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Cosmic Coasters

Designer: Andrew Looney
Publisher: Looney Labs
Players: 2
Time: 20 minutes
Reviewer: Matthew Baldwin

I like games. And I like bars. It should come as no surprise, then, that I really like games that can be played in bars: games that are portable, easy to learn and play, with no small pieces or components that will be ruined by a spilt beer or three. This is why Call My Bluff, Werewolf, and innumerable card games are amongst the most played in my collection, and why I am always on the lookout for new games that can be adapted for "Bar Play". So you can imagine how pleased I was that Andrew Looney—creator of Chrononauts and Fluxx—had designed a game specifically for barflies like me.

The game is Cosmic Coasters, so named because it is printed directly onto four sturdy bar coasters. One side of each coaster has a playing surface, the other has the rules, and the players take two a piece (one as a game board and one as a reference card— or just as a convenient place to set a pint of bitters). Each coasters shows surface of a planet (created from actual surfaces photos from the moons of Jupiter) and has nine locations on it: eight evenly spaced on the perimeter of the planet and one in the exact center. These locations are of three types: at the cardinal directions on the perimeter are Factories, at the intermediate directions are Control Points, and in the center is a Teleportation Pad. The locations are connected by paths, with all of the locations on the perimeter connected to their neighbor, and the Factories also connected to the Teleportation Pad. Players each start by putting seven tokens on their own planet, leaving only two Factories vacant.

On a turn a player can Move a token, Build a token or Teleport. You can move a token to a adjacent location along a path, but if the new location is already occupied you must fight for the right to move in. The method of Combat Resolution is good ol' fashioned Rock, Paper, Scissors (RPS): if you try to move in and win at RPS, your opponent's token is destroyed and you fill the vacancy; if you tie your opponent's token is destroyed but you don't move; and nothing happens if you lose. Notice that an opponent's token is destroyed in two-thirds of the outcomes, a factor that greatly encourages aggression.

You can rebuild destroyed tokens: if you own the two Control Points flanking a vacant Factory you can plunk a new token in that location. And if you are the only player to control two Control Points on a planet, you can Teleport the token sitting on the Teleportation Pad to any location on the other planet. It can even teleport to an occupied location, in which case the preexisting token is destroyed as the incoming token warps in.

The object is to be the first to teleport one of your own token back from your opponent's planet. Since all your tokens begin on your own planet, this means that you'll first have to teleport a few tokens over there, occupy at least two of his Control Points, and get a token onto his teleport pad before you can send your comrade home. And that's no small feat to perform with only seven tokens at your disposal, especially since they will be under constant attack. All told, the game plays out like a cross between Rock, Paper, Scissors and Nine Man Morris—and odd amalgamation since the former is sheer luck (or, arguably, psychology) while the latter is pure skill. And truth be told, I'd be the last to volunteer for a game of either. But the blending of the two works reasonably well. The Rock, Paper, Scissors element does get old quickly, but there's plenty of strategic decisions to keep your mind occupied. You can, for example, teleport two tokens to your opponent's planet, occupy two Control Points over there and use the Factory in-between to pump out new tokens and colonize his world. Or you can manufacture your tokens on your home planet and just keep teleporting them over—this requires a few extra turns to get a token on your opponent's homeland, but teleporting onto an opponent's token ensures its destruction (as opposed to moving onto it, where failure is a possibility).

One problem with the game, though, is the "hump" in the middle: once each player has his seven tokens spread out amongst the two planets and the scrap heap, things can come to a near standstill. Someone will build a new token and the other person will destroy it, or you'll spend half a dozen turns sparring over a single Control Point. This usually continues until someone wins a couple of Rock, Paper, Scissors matches in a row and gets enough of an edge to break the deadlock. These stalemates don't last too long, but they may leaving you wondering if victory ultimately comes down to winning those crucial Rock, Paper, Scissors matches in the midgame—and, if so, is the rest of the game just window dressing?

To spice things up a bit, each player gets a special power. One of the powers, for example, allows a player to move his token to an empty space (rather than being destroyed) when an enemy teleports onto it. Another allows you to move your tokens up to two locations per turn. These powers lead me to believe that Mr. Looney took Cosmic Encounter as his inspiration, although the games share nothing beyond a common theme. Another game it reminds me of is Button Men, although, again, the two are wholly dissimilar. Like Button Men, Cosmic Coasters skimps on "game", but makes up for it with "novelty": "yeah it's not the greatest game of all time ... but it's on beer coasters!!" For that reason alone I foresee myself playing Cosmic Coasters as often as any other of my recent purchases. And that's not too shabby for a game that costs about the same as the beer you'll set atop it.

- Matthew Baldwin

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