Interstellar Pig

This page examines the possible origins of the fictional game Interstellar Pig in the staple game of Seattle Cosmic Game Night, Cosmic_Encounter?.

Since writing Wiki pages is quicker than writing ordinary web pages ("wiki" = "quick" in Hawaiian), and since I just learned that (a) a sequel to the juvenile SF novel Interstellar Pig called Parasite Pig was published a few months ago (October 2002); and that (b) the author of both books, William Sleator, now lives in my home town, New Milford, Connecticut; I was impelled to get off of (or rather onto) my posterior and post a page about my theory. And what it is, too.

I will list a number of similarities between both games, and back them up with some snippets from the book Interstellar Pig, attempting to stay within the bounds of fair use laws (and perhaps whet a few appetites for the Pig books). Then I will investigate whether Cosmic_Encounter? could have been the prototype for Interstellar Pig -- was CE published early enough to have been an influence, is it a game likely to have appealed to William Sleator and his friends and family, and so on? Finally, I'll list a few more tidbits about the relationship between the real and the imaginary game, and a few relevant hyperlinks.

If you have any more information for this page, please email me at or feel free to add it to the page directly, crediting yourself appropriately.


Textual Evidence

In the text below, "IP" stands for "Interstellar Pig" (the imaginary game) and "CE" stands for "Cosmic Encounter" (the real game). Since there are many different editions of the book, and its chapters are short, I have given chapter numbers rather than page numbers. was not like any board game I had even encountered before... it seemed to be a space fantasy, with dreamlike, but detailed, planets. (Ch. 2)
The background was black, sprinkled with stars... varied in intensity, from big bright ones to pale clusters [and] distant nebulae... The effect was so realistic that it could have been a vast photograph of the cosmos, taken by an outer space probe -- if it hadn't been for the planets. (Ch. 5)
Apart from the science-fictional touch in the book that the board is so "detailed" it can project a full-sensory simulation of space travel and planetary environments, this is a pretty good description of a CE board. CE even has planets disproportionate in size to the board's star field.
And there were also several absolutely empty spots [on the board], small starless areas carefully contoured to give the impression that they were funnels, leading down into nothingness. Black holes? (Ch. 5)
But I rolled only a 3. Hopelessly, I moved the [pawn] across 3 stars... square in the middle of a black funnel... "But... you're in luck," Zena said brightly. "You hit one of the hyperspace tunnels. Now you can go anywhere in the universe, instantly." (Ch. 5)
The hyperspace tunnels in IP seem to be a conflation of CE's Warp, a large "black hole" in the center of the board where game tokens go when defeated in combat, and CE's Hyperspace Cone, a large, funnel-shaped gizmo shared by all players that enables virtually all of the space travel in the game, "anywhere... instantly."
"...if you happen to be a water-breathing gill-man from Thrilb, you can't set foot on Vavoosh without special breathing equipment, or you'll drown in boiling ammonia -- not a pretty way to go. Or let's suggest you're an arachnoid nymph from Vavoosh, and you somehow end up on Mbridlengile, God forbid. The carnivorous lichen on Mbridlengile... aren't terribly sapient, but they're thorough. It would take them quite a time to digest you, and you'd be conscious for most of it... Okay, Barney? Prepared to play?... First, you deal the character cards." She began laying cards out, upside down...
"Those are the character cards?" I asked her.
"Uh-huh," she said, her tongue between her teeth.
"But don't we get to see them? We don't get to choose which character we want to be?"
"Decidedly not. It's random, like life. Whatever creature you turn out to be determines... your strengths and weaknesses."
"But where do you get that information?"
"From the rule book." She patted a fat volume on the towel beside her. (Ch. 5)
Sounds like the setup portion of a CE game with a newbie, doesn't it? (Yes, it does.) The idea that each player must be randomly assigned special powers was practically unique to Cosmic Encounter when the book Interstellar Pig was published in 1984. Magic:_The_Gathering? had not yet been designed, and the only other game I can think of that came close was Illuminati? (c. 1983), which does not have a space theme. The designers of both games have admitted that they were heavily influenced by CE.
Barney does indeed draw the character card for the carnivorous lichen of Mbridlengile, and looks them up in the rule book, where all sorts of information is listed, including each creature's Kingdom, Phylum, Order, Genus, and Species; Common Name and Personal Name; Sex, Intelligence, Habitat, and Diet; plus some General Remarks. In CE, the information is usually a little less detailed and is found on the back of the Alien Power Card rather than in a rule book. (Perhaps Sleator is drawing on Dungeons_&_Dragons? here as well.) However, the main difference is that in Cosmic Encounter, one usually plays an entire alien race rather than an individual alien.
Drawn in lifelike detail on the card was a bubbling, gluey mass, a thick puddle of pink slime. Underneath it, enclosed in a circle, was a drawing of what seemed to be a single cell -- apparently one of the individual units that made up the mass. The cell looked like a squashed wad of bubble gum, with faintly bluish nerves branching through it. (Ch. 5)
That's a pretty good description of the art on a typical Alien Power Card in CE. It even reminds me of the art for the Worm card from the Eon set (what Sleator would have played) -- and yes, there are alien powers in CE that depict "primitive" organisms, such as the Worm, Amoeba, Virus, and Fungus.
"...There are three kinds of cards: character cards, attribute cards, and instruction cards," she said, expertly shuffling one of the packs...
The attribute cards included many different kinds of breathing apparatus. There were also ray guns and bombs and missiles. There were even primitive things like ropes and flashlights and dehydrated food. And there were some things I didn't understand, like Portable Instant Impermeable Time-Released Cryogenic Vault, or Portable Access to the Fifth-Dimensional Matrix. (Ch. 5)
CE also has several different kinds of cards. We have already seen that character cards in IP are equivalent to Alien Power Cards in CE. Attribute cards in IP might be thought of as equivalent to Flares and Edicts in CE, especially Edicts, many of which have odd names such as Moebius Tubes, Force Field, Stellar Gas, Warp Break, and Timegash. "Portable Instant Impermeable Time-Released Cryogenic Vault" would seem to be exaggeration for effect. :)
As for IP's instruction cards, one example from the book reads "Minor malfunction in communications system. Go into orbit around nearest foreign planet and sacrifice next two turns making repairs." (Ch. 5.) While it is true that there are cards giving detailed instructions in CE (usually Flares), movement in CE is more abstract (though not necessarily more complex) than movement in IP. The instruction cards in IP of the "Go directly to Jail. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200" variety and the use of dice to move a certain number of "spaces" on the board (on close examination, the stars are arranged in a grid) would seem to be simplifications of CE on Sleator's part, allowing him to make IP familiar and comprehensible to a juvenile audience, and giving him more leeway in plotting the novel.
"I hope you don't think we're monopolizing him," Manny was explaining when I came down. "If you've known any bridge addicts, you'll understand. You've just got to have that fourth player..." (Ch. 8) certainly was another game from the simple-minded two-handed version I had played with Zena, in which both players always knew who had The Piggy. Now, any of the other three might have it, if you didn't. How on earth did you go about figuring out which one it was? (Ch. 9)
The reason gamers prefer to play with more than two players in CE has nothing to do with a mysterious hidden object called "The Piggy" (as in IP) and everything to do with opportunities for alliance, diplomacy, and treachery. Truly is it written in the tomes of gamer lore, "The object of every two-player game of Cosmic Encounter is to find a third player."


