Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Cosmic Encounter: an Interview with Peter Olotka, designer of Cosmic Encounter

If you've never tried it, Cosmic Encounter is a great game.  I'll get a review of it up here sometime (I haven't yet because I've yet to have a chance to play with an optional feature that is part of the base game) but for today's purposes, a short description.   It's a fairly simple goal-oriented (as opposed to points-oriented) game that involves attempting to spread throughout the galaxy by populating the other systems with 5 of your colonies.  Of course, the other races don't necessarily want you to do so, and in order to plant a colony you have to defeat the native's ships. Battles are resolved by totaling the number of ships, the number of allies ships, and an attack or negotiate card.  Destroyed ships go to "the Warp" and can be recovered 1 at a time during the start of an "encounter" (each player can have up to 2 encounters per turn, but they have to win the 1st encounter to get to a 2nd), or all at once via certain special cards.

What makes the game excellent, though, is that each player plays as a unique alien race, with its own power to break a rule in some way.  Some of the races have powers as simple as adding extra points to their combat total, or taking a peek at their opponents cards.  Others never lose ships in battle, or win the game by losing all of their ships to the warp, or destroy ships permanently, taking them out of the game instead of sending them to the warp.  With 50 alien races, and more in expansion packs, the different combinations of aliens result in completely different strategies in order to win, and every game is different and exciting.  It should also be noted that players aren't eliminated, and it is possible, through alliance, for multiple players to win the game at the same time.

The game is available online at www.cosmicencounter.com though I highly recommend playing the actual board game first.  The online version could definitely be extremely confusing without having a preexisting knowledge of the rules and some of the common races (as well as an expectation for surprising powers.)   Unfortunately, there are rarely any human players available to play online, though you can start a game at any time with competent and challenging bots (and players can hop in and out of games, replacing and replaced by bots as they do, so at least you dont have to worry about anyone abandoning ship mid-game.  Built-in timers also keep the game moving).
The other day, I decided to get into the online game a little, motivated by a tweet from the game's designer, Peter Olotka.  He announced that he was online at that time, so I decided to follow that up.  Fortunately, the low population of the online game came with one advantage - I was easily able to get into a game with the man himself, and I had a chance to ask him some questions about game design and Cosmic Encounter.  I also got completely destroyed, 3 games in a row.

Thusly, as follows, the interview with Peter Olotka, designer of Cosmic Encounter, edited for space.  Enjoy.

How did you come up with the idea for Cosmic Encounter?

As with lots of new designs (in any field), it’s nice to have no clue about what you are doing. Preconception of what a game is can often be a debilitating factor among many designers. “Hey let’s get some monsters and give them some stuff, and then they can go beat up some other monsters. And my innovation is to make a sword that is worth a gazillion flimbats.  Oh and, the graphics will be really cool.”

In retrospect here are some of the influences on Cosmic's design:
·     Chess was weighed in strategically because the pieces had their own unique movement.
·     Poker had a hand because it was the ultimate bluffing game.
·     Star Trek of the sixties scripted Cosmic's flavor with its self-deprecating stars lurching around the set.
·     Science fiction authors Asimov, Herbert, Niven and Pohl suspended our disbelief, and we never recovered it.
One of the keys to Cosmic’s design was the collaboration and clash sparked by the personalities and skill sets of the designers. We did everything by unanimous agreement. Think about that for a minute. Were we mad? Most definitely. But we produced a cascading rush of rule breaking. "If you can do that than I can do this."
"Oh yeah? Then I will...."
Theme is more than window dressing, and less than fanatical immersion. To be true to theme, a design should strive to capture the essence of the setting or construct by creating a system in which players naturally adopt behaviors that fit their circumstances. Success is when a player is surprised to act in a way that is not in keeping with their real life personality, as though it were normal.
Crafting underlying principles is an important place for the designer to start. I mean, really start here. Draw up a list of principles to follow and /or elements for your game to have. Then design with them in mind. Here were ours:
·     No dice allowed
·     Everyone had to be different
·     Play would offer compromise and conflict
·     No one would be eliminated
·     Players could win together
·     Each game would be different (re-playability)
·     License to cheat. Pretty much all players in all games would just love to be able to peek. Just a little. Woot!
·     Almost all the early Cosmic aliens were hatched from a player wishing “If only …”
o    I could see what she has (Mind)
o    I could get a do-over (Chronos)
o    I could get rid of this  junk (Philanthropist)
o    I couldn't die (Zombie)
I think it can be profoundly liberating to make a list of things you want your game to be and to not be, and then stick to them. Think about your likes and dislikes in the games you've played, and then try to settle on what you want your game to feel like.

What was/is your role in the design process?  

Well I was the first to decide to invent a game and the first to want it to be Science Fiction. I was the one who organized the company. As the group grew from two to three to four all decisiona and ideas sort of got jumbled together into the mix.

Are there any key elements of the game (or games) you've designed that you're particularly proud of?

I think the element that means the most to me is that we created a structure that by definition was able to produce different experiences by changing the parts. So much so that decades later we are still surprised at what happens.

Now with the next FFG expansion Set there will be 90 aliens and 7 players. That mean there are 7,471,375,560 different 7 alien combinations with no two alike. 

Cosmic Encounter was one of the first board games with Expansion Packs.  Was this your original intention?  If so, why? If not, how did it come about?

It came about when we 'discovered' that there were an infinite number of aliens. We figured that the original game could have 15 and be affordable to print and to sell. I think the retail price was $10.  But we had lots of others. And we wanted to add more players. So we came out with Expansions 1 and 2. Our hex  board allowed two more players.  Then fans wanted more ...and we just kept dreaming up new ways to break the rules.

Which publisher produced your favorite version of CE and why?

The FFG game is the best. Best rules. Nice attention to detail.  Nice components. Great commitment to expansions.

What were some of the challenges you had to overcome the first time you tried to get a game published?  

Money, knowledge, connections, business awareness, audience awareness, the list of obstacles would stop any but the insane or the clueless. We were both. But then as I am sure you know... game design is sort of a virus that people are infected by, so they just have to live with it, right?

Was Cosmic Encounter your first published game, or was there another before it?

We published a sleight of hand game called One,Two,Three published in Germany before Cosmic. 

What are some of your favorite games, new or old, that you've played?
Set, Dune, Bananagrams, MasterMind, Risk

Any final thoughts for us aspiring game designers?

Be original. If you are doing a game that is yet another (FILL IN THE BLANK) then you are more of a game copier. Think about the purpose of playing games. Think about all the things in games that you like and dislike. Then design only what you like. Think about audience and see if you can do things in your games that will really surprise them and have them talk about the game again and again. Have fun!

Thanks again for your time.  I had a blast getting utterly crushed by you in your game. 

Always good to crush the ones you can, since as we both know in the next game the the crussee may well be the crusher.  By the way, one of the endearing features of Cosmic is that players often say "I lost but I really had fun." I love that.
So there you have it.  Special thanks to Peter Olotka for generously taking time to utterly defeat me at his own game, and to answer all my questions, and for giving me permission to share them with you all here.  Follow him on twitter - @pgocosmic



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