Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Homebrew aliens: Has it all been done before?

Unlike many Cosmic Encounter players, I'm not a big reader of other players' homebrewed aliens. And I never really have been, even back in the days when there were far fewer of them. Currently, for example, there's a number of active internet discussions regarding homebrews (such as here, here, here, and here), and I've barely glanced at any of them.

Yet I'm a huge fan of the game. I maintain the only actively updated CE news site on the interwebs, for crying out loud! And I like variable-power games in general, so it should stand to reason that I would like discussing new powers, right? But I can barely focus when I begin reading a homebrewed-alien discussion, and I almost never stick around to the end. Why? Sadly, I'm a big believer in the following:

It's all been done before.

That's right: there's basically very, very few original ideas that are left to explore. The pod-moving alien someone scribbled down on a napkin and then posted to FFG.com? That's just the wild flare from some other homebrew first posted to the old CE newsgroup in 1995. That math-based creation you've got tucked away in your old Eon box? Sorry, it's too similar to alien X or Y from Eon Expansion #7. That flash of inspiration you had while playing Human or Fodder or Hacker for the first time? Bzzzzt! That was published way back in Encounter Magazine. Or ...
  • ... it's too much like this wild flare;
  • ... or that super flare;
  • ... or it's just a weak version of this alien;
  • ... or a stronger version of that one.
I'm finding, also, that even the really unique ... uh, I'll say "attempts" ... at completely off-the-wall aliens fall far, far short of being anything I'd ever include in my game. These aliens might manage to not be similar to any existing alien, but most of them also manage to be virtually unplayable. Usually, it's a case of ...
  • ... it's too specialized and can only be used maybe once per game;
  • ... or only you understand it;
  • ... or it requires 20 minutes to explain and needs to be reproduced in 4-point type to fit on even the huge FFG alien sheets;
  • ... or it flat-out breaks the game;
  • ... or it's just not any damn fun.
Circling back to my original thesis, if I may: the more homebrew items that I come across, the more I'm convinced that there's just not a lot of original ideas left out there, as least as far as the basic mechanics of the game are concerned. Here's what I'm talking about:

Anyone looking to author, say, an ally-based alien (just to use one traditional and easily-understood CE mechanism) needs to take a look at the long history of such powers, which dates back all the way to the original Eon box and includes numerous aliens, both official and unofficial. Have all the angles been covered? That's a legitimate question, and one that can only be answered by studying the relevant official aliens (Parasite, Crystal, Magnet, Observer, and their friends ... even Philanthropist would need to be examined) and also attempting to research the literally hundreds of homebrews that are accessible on the Information Superhighway (most easily, probably, at The Warp's excellent database). Even if our hypothetical homebrew author's new idea still seems original enough, there's always the specter of flares to make him think twice and want to go play Fireball Island instead. Because without researching a metric butt-load of flares — many of which include some sort of "use as an ally" mechanism — our author can't really be sure that his idea wasn't first conceived and published to the webs in like 1992.*

Here's a case in point: the author of this thread at FFG.com posts 11 homebrewed creations and pretty quickly gets the feedback he was asking for. Within one page, a number of questions have been raised ... and within three pages, his ideas have been riddled with enough lead to open a pencil factory. Or, as one user puts it, none too gently (spelling and grammar errors left intact):
Unfortunately most of these aliens you suggested are EXACT copies of already existing one's on The Warp or are way to close or are close but inferior, and therefore are pointless to add to The Warp since they already exist and would just clutter things up with spam. And unintentionally plagiarized spam at that.

I'll type the names of your version and the one's that have existed in the Warp or in Eon/Mayfair for years to clarify.

Hitchhiker = Jack Reda's Stowaway; Strategist = Eon's Worm; Quarker = Jack Reda's Ninja; Colossal = A worse version Cendric Chin's Terminator; Aegis = FFG's Observer; Mechanism = Jack Reda's Engineer; Fanatic = FFG's Kamikaze
Egads. That's pretty harsh, and it's not exactly how I would have phrased it**, but it does get to the gist of what I'm arguing here. Maybe not literally, but in a very basic sense, there's no new alien ideas remaining out there. Or, at best, very few ...

We've talked about the alliance mechanism, but it seems fair to say that the same problems would apply to basically any standard CE operation. Card movement, card alteration, hand manipulation, Negotiate cards, Attack cards (and Attack cards of certain values), Destiny, ship movement, the Warp, the other powers in the game, artifacts, and on and on. All of those areas have dozens of already-established aliens, both official and homebrew. When I find myself reading a homebrewed-alien thread — whether at FFG.com, BoardgameGeek, the CE forums, or anywhere else CE is discussed — I usually don't get very far before I begin (much like our friend who is quoted above) mentally checking off problems, something like this:
Too similar to Trader ... that's just the Virus flare ... a weak Pacifist ... that one causes too much book-keeping ... that one looks like it's written in Aramaic ... that one just sucks.
It's like I can't help it. And it certainly doesn't make me want to stop what I'm doing, dress these aliens up in Photoshop, print them out, and actually use them. I've already got Philanthropist, Sorcerer, Reserve, Fido, Dictator, and Hacker; I really don't need minor variations of them.

