Friday, February 13, 2009

Backstabstract (So Long, Sucker! x2, Cosmic Encounter x2)

It was Shemp's pick, and it was positively Luchian: He did a search on BGG for the word "Backstabby" and then selected 5 games from the list it returned. In the end it didn't matter, we played two sessions of two of the games instead.

So Long, Sucker!

This is an abstract backstabby game (or "Backstabstract", if you will) which was co-designed by John Nash, the mathematician featured in "A Beautiful Mind".

It's simple on the surface, as abstracts often are. It's a chip placement game, but with a heavy emphasis on cutting deals a la Intrigue.

We played two games, and lots of deals were made. Moves can be planned several turns in advance, and frequently a whole sequence of turns would be proposed between two players to achieve a certain nefarious goal. Our group showed a particular knack for living up to the letter of the agreements, but not the spirit: loopholes in agreements where gleefully exploited (not that the game forces players to live up to agreements, but it's more fun to do it this way). Kozure masterminded his way to the top in game 1, and Shemp edged me out in game 2.

Cosmic Encounter

I have the new Fantasy Flight version of this game from the late 70s/ early 80s. I had high hopes for it as a light, fun game with lots of negotiation, backstabbery and variety.

The goal in cosmic Encounter is to get your ships on 5 of the other player's planets first. The basic structure of the game is that on your turn you draw a card which instructs you regarding which player to attack. Then, alliances are made on the offensive and defensive side, each main player chooses a card from their hand and the highest total (number on card + number of ships) wins. If you win as the attacker, you and your allies get to set up a colony on that player's planet. If you win as the defender, your planet is safe and your allies get to draw cards or recuperate destroyed ships as compensation.

This basic structure is livened up by the fact that each player represents a race which has a unique, game changing power. Also, the attack deck is peppered with "flares" which are limited versions of all the race powers in play (which become "super flares" in the hands of the correct race). Finally, in addition to the attack and flare cards, there are "negotiate" cards which allow... negotation.

In our first game, I was the "observer" race. My power was that my allies don't die in battle. I thought it sounded intriguing, and on the very first turn I asked Shemp to help me in a battle under the pretense that "he had nothing to lose". Beleiving this to be true, he committed a large part of his army of flying saucers to my cause. Little did either of us know, but there are cards in the attack deck which cancel the use of a race power. Kozure, playing the "Zombie" race, prevented me from saving Shemp's ships when I lost. Shemp never recovered. Although Kozure was easily dominating the game, Bharmer spied an opportunity to sneak his way to 4 colonies on his turn, giving him the win.

I think we all had a good time, and it was short enough to try again so we did.

In our second game, I player "The Loser". This race has the ability to reverse the winning conditions in a battle (i.e. a win result means "lose", a lose result means "win". Kozure was "The Oracle" which forces battling opponents to reveal their card before the Oracle reveals hers. Shemp was a race that grew in strength when it won a battle, and grew even more when it lost. Bharmer had a power which allowed him to keep a full hand at all times.

For whatever reason, we struggled on a couple occasions to figure out how certain powers interact. There was a situation where I, as the Loser, reversed the win conditions to a battle with Kozure, the Oracle. I reversed the win conditions but he only had a negotiate, so what happens then? We ruled that the negotiate card would normally lose and collect retribution, so if reversed he should win and collect retribution. Another example: If the Oracle has her super flare, which allows her to stop a combat and send the attacking aliens home, but when attacked she has no encounter cards left and should therefore draw a new hand. When I looked at the timing listed on the cards afterwatrds, it was clear that the hand needed to be discarded and re-shuffled (the artifact can only be played in the "resolution phase", which occurs after both players have chosen their cards).

The struggle to interpret cards led to more downtime for the other players. Also, we seemed to get more greedy because players were refusing any allies during most of the combats. As a result, it was substantially less fun than the first session.
I won by converting a combat in to negotiations and proposing a simple exchange of colonies with Kozure, who didn't notice it would win me the game (it was late and everyone needed to leave, so it was okay, right?).

If we can keep the game length down, get comfortable enough with the rules and interactions that sessions don't devolve into interpretation parties and ratchet up the negotiations and backstabbing, I think this could be a great game (that is a lot of "ifs", however). The powers really do have a major impact on the feel of the game, and negotiations are similarly affected. There isn't a large number of items to negotiate for other than allowing bases on planets, which is a touch disappointing. However, the impact and interaction of the race powers means that while in each individual game there may not be a lot of depth in deal making, the kinds of interaction, negotiation and backstabbing that are likely to take place are going to be fairly different from game to game. That's a good thing in my book.

It was fun. Looking forward to trying it again.

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