A Long and Winding Prologue:
Space-based 4X games, if my ludological insight is correct, were born out of tabletop wargames of the 70’s and early 80’s with titles like Stellar Conquest (1975), Outreach (1976), Imperium (1977), and Starfall (1979). Master of Orion opened the floodgates for 4X space-based video games – and the genre has continued to grow, despite ups and downs, for decades since. Curiously enough, the videogame side of the fence has had a ripple effect on the board game world as well.
Twilight Imperium (1st edition in 1997, 3rd edition in 2005) was the go-to space empire board game for a long time. It managed to tackle the empire-building theme but layer in all sorts of thematic wonderment, politicking, backstabbing, and other good things that boardgames provide. If Settlers of Catan had a head on collision with a car driven by Risk with Diplomacy riding shotgun; that would about describe it. But Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition(“TI3”) also takes hours, and hours, and hours to play. Finishing a full game in less than eight hours would be quite an accomplishment – you are better off blocking out half your weekend.
Despite TI3 being the go-to space empire game, there was a holy grail quest of sorts underway in the boardgaming world. This search was for a “TI3-lite,” a game that could capture the grandeur and scale of the big daddy but could be played in a more modest evening session. Three or four hours would be nice – we aren’t too picky.
Despite many valiant attempts over the years, it wasn’t until Eclipse landed in 2011 that the grail was found. Eclipse, the boardgame, was designed by Finnish game designer Touko Tahkokallio and published by Lautapelit.fi (and subsequently licensed to other publishers). The game was tremendously successful in the boardgaming world, and quickly shot up the BoardGameGeek ratings to a top position. It remains among the 10 top-rated games still (currently at #9). This success is a testament to a clever incorporation of modern “Eurogame” mechanics, which control the game’s pacing and structure, creating a thematically rich, high-conflict, dudes-on-a-map American-style wargame – affectionately known as Ameritrash.
Of course, Eclipse and Twilight Imperium 3rd ed. are very different games, with the latter emphasizing a meaty diplomatic/negotiation element between players (which incidentally drives its playtime through the roof). Eclipse, on the other hand, took heavy cues from Master of Orion and effectively delivers on 4X gamer expectations – there is exploration, empire growth, research, ship customization, multiple factions to play, ancient discoveries, and of course nail-biting, dice-chucking combat.
In an even more ironic twist of fate, Eclipse was “ported” to a digital platform and released as an iPad app – and it is this digital app of Eclipse that we will be looking at today. Yes, this article is a review of a board game, ported to a mobile app, but originally inspired by a videogame that in turn owes its existence to board games from the 70’s and 80’s. Confused yet? Regardless, the gameplay and mechanics are the same between the digital and physical versions of the game, although this review is focused on the iOS app version.
Game Setup & Races
Eclipse supports up to six players, although an expansion (board game version only!) provides components for up to nine players for the most masochistic of gamers. Each player receives a player board with a generic-ish human faction on one side and a unique alien faction on the other. The humans are fairly balanced in how they work, but the alien factions all come with unique twists and abilities. There are the mighty Mechanica that get bonuses to ship customization and construction, the Planta that can expand quickly, the Hydran that excel at researching, and so on. Each faction provides a different feel, and it’s important to play to your faction’s strengths.
eXploration: The gamespace consists of a hex-grid of sectors. At the center is a Master of Orion-inspired GDC: the Galactic Defense Center that guards a juicy core system. Arranged a few hexes out in a ring are all of the players’ starting sectors. Sectors can contain up to three different planets, of three different resource-producing varieties (money, science, or materials). Sectors also contain wormholes on some of their edges that provide a means of travel between sectors when they are lined up with one another. Some sectors also contain rare artifacts that you can claim for victory points (VPs) or as a special ship technology. Additionally, stronger sectors may be occupied by ships belonging to the “Ancients” – effectively serving the role of Master of Orion’s space monsters.
Exploration works by taking an exploration action on your turn which allows you to draw a tile from one of three stacks depending on the proximity to the galactic center (inner ring, middle ring, and outer sectors) and place it next to one of your controlled sectors. You can also decide on the tile’s orientation, lining up wormholes to create either a connection to an adjacent tile or to deliberately prevent a connection.