Now, just to be clear, I won't go so far as to say that every angle, literally, of every CE mechanic has been covered. For one thing, it's impossible to prove one way or the other — in fact, I'll even agree that the existence of brand-spanking new aliens in the FFG box at least partially damages my theory. For another, I suspect that the real cream of the crop of homebrew authors (and, frankly, beyond Jack Reda***, that's a pretty short list) can still come up with some interesting variations. But they will be diamonds in the rough, and there will be acres of chaff to wade through to get to this sort of nourishing wheat.

So where does that leave the concept of homebrewed aliens? Am I saying that the entire idea is not even worth the effort? Not exactly. What I suspect is going to happen — and we're already seeing some of this — is that a different type of homebrew is going to begin to grab most of the spotlight.

Frankly, the CE system does not need a 200th variation on collecting compensation; what could be of benefit, though, are entirely new concepts: Tech-based aliens, "planet-manipulation" powers that take advantage of the independent planets in the FFG edition, aliens that play off the Hazard Deck concept that the FFG rulebook practically admits will be in the first expansion, and — last, but perhaps more important — alternate-win aliens that are as clever as Masochist and Tick-Tock, which are already claiming a large part of the attention currently being lavished upon the new FFG aliens. Some of these concepts have even been featured at this very site, which was one of the first to say, "Hey, look how cool these planet-based powers can be!"

If I was a homebrew writer — and, for the record, I most assuredly am not, at least as far as aliens are concerned — those are the areas I'd be looking at. I'd want to be the first guy to write an uber-cool Hazard-based alien rather than the 99th guy to write a "new" Trader. And as a fan of the game, I can guarantee that aliens based upon those new concepts are the only ones that I'll actually be paying much attention to as CE prepares to enter its fifth decade.

It's probably a safe bet that a couple of completely new aliens will be published for the first time in the upcoming CE expansion set, much as Remora made its debut in the recent big box. I'll be very interested to see those aliens and to guess why they were considered good enough — and different enough — to be worthy of publication.

I can't help but think, though, that those aliens will definitely be the exception to the rule. The cosmos is already pretty much filled up, as far as I can tell.

* To say nothing of Moons, which should also be researched. There's a number of good Moons out there, and many of them essentially have an "alien power."

**And can I just add, quickly, that I really can't stand the "So-And-So's Alien" vernacular? It's from the heyday of the CE newsgroup in the mid-1990s, and some of those guys have a hard time rembering that not every current CE player was involved with the game a dozen years ago. I don't mind giving credit for an alien creation, but let's not get too crazy about it.

***Who, BTW, the first two images in this article are shamelessly stolen from.

17 comments:

Big Head Zach said...

For the large part, Dukester, I'm in agreement - which is why I'm slowly working with Jack to make The Warp (and to a greater extent, the Amazing Power Thingy) more user-friendly and useful, so that when someone _does_ inevitably come up with the 50th iteration of Trader, they can go search to see if The Simpsons (or Steve Allen) have thought of it already.

Adam said...

Longest Blogmic post yet?

I've got to agree, too. I recently decided to skim an unfiltered search of The Amazing Power Thingy's 1000+ aliens, skipping over anyone that says Only Use in a Game with Lucre (I find most of these to be overwrought, and I've never had the chance to play Lucre anyway), Only Use in a Game with [unofficial variant], and any that took up half the window (one took up nearly the whole screen... it was frightening).

After eliminating the ones that just sounded bad, I came up with less than 40 that I'd like to toss into my set someday if we get blank cards for the flares.

I think another item you could add to the list of problems with homebrews is any alien that requires special components. This just, for some reason, does not feel Cosmicky to me. I exclude Grudge because his tokens are not actually necessary.

Another alien type I'd LIKE to see more of would actually be goofy ones like Human, maybe one or two an expansion, not many, something that isn't totally useless, but definitely not the most powerful.

It would also be cool if there were eventually enough alternate win aliens that you could do a multi-power game where each player gets an alternate win condition, either hidden or public, like Mission Risk... except not Risk. :)

TheDukester said...

Yes, longest ever. This has actually been percolating for a while, but it took that FFG thread to make me want to actually write it all down.

