01 June 2021
Owen Duffy speaks to Peter-Olotka, one of the game’s co-designers, about the classic game of intergalactic domination.
Sometimes the tabletop gaming hobby can be a bewildering one. The sheer number and variety of games on offer is hard to fathom, from simple five-minute card games to deep, strategic experiences that consume entire afternoons. Whether you’re looking to take command of an army of fantasy warriors, survive an apocalyptic zombie uprising or build a continent-spanning railway empire, board gaming has something for you.
With such choice on offer, and thousands of new games hitting store shelves every year, it’s surprising to realise that the roots of our hobby lie in just a handful of highly influential titles - a small group of games which serve as the foundation stones of today’s analogue gaming industry.
The most obvious is undoubtedly Dungeons & Dragons. The original fantasy roleplaying game became a global phenomenon, and today its influence extends not just to RPGs but to countless board, card and video games which have taken its dungeon-crawling, loot-grabbing, stat-crunching formula in every conceivable direction.
Others, like the 1995 building and trading game The Settlers of Catan and the ridiculously successful collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, have also had a huge effect on the industry, inspiring imitations, knock-offs and a respectable number of subsequent releases that have taken elements of these originals and improved on them in all kinds of subtle and intriguing ways.
The influence of these games on the modern hobby is difficult to overstate, and to an extent they’ve transcended the tabletop hobbyist niche to become some of the most recognisable elements of what we now call geek culture. But there’s another game that, while it hasn’t become a household name to rival D&D, has made a similar impact on generations of game designers. Its influence extends across the industry, and it’s a near certainty that it’s inspired several of the games in your own collection.
Its name is Cosmic Encounter, and without it, our hobby might be a very different place.
Is there anybody out there?
Published in 1977, Cosmic Encounter is a science fiction game of rival alien races. Players set out to explore the galaxy, establishing their presence across multiple worlds in a bid to become the most powerful species in a hostile and mysterious universe.
To modern gamers, this isn’t a particularly original concept. Games including Twilight Imperium, Eclipse and more recently the addictive deck-builder Star Realms have all put their own spin on interstellar exploration, warfare and diplomacy. But in the early 1970s, when the idea for Cosmic Encounter was beginning to come together, the theme was a novel one.
Peter Olotka is one of the game’s co-designers. He said it had been born in part from his frustration at the lack of variety in games available at the time.
“All you really had was Risk and Diplomacy,” he said.
“We just got tired of playing them. They had this discouraging feature where players would get eliminated, and a lot of the time you knew you were gone before you were actually knocked out of the game, so it was just drudgery sitting there trudging along, eventually being knocked out and having to watch while everyone else finished off the game.”
Olotka wasn’t the sort of person who might have been expected to gravitate towards a warlike game such as Risk. A volunteer in the Peace Corps - America’s overseas humanitarian organisation - he had recently returned to the United States from aid work in the Marshall Islands, settling his young family in the artistic and liberal-leaning peninsula of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was here that Olotka and his co-designers Bill Eberle and Jack Kittredge would begin work on a new game designed to do away with the elements of existing titles that had come to grate on them.
“We made a list of things that we wanted in the game, it was sort of like our Declaration of Independence,” said Olotka.
“We didn’t want players to be eliminated. We didn’t want to use dice. We wanted it to be different every time you played. We also wanted players to be able to win together as a group. We didn’t want it just to be about attacking and fighting.”
The group’s goals were more than just a rejection of mass-market games, Olotka added. They were an expression of their values, formed in the tumultuous social upheaval of the 1960s.
“At the time I was working along with Bill Eberle as part of a community activist programme with low-income people,” he said. “And we brought in Jack Kittredge who had been an anti-Vietnam war organiser in Madison, Wisconsin, which was where you had some of the most heated opposition to the war.
“So we had a Peace Corps volunteer, a community organiser and an anti-war activist on board. I guess that’s why the game is really all about breaking rules.”
