Kosmos Two-Player Games Series

These comments copyright 2000 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated June 9, 2005 Previously updated December 11, 2000

The German game publisher Kosmos makes a series of two-player games all packaged in the same sized box: 8" square by just over an inch deep. (20 cm x 20 cm x 3 cm.) They actually make other two-player games, most notably Ta Yü, but in this article I'm only concerned with those packaged in the boxes described above. Many of these are published in English, by the way, largely by Rio Grande Games.

I had originally set out to review (briefly) every game in this series, but that quickly fell apart. I did manage to review the first twelve games published in the series, but then they exploded, my reviewing efforts dwindled, and things just generally fell apart.

So I've now removed the few I had reviewed that I no longer play. Instead, I will simply review, again: briefly, those games in this series that I still play and enjoy. Absence from this list does not necessarily mean I don't enjoy the game. It's possible I've never gotten to try it yet. On the other hand, I confess there are a fair few in this series that I don't really like, but don't feel like covering.

As of this date, these are (with German titles in parentheses, if significantly different from the English) the games in this series that I enjoy and expect will continue to play. Order is alphabetical:

  • Caesar & Cleopatra
  • Flowerpower
  • Elchfest
  • Hera & Zeus (Blitz und Donner)
  • Jambo
  • Odin's Ravens
  • Rosenkönig
Note: I haven't yet added reviews for all these - I will soon.

Caesar & Cleopatra

Designed by Wolfgang Lüdtke

Caesar & Cleopatra is clearly my favorite among these games, so I'll review it first. German games tend to have thinly pasted-on themes over an abstract mechanism, and this runs true for most of the games in this series. Caesar & Cleopatra, however, succeeds quite well in having a solid feel to the theme. This game comes close to evoking the spirit of a political power struggle in ancient Rome. The story is basically that Caesar and Cleopatra are trying to influence the Roman Patricians to back their sides in an upcoming power struggle. To do this, they send the senators, quaestors, etc., various lackeys, ranging from slaves, gigolos and dancing girls to astronomers and philosophers. They also use spying, assassination, and other nefarious tricks of the trade.

The game consists solely of a number of cards. There are Patrician cards: five kinds of Roman Patricians you are trying to influence. Each of these is worth one victory point at the end of the game, and more if you can get a majority of a given type to support you. There are influence cards, consisting of the slaves, dancers, centurions, etc., you send to influence the Patricians. These are rated with numbers from 1 to 5, with Philosophers being outside this numbering scheme. Then there are action cards - the spying, assassination, veto, etc., abilities you have. Vote of confidence cards determine which particular set of Patricians gets resolved at the moment, and finally there are bonus cards, which tells you which group of Patricians you value the most highly.

The game starts with the Patrician cards face up in the center of the table, in stacks of three or five, depending on the type. Each player secretly draws a bonus card so they know which type of Patrician is the most valuable to them - a majority in that type will give you two victory points at the end of the game. Each player has 37 influence cards: seven each of the numbers 1 through 5, and two Philosophers. Each player starts with one each of the 1-5 in their hand, and another set of 1-5 distributed as they wish, face down, next to the stacks of Patricians, one per type of Patrician. This is your initial influence on a particular group. Each player has 13 action cards, which can either be shuffled randomly, or set in a given order if the players wish. Finally, the Vote of Confidence cards are shuffled and set to the side.

Each turn you may play one or two influence cards - if you play one, it may be placed face down beside one group of Patricians. If you play two, they must be face up. In addition, you may play one action card if you have one in your hand. Once you have played your cards, refill your hand to five cards by drawing from either the influence deck or your action deck, or some from each - your choice. Finally, reveal the top Vote of Confidence card. If it shows a type of Patrician, resolve the struggle right then and there. Influence cards are revealed for that Patrician type, and whoever has the most influence takes one of the Patrician cards. The winner then discards her strongest card, and the loser his weakest. If the Vote of Confidence card is an orgy, however, the Patricians are too busy to be bothered with politics at the moment, sorry. It is then the next player's turn.

