Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Anthrax. It’s continuing mission, to find strange new worlds to subjugate. To seek out new life and new civilizations to destroy. To boldly conquer…..everything. Wait, that isn’t how it goes….
But that is exactly how it goes in the Eclipse universe. It isn’t trying to be the friendly Federation. It is more on the Borg side of things where you shoot first, no questions asked, and assimilate planets to your cause. If diplomacy happens it is tenuous and short-lived. A game of Eclipse exists in a universe of conflict and competition because, well, that makes for a fun 4X game.
And Eclipse is very much the 4X game. Players will take on the role of different alien races attempting to become the most powerful in the galaxy. You do this by building your wealth, technology, and material supplies by exploring new areas for planets to control then gearing up your ships for battle and finally engaging in said battle replete with dice-chunking. When a certain number of rounds are over players will tally their victory points and the player with the most wins.
Eclipse is a game of space empires. Each player takes on the role of an alien race that has unique stats and abilities. Each race feels different from the others so you get a distinct feeling of who you are in the game. The game plays out with a beginning, middle, and end structure. You are exploring in the early game, building your technology and skirmishing with other races in the middle game trying to establish your control, then usually having some big decisive battles to end the game. I have a clear idea of who I am in the game and what I am doing.
I feel like the overall theme in Eclipse comes through very strongly but especially so in two areas: the economy, and ship building. Eclipse has a very Euro feeling economic engine to it that spawns interesting and tough decisions. You cannot just expand as fast as you want without paying the price. I’ll get into a bit more depth on this in a bit, but just know that your economy feels like a delicate balance, much like a real economy.
The ship outfitting is another area I feel like the theme shines. Each ship type in your fleet has a blueprint. You can add things to those blueprints like shields, better hull, engines, and, weapons, but you must stay within the confines of the power supply the ship has. Of course, you can upgrade that as well. Through all of this, you really feel like you are outfitting your ships for battle.
Everything in Eclipse is so integrally tied to everything else. It is a balancing act of galactic scale.
I really don’t think the art in Eclipse is especially special. Not that I can come up with anything wrong with it, it just doesn’t set itself apart in any way. There are plenty of stars and planets present and the alien races are interesting to look at but not much more.
The graphic design is in a little better place than the art. The iconography is clear even if there is quite a bit to digest (I wouldn’t expect less from such a big game). The player boards are well laid out and once you know how the game flows it all makes sense.
The components in Eclipse really show how much it straddles the Euro-Ameritrash line. On the Euro side, you have an abundance of wooden cubes and discs to keep track of your actions and economy. Don’t bump the table too hard or your economy will fall apart. Then you have plastic ships, dice, and stacks upon stacks of cardboard tokens on the Ameritrash side.
Organizing, setup, and teardown of all this stuff can be a pain in Eclipse but, fortunately, we have a solution for that. You can build the foam core insert I designed which will bring this barrier to play way down.
To accomplish all that the game does you need all of these components and they are all of high quality. It can take a large table to fit everything especially as the player count goes up. I wish the ships in the base game were custom to each race (I realize you can buy the ship pack for this) and I wish there was a better way to keep your economy intact than not touching the table (there are good 3rd party solutions for this.)
The mechanisms of a 4X game are best viewed through its handling of the 4Xes (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) so let’s go through these to see how Eclipse does its mechanical magic. How do you transform a bunch of cardboard, plastic, wood, and dice into a galactic conquest extravaganza? Let’s find out.
You stand on the bridge of your starship on the brink of uncharted space. What waits for you out in the blackness? Planets to subjugate that are rich with resources? Or an ancient alien civilization waiting for you come to their doorstep so they can send you back with a bloodied ego? Finding this out in Eclipse is only a tile draw away.
Exploring closer to the galactic core will potentially get you richer planets but, it will also bring you closer to your opponents who will just as easily blow you up as make an alliance with you. Exploring further out buys you some space but the rich planets are harder to find. This blind draw exploring does feel like you are headed out into the great unknown of space but, it can be frustrating as well. Drawing too many tiles early in the game with NPC Ancients to fight can really slow you down. As does not finding planets with the right resources. But, hey, that is all a part of exploration. You’ve got to make due with what you find.
