Monday, June 21, 2010

Tweaked Aliens

The Fantasy Flight version of Cosmic (including the Cosmic Incursion expansion) has had a number of aliens from previous editions of CE, but modified for one reason or another. There have been a number of revisions to the original powers over the years. The Warp currently has 26 revisions (not counting changes made in the FFG edition).

And there was a newsgroup posting about it in 2004 by Rob Burns: rec.boardgames.ce which Peter Olotka responded to with these thoughts:
I think that tweaking is more of an exercise in design for the fun of seeing what might happen with differing variants, than in "making cosmic better' because the aliens are fundamentally flawed.
Here is a look at 10 changes aliens, and my thoughts on the pros and cons of the changes.

1) Chosen. I actually advocated pretty strongly for changes to Chosen, which to me always seemed like a great idea for a power, but never in any game I ever played did I see it do any good. I had a couple of different revisions to Chosen on The Warp, and the FFG version went to an even more souped up version. Originally, Chosen could only replace his revealed encounter card with the next encounter card from the deck. The odds of it being a better card were not generally high. I think the changes FFG made did improv Chosen, though I would have preferred to not have the new cards adding to the original one. I would have been fine with allowing Chosen to replace an encounter card with any one new encounter card, or any combination of attack cards. Including the original version from Mayfair in the new set would have been a waste of an alien card.

1) Dictator. A pretty strong case can be made that the new version of Dictator is weaker than the old one, and I don't argue that. Originally, Dictator would simply decree the color of each Destiny flip, even to the point of forcing everyone else to always attack the same person. In fact, I remember a game where the Dictator player forced everyone else to attack me, every single encounter. He felt that since I won most of the time, I was the biggest threat (no matter what alien I or anyone else had), and his goal was to force me to lose all of my home colonies- and even after I did lose them all, he kept having everyone else attack me. He didn't even come close to winning, so ultimately I didn't see the point. Needless to say, it wasn't my most enjoyable game, and in fact pretty much no one enjoyed that game.

That's a pretty extreme example, but it does illustrate the "abuse of power" that the original Dictator was capable of. I like to think the new version, which is identical to a revision that Patrick Riley proposed many years ago, is more strategic to play (and play against). This was a change that was less about strength of the alien, and more about overall potential gameplay enjoyment. I find that many of the changes FFG has made try to touch on this element as much as any notion of "game balance" (a notion that is difficult to maintain in a game like CE).

3) Grudge. This alien only got to use his power when he won his encounter without the help of players he invited. Mayfair added in that even when Grudge loses, the invited players must still lose a ship (two ships actually). FFG flipped this around. Grudge now punishes those non-allies more when he loses. If Grudge has asked three player to ally, and they've instead allied with Grudge's opponent, he is much more likely to lose that encounter, and I think those players definitely should pay more for snubbing Grudge. Whether or not you think the Grudge tokens are useful to have, this change to Grudge is a welcome one. There wasn't really anything particularly "wrong" with the first version, but I think you now have to weigh the alliance invitation even more.

4) Macron. This alien has the dubious honor of being the most frequently revised alien (though only revised once in a printed edition). The big concerns with Macron are his vulnerability to effects that can pick off a lone ship on a colony (powers like Shadow and Hate for instance), and the issue of compensation and rewards. With only 1 ship in the encounter, Macron was only ever able to pick up 1 card or ship when collecting compensation or rewards. The FFG change gives Macron double the compensation or rewards per ship (typically a total of 2). It's a decent compromise, though it doesn't do much to protect Macron's vulnerable colonies.

5) Symbiote. The new version is stronger and more flexible, since all 40 ships count for the win in every circumstance. The other tweak that was making Symbiote unzappable. This was part of also making it so you could never steal, copy, or do anything else to Symbiote, in an effort to head off any of the multitude of power interaction questions (like how does Plant affect it?). I had a lot more fun seeing the original version in play. It was interesting to watch the Symbiote player manage the two colors (since only the primary colored ships counted for foreign colonies). I think that element could have been retained, and the "you can not steal or copy" etc. aspects could have been included.