The game goes on like that until there are no more Patricians left uninfluenced, or both sides are out of cards. Rules for all the other cards are included, of course: a Philosopher means the weakest side wins the Patrician card; spies allow you to look at your opponent's hand and discard one card, assassinations allow you to remove one face-up influence card of your opponent, etc.

The game plays very well, at a good pace. For a two-player game, it's quite involving and has a fair bit of player interaction. We do play with one house rule: when the third type of Patrician is gone from the table, remove one of the orgy cards from the deck, but not the reshuffle one. Likewise, once the fourth Patrician stack is emptied, we remove one more orgy card, but not the reshuffle one. While three orgy cards out of eight Vote of Confidence cards is a fine number, three out of five or four cards is too much luck for our tastes.

The game has a good mixture of luck and skill. Luck definitely plays a role, but we've found that the more skillful player will usually win. All in all, I like this game a lot, and recommend it.

Hera & Zeus

Designed by Richard Borg

Hera & Zeus began its life many years ago as a Stratego card game, or so I've been told. After being rejected by the Stratego publishers, the designer reworked it into its own game. And a fine little game it is.

It still has much of Stratego about it: you have hidden characters, many of whom are rated from 1-9 in value and who can attack enemy characters directly opposite. There is a zero-point character that can defeat the largest numbered character if she attacks. You have "scouts" that can attack from a distance, and cards similar to "bombs" and "miners" and even a "flag." But much is very different from Stratego, and much better. There are a lot of new and interesting special powers that can come into play.

The basic premise is that Hera and Zeus, the leaders of the Greek Pantheon, are feuding. Each has kidnapped the other's lover and they are trying to rescue them. They each command an army of various mythological personae to help them. Each player starts the game with nine cards of their own deck, then lays three cards facedown on the table in columns. These three columns are the main battle area, and each side can have up to four rows of cards on the table at a time. The object is to find the target card before your opponent finds yours.

Holding your target card in your hand isn't a sure guarantee of safety - your opponent can send a Pegasus to scout your hand, and if it happens on the target card, wins the game. It's actually safer on the board, since you can only scout the front row of any column. However, as front creatures are defeated, the second and higher rows move up to fill the gap automatically, so there is no real safety anywhere.

The game doesn't have a lot of long-term planning. You really have to focus your three actions per turn on optimizing your position, given what you have, not thinking ahead too far. That's okay, it's still fun, rewards thought, and carries a fairly high degree of excitement since some of your choices are quite risky. There is a fair bit of luck in the game, but it's not too big a deal - both sides have an equal chance at that luck. Having the target card be the top card in your draw pile while your opponent's target card is on the bottom of the deck is an extreme example of luck, but it's happened to me. In such a case, the game for the player who drew the target card early is one of seeing how long he can survive. And even that can be entertaining!

Still, the luck factor is the only thing that brings this game down below my rating for Caesar & Cleopatra. It's an excellent game that I enjoy playing frequently, and if it had just a bit less luck, it would rate even more highly.


Designed by Dirk Henn

Rosenkönig was formerly known as Texas, published by DB Spiele. The theme has been changed to the War of the Roses, which is almost what the game title means (it actually means Rose King). The game is quite lovely - a beautiful board with a map of northern England, wooden tokens with a white rose on one side and a red rose on the other, and attractive cards. The game is quite good - if you like cerebral games, that is.

Actually, these comments were all made before I learned to play the game with different rules. The negative tone relates strictly to the game-as-written. The way I play it now is listed in the last paragraph, and I like the game much more than the tone of this article leads one to believe!
Each player is dealt five power cards, which are placed face up in front of you. Each power card shows a direction and a distance. The board is made up of 81 spaces in a 9x9 square. A wooden crown marker starts on the center square, and the red rose player then plays a power card. The power card will show one of eight directions - the four orthogonal directions and the four diagonal directions - and a number from one to three. The crown marker is moved in the direction shown, the number of spaces shown. At that point, a power stone is placed with the red rose showing. It is now the white rose player's turn, who also plays a power card, moves the crown marker, and places a power stone, but with the white rose side face up.