One criticism I have of the exploration system is that players can be hamstrung by the tiles they draw. If you get “bad tiles” with few (or no) useful planets or all of your expansion options are defended by powerful ancients, it can really set you back in the first few turns of the game and it can be hard to recover. I would have liked to see some system for redrawing revealed tiles from a track or pool to give players a little bit of choice and fair warning about their exploration opportunities. On the other hand, the blind draw does add some tension to exploration – and for each less-than-stellar tile you draw there is hope for landing an awesome one. So it adds flavor if nothing else.
eXpansion: Once you explore a sector you are given a free opportunity to place influence on the sector and immediately colonize available planets, assuming there are no ancients on the planet. In subsequent turns, you can expand by using the Influence action to place colony ships. Resources collected from colonized planets (money, science, or materials) are used to fund various activities (action, influence, research, and ship construction respectively). Players can customize four different classes of ships (interceptor, cruiser, dreadnought, and starbase), build those ships, move them around to engage opposing fleets, and try to steal control of planets and their associated resources.
As you might have guessed by now, what’s central to making the game work is Eclipse’s action mechanic – and this is also the game’s most innovative and brilliant feature. Each player has 13 influence disks arranged in a line on their player board. Each time a player takes control of a system OR performs one of six types of actions (explore, influence, research, upgrade, build, or move) they use up an influence disk. Influence used to control a system remains on the sector tile unless you lose control of it later on, and influence disks used for actions are removed from the player board until the end of the round. Removing influence disks reveals an escalating cost number, which shows how much money you have to pay for empire upkeep at the end of the round.
This system is brilliant – and I wish more 4X video games would take note. Why is this brilliant? More and more influence is locked up in controlling systems as your empire grows in size, meaning that you have less influence to use for performing actions. A bigger empire might be stronger and able to pull in more resources, but it is less nimble and it needs enough money rolling in to keep itself funded. A smaller empire, or one that is more strategic about what territories it grabs, will have more influence available for performing actions, potentially giving it more flexibility to react to its opponents over the course of the game.
The resources themselves (money, science, and materials) are also tracked on the player board in a clever way. You have three free colony ships to use each turn. As you colonize a planet you move up the resource track for the type of resource that planet provides. You collect this resource income each game round, and will spend it to pay for influence (i.e. actions), purchase research, and pay for ship construction. It’s a simple system that creates a nice economic layer in the game. Effective play hinges on getting the right resources when you need them, and deciding when it is best to spend versus save to optimize your expenditures. This distills often overly convoluted economic systems in 4X video games into a barebones dynamic that still provides ample room for skill and strategy.
Research & Technology
Research takes the form of a shared game board with three tech tracks (Military, Grid, and Nano). Each round, a number of research tiles are drawn at random and placed in their designated spots on the board. Technologies further along the track are more expensive to purchase, but if you research sequentially through a track you can get a discount on the cost of future technologies in that track. So it pays to plan ahead. There is a nice tension created here, as there is only a limited pool of available technologies each round that players will fight over.
Timing in Eclipse is critical, and researching early in a round is often key to grabbing what you need. Of course you might miss out on a quick expansion opportunity as a result! Given that Eclipse is a board game design, turn order is very important. Over the course of a round, the order in which players perform their actions depends on the order in which player’s “passed” on the previous round. So for example, the first player to pass in the current round will be the first player to act in the next round. Often it pays to “pass first” so you can get first dibs on the next round’s technology.
Technologies have a wide range of effects. Many of them give you access to special ship parts like better weapons, shields, targeting computers, engines/drives, and power plants. You can then use the upgrade action to add these parts onto your ship design templates. Other technologies open up access to advanced resource nodes on planets, extra influence disks, construction of monoliths (worth victory points) or artificial worlds, the ability to travel between adjacent sectors without wormholes, and so forth. It is a nice mix of technologies. As you progress further along a particular research track, you start gaining victory points as well, so players are incentivized to maintain a steady pace of research advancement.
As a board game, there is no formal diplomatic system like in a traditional 4X video game. For a board game, diplomacy is typically an extension of tabletalk and open negotiation between players. As such, players (the human ones anyway!) are free to discuss diplomatic treaties or deals using the in-game chat system. Of course, this type of diplomacy doesn’t really work with the AI, so you will miss out on some of the fun when not playing with human opponents.