6) Virus. The Eon and Mayfair versions of Virus let him multiply all ships on his side (his and allies). The FFG version only multiplies the Virus ships, and allies are added normally. This is also the version of Virus that is used online. I'd be curious to know if it was a change made to the power to temper it, or a change made out of necessity coding-wise. I think this change, while weakening Virus, isn't a bad thing. Virus is frequently regarded as one of the biggest powerhouse aliens out there. It's a red-alert alien in FFG, because new players take a look at it and ask "how can you ever beat this alien?". It can be done, and this version is at his strongest early in the game. Later, when resources are usually spread thin, Virus loses some of his edge, especially on defense. But even multiplying your attack card by two, rather than merely adding 2, is still a significant advantage.

7) Void. Old Void could eradicate you right out of the game. I've only seen it happen once, but the fear of it happening was always present. New Void puts on the brakes when you get down to just enough ships to still be able to win. As above, this was a decision made from overall gameplay enjoyment... but I think I would have left it well enough alone.

Minor Tweaks

8) Clone. The only real change was clarifying that Clone's encounter card doesn't return to hand until after compensation, which means if he's got a great card, he'll get to keep using it until zapped (you can't steal it from him by negotiating). A very nice bit of clarification there.

9) Deuce. The big change here was making the second encounter card played by Deuce not count as an encounter card, and thus unaffected by any other alien that does something to your encounter card (e.g., Sorcerer). This is a great way to deal with all of those potential debates. Bravo.

10) Ethic. Previously a lucre power, Ethic didn't really need to be, and now it simply isn't. Patrick Riley proposed this change a few years back, and it's pretty sensible. Of course, there aren't that many good lucre powers, and now there's one fewer. However, I don't expect to see lucre powers any time soon from FFG, if ever. Mayfair's Ethic could discard some or all cards taken as compensation, but the other change FFG's version has is the ability to take the compensation from the deck instead of the other main player. The aliens that get something for losing aren't as fun for me as those that help you win, but it's nice to get something for your trouble, and the changes here are fine.

Other interesting revisions

11) Crystal. One of my least favorite aliens (although still preferred over Worm) has always been Crystal. In an effort to make it more interesting and perhaps more enjoyable for everyone in the game, I revised it thusly:
You have the power of Arrangement. Whenever you are a main player or ally in an encounter, use this power to give a Crystal token to each ally (including yourself, if you are an ally). Players must send the number of ships indicated by the token they are given, and may not refuse to ally if they have already accepted. A player who receives a 0 token is still considered an ally involved in the encounter, but has zero ships committed.
Like the Dictator revision, I like how it forces Crystal to work with what he's got. The original Crystal gave the allies an easy out by deciding not to ally after being told how many ships to commit. I like taking that option away. Crystal can only "screw" one player by forcing a commitment of 4 (or of 1) when the player clearly wanted a different number. The love, so to speak, is spread around a little more this way.

12) Demon. An alien that many people groaned about seeing in the game. I wanted to find a way to make Demon more of a strategic alien to have in the game and less of a crapshoot.
You have the power to Possess. Any time you are not involved in an encounter, use this power to attack the offensive player after both sides have played encounter cards but before they are revealed. You place 1-4 of your ships outside of the Hyperspace Gate and play an encounter card facedown. You and the offensive player reveal cards and resolve your mini-encounter (without allies). If the offensive player wins, your ships go to the Warp. If you win, his ships return to colonies, and your ships take over his encounter. You may now resolve the original encounter with either card played in the pre-encounter.
The downside is the additional time this adds to the game, though in reality I think it's pretty negligible. Instead of the offensive player deciding to either play a good encounter card and hope Demon doesn't possess, or playing a crappy card and hoping Demon does possess- now there's an element of having to be able to beat the Demon AND your regular opponent. And Demon now has the option of using the card played by the original offensive player. Imagine a player attacking Anti-Matter and playing a low attack card, but Demon swoops in with a high card and beats that player (only to turn around and use that player's original low attack card against Anti-Matter). It's still an invasive power (a reason that the "enhanced gameplay" mindset of the FFG version will likely avoid this alien), but I think a better way to approach it.

