It's hard to really describe what makes C.E. so special. On the surface, the basic mechanics of the game are painfully simple. You have some ships, you have some planets, you try to attack other players planets to get colonies. Other players can ally with defenders or attackers during combat. Five colonies wins. There are some cards involved in deciding battle outcomes, and battles can end in negotiation instead of bloodshed, but that's basically the game in a nutshell. Simple, right? Wrong.
Then come "Alien Powers." Each player is assigned an alien who has a special power that...well, basically breaks the mechanics of the game over its knee like a pair of twigs. One alien can look at everyone else's cards. Another can switch hands altogether. Another alien has unique victory conditions which basically incentivize suicide. These are some of the tamer ones. There are literally dozens of these powers.
How can something like this actually be balanced? Hell if I know. Every game I've played has a completely different power dynamic to it, as different permutations of alien powers play off each other, you almost have to memorize a new set of sub-rules for each game you play. On top of that, the social dynamics end up being what really win the game. Some alien powers are undoubtably overpowered, but what invariably happens in those games is everyone ganging up on the overpowered alien, and the overpowered alien usually loses. After playing the game a few dozen times, I've concluded it's primarily a social game, perhaps with parallels to Risk or Diplomacy.
Again, it's hard to really describe what's so amazing about this game, but it becomes an instant favorite of almost everyone it's introduced to.
Ranked in these QuestionsQuestion Ranking
Pro Every game is unique
The basic rules of the game are background noise. The alien powers, both individually and as they interact with each other, determine the dynamic of each game you play, and each dynamic is radically different. It's almost like a genre of games in and of itself.
Pro Cooperation based gameplay
It's almost impossible to win on your own. When attacking or defending, you will get the chance to ask for allies on your turn, or assist others when they are engaged. Allies can help you win the attack or defence, but they will also gain benefits if successful. It is a team-based game, although each player is out for themselves in the end.
One of the neatest parts of the game are the negotiate cards - instead of laying down an attack card you can try to negotiate. If you both play negotiate cards, you have 1 minute to come to an agreement which can include creating new colonies, trading cards, or virtually anything. If the player don't come to agreeable terms within a minute, they both suffer a hefty penalty (4 of their ships are sent to the warp).
Pro Potential for "Custom Games"
At the beginning of each game, players are given 3-4 alien powers to choose from, usually taken at random. The set of available powers given to all the players can be pre-determined to generate interesting games that have specific themes to them or heavily revolve around a particular strategy or resource.
Pro Fun illustrations
Illustrations on Alien Power cards are beautifully rendered and imaginative.
Pro Potential for very satisfying, creative plays
With so many unique combinations of alien powers, skillful tacticians and rule lawyers will find all kinds of extremely clever or amusing plays to be possible if they think deeply enough.
Pro Not as complicated as it might sound
After you play one or two games, the basic mechanics are trivial to work with. Additionally, you only have to worry about learning as many alien powers as you have players in the game, so your personal knowledge and experience with the powers can grow slowly over time. Most alien powers take a minute or two to really understand, then the fun begins of finding creative or unique ways to develop strategies around them.
Con Some alien powers are difficult to parse
Some of the cards have walls of text that look intimidating at first, and may take a slow read and group discussion to really figure out. Thankfully, the alien powers are divided into three sets based on "difficulty" which translates roughly to "difficulty to understand, and how much it disrupts basic gameplay." Green (easy) cards are usually simple enough that a child of 12 or so can understand them.