind, only ask players to ally if they are both capable of helping and in real need of a colony.
Strategy #12: Keep them far from the finish line.
Don't let a player get too far ahead of you. A 5 planet game of CE requires someone to get 5 colonies to win. Once someone has three colonies, they can win in one turn, even if it's not during their turn! There are a few cards/abilities out there that can award a player a colony under certain conditions. Smart players keep these cards hidden so that they can gain a colony, usually through an alliance, and then use the card for another colony.