13) Diplomat. Some great suggestions and discussions have take place on BoardGameGeek about revising this alien. Check them out here. I do enjoy the new direction it has taken.

14) Doppelganger. This alien was radically changed from the Eon version to the Mayfair version, and no word yet if it will ever surface in the FFG version. Eon's was pretty formidable (take the highest attack card and "negotiate" card from your opponent every time you're a main player. This was another alien that confounded many people regarding how you can ever beat it, and certainly led to the changes. Mayfair tried to keep the spirit of the alien, and added some interesting psychological twists. You gave Doppelganger any two cards from your hand, and he could either keep them, or set them aside and look through your hand for two he wanted. So it became a game of psyching out Doppelganger by either giving him one good card and a crappy one to see if he'd keep it, or giving him your best card and something else while hoping he'd think there's even better stuff you're still holding onto. I tried to find some middle ground with this revision:
You have the power to haunt. At the start of the game, you do not receive an eight-card hand. Instead, each time you are a Main Player in an encounter, use this power demand two encounter cards from any player involved in the encounter (your opponent or any allies). That player decides which two to give you. After seeing the cards, you may either accept them, or you may set them aside and search through his remaining encounter cards and take two you like. You must take two cards from that player unless he started with only three, meaning he had only one left to take after you set two aside; in this case you get the one card remaining. After you have taken cards, the player gets the rest of his hand back, including cards that you set aside. The encounter then proceeds normally. At the end of the encounter, any cards you borrowed but did not use return to their previous owner. As long as you have use of your power, you never draw a new hand for lack of encounter cards. Any non-challenge cards you accumulate throughout the game may be held until played.
It works very much like the Mayfair version, but is restricted to encounter cards. It's been fun to play, and I think still captures the intent of both previous versions.

15) Empath. A lot of people unfairly characterize Empath as a weaker version of Pacifist. While they both use negotiates to their advantage, Empath has more flexibility on defense. However, I found making Empath mandatory to be too limiting. I made this revision:
You have the power of Harmony. As a main player in an encounter, if only one player reveals a negotiate card, you may use this power to change both revealed cards to negotiates.
I think this lets Empath decide when it's most convenient to be in a deal situation. Sometimes Empath wants to get compensation (if his opponent has the Empath flare, or whenever Genius is in the game). And sometimes Empath wants his opponent to take compensation. Finally, if Empath is the defense and his opponent plays a negotiate, it's nice for Empath to still have the opportunity to gain something from a deal situation, rather than just winning (and gaining nothing). It's a pretty subtle change, but with big result possibilities.

Final thoughts

There are quite a few other revisions on The Warp (some lucre changes, like Rob Burn's change to Force), including alternate versions of aliens in the FFG edition of CE. Some are definitely worth trying out. As Peter said, it's fun to see what new outcomes may take place. It's a fun way to think about creating aliens for CE- many homebrews are really just variations on an existing alien.


  1. Great to see some of the changes and new ideas out there. This is a lot more fruitful of an endeavor than creating new powers that end up being clones of ones in existence.

  2. Actually, the change to Doppelganger was likely due to the thought that it couldn't keep anything but Edicts (Artifacts). But it was ruled in an Encounter magazine (4 i think) that since Doppelganger says that it only had to discard Challenge cards (encounter) it could keep Kickers (so the same would be true for Flares). The Super was useless then.

  3. Awesome awesome post Jack. I'd like to comment on these changed powers as well, and comment on your comments too if I may!

    1. Chosen. I absolutely agree that the Mayfair power needed to be "beefed up." As you say, it would be fine if Chosen just had the opportunity to replace his original encounter card with one of the ones he drew. The FFG version, i.e. being able to add any encounter cards to the one he played, is quite beefy (I've seen it in action, it's beefy). Is it too beefy? Given the deck distribution, I lean a bit towards "yes" but FFG's Chosen isn't so super-powerful that it imbalances the game (like Virus [which doesn't irk me too much as it does have an Achilles' heel] or Mayfair's Connoisseur [which I find intolerably overpowered]).