Play continues like this, but instead of playing a power card, you may draw one and add it to your stock of face-up power cards, though you cannot have more than five cards at a time. Since all power cards for each player are visible at all times, the game becomes very analytical: if I play this, he can play that one or that one. From there, I might then play that one or this one. He'll then counter with ... And so on.

This may not be your cup of tea, and I wouldn't blame you. If it were to everyone's taste, more people would be playing chess than they do. While it has luck in the draw of the cards, it otherwise does have a chesslike feel in the calculating of responses to each particular move. It's not as deep as chess - you have far fewer possibilities to calculate each turn! - but it does have some of that feel. If this doesn't appeal to you, skip this game. I like this type of game occasionally, though not a steady diet of it, so I'm quite happy to own and play Rosenkönig now and then.

Each player also has four Hero cards, by the way, which allow you to land on a power stone of your opponent's and convert it to your color. Large concentrations of power stones are what win the game, so if you can join two smaller groups of your tokens together, it's always a good move ... Provided you don't give your opponent a devastating response, that is.

One of my favorite moves in this game is to offer my opponent a great place to play one of his Hero cards early in the game. If he takes it, well and good - I now have more Hero cards than he does, and they are power in this game. If he doesn't take it, well and good - hopefully I've moved so that that was really his only decent move.

A good little cerebral game - recommended if this meets your tastes.

Variant: to make the game less cerebral and far more luck-dependent, play with closed hands rather than open. It's a much quicker game this way, and much lighter. This is now the only way I play the game - I can't go back to the slow, analytical version. It's now a fun, light filler for us.


Designed by Hermann Huber

Elchfest was a minor disappointment to me, but I have to admit it would be a very good game for children. But I wanted one for myself! I'm a big fan of Carabande, and I thought this game would be in the same class. It's not. While Carabande is a wild and crazy finger-flicking race with lots of excitement and groans of agony, Elchfest, for adults vs adults, at least, is a slow and predictable finger-flicking race with occasional moments of almost fun. I suppose I'm being too harsh on it - I actually have enjoyed this game, but the mood I was in to enjoy it is very rare. If I consumed alcohol more than I do it might help my enjoyment of the game (but wouldn't help me in other ways, so I'll stick to my current rate of a glass of wine every month or two).

My basic problem with the game is that there are only two free disks at any time after the first few moves. You're trying to cross a stream (the table) with your wooden elk, and you have to flick a stone to a position he can put his feet on without getting them wet. There are only six disks in the game, and once both elks leave their home shore piece, that means four of the disks will be used by elks to stand on - one under the front and one under the back legs of each elk. The other two disks are available for either player to flick, but it will always be pretty clear which disk is better for you to choose, and it's usually the opposite disk that your opponent would choose. Only for a brief period when the elks are trying to step into the same area is it interesting.

So for most of the game there really isn't anything wild and crazy and unusual you can do. It's a pretty straightforward flick your stone, the best flicker wins. The reason that summation doesn't hold up for Carabande is the number of other players in between your turns who are causing havoc with your plans by either knocking your piece or getting in your way, and there are always desperation tactics to try to enliven the game. Those things just don't happen very often in Elchfest, alas.

Still, it's good with a certain age group of kids, especially if you have two of them and want to occupy them for a while.

[After writing the above, I received e-mail from Frank Branham:

Elchfest is a little bit better than you describe it. My first couple of plays pretty much followed as you describe. The strategic trick is to remember that it takes just one flick to knock a disk far away from your opponent, but often 2 or 3 flicks for him to get it back into position.

And you can bounce stuff off the land counters.

And putting a handful of real pebbles in the stream makes things MUCH more interesting.

Is still not Carabande, but there is some fun in the box.

Thanks, Frank, I'll keep trying! I love the premise, so if this will help it ...]

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