Historical Evidence

Even though William Sleator lived in Boston for much of the time I did, and even though, according to his publisher, he now lives in the small New England town where I grew up and still have family, I don't know anyone who knows him, and I'm certainly not going to stalk the man. Eventually, perhaps, I will write to him, point him to this page, and ask him whether Cosmic Encounter was at least an influence on Interstellar Pig. If that happens, and he replies, I'll let you know what he says. In the meantime, any historical or biographical evidence must be indirect.

First, according to an unofficial page on Sleator, he was born in 1945. That would make him 32 when CE was first published around 1977: more than old enough to play and enjoy the game. Furthermore, 1977 is seven years before the publication of Interstellar Pig, giving Sleator a few years for the CE memes and ludemes to percolate in his fertile SF writer's brain. Eon was still publishing new expansions to the original edition of CE as late as 1983, so CE might well have been a timely issue for Sleator while he was writing the book.

Is Sleator the sort of person who would enjoy playing CE? It has been years since I read it (I will rectify this soon), but Oddballs, an autobiographical book Sleator wrote as an adult about his family as he was growing up, shows that the Sleator family was thoroughly experimental, playful, and ludic. The homepage of his younger brother Daniel Sleator, who teaches mathematical games at Carnegie Mellon, depicts Daniel playing Chess. Most gamers I know will tell you they were born, not made, so I'm guessing board games were an important part of growing up in the Sleator household, and that the Sleator kids retained this taste into later life. I don't want to pry, but Oddballs is a very personal book, and can hardly fail to reveal some information about this question.

That's all I can think of right now. Do you have any more "historical evidence"?


Back to Space One?

Did the republication of Cosmic Encounter in 2000 by Hasbro/Avalon Hill steal a page or two from Interstellar Pig?

[The planets] were strewn across the void, appearing to float above the board in startling three-dimensional relief. There was a fat bulbous one aswirl in luminous gasses. Several sported dazzling complex colored rings that made Saturn's look as dull as Hula Hoops. There were planets of deserts and terrifying jagged mountains; lonely barren pockmarked planets as dead as the moon. (Ch. 5)

Interstellar Pig became a cult classic and inspired a generation of kids to create their own versions from scratch (see below). Why couldn't it have inspired the team who redesigned CE?

Any more info on this?