    2. Dictator. Jack, your example above provides the perfect reason why Patrick Riley's revision is good for the game. Peter Olotka's objection to Riley's revision was that a smart Dictator would know better than just hammering on one particular player, over and over and over again. That's true, but how many times does a group need to have a "bad annoying" Dictator experience before their members learn how to be a "smart Dictator"? Is it worth it, or is life too short and gaming opportunities far too few? I tilt toward the second, and while recognizing Peter's point, I will laud FFG for choosing to put Riley's revision in their base set.

    (to be continued)

  4. 3. Grudge. There's really nothing wrong with the original Eon version; it's a fine power, but the subsequent revisions have spoiled us with how good it can get. Mayfair's revision to punish non-allies when you lose is excellent; they should be punished. Then, as Jack pointed out, FFG flips it and the power punishes the non-allies when you lose much more than when you win.

    My own preference is for FFG's power, partly because I think it gives potential allies more incentive to ally with you than Eon's does, but also because I'd rather make others feel the pain if I lose than if I win. However, I think this a slightly different thematic choice: Grudge in Eon is like the vengeful warlord who rises to power and then crushes those who didn't help him; Grudge in FFG is Steve Buscemi's character in "Billy Madison" who's developed a 'hit list' because he's still bitter about those who mistreated him in high school.

    (to be continued)

  5. 4. Macron. I like FFG's revision to Macron, to boost the value of its ships for Compensation or defender rewards. Your point about Macron's vulnerability to effects such as Hate and Shadow is valid, but I find that BunnyThor's revision, allowing Macron to be able to bring 2 ships into the cone/gate (for a value of +8) to be the cleanest solution to the problem. It may be a bit overpowered on offense, but probably not too much. Who knows? Maybe the FFG playtesters actually tried this out and found it to be too big. I'm willing to live with FFG Macron, and if I'm playing Macron, just find a way to turn the other players against Shadow or Hate and save my Zaps for them as well.

    (to be continued)

  6. 5. Symbiote. I really like what FFG did with Symbiote; as Jack mentions, in making it unzappable, unstealable, uncopiable, etc. they've given it some punch and some clean lines. It's funny, it's gone from a power which seemed to me to be "a power for a power's sake" to a real alien power.

    6. Virus. There's not a lot to say here. This is a reasonable downsizing of the power that really only might effect him later on in the game (he's already got massive firepower in the beginning). It's a good tweak, and compared to these others, rather a small one (not numbers-wise, but gameplay-wise, of course).

    7. Void. I'm pretty much in agreement with you here, Jack - it's a red-light alien, sensitive newbies shouldn't be playing with it anyway! So I can take this revision or leave it.

    8. Clone. The Clone clarification is great; we should all be able to live with the fact that his encounter card can't be stolen via Negotiates. He'd pretty pathetic if you could do that to him.

    (to be continued)

  7. 9. Deuce. I agree; the tiny tweak to Deuce is so simple and so straightforward that I'm surprised the original Eon guys nor the Mayfair development team didn't think of it themselves in their versions. I guess it missed me too - I had figured Deuce was so buggy that it needed significant errata dealing with Oracle, Sorceror, Mirror, etc. Great work, FFG.

    10. Ethic. In 2004, when I posted my "Top 5 revisions to canon CE powers" thread on BGG, I almost included Patrick Riley's Ethic, which as Jack noted, made Ethic into a non-Lucre power. FFG's version is different than Riley's version, but I love how Ethic can pick from the deck instead of his opponent if he chooses. I'm more excited about this Ethic being in Cosmic Incursion than any other power (even Sniveler). Thank you FFG!

    (to be continued)

  8. I like the Empath change because it also feels more thematically correct — if a "real" Empath were offered a truce, it would more likely accept it than not.

    (Then again, maybe the point of the Empath is that it's not really as happy-fuzzy as it sounds, like the Philanthropist and the Pacifist. Still, it's a good improvement of its strength.)