The Cubist: Review of Eclipse
When I write a review, I have one guideline to follow: look at our beloved tabletop gaming hobby with a critical eye. This doesn’t mean always seeing things negatively… on the contrary, it’s all about thinking critically and recognizing imperfections as places for improvement or evolution of the hobby as a whole.
More importantly, it serves as a counterpoint to the sales-driven dialogue that oftentimes dominates the game industry. That dialogue is totally understandable: if the hobby is going to continue expanding, it can only do so if sales are brisk and ongoing. There’s also the aspect of enthusiasm, of course… we do what we do in this hobby because we enjoy it and feel passionately enough about it that we enjoy talking to each other and the rest of the world about it. So it’s only natural that we tend to focus on the positives and gloss over the flaws that are inevitably present in this art form (and yes, I believe game design to be an art form, but that’s a different topic for a different day).
So when I was trying to figure out what game to tackle for my first review, I realized that if I wanted to truly embrace critical thinking in tabletop gaming, I had to start by examining my own biases, and that meant taking an honest, unflinching look at my all time favorite game, Eclipse. *cue the dramatic music*
(For the purposes of this review, I will be talking primarily about the original game published in 2011, although I will occasionally reference the upcoming second edition of the game where appropriate.)
Eclipse is an epic space opera of a board game. Players control one of many alien races and factions trying to earn the most prestige by controlling the galaxy in the wake of the Terran-Hegemony War. This is accomplished by a unique combination of distinctly euro-style action selection and resource management mechanisms coupled with a rollicking, dice-chucking combat system and fully customizable spaceships. The game lasts for precisely nine turns (although the second edition coming early this year will trim that number to eight), and the player who has accumulated the most points through controlling valuable systems, researching technologies, discovering artifacts, and fighting glorious battles will win the game and take control of the Galactic Council once and for all.
(Sheesh, can you tell I like the game a little bit? No one paid me to write all that… that’s just how much I love this game.)
The base game plays 2-6 players, with the first expansion Rise of the Ancients expanding that number to 9. Personally I enjoy it at all player counts, although it is an undeniably long game with more people sitting around the table. The second edition of the game will roll back that player count to a maximum of 6, and that doesn’t bother me too much… it’s hard enough to set aside a long block of time to play an epic game like Eclipse, let alone try to wrangle nine gamers together all in one place to play it. I suspect the long play time has limited the overall number of 7-9 player games that hit the table, so it’s probably no great loss in the grand scheme of things.
A few years back I was teaching Eclipse to a relatively new gamer, and at the end of his first game he leaned back in his chair with a thoughtful look on his face. He had just taken a solid third place out of three players, and after the points were scored he quietly said, “wow, that was amazing. It was like playing a cinematic space opera.” His subsequent smile was the highlight of that game for me.
And that’s a big part of what Eclipse is: an experience. There are very few games that capture the sprawling feel of interstellar war the way Eclipse does. There is posturing, tension between neighboring players that inevitably ends in chaos and glorious battle. There are stand-up die rolls, moments when a single die changes the face of the game and creates heroic moments that players talk about long after the game is over. There is exploration of the unknown, the thrill of carving out your own corner of the galaxy and finding surprises around every corner.
Then again there’s the satisfying feel of manipulating the action selection system to outmaneuver your opponents. There’s the agonizing decision of when to take just one more action and risk overextending yourself in a desperate bid to gain an edge. There’s the moments of covertly looking over your ally’s systems, secretly plotting how to take over that tasty system right on your border without leaving yourself too open to attack on your other flank. Eclipse is a game that rewards bravery, treachery, and careful planning at every step of your journey.
Let’s park all the touchy-feely stuff for a few minutes and talk actual game. Eclipse blends euro mechanisms with amerithrash dicey fun in a way that no other game approaches. It does a little bit of everything, and it does all of it well and in a way that is approachable and engaging from the first. Everything works thematically and mechanically, and those gears mesh together smoothly to create a truly unique gaming experience.
