The Little Bang
Sometimes when I’m feeling anxious, I’ll wander over to the NASA page to look at the most recent images coming in from the Hubble Space Telescope. There’s something about two galaxies colliding that makes my problems seem small by comparison. I’m not joking. The sheer enormity of the cosmos is utterly calming.
With Cosmogenesis, Yves Tourigny sets out to present only a small slice of the cataclysm of creation that is our universe. As with my Hubble pics, I’m enchanted despite its shortcomings. Even more so because, somewhere behind the colliding debris, Cosmogenesis is about the interrelationship of all things.
On rare occasions, someone will mention their opinion that I’m wasting my time and talents writing about board games. “Oh,” I’ll reply, “I write other things. I published a few pieces of short fiction last year, and I’ve done heaps of dry academic evaluation. Perhaps you’d like to read some?”
For some reason, they never get back to me.
Cosmogenesis exemplifies a few of the reasons why board games are so compelling to me. It’s the way it lays everything out just so. Not only at the end of a play, but also from its most tentative moments. Here is a span of empty space in the proximity of a star. Here are some pieces. Here are the rules that govern those pieces, not all that unlike the rules of gravitation and physics that govern the formation of an actual star system. Here are the interactions between players that will generate the necessary outside force, the impetus that drives all these engines of creation. And then, upon completion, here is the thing you’ve made. The result is more than discs of cardboard stacked atop more cardboard. It’s meaning stacked atop other meanings. It’s correlations. Relationships. A book tells a story. A film shows you something. But a game laid bare the way only the tabletop can accomplish, that’s where you’re allowed to create and behold within the span of an hour.
Tourigny seems to understand the centimeter-deep truth about board games that so often goes overlooked: that all this cardboard and wood are animated by their rules and fictions. Here, the rules are comprehensible for anyone with a passing curiosity in astronomy. Planets form from collisions of matter, usually asteroids and planetoids. Impacting comets may create terrestrial atmospheres or gift a gas giant its rings. Microbial life may take hold almost anywhere, at least in theory, but it’s only upon a planet with sufficient water and atmosphere that it can sprout limbs and start to think about the horror of thinking. Even the more gamey aspects seem appropriate. No cosmic law dictates that alternating terrestrial and gas planets are worth a certain number of points, or that the best solar system will have some spare comets flinging around. But their inclusion is no more unnatural than the curious thought that a single player can determine the course of an entire fictive nation.
These elements are gathered via a truly clever selection system. Each round features four offers, from which each player will select one offering apiece. Two of these markets contain planets of various sizes, types, and colors, or perhaps the occasional relic for extra flavor and some rule-bending abilities. Another acts as a sort of pantry for galactic creation, stuffed with asteroids, comets, and the first player token. The last category is the most confusing, alternating between planetary goals and system-wide goals. In the first case, you might want to create a gas giant with rings and a pair of size-three moons, plus a bonus point if your gas planet happens to be blue. In the second, maybe you’ll want to have the most asteroids or moons when the game ends. These become the criteria by which your system will be judged. While there are a few shared goals — life, for example, is prized by everyone — there’s something refreshing about picking which material you’ll be tested on.
For all its cleverness, this is also the stingiest aspect of Cosmogenesis. This isn’t a hefty game, but it’s filled with small details and plentiful icons. I won’t belabor its eccentricities except to say that it often staggers into territory better trod by more idiosyncratic titles. At times it seems tempted by the possibilities of simulation. What happens when a species hops from one planet to another? What are the subtle creative differences between asteroids and comets? What exactly are the prerequisites of evolution? Meanwhile, its big questions are offset by its airiness, especially where its goals are concerned. This is exacerbated by some measure of luck in the selection process. Is this a game about creating a stellar system or is it a game about competing for points? Cosmogenesis totters back and forth across the line often enough that it doesn’t prove fully satisfying to either taste. As soon as it begins to soar, it snaps back to reality thanks to the constraints of sound scoring. But as soon as it becomes a tight race, it dishes out a wild scoring tile that someone else will gobble up before you.
This isn’t to say that Cosmogenesis is a bad game. To the contrary, it’s a delightful but persnickety vision of the cosmos, one that strikes at the stars but settles for, oh, the mesosphere. More importantly, it reveals Yves Tourigny as someone who understands how to jolt a topic to life with an artist’s application of setting and a designer’s eye for inclusion. Soon we’ll take a look at another of his efforts. Except this time, he’ll be doing it better than anyone else.