As you find new sectors with planets chalk-full of resources you must control them if you are to get any benefit. Controlling a system is as simple as placing a wooden disc from your player board onto the sector but that is just the beginning. Placing these discs has a ripple effect on your empire’s economy. Not only do these discs control sectors, they are also the means by which you take actions. The more discs you use between controlling sectors and the ever-important actions you want to take, the more your empire must pay for upkeep. So the more sectors you control, the more costly your actions become. If you have enough money income to support this, good for you. If not, your creditors will come for you, and your empire will shrink. Let this go long enough and you are looking at bankruptcy. (I think our government should look into playing this game. They might learn something.) This creates a fine line to walk and keeps your expansion and action-taking in tension with each other. This is a wonderful system full of interesting and tough decisions.
So, you’ve found a few planets. How do you go about generate the resources you need to sustain your burgeoning empire? The answer is, of course, exploiting the planets in the sectors you control to gain their wealth, science, or materials. Each planet produces one kind of resource. Wealth gives you the money you need to pay for your empire’s expansion and the actions you want to take. Science gives you the ability to purchase new technology. Materials are what you use to build your ships and other structures.
To gain these resources you have to send colony ships to the planets. You can then place a cube from a track on your player board matching the color of the resource produced there. The more cubes of a color that are on planets the more of that resource you produce each round. This is another balancing act since you have limited colony ships each round and colonizing planets can take one of your precious and expensive actions. You have to have the right mix of resource generation at the right times of the game to be successful.
Everything in Eclipse builds toward the fight. You are controlling planets to support your empire, get technology to better outfit your ships, and materials to build those ships. Sure, there are other ways of gaining victory points but it almost always comes down a fight over sectors. And it should. This is a 4X game, after all. Eclipse incentivizes attacking by offering the winner some victory points.
I’m not going to get too deep into the nitty-gritty of combat. Just know that it is a dice chunking fest where the ships you have in combat and the ways you have modified them matter a great deal. You can have a great roll but if you opponent has the right kind of shields they will just absorb the shots and then shoot back at you. Outfitting your ships for the opponent you will be facing is of top importance. Case in point: missiles. Missiles fire first in combat but, only once. If your opponent comes in with a missile boat you need to be loaded up with shields and hull so that you can survive that first volley.
To be able to equip your ships properly you need to have done the requisite technological upgrades. This all ties back to the other systems: controlling systems and planets to get the resources you need to get the technology you need to build the fleet you need. Everything in Eclipse is so integrally tied to everything else. It is a balancing act of galactic scale. The decision tension is so thick you could cut it with a non-copyrighted laser-sword.
Try this game if you like:
- Twilight Imperium
- Space Empires 4X
- Exodus Proxima Centuari
- Clash of Cultures
- Forbidden Stars
Eclipse sits at a strange crossroads but one that is becoming less of an oddity. It sits firmly on the fence between the Euro and Ameritrash types of games. I feel like these descriptors are becoming less useful but still can give someone a general idea of the experience they can expect. The Euro is typically a tight mechanical affair where the talk after the game is about where victory points came from and how to better manipulate the system to milk out more points in subsequent games. Ameritrash games, on the other hand, tend to be storytelling devices. Yes, they have mechanisms but they are generally not the focus. The discussion after one of these games is all about the narrative that was created throughout the course of the game. You know, when so-and-so made that daring move that paid off in a big way. I enjoy both of these experiences immensely.
Eclipse was one of the first games I played that combined these previously separate worlds of gaming. This is why I enjoy Eclipse so much. I can get the economics of Powergrid with the discovery and epic scope of Twilight Imperium in one game. It brings in that bigger 4X space opera story and underpins it with tight mechanical decisions. I highly recommend this game if you have several hours to devote to a game.
By now I am sure it is obvious that I love Eclipse. But as much as I enjoy it, there is no such thing as a perfect game. Below are a couple of my gripes with the game.
Missiles – This is a complaint I have heard many throw at the game – that Missiles are too powerful. I will first counter this by saying that there are ways to prepare for the missile boat. The unfortunate part is that if someone goes with this strategy, it forces you to take a technological path you might not have wanted to. There are precious few actions in the game as it is, and completing altering what you are doing because someone is loading up their ships with only missiles is frustrating.
The Ending – Eclipse excels at being a middle-length 4X game. It is not short, but it is also not 8-12 hours long as some 4X games can be. The way they accomplished this was the round limit. Eclipse is limited to nine rounds of play. Because of this, it feels like the game is ending just when you’ve got your engine purring. And since everyone knows it is the last round, they play that way, extending themselves beyond what they would normally do if the game wasn’t ending. And I guess that is the thing I don’t like about the ending – it takes me out of the experience and reminds me that I’m just playing a game. Game over, now count up your victory points. I suppose this is a trade off to keep to a shorter time frame but I think I’d prefer an objective based ending like Forbidden Stars.