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Review: Eclipse

Before the release of Eclipse, we had been hearing about this new space game that will take us by a storm.  But now, after months of waiting, Eclipse is finally here.  I was able to play this game first at BGG.con in its final form, and I have played multiple times since my own copy arrived.  You have seen it climbing up the charts on BoardGameGeek week after week.  It is now listed as the fifth best game of all time.  So the big question I’m here to answer is: “Is it all that and a bag of chips?  Is it worth my hard earned gaming cash (up to $100 MSRP)?”  Well, I will hopefully have those questions and others answered by the end of this review.

On the surface, Eclipse looks awfully similar to the old classic Twilight Imperium 3.  Space hexes that you use to build the map as you go.  Ships of different sizes and strengths.  Tech trees that you can use to develop your race.

Although some things look similar, it is definitely not a copy of TI3.  Other than the ships and space hexes, you get a totally different feel from it than TI3.  In this game, you play one of the Seven, the aptly-named seven species in the known universe.  Each race has their own variable powers, so right off the bat we have huge replayability.  Your race has three different production tracks: income, science, and minerals.  These work in a manner somewhat similar to Through the Ages, where you have a “rating” for each which tells you how many of that resource you get every turn, and an actual stockpile of that resource which you use to spend on upgrades and building actions.  Once you start exploring the board, you can encounter the Ancients (“neutral” ships protecting the new hexes you uncover), find new technologies and ship parts, or even recover caches of resources floating in space.

Although the rules are more involved than what I describe below, I want to attempt to give you an overview of the game’s six basic actions.  A full game of Eclipse will be 9 rounds, each round divided in 4 phases: the Action Phase, Combat Phase, Upkeep Phase, and Cleanup Phase.  The ‘meat and potatoes’ of the game happens in the action phase, where players take turns carrying out any number of actions.  If you are done taking actions, you can opt to ‘pass’.  Once you have passed, however, you are not entirely out of the round.  You are allowed to take ‘reactions’ if you need to, although these are less efficient than their regular counterparts.  Passing early has its advantages of course, letting you pay less during upkeep as well as moving the start player marker to whoever is the first to pass in a given round.

During the Action Phase, each player chooses one of the game’s six possible actions and executes it.  In order to carry out an action, each player takes the right-most influence disk on their player mat and moves it up to the appropriate space for it.  Then you simply carry out the actions as depicted on that space. These are:  (note: exact mechanics of each action CAN vary by race.  Actions listed here are referencing the rules for humans.)

Explore – This is how you discover new tiles.  When you select this action, you choose a wormhole in a tile you control to explore out from.  Depending on how close or far the space is from the Galactic Center, you draw a tile from the appropriate stack of hexes.  The hexes closer to the center often have better planets, but are more likely to be defended by neutral forces you have to defeat.  The outer III sectors are more sparse, but they might be undefended.  After you draw the tile, you have the option of placing the tile at the space you explored from, or discard it.  Once you place it, you also load the tile up with any required exploration tiles and/or Ancient’s ships.  If the new hex is uncontested, you can also take it immediately by placing one of your influence disks on it.

Influence – This action lets you re-do some actions and move influence ships around.  You can use it to pull back influence disks from hexes that you don’t need anymore, or are inferior to others near you.  You also use this action to put new influence disks on the board onto sectors you chose not to claim when you explored.

Research – This is how you obtain all the new shiny tech that gives your race advantages or unlock ship upgrades.  When you research, you are allowed to take a tech tile from the tech market and add it to your board.  Technology is grouped into three distinct tracks, although these tracks don’t really have a “theme” associated with each.  Purchasing tech from the same track starts providing benefits like discounts on the prices of further tech from that track and eventually victory points as well.

Upgrade – This action allows you to upgrade your ships.  At the top of each player’s mat, there are layouts or blueprints of all the equipment installed in your ship types (Interceptors, Cruisers, Dreadnoughts and Starbases).  When you take this action, you are allowed to bring in two ship part tiles from the communal board and assign them on your mat.  When you upgrade a given ship type, all ships of that type (the figures on the board) get that upgrade.  Upgrades do a myriad of things, such as improve your chances of hitting with your weapons, greater amount of weapons, defensive hull and shield systems,  and propulsion systems that let you move more hexes at one time.  There are restrictions as well, as you must have a source and a drive on every ship, and your components’ total power consumption can not go over what your source generates.

Build – You are going to need more ships than the one Interceptor you start with.  With the build action, you can build up to two figures onto a hex you control.  The cost of each ship is printed on your player mat, and is paid out in materials.  These range from 3 for small ships like Interceptors, to a whopping 8 resources for Dreadnoughts.  Here you can also build Orbitals and Monoliths if you have unlocked the appropriate technologies.  These two are advanced ways to manufacture new colonies and victory points, respectively.

Move – Once your ships are on the board, you are going to need to move them to do battle, or at the very least defend your systems efficiently.  Moving ships is pretty simple when looked this way: when you take the action, you get as many “movement points” as printed on the mat (3 for humans).  Each movement point allows you to move a ship as many hexes as printed in their drive ship components.  You can assign multiple movement points to the same ship.  So if you own 3 interceptors with one hex movement and take this action, you could either move each of them one hex, or a single one three hexes.  If you enter a space with enemy ships, you stop and do combat in the Combat Phase later.

After all players pass, three extra phases happen in mostly-simultaneous fashion.  During the combat phase, all hexes that contain more than one faction of ships do battle until all but one player has ships in the hex.  During the Upkeep Phase, players must pay money to maintain their empires and receive resources according to their resource tracks.  Finally, player boards are reset and new technology is put on the board during the Cleanup Phase.

