by Mike Sugarbaker
You know those catalogs full of novelty items, designed so corporations can buy them in bulk and print their logo on them, to give away to clients or at the company picnic or something like that? Something tells me Andrew Looney of Looney Labs got his hands on one of those catalogs. He's going to work his way through it, slowly, printing onto balloons, clocks or inflatable aliens whatever bare minimum is needed to turn them into ingenious little board games.
Yeah, so, I know that's not really what happened. Even though he once printed a board game onto the back of a T-shirt and designed a game in which the shirt's wearer lies down and the players play the game on his or her back. Even though the first half of 1999 brought a Looney Labs game, called Proton, that was essentially one of those sliding puzzle things, only with a spare, beautifully 1982-looking game board printed on it. The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking Looney was obsessively trying to atone for what he calls on his web site "one of [his] earliest game design mistakes ... creating a game (Icehouse) that required a large number of difficult-to-fabricate, custom-made components."
So what's the latest inconspicuous consumption item to be transformed into a Looney game? It's Cosmic Coasters, a 2- to 4-player turn-based strategy game which bears more than a little resemblance to its near-namesake Cosmic Encounter. Each of the four round bar coasters in the set is a planet, and your goal is to get one of your ships onto your opponent's planet, and then back. However, your only means of movement between planets is teleportation, and as the game's marketing copy helpfully points out, "The problem with teleportation is that it's a one way trip." Once you've got a presence on the hostile planet, you'll need to have more ships there to get control of that planet's teleportation equipment and make it back home.
Yes, folks, coasters. These heavy-duty cardboard discs, beautifully printed in color on one side with NASA images of the moons of Jupiter, are a perfectly suitable place to rest your cold one. Even during a game, if you think you can get away with it. Get them as wet as you want and they'll dry out again, good as new. On the reverse side are printed most of the rules of the game, and a different special ability on each coaster. (This makes it a bit tough on multi-player games; one hopes the Looneys will put the powers on cards in a future edition. In the meantime, at least a second set is cheap.) The abilities can give you advantages in attacks, in defense, or in protecting your ground.
Each of the four planet boards is identical. The center place on the board is the Teleport Pad, on which one of your ships must stand, Star Trek style, to be transported to an arbitrary spot on another planet. Four paths lead outward from the Teleport Pad to Factories, and in between the four Factories are Control Points. Factories and Control Points work similarly, but where they're placed on the board makes for important tactical differences. If you control the two Factories surrounding a space, you can spawn a new ship there. If you - and only you - control at least two Control Points on a planet, then and only then can you use its Teleport Pad.
There is, of course, ship-to-ship combat. It amounts to one ship landing on another and trying to blow it away, and understandably, it happens pretty often. In fact, combat is the main way in which players mess with each other. And how does combat get resolved?
Rock, Paper, Scissors.
This is both brilliant and problematic. A roshambo-based (no, not that roshambo) combat mechanic means there are no dice to cart around, should you choose to do something innovative like play a game printed on bar coasters in, say, a bar. On top of that, it's physical and way fun. However, some people prefer to resolve this sort of thing by chance, and RPS is anything but a game of chance. You can often end up in frustrating endless loops, in which your opponent has somehow figured out how to read you for a while, and you end up just having to repeat the current optimal move over and over, hoping for a break in your RPS "luck." (The special power Teleport Inhibitor is a particular problem in this department. Someone with a Stinging Defense can also slow the game significantly.)
My only other complaint about gameplay is it takes having two ships in play to make another. In our three-player game, two of us ended up with one ship left on our home planets, unable to do anything but delay the game. The rules ought to formally knock you out when you're down to one ship.
I'm deliberately not talking too much about the special player powers, because you practically have enough information to play the game without buying it at this point. However, those powers are half of what makes Cosmic Coasters play like Cosmic Encounter. The rest is the way the RPS dynamic feels a bit like Encounter's card play, in terms of the paranoia it can create. Cross Cosmic Encounter with Nine Men's Morris and you come awfully close to Cosmic Coasters. If the rock-paper-scissors thing gives you a rash, if you prefer turn-based simple abstract strategy with no randomness or special powers at all, or if board games just aren't your speed, then you have an excuse not to buy it. The rest of you are in for a game that never makes you feel stupid, always offers choices, and manages to feel cute and funny while remaining essentially abstract. You're all required to run out and buy lots of copies immediately, so I can get lots of Rabbit points. Oops, did I say that out loud?
[Disclaimer: yes, Mike is a volunteer Looney Labs demo person. He receives no compensation, apart from the occasional neat holiday gift, which is how we got our preview edition of Cosmic Coasters. Someday, when OgreCave is wildly successful, our reviewers will be a lot more biased than this, so savor it while it lasts.]