Chaosmos is a race to find a mysterious artifact that could stave off the end of the universe while other alien artifact hunters try to track you down and steal it for themselves. Meanwhile, a cosmic clock counts inexorably down to a galactic apocalypse.
There are so many things this game does right. For one thing, the components are really well-made, from the detailed sculptures of weird aliens to the small boxes and screens that secure the game’s crucial hidden information. Most space board games are about conquest and combat, and while combat is a factor in Chaosmos, this game is really all about trickery and deception. Each planet has a set of cards hidden in a small box, and you can only look at the cards on a planet if you go there. The Ovoid, the thing everyone wants, is on one of the planets. So when the game starts, no one knows where it is (unless it’s on one of the players’ home planets, in which case exactly one person knows where it is).
As you travel from planet to planet, you look at the cards at each one in secret, then secretly take some of them to add to your hand while leaving some behind, and possibly leaving behind some that had been in your hand before. The cards you can find include weapons that make your ship better in combat, traps that you can leave on a planet to spring on the next player to wander along, vaults to hide cards in, and even powerful effects that let you accelerate the game’s countdown. Whoever holds the Ovoid on the final turn wins the game. And if no one has it, the universe ends and no one wins.
From this simple set-up springs forth a supercluster of complex and clever strategies. Your hand is limited to seven cards, so in your travels you will adjust and refine which cards you hold and leave some behind. Beating another player in combat lets you look at their hand and steal a card from it, which means finding the Ovoid early presents difficult decisions. If you hold it, you will eventually be found out. But if you hide it, it’s vulnerable to being grabbed up by another player.
Combat is a straightforward case of rolling two six-sided dice, then taking turns playing cards that add to your combat number until someone wins. But there’s a fascinating twist. A few cards, like grenades, are single use and are discarded after combat. But many of them go back into your hand—they’re like weapons equipped permanently to your ship. You can have quite the undefeatable ship if you find enough of these. But there are cards that specifically defeat some combat cards, not only negating the combat bonus they give, but adding a bonus to the defender’s combat score as well. The other players will eventually figure out which weapons you’re using to defeat them and track down the weapons that negate your advantage.
Each alien species has special traits that keep each game fresh. One race can peek at the cards on distant planets, while others can warp home. One even starts with the Ovoid in hand, so everyone knows who has it. This changes a mad dash to find the Ovoid to a frenetic chase to grab it or search every planet in its wake to see if they left it behind. Card effects that let you occasionally ship cards across the galaxy, scry an opponent’s hand, and do other unexpected things keep everyone on their toes and can lead to some really exciting finishes. There are some variant and optional rules you can add for even more variation.
This game gets top marks for interactivity—you’re constantly stealing cards from each other, watching what each other player does, trying to figure out who might have the Ovoid or where they hid it, and of course hurling space weaponry at each other in combat. Each game took us about an hour and a half to play, and we were still learning the rules. The clock mechanism really pushes the pace of the game and never lets it bog down.
Chaosmos’ sci-fi underpinnings are strong. Designer Joey Vigour was heavily influenced by William Sleator’s novel Interstellar Pig. The alien races in the game are truly bizarre—few of them are even vaguely humanoid, so there’s a real sense of far-out pulp weirdness. Something about the game—maybe the endless space weapon arms race—reminds me in some ways of Iain Banks’ Culture novels. You can read more about the game’s setting (and the complete rule book) at publisher Mirror Box Games’ website.
I think my only frustration is that the game has a hard limit of four players. More than that and you’d end up with a crowded board and cards spread too thin across the galaxy. This could surely be remedied by an expansion. But overall my gaming group and I had a great time playing this. After each game there was a ton of table talk about who had what plan to grab the Ovoid, what might have happened differently, which strategy worked and which one backfired—a sign of a fun, engaging game for sure.