With the basic rules out of the way, it’s time to look more in depth into what I really thought about this game.  Here’s a reminder of the scoring categories:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

 

Components: Just taking a look at a table that is playing Eclipse should be all you need to know that this game is a looker.  It comes with components for 6 players, with a full trifecta of wood, plastic and cardboard for each.  After I opened the box, it literally took me one hour to punch, sort and bag every component that came with this game.  The plastic ships are the same mold you have seen before in Galactic Emperor and Eminent Domain, but there is nothing wrong with that.  I guess we always wish each race or color had their own unique model of ships, but we wouldn’t want to leave people who like to pimp their games without anything to do, right?  The cardboard components are super thick, and especially for the ship part tiles you will really want to get a Plano or crafts box to sort them unless you like to spend an extra 5 minutes every time you setup the game to fish and sort every piece.  The only component I have heard some complaints about are the central and player mats, which are not exactly cardboard but more of a thick poster thickness.  They do have a tendency to curl in the box, so I have solved the problem by discarding the insert and placing all the mats flat at the very bottom of the game box with a Plano box on top.

Worthy of mentioning is that although the game contains some player aids, there is only one of each so new players have to share.  However, the information included in the player mats and central board are EXCELLENT!  Once you have played once or twice you will barely ever have to reference the book at all.  Most of the rules of the game that change based on number of players (e.g. how many tech tiles come out every round) are all printed on the central board.  Finally, if you decide to go with the Plano box solution and would like to save on table space, there is an official smaller central mat you can print out on the geek that only includes space for the tech tiles and summaries!

 

Accessibility: Eclipse is not a simple game, although it has simple rules.  Each rule is very simple but there are quite a few of them, so it can be hard to teach to inexperienced players.  That said, the game includes a lot of ways to make the game more accessible to players.  First of all, the rulebook is one of the best I have read in a long time.  Quite easy to follow, tons of examples, and very well laid out.  Second, like I mentioned above the player aids and mats are extensively comprehensive.  I fully believe if you need a reminder about a rule, there is a player aid somewhere that has it and you don’t have to pull out he rules.  Finally, the game does make it hard to know how well you are doing compared to other players.  Between the face-down prestige points you get for combat, and some races getting points for different things, it can be hard to know who is winning at any given point in time.  This can be good or bad.  You’ll have that suspense until the end of the game, but there is a risk that new players will accidentally play kingmaker.  Bottom line, it can be hard to teach, but after two or three rounds you should be flying through the game.

 

Depth:  I think this is where Eclipse really shines.  Tons of ways to score points, and every race plays differently.  Your plays are heavily influenced by what other players are doing.  This is definitely NOT multiplayer solitaire.  Every turn you have to base all your decisions on the current state of the board, without forgetting what your race’s strengths are.  You need to evaluate when is the right time to take on the Galactic Core, or even if its even worth to take at all.  Judging the strength of fleets can be difficult, as at the end of the day you are still at the mercy of dice when it comes to fighting.

 

Theme:  Well, it is a space conquest games with extra euro-like mechanics thrown in.  My guess is this game was designed “top-down” (i.e. the idea and theme came before the mechanics), so I do feel the theme is adequate and appropriate.  There is even a bit of lore thrown in the rulebook, and it does seep out to a few of the races like the Descendants of Draco.  I hope they expand more on that.

 

Fun:  Eclipse is a very fun game if you have any remote interest in space exploration games, light war games, or even economic games (as long as you don’t hate dice).  However, after repeated plays I have started to hit some walls that are definitely worsening my gaming experience with it.  My biggest complaint right now is exploration is greatly random and a few bad draws can leave a civilization far behind the rest of the other races.  Drawing no colonizable planets early will make it nigh impossible for a race to be competitive, especially if they are not able to get Orbitals turn one or two.  The randomness of the technology does compound the problem a bit.  We had a game where Orbitals did not come out for the first 7 turns, a few of the players who did not encounter early orange planets were in an undeniably worse position that the rest.  Discarding bad sectors when you explore is an option, but since you don’t get any compensation for loosing that action, you start to fall behind.  The Descendants of Draco, who get to look at two tiles before choosing one to explore, seem to be VERY overpowered in that regard. So far I haven’t seen them lose.

All in all, a fun game.  Just make sure you are prepared for some randomness and that you MAY be screwed either by your exploration tiles or dice rolls.

 

Even though it is in my opinion a great game, I still can only recommend Eclipse to people who already like the genere.  If you dislike randomness, dice or direct conflict this is still not the game for you. However, for those of us who enjoy them, Eclipse is a very rewarding experience.  It still has a long playtime (I would say 30 minutes per player ONLY if everyone knows how to play and no one is prone to analysis paralysis) but it is much shorter than others of it’s kind such as TI3.  Another huge asset in my book is that it plays very well at 2, 3, 4 and even 5 players, although any more than 4 you better be prepared for a lot more downtime when big space battles happen that do not involve you.

There are lots of great mechanics in this game.  If the sticker price is high for you, make sure you give it a play, and more than one if you can (make sure you play with aliens too, not just humans!) before making your decision.  But for us sci-fi, space combat and mindless dice rollers out there, we finally have a strong mid-length game to fill our game nights.

Eclipse was released by Asmodee in the United States in late 2011.  I purchased my own copy not for review purposes. Played the game with 2, 3, 4 and 5 players multiple times, but have not had a chance to try 6.  Average game has ran around 40 minutes per player plus 20 minutes teaching time.

 

Rating:

4 out of 5

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