• Number of plays: 3
  • Designer: Touko Tahkokallio
  • Artists: Ossi Hiekkala and Sampo Sikiö
  • Release Year: 2011
  • Mechanics: Dice Rolling, Modular Board, Direct Conflict

It’s always fascinating when a piece of media tries to cross barriers between genres. I’m thinking of games such as Bloodbowl, which marries a strong fantasy setting with American football, or Forgotten Waters which leans heavily on story telling and role-playing elements to elicit joy in players instead of strong or clever board game mechanisms.

Most people know what they like. Personally, I know that I do not enjoy horror or sports, so any media catering to fans of those genres is lost on me. People who really love story-telling and role playing generally won’t enjoy games that don’t tell a story (looking at you, dry economic train games). If we imagine each genre of game as a slice of the bigger ‘gaming pie’, we all on some level know which slices of pie we’ll enjoy the most.

Bewitched Pie

Photo by Daniel Wynter on Boardgamegeek

The reason I’m talking about proclivities is because I know I am not a war gamer. I know for a fact that I don’t like games with a lot of direct conflict, nor do I relish in games that rely on chance for resolving outcomes. I cringe when games like Root and Oath hit our tables because I know that no matter how well regarded or praised a game is, I know that I don’t enjoy games that involve a lot of direct conflict (I’ll refer to these as ‘war games’ going forward).

Apparently the way my game group convinces me to play a direct conflict game is to downplay the more random elements; “Eclipse is barely even a war game” they said; “You only have one, maybe two battles in the whole game!” they claimed. With these comments in mind, I sat down at the table to play Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy designed by Touko Tahkokallio.

How to Play

Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy begins with every player situated on their own system with naught but empty space between them. In the centre of the table is the Galactic core with a big ‘ol baddie just waiting for someone to rush in, pummel them, and claim their lucrative spot.

On your turn you can take one of six actions: explore, influence, research, upgrade, build, and move. Each action requires a disc and usually has you spending some of your resources in order to gain something in return. Exploring allows you to put new tiles on the board, potentially connecting your system with the other players in the game and discovering planets that will net you more resources during the income phase. Influence allows you to move discs from the central play area to your own board, and back again. Research lets you spend your science resource to discover a new technology. Upgrade lets you reap the benefits of your research and equip your various ships with better weaponry and shields. Building costs materials, but puts ships onto any hex you control, and moving lets you move said ships into adjacent tiles.

Player board at the end of the first round

Action taking continues around the table until players decide to pass on further actions. Once all players have passed, the game moves into a combat phase. Any tile that contains more than one colour of tokens breaks out into combat. Players roll die according to their units initiative to resolve the combat. By default, a 6 is a hit and deals one damage. Upgraded weapons will deal more damage per each success rolled, computers will lower the number required for a hit, while shields raise the number required to hit your ships (6’s ALWAYS hit and 1’s ALWAYS miss). Once a ship has taken damage exceeding it’s hull strength, the ship is been destroyed.

Once all combat is resolved, players gain income based on the number of planets they’ve occupied. Finally, upkeep costs need to be paid based on the number of discs that you have out. Having completed this phase, the next round starts.

At the end of the game your score is derived from the points on the tiles on which you have a disc, any reputation tiles, any ambassador tiles, discovery tiles, monoliths, and your progress on the technology tracks. The player with the most points is the Supreme Galactic Ruler!

Review

The “How to Play” section above isn’t meant to be a comprehensive tutorial on how to play Eclipse. After all, the rulebook is 25 pages long and offers plenty of examples to help players navigate the considerable depth of rules. Board Game Geek’s forums also has a lot of discussion on some more edge-case rules questions, but it can be tricky to navigate as there were some rules changes and balance changes that happened between editions of the game and the expansions.

My friends weren’t lying when they said Eclipse is barely a war game. Rather, it is more of a resource management, economic game. As players take actions and spread their influence across the galaxy, they’ll be putting discs from their player board onto other things. The more discs you take off your track, the more money you’ll have to pay at the end of the round. If you can’t pay for your actions, you go bankrupt and may be forced to return some of your influence from the board to cover your shortfalls.

If I take any more actions, I’ll end up with a trade deficit But I won’t get very far on a single action per turn…

Like many games in the 4X genre (eXplore, eXploit, eXpand, eXterminate) the first couple of turns have players individually exploring the area around their home, gobbling up any resources to really kickstart their engines. While exploring, you may run into an neutral enemy called an ‘Ancient’. The Ancients aren’t terribly difficult to destroy (especially after a few researches and upgrades), but this is where the first instances of luck can start to make or break your Eclipse experience. It’s not unrealistic for one player to draw tiles that contain no threats and offer a variety of benefits. Plentiful planets, artifacts, and useful wormholes that make it easier to explore even more. To add to the momentum, artifacts can often give a player a bunch of resources that greatly assist them in their next few actions.

