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ECLIPSE

Reviewed by Andrea “Liga” Ligaue

(Asmodee, 2 to 6 players, ages 12 and up, 120+ minutes; $99.99)

 

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …”, gamers were looking for a perfect science fiction 4X game (that is, a game of “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”.  It was a time when Avalon Hill releases were eagerly awaited, Stellar Conquest by Metagaming was a hit for fans of the genre and Task Force Games, with Star Fire, shocked the believer (I still have all the released manuals and I’m also been a fan of the PC translation of the game). At the same time, Amarillo Design Bureau released Star Fleet Battles and fans began to design campaign rules.

But the real “big bang” for the genre was in 1997 with a game from an almost unknown designer, Christian T. Petersen, for a small new company, Fantasy Flight Games: Twilight Imperium! It was the rise of a new era. Since 199,7 every 4X game was compared to this “Giant” and it was not easy. Twilight Imperium, in the second and, above all, third edition, has all a science fiction gamer looking for a full and deep experience could want provided, of course, that the player has at least having something close to 6-7 hours of play time available and enough players to join him for that. So, as with Civilization, there was a chase for the perfect game playable in less than 3 hours. Race for the Galaxy, Galactic Emperor, The Phantom League, Ascending Empires and Space Empires: 4X have all gone in this direction, each with some degree of success. But the game that really seems to be able to approach this “ideal” of the perfect 4X game has been Eclipse, currently rising in the Olympus of BoardGameGeek’s top 10 (actually, right now, it’s 6) in something close to one year from its release. Now let’s see what Eclipse is all about. eclipseboxEclipse is a 2-6 player game designed by Touko Tahkokallio that places you in control of a vast interstellar civilization, competing for success with its rivals. You explore new star systems, research technologies and build spaceships. There are many potential paths to victory so you need to plan your strategy according to the strengths and weaknesses of your species while paying attention to the other civilizations’ endeavors. The game mixes well the theme and sense of a typical American game with solidity and the mechanics of the best Euro, starting from a non-monolithic turn sequence, with quick actions and reactions. 

A game round is split into 4 phases: action, combat, upkeep and cleanup with the action phase actually being the part where most of the game takes place.

During the action phase, each player, in turn order, can take an action moving a disc from the influence track to the action task. As actions are taken, the influence track becomes less populated, resulting in an increasing upkeep cost. Influence disks are also used to mark stellar systems under empire control: this is an excellent idea for simulating the increasing costs of an expanding and active empire. At some point, costs will become so high that a player will decide to pass: the first player to pass will be the first player in the next turn, the last one to pass will end the action phase.

There is also the possibility to “react”, using influence disks after having passed. These sort of “half actions” could prevent other players from taking too much advantage from an earlier passing empire. It is evident, and I like, that an Empire without economic resources will have to slow down activities and expansions.

Now we can quickly go through the different actions.

Exploring means to take a new map hex from the stock and place it close to your empire/starship. There are three kinds of hexes (according to the distance from the center of the galaxy). Usually hexes display 1-2 planets to colonize and sometimes discovery tiles to get or ancient enemies to fight. Actually this is the most luck-driven part of the game and many players have issues with this. I, however, find It quite satisfactory. Exploring first and fast could bring some advantages but exploring, as in real life, is sometimes risky!

After exploration, you can take control of the hex (using the costly influence disk we talked about before) and, if you do that, you can immediately activate your colony ships and take control of the hex. Unless the hex is controlled by ancient enemies, this is a peaceful action. Every planet offers something to the colonizer: money, resources or science. Money is needed to maintain your empire (remember the costly influence disks?), science to develop new technologies and materials to build starships and bases. Every player has three tracks for these values filled with cubes. Every-time you colonize a planet, you can move a cube from the right track to the planet, increasing the value in the selected category.  eclipsepcs

The second action, influence, allows a player to reorganize two influence disks (usually to free a costly marker on an useless hex).

