Playing Cosmic Encounter the other evening had me thinking about the often made claim that it is the imbalance in the strength of the various alien powers which is the making of the game. As designer Peter Olotka likeably puts it:
Fair is dull. Unfair is funny and it can be a huge rush when you grasp victory from the jaws of defeat with a supposed namby pamby power.
We want players to be put in alien situations. This means alien!!!
It means sometime the cosmos sucks. Deal with it.
It means sometimes you can win in one turn. No one else gets to go.
It means sometimes all the players in a game can win.
It means the alien you just played was a clunker and now its a star.
It means you took a desperately out gunned alien to victory because you are so clever that you came up with a brilliant sequence of moves.
It means you can be playing and have no clue what the game win is.
Imbalance may feel like part of the charm of Cosmic Encounter. It does for me. While mutual dependency may be the basis for negotiation to be meaningful (I will give you the wood you need in exchange for the brick I need is meaningful in terms of the outcome of a game), imbalance is the basis for negotiation to be interesting. Cosmic Encounter recognizes this, as does the similarly divisive Diplomacy (each of which I like rather a lot).
In the latter game, Italy’s starting weakness, and Russia’s initial strength, for two examples, sets up interesting starting positions for negotiations: it’s tough in the early game as Italy to be invited into a partnership which offers a fifty-fifty split of conquered territory – but at least you’re seldom feared. On the other hand, it’s tough, as Russia, to convince potential partners you’re not about to stab them in the back.
Eric Hunter records Italy as achieving a solo victory in 3.11% of non-variant games ( if I understand correctly, the statistics apply to standard games conducted through the play-by-email system of Diplom.org – face-to-face statistics would doubtless differ to some degree), while Russia managed the feat in 6.66% of games. Nevertheless, I’d be excited to be drawn as Italy in any given game, face-to-face or otherwise; being in control of an awkward space as the centre of a war-torn continent is provides a stimulating position to negotiate from – Italy’s weakness demands creativity. If it weren’t difficult to win as Italy, much of the colour of the experience would be lost. Certain situations cannot arise in a game which is more finely balanced: though a game may start with players in equally strong positions, and then see some rise in strength and some decline – forging alliances in a game that starts balanced is evidently very different from doing so in a game with unequal starting positions.
Likewise, the alien powers in Cosmic Encounter mean unequal encounters, which require invention to tackle – convincing other players to ally with you when you’re up against a tricksy alien like the sorcerer (who can chose to switch his played encounter card with the one you played) is tough. It might require promises of future cooperation, or a commitment to make a favourable exchange the next time the chance arises. Either could be an outright lie, of course. But whether promises made are sincere or not, they come about because an imbalance in power means they must.
But in other games imbalance can be much harder to stomach, so it is a mistake to claim that it is imbalance alone which is the making of Cosmic Encounter: imbalance in itself is neither desirable nor undesirable – it works in this case as a short-cut to set-up stimulating, unfamiliar situations.
Another game I’ve played a few times recently, Nuns on the Run, I’ve found awfully frustrating because of its unfairness (I’ve returned to it because I enjoy the company of those with whom I’ve played). A racing game with the potential for stealth to be involved, in two of my three recent games of Nuns on the Run I was tasked to navigate a route very much longer than that which the winner was assigned (and, in the third, one which was slightly longer). Had I run as fast as possible in each of the eight or nine turns each game lasted, I still would not have been able to return from my particular destination by the time the winner had finished.
A poor draw of cards in a game of Cosmic Encounter – or playing as an unfavoured race – cannot kill one’s hopes of winning in the absolute way that a poor draw in a game like Nuns on the Run can, because the cards are not the core of the game. An apparently weak alien can make a popular ally, and can force himself or herself into contention to win a given game through this. Low value encounter cards can be difficult to play with, but the difficulty is not insurmountable with inventive play and sharp negotiation. The cards and alien powers are primarily props for the players to interact with one another.
By contrast, in Nuns on the Run, the racing nuns have no means to interact with one another (the player controlling the abbess and prioress who hunt for the nuns may affect all the other players, however). Unlucky nuns therefore cannot conspire to pull down the lucky one who is blessed with a shorter route. Thus, in this game, the destination card that you are dealt is all that you really play against: you race the other players rather than playing against them per se (dodging the abbess and prioress is a concern, but, if one is playing to win, one must aim to take the shortest route possible as quickly as possible, and simply pray not to be troubled by either of the abbess or the prioress: their powers are limited, and therefore, with any larger number of players, there is a good chance somebody will not meet either).
I want, in any game, to feel I could have won. I don’t need my theoretical chance to be equal to that of other players, I just need to feel I had had a chance. I was astounded, in Nuns on the Run, to meet a game that didn’t give me that. Imbalance can stimulate interesting interactions, but when there is no possibility in a game system to interface directly, it will seldom do other than frustrate, and in this case very much did so.