However, there is one minor diplomatic feature of the game. When you do run into another player, you have an option for forming a peaceful relationship. Players entering into such a relationship exchange a unit of resources as a token gesture. Being at peace is worth a few victory points at the end of the game; if you backstab someone you get stuck with a traitor tile that costs you VPs. The VP rewards are slight incentive to play nice, but beyond this reward anything goes diplomatically, from game-long alliances to cruel back-stabs.
When opposing fleets meet in a sector, both become “pinned” in that sector and cannot move until after combat is resolved, which takes place at the end of a round. Ship combat is dice based, in a way that all awesome dudes-on-map games ought to be. On one hand, the randomness of dice are likely to frustrate some players, especially those cursed with “bad luck.” On the other hand, the uncertainty of outcomes adds an excellent source of tension to the game and can result in amazing narrative moments – like when a single interceptor rolls their dice flawlessly and defeats an entire stack of cruisers. Is it fair? Maybe not – but it makes for a great story and keeps players on the edge of their seats.
In terms of how the tactical combat itself works, here is a brief overview: Each ship has an initiative value based on the type of ship and installed modules (computers and better engines increase initiative, for example). Ships with higher initiative shoot first in a combat round. Each weapon does a certain amount of damage (generally 1, 2, or 4) and hits on a 5 or 6 roll of a six-sided die. Targeting computers increase your die roll, while opposing shields reduce your die rolls. Successful hits can be assigned to targets, and if you do equal or more damage than the target’s hull value (again based on ship size and installed modules), you destroy that ship.
Combat in Eclipse is a simple system with a fair amount of decision space to explore how you design your ships for maximum effect. Do you make hard-hitting and fast glass cannons or slow durable ships that can slug it out in a protracted fight? Do you focus on building a few strong dreadnoughts or try to overwhelm your opponent with a horde of interceptors? It often takes many rounds of careful planning, plotting your actions, research, ship upgrading, and ship construction to successfully assemble your force.
The only sticky point in combat is that plasma missiles are not well balanced. The missiles shoot first in a round (ignoring initiative) and do two damage when they hit. That wouldn’t be a problem on its own, except that each missile slot fires two missiles AND missiles don’t require any ship power to use, which is logical but really doesn’t work for game balance. A person taking missiles needs only one research item, whereas someone trying to counter missile spam needs shields, power for shields, extra armor, etc., each of which reduces their own offensive abilities but more critically requires them to spend far more influence researching to get the right technologies to counter missiles. The expansion pack has supposedly addressed this with a new point-defense technology. Nevertheless, the power of plasma missiles is quite strong, as gameplay often hinges too much around acquiring or countering them in my opinion. But this is a small complaint and doesn’t ruin the experience.
Combat is a major source of VPs. After combat, whether you won or lost, you draw point tokens from a bag depending on the amount of stuff you destroyed. Tokens are worth 1-4 points each, but you can only keep a few of them over the course of the game. The game encourages combat, as those that engage in it early and often are more likely to acquire higher value VP tokens.
A game of Eclipse lasts for nine rounds, then victory points are tallied. Victory points are earned by: (1) controlling sectors (each has a VP value), (2) advancing along the technology tracks, (3) building monoliths, (4) maintaining diplomatic agreements, (5) discovering artifacts during exploration, and (6) earning VP tokens from combat. Players add up all of their points, and the player with the most points wins.
The hidden nature of the combat VP tiles helps, but doesn’t entirely prevent players from identifying the leader going into the final rounds of the game – and tries to reduce a “bash the leader” syndrome typical to dudes-on-a-map style games. Even so, the final rounds of the game are certainly characterized by people making last ditch crazy moves to grab control of a valuable sector or lock down chokepoints to protect themselves. The antics are frantic and mark a change in tempo compared to the rest of the game. But at least the game ends on a high note with a climax in the narrative, instead of fizzling into a grind like many other 4X games.