Research allows a player to take one of the available research tiles, spending the right amount of science, Every tile has a cost and a field: grid, military or nano technologies. Always researching in the same field could be cost reducing but not all techs are always available and sometimes it is useful to diversify. Most of the technologies can actually be upgraded on your starship to make your starship unique. This is one of the aspects I really like in Eclipse. You actually have three kinds of starships and a base and you can create your own designs according to the techs you have researched. Every ship of the same design has the same equipment. Research is directly tied in to the ability of a player’s fleets.

The tiles you can build on a design are weapons (cannons and missiles), computers, shields, hulls, drives and energy sources. There are rules about the design process; you need at least one engine (of course) and enough energy sources to activate any other energy consuming technologies. How well ships are designed usually matters most in the last turns of the game when combat occurs more frequently.

Of course there is also a build action to build starships and bases using materials. There is a limited number of figures you can build, from 8 interceptors to 2 dreadnoughts! Actually, I don’t see a “perfect” strategy: sometimes you have technologies better suited for a huge fleet of small ships, sometimes you can build scary dreadnoughts.

Special technologies you can find only by exploring can really influence your design but using these technologies means forsaking the 2 VP gained by the discovery tile and since the games are quite tight, giving up those VP is not an easy decision to make.

Finally there is the move action. The hex built map is not really a typical hex map since hexes have wormholes and movement is possible only along two connected wormholes. That means that every game, the map could have not only a different shape according to where the hexes are placed but also a different shape according to which connected hex is really connected according to this rule. There are technologies, usually gotten in the last turn of the game, that allow a ship to travel across a half open wormhole. This can, in the end, open part of space not actually connected in the first turns.

In Eclipse, there are also simple and streamlined diplomatic rules. Neighboring empires can exchange each other’s diplomatic tiles giving both some Victory Points. Of course, that means they cannot attack the other. Breaking an alliance gives you the “traitor” tile. The traitor tile “travels” during the game and belongs to the player who last broke the agreement. (It seems like the galaxy empires are not able to remember past villains but only the last one!) The empire with the traitor tile is not allowed to make new alliances and, in the end, will lose points.

I’m not going to go into the details of the combat phase: you have to know that combat means rolling buckets of dice. To paraphrase game designer Richard Garfield in my interview with him, making huge amount of dice rolls means reducing the luck factor involved in rolling but I’m not so sure since some rolls are really crucial. Another issue for gamers wary of luck in Eclipse is that every combat allows you to draw one or more Victory Point tiles from a bag (how many depends on the combat results and casualties) keeping just the best one (but it is secret). Games are usually really tight and that can be annoying if you have constantly drawn bad tiles after combat.

In the upkeep phase, revenue is received according to your accrued values in science, money and materials. You have also to pay your empire costs and, if you find yourself in need, it could be really painful.

The game lasts 9 turns and in the end, Victory Points are tallied: tiles gained by combats and alliance (max. 4 tiles), the values of the controlled planets, discovery tiles, built monoliths, technologies (only if you have reached really a lot of progress in a single field) and the traitor (negative VPs if you are caught with him when the game ends). The player with the highest total wins!

I think Eclipse has reached the objective of being a real deep and engaging 4X game, playable in a fair amount of time. Of course, it is not comparable to the “giant” but it can reach a different group of gamers since the influence of the Euro games is much more evident here. In addition, it is possible to play with different races having different abilities and starting conditions to keep the game fresh.

I’m sure Eclipse will hit gamers’ tables for years: at least until the next big bang … A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away there was Twilight Imperium … now many systems are falling down to Eclipse’s attack! Is Eclipse really such a great game ? I like it (it will be for sure one of my choices for the International Gamers Award) and looking at its BGG ranking, it seems many agree. But I think we have not yet reached perfection and there is still a place for the perfect 4X game. – – — – – – – – Andrea “Liga” Ligabue


 

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