Chaosmos in the Old Universe
Like an animal dead at the side of the road, the universe has begun to decompose. Too hot, too bloated, collapsing beneath its own weight. Making this metaphor even flimsier, as a member of one of the organism’s last surviving races — all of them charmingly weird, no jack-of-all-trades humans in sight — your only hope rests on the shoulders, boggles, or tentacles of the agent sent to find the all-important Ovoid. Without it, your extinction is guaranteed; with it, your people will be reborn in the universe to come.
Unfortunately, somebody went and told all the other species about it too. The race is on.
Part One: The Search
There are no victory points in Chaosmos, no second place, everything reduced to this final binary when the game clock reaches zero: there’s the race holding the Ovoid and then there’s everybody else.
The problem is, unless someone was dealt the species that begins the game with the Ovoid (protip: give them a different one, or you’ll miss out on the game’s entire first act), nobody can be sure exactly where it is. The universe is made up of eight to ten planets that you’ll travel between, each with their own envelope stuffed with item cards to be searched and plundered, and the Ovoid could be in any one of them. Maybe it’s over there, on the planet that’s toxic to your species, and you’ll have to find the proper enviro gear before touching down. Maybe it’s hidden on the planet right next door, the one you’re considering passing over because you can search it anytime. Or maybe it began in someone’s starting envelope, giving them control of the life-saving artifact from the first turn.
If the Ovoid is the beating heart MacGuffin of Chaosmos, then these envelopes are its brain. While at first they might seem like a flashy stand-in for a face-down stack of cards at each planet, it quickly becomes apparent they’re actually the game’s best innovation.
See, the first third of each game revolves around players scouring the universe for the Ovoid’s location. You don’t necessarily want to be holding it, however. Early on, there are enough single-use items floating around that let players peek into each other’s hands that it’s often better to just dump it somewhere out of the way, careful not to give away its location by grinning like a little kid whose dad just burgled a candy store. You can always come back for it later, provided nobody else stops by.
Even in the event that they do, it’s still possible to thwart them. See, what the envelopes do that a face-down stack of cards can’t accomplish is give you ways to place obstacles between whatever you’ve stashed on a planet and any player who might mosey along for a peek. Someone comes along, pops open that envelope, and the abyss staring them back in the face is a Telethwarter Trap, banishing them back to their home planet. Or a Magnetic Vault, a transparent object that doesn’t prevent them from looking through the cards it protects, maybe even catching sight of the Ovoid itself, but they won’t be getting through unless they find a key first. The most overt option is a Base, triggering a battle whenever someone tries to blast through it.
Part Two: The Swap
These trap cards are important because sooner or later someone is going to find the Ovoid. More importantly, sooner or later someone is going to spill the beans on whoever has it. Whether by scrying their hand, beating them in a battle and rifle through their cards, or just having a nagging suspicion that their candy-store grin means they’ve got a pocketful of something sweet, eventually the location of the Ovoid is going to get narrowed down. And when that happens, a whole lot of choices open up.
You could, for instance, try to hide it. Bluffing is a very real option. You could use a Hypertube to send it to an envelope far away from anyone else, or at least pretend to, sending some crappy primitive weapon instead. Or you could hide it on a planet along with a trap, blocking the first player who comes along to claim it. Or lock it in a vault and hide the key. Or just run away with the Ovoid, though good luck avoiding anyone who hasn’t frivolously spent their limited hyperspace tokens.
Where the first third of the game was full of mystery, a prolonged treasure hunt where anybody might know where the loot was buried, this middle act is all about misdirection, timing, and doing your best to track the Ovoid’s uncertain movements. For instance, someone might point the finger at the player who has the Ovoid, only for that player to quickly stop by two planets, each of which are soon visited by other players. Now your mind is racing, tracking the Ovoid’s possible whereabouts. Was it at the planet Geoff visited? Did he take it, or just pretend to when he took a card from there, hoping to come back for it after he’s thrown off the scent? Or is it now in Clive’s hand, and why is he suddenly running off to the planet he knows is toxic to you?
And there’s nothing quite like being the person who knows where the Ovoid is, tingling with electric excitement and doing your best not to shiver, not to budge, not to give away your secret. But don’t sit too rigidly! Just act natural. What’s natural? you wonder, realizing you’re tapping your finger against the Cloaking Orb you’ll use to hide the Ovoid if anyone scries your hand.
Props if you manage to reach the end of the game without that happening though. As the game timer ticks down and players become more desperate, sooner or later people are going to start attacking each other.
Part Three: The Scrap
It’s possible to go an entire game of Chaosmos never knowing where the Ovoid is. And when that happens, the game can be a little dull and a little infuriating.
However, it’s more likely that the Ovoid’s location will eventually become evident, everyone closing in on the player whose hand has been tipped.
Sometimes the outcome of that final chase relies a little too much on the roll of some dice — which is slightly unfortunate — but for the most part the combat system is actually pretty neat, encouraging scouting, experimentation, and a shifting strategy.
See, nearly every card has a counter-card hidden in one of those envelopes. If you run into a player who relies on the Neural Infector, go ahead and grab the Neural Deflector, which will not only cancel his attack bonus but also add it to your combat number instead. Sure, it’s possible for someone to haul around both their weapon and its counter-weapon, but with severely limited hand sizes, the cards you might need soon add up: weapons, counter-weapons, maybe a spare trap to throw someone off your scent, enviro gear for exploring toxic planets, a key for getting past vaults, and all the other special gear you might want to bring along. Hell, one of the big reasons not to grab the Ovoid early on is simply because it takes up space until the end of the game.
But end the game with the Ovoid you must, which is why the third act of Chaosmos tends to be so bloody, players tearing into each other and undermining each other’s cards as quickly as possible, and all the while the clock tick tick ticks down.
It’s a little bit brilliant.
A little bit.
There’s a lot I like about Chaosmos. It’s innovative, interesting, tightly designed, and seamlessly stitches dramatic tension into its gameplay. Each of the species offer unique abilities, and apart from a couple that take things too far (especially the one that starts with the Ovoid), they offer different experiences without disrupting the core experience. It marries a trim game of bluffing and deduction to a bunch of planets and their envelopes, the board state tied to the mental state of the people moving around on it. And perhaps best of all, there’s a lot going on here, but it’s never overwhelming, never complicated.
Still, its charming weirdness and defiant uniqueness aren’t going to appeal to everybody. The first third of the game can drag, especially if you’ve elected to play with the longer timer, and it requires a zoned-in group willing to pay close attention to everyone’s actions in order to really milk the Star MacGuffin concept for all it’s worth.
But with that right group… bug, Chaosmos sings.