Conversely, If you explore and happen to find an Ancient, you’ll need to use a subsequent action to move some of your ships into that space. Then, after all players have finished taking actions and the game has moved into the combat phase, you’ll roll dice to resolve the combat. Assuming you win, you may put an influence disc in the sector and gain the rewards and/or place cubes on planets. It feels stifling to get surrounded by Ancients on your first few explore actions, while watching your opponents easily gobbling up planets left and right.

He who controls the centre, controls the universe

Eclipse is a resource management game, make no mistake. During each of your actions you move a disc off a track which dictates how much money you need to pay at the end of the round. If your actions exceed the amount you pay, you may end up going bankrupt. If your faction expands too far and you just happen to not find any orange plants (which increase the amount of money you generate at the end of every round), you may find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place, deciding to go bankrupt and lose discs off sectors (which also return any cubes on planets to their tracks), or choosing to end your turn early.

Combat in Eclipse is anything but deterministic. Ships come in a variety of shapes and abilities and players can tweak their powers to fit each game. If you’re going up against someone who is very likely to hit, but does little damage with each success, you may want to improve your hull to survive multiple hits. Perhaps your opponent is a glass cannon; dealing 4 damage on every hit, but has no hull. In this case its worth investing in missiles, which only fire once per combat, but always shoot first. Of course, all of these modifiers and add-ons are locked behind specific technology tiles, which are randomly drawn at the beginning of every round, meaning sometimes the technology you really want just isn’t available, or the first player took it before you even had a chance. In addition to needing the technology to be available to buy, you need to pay for it using the science resource (pink). Hopefully during your explore actions you managed to find some pink planets to plop your cubes onto.

Bigfoot! Get out of my galaxy!!!

A lot of progress in Eclipse is cumulative; the more success you have early, the more you can do later. The more techs you research, the cheaper future techs are and the more upgrades you can slot onto your ships. The more sectors you explore the more cubes you’ll put onto the board which gives you more resources, allowing you to take more actions and buy more ships. It’s a pretty classic engine builder in that regard, including how your game can grind to a halt as soon as someone throws a wrench in your plans.

My most recent game showed a nasty edge of Eclipse. Otter had some bad luck with his explore actions right at the beginning of the game, leaving his starting hex adjacent to two Ancients. Simultaneously his neighbour Bigfoot explored right to the edges of his tiles, and laid them in such a way that Otter couldn’t reach the rest of the board, save for one single tile that he could use to reach the centre, that happened to have another Ancient guarding it. That tile was then quickly occupied by Bear (whose faction could occupy tiles guarded by Ancients), who promptly turned it into a stronghold, gating Otter into his own little sliver of space from which he could not escape.

Because Otter couldn’t explore, he was getting a paltry amount of resources during each income phase. He poured everything into defeating the Ancients and then trying to break down the gate setup by Bear. Unfortunately he just couldn’t compete with Bear who had access to twice as much space as Otter and was reaping the rewards that comes with colonizing that much space. His game was absolutely frustrating right from the first turn.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the downsides of randomness. I’ll give Eclipse credit where it’s due: the randomness does create very exciting and tense moments. In one game, I pushed my luck and attacked the centre tile on my second turn. Had I been successful, it would have set me up to absolutely dominate the game (I failed and ended up bankrupt, but that’s not the point of the story). In other games, factions build and prepare their ships until finally they crash into each other, each player rolling half a dozen die each, but sometimes a horrible upset can happen! A single starbase defending against a dreadnaught, or a pair of small cruisers dominating against a force three times their size.

Inevitably, the centre tile is a common battleground for the final round of the game as it ends up being easily accessed by everyone, and is worth the most points. I do love how the tension crescendos at the end of the game where suddenly players have nothing to lose and everyone strikes out for the final battles, trying to snatch poorly defended points away from their neighbors.

I’m not sure if Eclipse succeeds in satisfying both the Euro gamer crowd and the war gamer crowd. All the randomness I’ve listed above is more than enough to sour the experience of someone who doesn’t enjoy randomness in the first place. The action-efficiency puzzle/engine building aspect doesn’t seem like it’s something a war gamer would particularly enjoy; ‘senseless bookkeeping’ is the term that comes to mind.

That said, if you’re the type of person who can enjoy both sides of the gamer pie, Eclipse is a solid design. Highly dynamic gameplay, incredible replayability, and strategic depth that allows players to change their strategies from game to game (and allows other players the space to adapt and counter), all within a 3 hour play time! Eclipse has the potential to be a brightly shining star in your board game collection, if you can stomach the luck.