The Big Crunch of Little Microcosm
You’ve probably heard of the Big Crunch, the theory that the universe will eventually realize that continual expansion is so last eon, and will instead reverse its direction and collapse into a single gravitational singularity.
Eminent Domain: Microcosm is sort of like that, but for card games. And it probably hurts less.
For fear of spending more time writing about Eminent Domain: Microcosm than it actually takes to play a game of Eminent Domain: Microcosm, I’ll stick to the basics. This is a microgame in the truest sense of the word, everything packed into a card box so slim that you could feasibly lose it on that cluttered desk of yours. It takes two players maybe ten minutes to play (barring severe cases of overanalysis), requires only nine turns per player, operates under the most basic of rules, and it looks pretty nice too.
The thing that makes Microcosm stand out is that it doesn’t feel like your run-of-the-mill microgame. Where too many microgames are so obsessed with being svelte that they end up burning all the calories that would have given them some flavor, this one understands that good gameplay arises from a healthy decision space. It might be lean, but there’s still enough meat on its bones to get a stew on.
Pick a card. Play an action.
Those are the rules. Sure, it’s easy enough to reduce any game to a couple soundbites. Dixit: Play a card. Be semi-comprehensible. Netrunner: Play a card. Insist it’s exactly like playing poker. Even the box’s rules sheet strives to reduce it too much, resulting in a hole-filled mess that almost kills Microcosm before it even gets a chance at life — a terrible oversight for a game that’s otherwise so easy to learn and play. I recommend this video for anyone floundering with the rules.
But what makes Microcosm so impressive is that it’s simple without ever really becoming simplistic. By way of example, let’s take a look at those two rules.
Pick a card. Every turn opens with a player either selecting one of three face-up cards or gambling by picking blind from the top of the deck. But since there are only 18 cards in total, and since most of them are the same three types, and since picking a card blind means your opponent is blind to what you’ve just acquired, this becomes an important (and often informed) choice that can limit your opponent’s knowledge of what you’re holding. What’s more, since every card provides both a new action and a means of picking up points at the end of the game, rewarding colonies or techs or spoils or whatever else, every single card pick is about more than just choosing the most immediately useful action.
Play an action. At its simplest, you can either play a card to take its action or pick up your discard pile to replenish your hand. In reality, this is an even trickier decision than the card selection.
There are plenty of subtleties at play, but I’ll just give one example. Two of the main card types are Colonize and Warfare, both of which let you take control of the planets sitting in the center of the table. The Colonize card lets you take those planets for yourself, and revealing certain icons, whether from your hand or your colonized worlds, lets you take better planets.
In general, this process of revealing icons lets you improve most of your actions. Research, for instance, can be done twice if you reveal enough lightbulb icons, while Warfare is only possible if you reveal enough attacks.
What makes this compelling is that Colonize and Warfare might seem similar at first, but both offer unique benefits. Colonizing a planet makes its icons available for future use, but also means it’s vulnerable to being stolen via an opponent’s Warfare action. Conversely, taking a planet through Warfare turns it into a “spoil,” useful for points at the end of the game and completely untouchable — but never contributing its icons for future actions.
Eminent Domain: Microcosm is chock-full of clever moments like this. A full game only gives each player nine brief turns, but it makes each and every one of them interesting. Even a throwaway choice like whether to play another card or pick up your discard pile becomes difficult when actions are limited and certain cards offer special benefits while discarded.
That’s emblematic of Microcosm as a whole. It might be tiny, but it never feels pared down, resulting in one of the few microgames that isn’t diminished by its size. If this is what the Big Crunch is going to be like, I say bring on the collapse of all matter.