A couple of thoughts that I'd like to clarify:

1. I don't mind **enthusiasm** at all. I have no problem with players who enjoy making homebrews and poking or prodding different parts of the game engine. It's not the **effort** I'm questioning, but whether the results really matter too much any longer.

2. Opposite side of that coin is that writing a good homebrew is **hard.**

That's why, if I suspect that an author is just tossing ideas out off the top of his head, or trying to increase his post-count, or hasn't any notion of what play-testing means, I won't read their stuff. I just don't have the time or the energy to read a description for an alien that will likely end up being clearly broken in some way or obviously way too similar to an existing alien.

For authors I trust, I'll usually at least read to the end. Jack R., I think, is probably the best author in this area, but I'll also read most anything by some of those old-school guys (Stone, Chin, Riley, and other names you've probably all seen). For newer players, I can usually trust AP and ... and ... that guy in the FFG forums. There's one guy there posting some okay stuff.

But, yeah, overall ... I hope I've read my last Pacifist variant. I really do think that the direction to go now is with the new stuff like Tech, Hazards, independent planets, etc.

The Warp said...

I'd like to eventually have one Alt Win alien for every player in the game (so when they have 8 player Cosmic out, that would be 8 aliens).

I'm one of a very small number (maybe the only one!) who has read EVERY power on the Warp. There have been many I didn't bother to add because they were too similar to others, though I have been less picky of late. I think good ideas are still out there, but they require careful thought and a lot of research. Just last week, I got to chat with Kevin about a new idea and we fiddled with it until we discovered something no one seems to have thought of. I hope that new one makes it in an expansion, because I'm very excited about it.

Some folks have been cranking out the new ideas so fast, my head spins. I find many of them are so-so, or could be good if they are tested and massaged... but Jon Gon, for example has a couple that I think are marvelous. If you fire at the target enough times, you just might hit it.

TheDukester said...

Just last week, I got to chat with Kevin about a new idea and we fiddled with it until we discovered something no one seems to have thought of.

And that's exactly what I'm talking about with the comment above. Here we have an example of the actual CE developer and a lifelong fan of the game who is an established homebrew author getting together, and they STILL have to work on fine-tuning the original idea. Again, it is NOT easy.

Really, the days of "Hey, look! A homebrew thread! I think I'll just add this real quick" are long gone.

pgocosmic said...

Great post Duke. I am always looking for aliens that don't mess with points (tedious) at this stage of Cosmic. I like the idea of powers that reside outside of the "stuff" in the game. I like Gambler, Seeker, Prophet for example.

In particular I want to have new online aliens that use the online medium. So an alien that can "see" what's in the deck and discard.

Or one that can manufacture more pods or more ships.

I do like the potential aliens set for Cosmic Incursion - have you chatted with Kevin about them?

forumite said...

So, do I or do I not qualify as a worthy creator of new powers? It would be hubris to say that *all* my powers are supreme. I have made clunkers I've long since abandoned. However, (pat self on back) I have received a good number of huzzahs. Jack Reda has my powers at his site. Matt Stone, recognized as having the largest Cosmic Encounter set in the coutnry, not only has a plethora of his own home-made powers (He authored Masochist) but mine as well. Hacker is actually my creation.

It is inevitable that a person will think of a power someone else has. It's not like everyone knows everyone. In 1990 or so, for my Eon set, I created a power called Carpenter that allowed you to stack attack cards you played to add to your future totals. Years later, when Mayfair produced Cosmic Encounter, what should I find but Industrialist that does the exact same thing as my Carpenter!

I'd love to read of other players' power ideas. If I've seen it before under a different name, oh well. If it looks like one I created years ago, great minds think alike. If it's something I haven't read before, and I really, really like it, I'll add it to my set. If I don't like it, then I just don't like it. If I've seen it before, then I've just seen it before. That should be no excuse for anyone not to create their own powers.

TheDukester said...

I'd love to read of other players' power ideas. If I've seen it before under a different name, oh well. If it looks like one I created years ago, great minds think alike. If it's something I haven't read before, and I really, really like it, I'll add it to my set. If I don't like it, then I just don't like it. If I've seen it before, then I've just seen it before. That should be no excuse for anyone not to create their own powers.

I used to have that sort of patience, too. But I've just been beaten down by too many BAD homebrews over the years. I don't want a big CE set; I couldn't possibly care less about such things. I want a good one.

And, again, I'm not trying to stifle enthusiasm. It's just that I think it's better directed at creating totally new stuff rather than just tweaking 30-year-old mechanics for the 500th time. Really, does CE need another way to draw cards ... or to switch powers ... or to whatever?

