Cosmic Encounter is a board/card game in which each player takes on the role of one (or sometimes more) alien races. The goal of the game is to establish colonies on planets in other player's home systems. Combat takes place through the use of ships and cards which add to the power of the ships involved. The game actively encourages "wheeling and dealing" between players to form temporary offensive and defensive alliances, or even resolve "combat" situations without actual combat (you can, for example, offer to exchange a colony in your system for a colony in your opponent's system).
One of the distinctive features of the game is that in addition to the base rules, each alien species has the ability to "break" the rules in some unique way. This adds an additional strategic layer to the game beyond the part-luck-part-strategy aspect of the battles themselves, as the powers of the different aliens interact in different ways, leading to vastly different games each time.
Originally designed by Future Pastimes, Cosmic Encounter has been around for a considerable time and gone through several different publishers: Eon Games in 1977, West End Games (in the US) and Games Workshop (in the UK) in 1986, Mayfair Games in 1991, Avalon Hill in 2000, and Fantasy Flight Games in 2008. Many of these publishers also published expansions to and/or variations on the base game. Most of these are distinct enough that expansions from one publisher are not compatible with the base game from another publisher (without some modifications), though people familiar with any version should be able to play any other after some explanation of the differences (especially in the case of rules which are present in some versions but not others). In particular, interactions between the powers may cause some races to be either wildly overpowered or effectively worthless if mismatched bases/expansions are used (though this is occasionally true of pairings even within a single publisher; Zombie's power is all but useless against Void, for example).
The game provides examples of:
- Blessed with Suck: Some races' powers are more useful than others, though this partially depends on the playstyle of the player in question, and a race that's effectively terrible for one player may be terribly effective in the hands of another.
- Descriptively-Named Species: All of them.
- Easily Conquered World: The Xenophiles are a race of curious, super-friendly space hosts, so tolerant that they don't actually realize that their new "visitors" are actually hostile invaders. These aliens benefit from letting other players establish colonies in their system.
- Final Solution: While it's only implicit in play, the Flavor Text for some of the races indicate their long-term goal is complete elimination of all other races. In particular, this is true in most editions of Anti-Matter and Void.
- Flavor Text: Each race has its own.
- The Friend Nobody Likes: The Parasite can hop aboard any invading or defending team, even without an invitation. This allows them to win by piggybacking off of other players' work, who must either negotiate (as allies do not get anything from a negotiation) or lose their own encounters on purpose to thwart the Parasite.
- Friend to All Living Things: Empath can force its enemies to negotiate/compromise instead of fighting.
- Healing Factor: The Mutant has the power to "regenerate," allowing it to redraw any spent cards back to a full hand of 8. Many races' powers allow them to rescue defeated ships from the warp, and all players can get back at least 1 ship during the Regroup phase.
- Heart Is an Awesome Power: The Empath's power is to change attack cards into negotiate cards. This can get the Empath player out of near-hopeless situations where they would otherwise lose all their ships as well as make a deal to get their game-winning colony even if a player is out of negotiate cards.
- Humans Are Average / Humans Are Special: The Human race's unique power simply adds 4 (a relatively mild bonus) to their side's attack/defense total in an encounter. According to the flavor text, however, "exposing a human to Cosmic energy can unlock strange and awesome powers" - attempting to cancel out the +4 with a "Cosmic Zap" card (which normally neutralizes any alien's power) results in the human's side automatically steamrolling the opponent. Naturally, the Human player can Zap themselves for just this purpose.
- Instant-Win Condition: Some races have this as their power.
- Interface Screw: A power for at least one race in the online version.
- Massive Race Selection: The original game had 15 races, and nine(!) expansion sets bringing the total eventually up to a whopping 75(!). One of the later publishers was planning an expansion with yet another 35(!) but went out of business before the release. The Fantasy Flight edition has released six expansions (so far) and one promo alien, bringing the grand total to a staggering 196 alien races.
- Metamorphosis: Several aliens have the power to swap for an entirely different alien midway through the game. The Chrysalis sheds its outer form once eight turns have passed; the Reincarnator changes form each time it loses in combat; and the Pentaform becomes a different alien for each stage of its life cycle (shifting back and forth as it gains and loses colonies).
- Moving the Goalposts: The Schizoid chooses a victory condition at the beginning of the game that replaces the default winning condition, which only the Schzioid knows in full; the other players can only find out what it is by getting to ask yes-or-no questions about it each time they defeat the Schizoid in combat. If the Schizoid manages to acquire its flare card, it can change the victory condition during the game as well.
- Power Parasite: The Plant's power is to steal the power of any alien in whose system he has a colony. The other alien loses its power for one turn while the Plant can use it. (Note that while there is an alien called the Parasite, its power does not fall under this trope.)
- Powers as Programs: Some species can steal or swap other races' powers.
- Precursors: The backstory uses this to explain the massive number of different alien races: the Precursors were the only sentient life forms in the universe, so before they went extinct, they scattered the seeds of life across the universe so that new and wildly different forms of life would appear along with hyperspace technology so that they could meet each other when their civilizations became advanced enough.
- This is the explanation for the "Precursor Seed" technology card, which grants the player an extra alien power once it is completed.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The Fury stores up power with every ship they lose in battle, and can consume some or all of it to wreak merry hell on a future opponent.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Supernatural Powers!: Every single race in the game, each in a different way.
- The Trickster: The Cloak's player may call out a pause, force everyone else to look away, and then steal a card, move a ship, or make some other small change. If the others can't identify the change within 15 seconds, it remains in play.
- What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?: Empath's ability to treat an opponent's attack card as a negotiate card instead seems pretty weak at first glance.