But while Cosmic Encounter’s creators were united by their politics, they also shared a common love of science fiction, consuming the work of novelists like Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert and Larry Niven. Olotka argued that the genre reflected much of the counter-culture ethos of the ‘60s.
“Science fiction can be very much an escape literature,” he said. “If you can’t deal with reality, let’s deal with space and the future.
“But over time it can also be very prophetic. We were all really into science fiction and really drawn towards those kinds of stories, but there weren’t really any science fiction games.”
Life, but not as we know it
The group set about building a working mock-up of their game. Fuelled by enthusiasm and guided by their design principles, they quickly came up with a core mechanic different from anything available to gamers at the time.
A game of Cosmic Encounter revolves around a series of interactions between players. On each player’s turn they draw a card to randomly determine which of their opponents they’ll clash with. Both players commit a number of space ships to the battle from a limited pool, then play a face-down card to reinforce their troops, adding a poker-like element of bluff and psychology to the game and ensuring that even a severely outnumbered player retains a chance of victory.
The game doesn’t limit these conflicts to the two players going head-to-head, though. Others around the table have the opportunity to join the fray, lending some of their ships to the fight on the side of one player or another. This not only ensures that all players around the table are involved in play, even when it isn’t their turn, it also adds a pronounced social element to the game. Players beg, plead and barter for support, and securing assistance at just the right moment can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
But while battles in space are at the heart of Cosmic Encounter, players don’t have to adopt a hardline, aggressive strategy. In addition to their hand of reinforcement cards, players also have the option to negotiate, talking their way out of a conflict rather than resorting to violence and allowing both players to place an agreed number of space ships on each other’s planets.
“At its core it’s funny how repetitive the game can be,” said Olotka.
“On every turn there are only three things that can happen. Either both players attack, both players negotiate or one player attacks and one player negotiates. You do that over and over again, but it yields immense surprises.
“One of the first ideas we came up with was that if I attack and you negotiate, you should receive compensation because I’ve behaved in such a dastardly way, so you get to take cards from my hand. But I could be sitting there hoping that you take lame cards out of my hand so that I draw some better ones. It leads to these layers of double-psyche and triple-psyche.”
On their own, these core mechanics might make for a moderately interesting game. But Cosmic Encounter’s other great innovation was its array of alien overlords. Players would take on the role of one of these space-faring characters, each with its own special ability - in effect a unique way for the player to break the rules of the game in their own favour.
While these kinds of variable player powers are commonplace in modern games, at the time the idea was revolutionary. Upon its release the game came with 15 aliens for players to choose from. The evasive Amoeba had the ability to retreat from lost battles without losing valuable space ships. The Mind was a starfaring telepath and allowed its controller to look at cards in other players’ hands. The Oracle forced other players to reveal their combat cards before the commencement of clashes, eliminating the uncertainty of battle and giving its controller a huge advantage over other players.
Olotka said the process of creating aliens had been as much about building an immersive setting as providing interesting new mechanical aspects of the game.
“We just came up with ideas for things that it might be exciting to find out there,” he said.
“We tried not to be human-centric. We didn’t want these characters all to look like humans with funny-shaped heads. So we had things like a plant, a virus, a machine, and we said: ok, a plant, a virus and a machine walk into a bar - what happens?”
The interaction between these different aliens provided Cosmic Encounter with immense variety and replayability. It forced players to adapt their strategies to make the best use of their alien power, and the differing dynamics of the interplay between aliens from one game to the next meant that no two games were ever quite the same.
To boldly go…
Armed with a working prototype of the game, Olotka and his co-designers secured a meeting with Parker Brothers, at the time the biggest publisher of board games in the world, with a portfolio including mass market titles like Monopoly and Clue (Cluedo).
“Nobody got in to see Parker Brothers,” Olotka said.
“The only reason we managed to get in the door was because Bill had a relative who worked in the Nerf factory. We were convinced we had the next Monopoly, but they took a look at Cosmic and said: ‘Space doesn’t sell.’”