Cosmic Pig variant

LionKimbro writes (6 May 2003):

You know, it just occurred to me- there's no reason there CAN'T be a Piggy in CE...!
Make a Piggy card, and say it's worth 2 bases towards a win if it's in your possession. Insure that it's in someone's hand in the beginning of the game by drawing the number of cards (minus 1) necessary to deal, shuffle in The Piggy, and then deal out.
<shrug> I don't know. You'd want to have some way of making sure it never went into discard. If you could make it work, you could call it, "Interstellar Cosmic Pig Encounters."

I wrote:

Why not make possessing the Piggy the sole victory condition, as in the book?

The tentative rules for this budding CE variant have been moved to the CosmicPig page.


Cullings from the Net

When I was younger, I read a book called Interstellar Pig by William Sleator. His books seem geared for younger readers, but I thought the group might be interested in this. A friend in high school turned me on to the book when she played CE with me once. As we were playing, she declared 'This is Interstellar Pig!'
The book revolves around this game. The game bears many resemblances to CE. I don't recall the plot too well. Something about a kid trying to prevent an invasion or something. But the game was cool.
Anyone else heard of it?
--John Poole, seattle-cosmic mailing list, 16 Jul 2001
Indeed, I have heard of it; My best friend and I read it when we were about 12 or 13. We then wrote a game called "Interstellar Pig", one of the largest games that we have ever made.
It basically consisted of starting the game with 7 cards representing various items, vehicles, and abilities, and a race, and then searching the star systems for the pig. I believe one person started with the pig, and the other players tried to get it, through a variety of measures. We had rules and maps for boarding spaceships, landing on planets, caves, all kinds of things. It actually did a rather good job of evoking the feeling of the books. Quite a fun game. It's somewhere at Phil's house, a large collection of rules and maps and pieces. Game play was limited to exactly one and a half hours. We also imported some of the culture from the game from "StarFlight", a quality computer game, very unique.
--LionKimbro, reply to previous message, 16 Jul 2001

Lion wasn't the only kid who was compelled to make his own "gobstopper" (replica in our world of a fictional object) version of Interstellar Pig; compare this review of Parasite Pig by Elizabeth Ward in the 24 November 2002 Washington Post:

Let me explain something about [Parasite Pig]. It's not just any book; it's the sequel to Interstellar Pig (1984), the science-fiction novel that invaded our home back in 1994, when my older son was in seventh grade. The narrator of Interstellar Pig is a savvy 16-year-old named Barney, whose boring summer vacation is brightened when a trio of attractive strangers rents the cottage next door. But the real hero is the unusual board game that the newcomers play obsessively, with Barney as a fourth. It's a survival game called Interstellar Pig; whoever ends up with The Piggy wins, and everyone else is destroyed, along with his or her home planet. The twist is that the game turns out to be real and the strangers none-too-subtly disguised aliens. Earth's fate may rest in Barney's hands.
My son was hooked. He wanted to play that strange, deadly game so badly that he made his own version using poster board, colored pencils and Clue tokens. It wasn't the spectacular game board of the book, with its star-sprinkled black depths and glowing, pulsating planets, but it would do. He, his brother and their friends played Piggy for months. Two summers ago, home from college, they hauled it out and played it again.

I was too old when I first read Interstellar Pig to be seized by the "gobstopper impulse" (although I wasn't when I read The Glass Bead Game), but if anyone else reading this would like to testify about how this fictional game impelled you to your first experiments in game design, please do so.


I'm not e-mailing, because, after all, this is a Wiki, right? The first time I read Interstellar Pig I wasn't too impressed, but the second time the wonders of the book opened to me. I was about 9 or 10, I'd guess. Of course, I too made me own version of the game and actually forced my parents to play it with me once. I guess that wasn't a very good gaming experience for them, as I'm quite sure I was making up the bulk of the rules while we played. I remember the green paper I used to draw the maps on... My girlfriend also told me she had also read the book, loved it and designed her own version of the game. I suppose there are thousands of versions of Interstellar Pig game in the world.
Recently I saw the book in a local library and borrowed it again. I'm now 22, and it was an interesting experience to re-read the book. It's quite definitely a book for teenagers. The plot and the characters are somewhat simple, but entertaining. Also, having been exposed to German board games, it was funny to notice that the game had a simple roll-and-move mechanic... Somehow I would've expected something more unique, but of course the author (if he knew about CE) would have to keep the mechanic familiar to most of the readers.
Anyway, I'm more than curious about the Parasite Pig, I hope I can find it here in Finland. Oh, and by the way, in Finnish the Interstellar Pig is known as Avaruuspeli - The Space Game which is perhaps a bit more descriptive if not as interesting name.
--Mikko Saari (


2001-03-31: Seattle Cosmic session at which the Interstellar Pig book was given as a prize for CE

William Sleator's official home page, a sub-site of Daniel Sleator's site

More to Come...

...after I read the sequel, Parasite Pig.