I fully admit, though, that there's still some good ideas out there. In talking with Kevin Wilson earlier today, he described three or four new aliens to me (which might or might not end up in an expansion), and I was definitely impressed. They were great aliens. But he also said he's been wading through rivers of crap just to find these rare gems. At this point, my feeling is: better him than me.

The Warp said...

I have a bunch of Gerald's powers in my set...

Arachnid, Atom, Canary, Centaur, Chameleon, Dice, Gith (a nice Alt Win kind of power), Glue, Hex, Hulk, Paladin, Paranoid, Praw, and Violin (which is now Hacker). I also have Archeologist, Gates, Mafia, and Mercenary (Lucre powers). And, I use Gerald's revised versions of Sting and Worm.

TheDukester said...

Certainly, if I was going to go hunt down a few aliens to add, I'd start with the usual suspects: Reda, Chin, Katz, Riley, Stone, and other names that usually pop up in these sorts of conversations. All have written some good stuff, and, in fact, I have used some of my favorites in past games (Blitzkrieg, for instance ... card-manipulation being my favorite part of the game).

But the timeline is also important to me. Most of the best aliens from these authors were written some time ago. It's great that they're available in databases for anyone to use, but I'm looking ahead now. And I'm saying to the above-mentioned authors (and to anyone else): "Don't give me yet another variation on playing a Negotiate. Been there; done that. Give me some Tech-based aliens, give me some Hazard-based homebrews, give me more alternate-win guys. Let's go in NEW directions."

The intent of the article, or any comments I'm adding, is certainly not to disparage past work. I'm not sure why anyone would think that, but I'll just go ahead and make it clear. There's some great stuff out there, and much of it even dates back to the '70s and early '80s. I've got no problem with that, and I'm glad those aliens are available.

The best of both worlds, though, would be to have those aliens AND a bunch of new, cutting-edge, really interesting powers that took the game in a new direction.

The Warp said...

Just for laughs, I came up with a new power last night that we tried out. It's new and easily the dumbest alien I ever created, but by gol, it was a lot of fun to play with. Check it out:

http://redamedia.com/warp/anypower.php3

QUAKE

TheDukester said...

I like that one; it would be the game's first "dexterity-based" alien. Or at least the first one I've heard of.

There would be those from the take-it-too-seriously crowd that would never allow it in their games, but at least it's something new, different, and unique. And it takes advantage of the components included in the FFG edition.

forumite said...

I guess you wouldn't enjoy Matt Stone's set which has hundreds of powers. It's not that the game "needs" more powers, but it's just fun to create them.

It's not unusual for any game for people to make up their own house rules to go along with the official published rules. Monopoly is a classical example for family-type games. Coming up with house rules is more easily done for some games than others. Cosmic Encounter is by far the easiest game I've seen to create house rules, i.e. new powers and cards. Its entire function is different means to the play the game differently than the established rules. (The card game Flux is probably the easiest card-game to make house rules via home-made cards for the same reason.)

Because of the Birthday Priniciple it's inevitable that two people will come up with the same or simlar idea. Not everyone has access to the various databases, though, or even the patience to read through them all.

P.S. to Jack: Thanks. I'm touched. :)

TheDukester said...

Gerald, I think you're seriously misinterpreting a lot of what I wrote. You're seeing things that just aren't there:

1. I'm not trying to limit what people do with their own CE sets;

2. I don't hate homebrews, or even dislike them. I'm just not seeing much lately that I haven't seen a hundred times before (at least in terms of aliens). I'd like the whole concept of "homebrew" to branch out into new areas of the game;

3. I acknowledge that many fine homebrews have been created in the past. I even use some of them myself.

4. I think there's problems with the way the whole homebrew concept gets posted to public websites. That FFG.com debacle I highlighted is a perfect example: That poor slob posts 11 aliens he's excited about, and it turns out that 10 of them are pretty useless. So that makes him discouraged, makes the guy who called him out look like a bully, and makes the rest of us wish we had those 15 minutes of our lives back.

As for Matt Stone (who I've never met, for the record) and his allegedly legendary CE set: you called it; I don't think I'd like to play with it. I'm actually trying to pare down my CE set, so it doesn't sound like Matt and I are on the same page. ;-)

forumite said...

Truth be told, Matt Stone's set hasn't been played in quite awhile. Obviously I love it, but it is too involved for some people. I'm going to bring my Fantasy Flight set to the next party and see if I can garner any interest. I'll even "settle" with playing the normal one-power per player game. :)

The Warp said...

I personally would love to play a game with the crazyass Matt Stone set... my set is pretty ay carramba crazy too.

TheDukester said...

You guys should combine sets. It would be like the 200-card, 700-alien, 35-deck CE game of the gods. You'd need like 12 players and you'd have to play to 10 foreign colonies.

Now THAT would be a session report ...