Not to be dissuaded, the designers established their own company, Eon Games, and published Cosmic Encounter themselves. And Parker Brothers’ rejection of its science fiction theme soon proved to be short-sighted. The game’s publication in 1977 came just as the release of Star Wars blasted science fiction to the forefront of public consciousness.
Olotka and his partners travelled to science fiction conventions around the country, demonstrating the game and building interest through word-of-mouth. As demand grew, the creators upped their production levels, and it soon became clear that they had an underground hit on their hands.
But while the reaction from science fiction fans was overwhelmingly positive, they also made it clear that they wanted to see more from the game.
“When we first published the game it came with 15 aliens and played with up to four players,” Olotka said.
“That was really because it was all we could afford to put in the box, but whenever we went to conventions people would tell us that they wanted more players and more aliens, so we made all of these hand-written notes with ideas about new things we could put into the game, and eventually we had the idea of bringing them out as expansion sets.
At the time this was another innovation. Olotka believes that Cosmic Encounter was the first board game to feature expansions - now a common feature of the tabletop industry. Over the decades, waves of new aliens have been introduced to the game and the current edition, published by Fantasy Flight Games, features 50 out of the box with others available to buy separately.
“I think I should get a nickel every time someone sells an add-on to a game,” Olotka joked to us.
“We crunched the numbers to try and see how many combinations of aliens you could possibly put together, but we had to stop because it was getting so big that it just broke the formula.
“We know that it’s in the trillions. That’s trillions - with a T.”
Over the course of almost four decades, Cosmic Encounter has attracted a loyal fan following. It has retained its popularity in an industry where the newest, hottest titles often receive the greatest share of gamers’ attention.
But it has also made its mark on the gaming industry in a much more profound way, influencing generations of subsequent designers.
Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering, credits the game as one of his major inspirations. Its key concept of beginning with a relatively simple set of rules and adding complexity as the game progresses is at the heart of Magic, as well as Garfield’s later city-smashing giant monster games King of Tokyo and King of New York.
Similarly, the idea of acting on an opponent’s turn, disrupting their plans with a well-timed use of your own special abilities is a common thread between Magic and Cosmic Encounter.
Matt Leacock, well known for his best-selling cooperative disease-fighting game Pandemic, is another designer who readily attests to game’s influence on the hobby.
“It’s hard to say what the industry would be like if it hadn’t been for Cosmic Encounter,” he said.
“Other designers might have come along and had the same ideas, but Cosmic did it first.
“I think the biggest influence it had on my own work was the idea of different players having different powers. That’s a very big element of Pandemic, Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert. It gives players the sense that they’re actually playing a character, and even though it’s about 30 years since I played the game I’d still put it in a group of about 20 or so games that have had the biggest influence on designers.”
To infinity, and beyond
In a way, Cosmic Encounter’s longevity is something of a surprise. Other games that have had such a degree of influence on the hobby have had a tendency to spawn their own replacements. The original deck building game, Dominion, for instance, now looks a little dated when placed alongside the likes of Marvel: Legendary or Core Worlds. And it’s something of a badge of honour in some gamer circles to sneer at Settlers of Catan, which some now regard as simplistic despite its pivotal role in the development of European-style games.
Neither of these fates has befallen Cosmic Encounter, and it’s easy to see why. It has near-endless variety built into the core of its design. It masterfully makes social interaction between players as much a component of the game as any of the cardboard and plastic that comes in the box. And, on a very simple level, it’s just incredibly good fun.
Almost 40 years on from its initial release, its creators show no sign of slowing their output.
“Fantasy Flight recently released an expansion set that was entirely designed by fans, and that got us really excited about designing again,” said Olotka.
“We’re cooking some new stuff right now, which isn’t public yet, but let’s just say that there could be some surprises this year - and in future years, if we get our way.”
This article originally appeared in the second issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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