Catan, Carcassonne, Cosmic Frog
The other day my buddy punched my sister-in-law into the fifth dimension. Upon returning to our reality she got revenge by shoving her tongue down his throat, extracting the forest he’d been storing in his gullet, and using it to create a pocket universe.
That’s really all you need to know about Jim Felli’s upcoming game, Cosmic Frog. But if you absolutely must hear more, I’ll add that Felli is known for Shadows of Malice, Bemused, Dûhr: The Lesser Houses, and Zimby Mojo — deeply weird stuff, in other words — and somehow Cosmic Frog, with its kilometers-tall amphibians, planet-shattering hailstones, and dimensional buffoonery, is by far his most accessible title yet.
Cosmic Frog is about destruction and creation in equal measure. Not that it’s saying they’re two sides of the same coin or links in the same chain or anything like that. Cosmic Frog isn’t the sort of game you play for philosophy. It’s the sort of game you play because you want to see titanic frogs slug each other in the nostrils. To make that possible, the world has ended. Kaboom. Shards of terrain, adrift on an endless sea of aether. Fortunately, the inhabitants of this doomed world happened to believe in big frogs. Belief shapes reality, much the way big frogs shape terrain by storing it within their gullet. Now the frogs are creating worlds anew. “It’s frogs all the way down,” declares the penitent to the agnostic, her belief in the blessed anura as certain as her own existence.
Sorry, we’ve strayed back into philosophical territory. Before the cynics descend, let’s talk about what being a cosmic frog is all about.
First, creation. As a cosmic frog, you have a single relatable goal: to scoop up bits of terrain, hold them in escrow somewhere between throat and stomach, and compress them into your “vault,” a froggish euphemism for “entirely new universe.” Most of the time, this process is relatively straightforward. Sometimes you’ll be floating in the aether — the only place you can regurgitate all those lands — while other times you’ll descend to the largest shard of the previous planet in order to hop around in search of deserts and forests and mountains and everything else you need to create a well-rounded world.
The problem with frogs is that straightforward objectives have a way of getting out of hand. For example, the way turns are structured. Rather than going around in a big circle between frogs, the way humans and their tabletop games are wont to do, you instead draw from a deck. When your color comes up, you take an action. When somebody else’s color is pulled, they go. When you draw a splinter, it smacks into the shard and causes wanton destruction. More on that in a minute.
Despite this chaos — or rather because of it — the few things you can control are incredibly precious. Oomph, for instance. Yes, oomph. As cosmic herpetologists know, oomph is the measure of a cosmic frog’s power. While it’s possible to take a single action on your turn (your chaotic, random turn, remember), it’s also possible to spend some oomph for a second action. The downside is that wholly depleting your oomph means you’ll need to take a nap, being cold-blooded and all, which consumes an entire (chaotic, random) turn.
Now smash those two concepts together and you’ll have some sense for what Cosmic Frog is about. Careful, measured control on the one hand, about as much ability to steer as an octopus in free-fall on the other. It’s a reactive game, one where somebody will take four turns in sequence, only to sit around until the rest of the deck has finally reached their remaining cards. Plans are laid, then broken, then laid and broken again, until at last one of them happens to hatch in perfect sequence and everyone at the table watches in awe. And bitter resentment.
This is where destruction comes in. Because in addition to being a game about putting things in order, it’s also a game about things spinning apart. Sometimes because you were the one to first set them in motion. Oh, there are natural dangers aplenty. Splinters crash into the shard, shattering precious lands and possibly ending the game at an uncertain moment. Flux waves blow past, forcing you to exchange your power for another unless you’ve hoarded some oomph for just such an occasion. Quakes can tumble everyone back into the aether. But despite these natural disasters, your main competitors are the very creatures with whom you range beyond the scope of the food chain like gluttonous lords.
For example, let’s say you’ve sucked up some lands. More than any random assortment, you’ve gathered a meadow, a forest, and another meadow. This is important for two reasons. First, lands always exit your gullet in reverse sequence. Makes sense, and establishes your esophagus as a sort of cosmic tennis ball tube. What might not be as immediately apparent is that your final score is determined by the arrangement of lands in your vault, tabulated by removing tiles from top to bottom, effectively digging through the stomach pellet of everything you’ve created. Here’s a row of three highlands; that’s nine points. Here’s a single lowland underneath; but it’s extra nice, so it’s worth three. Whenever you regurgitate anything into your vault, you’re effectively building a scoring minigame from the bottom up. Like I said, despite the chaos, there’s a certain order at play.
Our particular arrangement of lands is also important because because meadows are lowlands and forests are highlands, and in this case they share a similar color. Whenever you arrange such a match within your vault, your reward is a siphon. Now you’ll regenerate some oomph every turn. That’s great! Of course, you’ll have to build around this siphon when preparing your vault for scoring. And doubly of course, other cosmic frogs will be cosmically aware of what you’ve built within your vault.
Cue the constant threat of enemy attacks. If you’re punched in the gut, your attacker can reach into your gullet and drag out those precious lands. If you’re assaulted in the aether, you might be belted into an outer dimension, at which point your vault may be freely raided, letting your rivals scoop out your finished landmasses and siphons.
Like everything else in Cosmic Frog, Felli handles such possibilities through a combination of old-school resolution and modern sensibility. Combat revolves around a simple die roll, but your strength — at all three types of combat, whether on-shard, in the aether, or at raiding vaults — is determined by your current power card, and anyone can expend oomph to roll extra dice or increase their result. Simple, fast, and chancy, but with some wiggle room to nudge the odds in your favor.
The same goes for having your vault raided. Watching a rival filch a crucial land is painful, even score-wrecking, but generally only occurs as a result of inattention or a gang-up. If you’re standing on the shard, you’ll first need to be knocked into the aether before banishment to the outer dimensions is even a possibility. And upon being banished, any of your drawn turn cards will accrue until you break free, letting you take a whole bunch of actions in sequence, like a vengeful Frog of Monte Cristo. This is the sign of a designer who knows his craft, letting setbacks sting while also providing fresh opportunities.
In fact, the entire thing hops along with hard-fought confidence. The powers are deliciously evocative, whether you’re gobbling up lands from afar, getting a free move at the start of each turn, bullying everyone with powerful dice, or draining a rival’s oomph. The playtime is tied to the crumbling of the shard, nearly always concluding right before a watershed turn. The turn order is capricious but fair, guaranteeing the same number of turns to everyone, but doling them out in such a way that charting your next moves with a cartographer’s precision is an impossibility.
Perhaps most importantly, Cosmic Frog is beautifully absurd yet finely tuned, like a chamber orchestra buzzing out a kazoo symphony. It bubbles with laughter, inflicts a few setbacks and reversals, and then concludes before it overstays its welcome. Too short and the process of laying out all those tiles would be pointless; too long and its frivolity would begin to wear thin. Instead, it’s a cosmological trifle that leaves you wanting more. The world’s most peculiar gateway game, with none of the negative connotations that descriptor implies, as worthy of consideration as Catan or Carcassonne for the sheer delight of creation and the wanton thrill of cracking a planet in twain.
A prototype copy was provided.