No game is perfect, and Eclipse is no exception to that rule. There is a lot of luck sprinkled through this gem of a game: what technologies are going to come out of the bag every turn, what systems players flip over while exploring the galaxy, what discoveries they find… and then there’s the dice, lots of dice. If you don’t enjoy luck in your games, you’re gonna have a bad time in Eclipse. Some of the luck is mitigatable (specifically the dice in combat via computers and shields), but some of it isn’t. Eclipse players have to be OK with occasionally getting a bad draw/roll or three and figuring out how to work around those unlucky moments, and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
Eclipse is a long game, not the longest game of its ilk (see Twilight Imperium et al), but long enough that it sometimes struggles to find table time. You can easily expect a game with new players to take at least an hour per player, and even experienced players will rarely get that time down below 30 minutes each… and if you are prone to analysis paralysis, you are quickly going to become a very unpopular player at the table. There are a lot of things to keep an eye on in Eclipse, and it’s very easy for AP players to drag the game to a painful crawl if they can’t force themselves to keep moving.
The biggest weak point of Eclipse, however, is the absolute necessity of the Rise of the Ancients (RotA) expansion. Many articles have been written debating this point back and forth, but I firmly believe that the base game has some pretty game-breaking flaws baked right in. Plasma Missiles (PMs) are a very easy technology to abuse, and they are difficult to counter, especially for new players. RotA introduced a number of rare technologies that helped mitigate PMs, but if a player never gets around to playing Eclipse with RotA, PMs can leave a bad, bitter taste in their mouth and make them never want to touch the game again.
(It bears mentioning that, although second edition Eclipse will not contain RotA directly, it will incorporate many of the changes that RotA introduced to first edition. It’s expected that the extra races that came with RotA will be released somewhere down the road as second edition’s first expansion, although this has not been directly confirmed by the publishers as of the writing of this article.)
Speaking of techs: technologies in Eclipse are split into three “trees”, and I do not believe those three trees are created equally. There are certain techs that will be eagerly snapped up the moment they come out of the bag (Improved Hull, the Advanced techs, and the above-mentioned PMs to name a few) and some that will often sit untouched all game no matter when they come out (Orbitals, Nanorobots, Wormhole Generator). This creates a lopsided feel to the technology side of the game that sometimes distracts from the game as a whole.
My beloved Eclipse is a table hog. I have an 8 foot by 3 foot game table in my game room, and I can only barely fit a 6p game of Eclipse on it, and even then only if the players are mindful of their elbows and can be sure to keep their personal play areas tidy and compact. It all makes sense once it’s set up, but it took me at least four or five plays before I figured out a good way to set up a game of Eclipse such that there’s enough room for everything.
It is also an absolute bear to store. My copy stopped living in its original boxes a long time ago, primarily because in order to store it efficiently and make setup reasonable I had to use seven Plano boxes and a gigantic plastic box to put them all in. Custom inserts have been made for it in the past, but none of them did a good job of storing the game with all the expansions and promos that were released over it’s seven year lifespan. Second edition has baked-in storage included in the game, so that will be a relief after years of trying to figure out how to just store the game, let alone get it to the table.
First edition Eclipse also benefits from other aftermarket add-ons, most notably cube trays. Each player’s population is tracked using a bunch of small wooden cubes arranged on small tracks, and all it takes is one table bump to completely ruin a player’s population tracks and possibly the game in general. If you’ve played Terraforming Mars and have experienced a table bump that screwed up your resource tracking and reserves, you know the pain that a bumped Eclipse player mat can cause. It’s the worst, and it’s inevitable unless everyone is extremely mindful of their actions at the table… good luck with that.
I recently acquired and played Twilight Imperium 4e, the game that Eclipse is most commonly compared and contrasted to, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I had such a good time, in fact, that I briefly wondered if it had dethroned Eclipse as my go-to epic space game.
I realized, however, that Eclipse does things that TI4 doesn’t, specifically the brilliant action selection system and customizable ship blueprints, and although there’s room for both games in my collection, Eclipse still has my heart. It’s the perfect blend of all the parts of tabletop gaming that I enjoy: its epic scale, the clever euro-style mechanisms that drive player actions, the aforementioned stand-up die rolling moments that cause cheering and groaning all around the table, the posturing and threats… it’s all there, and it’s all fun. Every time I get the chance to bring it out, I’m smiling before the game even starts.
I would urge everyone that hasn’t ever tried Eclipse to give it a whirl… but you might want to wait until the second edition releases. I think the new version will probably address many of the weak spots the original had without requiring a “hotfix” expansion like RotA. Even if you play the original (which is still a fine game, if a bit flawed in spots), just enjoy the experience for what it is: a gloriously epic space opera with something for everyone.