When the Frogs Knock Over the Trees
Chaos. The whispered curse. When a game is labeled as capricious, we hardly expect further explanation. “Too random,” we say, like that’s answer enough, like there’s no difference between types of chance, like nobody could appreciate a game for the chaos it flings in our faces. It’s the leprosy of the modern board game scene.
I’ve already written about Jim Felli’s Cosmic Frog. Now that it’s finally here, my thoughts on the matter haven’t transformed. Like the rest of Felli’s work, Cosmic Frog is distinctive: an offbeat setting, messy rulebook, reasonably straightforward play, and a social space that relies on the investment of its players to mark the line between an unremarkable slog and one of the weirdest competitions in recent memory. Its finished incarnation isn’t all that different from the preview version, either. The main change is a variant that adds even more chaos.
That’s its defining element, what will float or scupper it with audiences, what marks it as worthy of investigation: chaos. So let’s take a look at the many ways it handles chance, and why this particular pile-on gives it such flair.
Keep count on your fingers the ways Cosmic Frog peddles uncertainty.
One, the frogs themselves. The old world has shattered, reduced to a shard, mostly barren, but hosting bubbles of earth and soil, vegetation and moisture. You are a two-mile-tall frog, spelled out in Felli’s meandering rulebook. Your task is to descend from the aether to the shard, consume those bubbles and store them in your gullet, and then leap, leap, leap into the aether once more for the sacred act of disgorgement and creation, the mucus of your esophageal tract soothing the birth of a pocket universe of your own design. To aid in this act, every frog is given a power. A whiptongue for harvesting land from afar, camouflage for hiding among the stones, vampirism, mind-control. Yet these powers fluctuate. Sometimes by chance, sometimes by defeat; in either case, you are not guaranteed to remain yourself for long.
Two, the shard, always formed anew. This landscape becomes even less accountable once the game’s new variant marks certain lands as bounteous. Your creation demands these lands, whether special formations for renewing your natural energies or larger stretches of terrain for beauty’s sake — or “points,” in crasser parlance. Yet even these young dimensions are not assailable. If their maker is banished to one of the outer dimensions by an act of violence, they may be broken anew and stolen into the throat-sac of another frog. Such violence deserves a finger of its own, the third thus far, the result of spent energy and hedged odds, but still as fickle as a rolled die. Probably because that’s literally all it is.
Four, the deck that regulates turn order. Even then, “order” is a misnomer. There is no fixed conduct here. A card is drawn to designate the next frog, who immediately takes an action and then perhaps spends some energy to take another. All frogs have the same number of cards in the deck, and thus would seem to receive an identical number of turns. The effect can be jarring. The blue frog takes their turn, then for a heartbeat there is a pause as everybody glances at the next player in clockwise order. Except, wait, that’s not right. Back to the deck, sometimes stringing turns together, sometimes leaving somebody for the end, sometimes robbing or providing opportunities for banditry or escape.
Five, the second deck, contingent on the first, that sends splinters of the world-that-was colliding with itself and threatening to prematurely conclude the feast. Where other games are orderly, featuring a set number of rounds and no more, Cosmic Frog refuses the dignity of concluding at the proper moment. When the shard fragments, it is done. Also done is any sense of fairness. Every frog begins with the same number of cards in the deck, but it’s rare that the deck will conclude that way. When a splinter strikes you, you are injured, your landmasses lost, your position ceded as you spin into the aether. In similar fashion, when the final splinter breaks the shard, any remaining actions are also lost to the cataclysm.
Six, the unfathomable depth of the empire of the mind.
What emotions does Cosmic Frog prompt? Anticipation, surely. Every turn of a card is a moment stuck in time: who will play next, what your new power will be. Envy, as you watch a rival frog’s creation adopt a shape that will surely outpace the beauty of your own. Opportunism, as other rivals descend to harry the frog you recently banished into some far-flung dimension. Red vengeance, that motivating force that causes the spurned to return with fury to wreck your chances for wrecking theirs. Or will everybody patiently and quietly go about the business of farming the shard for stray landmasses? That’s the sort of thing you can’t answer until Cosmic Frog asks the question.
This past week, my city was struck by a windstorm that threw trees to the ground, damaged property, and left 170,000 people without electricity. I wrote the first paragraphs of this essay by waning natural light, mere hours after my infant daughter screamed in terror and buried her face in my shoulder, little fingers clutching my shirt like some drowning creature, because the wind at the door struck harder than she had ever felt. To her the storm must have seemed unfathomable, a disruption of every rule she’s learned over her first fourteen months of life. She screamed with the fright of one who has seen the wrathful face of a god. Or worse: air currents pushed into uncommon avenues, pressure built and burst, proximity to the mouth of a canyon that funnels the cold nighttime air like a sluice.
Chaos, not divinity. Entropy, not design. Chance, not punishment or protection. No meaning behind the wind. To most of us, true randomness has always been worse than even the harshest order.
Cosmic Frog is a game about such forces, albeit with a sparkling of the spiritual at the end of the tunnel. Its analgesic doesn’t stop there. Each raised finger is given a counterpoint. Your frog’s ability is in flux, but you can spend energy to delay the metamorphosis. The land may be battered, but you can target the safest bubbles of earth and avoid the probable sites of falling splinters. Combat clatters one way or the other on the roll of a die, but you can spend for an extra roll or bonus modifiers. And layered among and over the other considerations, you’re surrounded by jealous beings, petty minds, willing to take what’s yours the instant your armor shows a spot of rust. So don’t show it. Sprint from the shard to the aether and disgorge the contents of your gullet before anybody can intercept you. Keep your ability concealed, reveling in the camouflage of the unknown. Bluster when somebody comes near. Strike first and fast, lest somebody else do the same to you.
Because Cosmic Frog isn’t about chaos. That’s only the backdrop. It’s really about striving for an order that’s been long withheld. About fighting for something even though you don’t know the exact rules, the precise parameters, even when the game will end. It’s about gardening in a windstorm.
And thanks to the occasional handout, the world it presents is downright comforting compared to the chaos of real life. Because its fantasy is unpruned and its stakes are abstract, Cosmic Frog breeds failure and setback in an environment where failure and setback don’t matter. It’s a sandbox, not a construction yard. The damage inflicted here will not last. This is Felli’s chief triumph. Too random? Not at all. This one is exactly random enough.
A complimentary copy was provided.