Eclipse can still be a long boardgame, and there are some weak points. The randomness of exploration tiles, available technology tiles, and combat VP tiles can make the game a bit “swingy”. Players can be screwed and effectively eliminated early in the game with a stroke of bad luck, which is unfortunate. Yet overall, as a strategy game, Eclipse does require and reward long-term thinking. Considering both how you sequence your own actions and how you respond to your opponent’s actions is vital.
eXperience: The digital (iOS) implementation of Eclipse for the iPad by Big Daddy Creations does one of the top-rated boardgames justice. In fact, I vastly prefer playing the digital version of the game over the boardgame, for a number of reasons.
First, the digital version takes far less time to play. You can easily finish a game playing against the AIs in single-player mode in 30 or 45 minutes. The design weak points I mentioned above (random tile draws for exploration, tech, and combat) are far more palatable when they occur in a 30 minute game that you can restart on a whim compared to a face-to-face game that consumes an entire evening. Additionally, Eclipse has a LOT of components, and having the logistics handled for you by the computer is a nice relief. You are liberated to focus on the strategy and key decisions, instead of having to meticulously arrange little piles of tokens over and over. Of course, you do lose that visceral face-to-face interaction you get with the actual board game when playing across the table from your friends (or arch nemesis!)
Second, all is not lost when it comes to human interaction. Eclipse integrates with Apple’s GameCenter to enable live or asynchronous multiplayer. Getting enough bodies around the same table to play the physical game can be a challenge, so the digital version facilitates more play with other humans (at least for me). With the game being asynchronous, you have more leeway to think about your turn and plan your moves compared to sitting at a table, traped in Analysis Paralysis while your buddies utter impatient murmurings under their breath. There is a lot to think about, and the boardgame eliminates the problem of downtime.
The polish, graphics, and sound for the app are top notch. Nearly all of the artwork and assets are custom-built for the app, not lifted from the physical version, so it feels properly at home as a digital game. The player boards do not exist as they do in the physical version, and are replaced by a series of cool pop-out panels and information displays. These work well and add a nice interactive touch to the game. You can press-and-hold on a lot of items to reveal tooltips and other in-game information, which is helpful when learning the game. The digital version includes a full version of the manual as well as solid tutorial to introduce you to the gameplay mechanics.
The AI is also quite capable, featuring three difficulty modes. The AI doesn’t “cheat” in any way either with free resources and the like. Rather, since the entire design is relatively tight, it appears that the the AI simply plays better and processes its lookahead further out – resulting in better moves. Turns processing can get a little slow towards the end, as the AI decides on fleet movement in particular, but I’m always surprised to see the moves the AI makes. In general, the AI is very capable and on the hardest difficulty setting I am always challenged to win – often failing in the endeavor.
A Total Eclipse of the Heart
If there is one thing that the Eclipse app leaves me with, it is this: it is possible to make a digital 4X game that is deeply strategic while being relatively simple and quick playing. If that required designing a board game first, so be it. The end result is that Eclipse on iOS is a great 4X game. In comparison to something like Sid Meier’s Starships, a similarly “light” 4X game, Eclipse blows it out of the water. Many of the underlying ideas and mechanics in Eclipse address gameplay issues people have lamented in the 4X genre for years – such as weak endgames, cheating AI’s, or clumsy solutions to city/colony spam. Eclipse keeps things simple and clear, and the strategic gameplay is better for it. Now I’m waiting for the expansion to come to mobile!
TL;DR: Eclipse is a successful and modern 4X board game that has received an outstanding digital implementation for the iPad. Eclipse distills the 4X basics of exploration, research, and territory battles into a fast, tight experience that still rewards strategic planning. Don’t let the streamlining fool you into thinking there isn’t depth. Eclipse can be very challenging, even against the non-cheating AI, and there are ample strategic approaches to try on different playthroughs. Some of my criticisms, mainly concerning the randomness of exploration, technology, and combat, are far more forgivable in the digital version of the game as the playtime is much shorter. If you are interested in modern strategy board games or are looking for a fast-playing but still deep and engaging 4X title, especially as an iPad app, Eclipse is worth a serious look.
You might like this game if:
- You like clever and elegant mechanics and 4X games that are shorter and more focused to play, but still offering depth and challenge.
- You like (or are curious about) the board game version of Eclipse and are looking for a digital 4X boardgame.
- You like a bit of chaos and uncertainty in your games and are willing to roll with the punches for a good challenge.
- You are looking for a mobile 4X game to take on the road (iPad only) or a 4X game to play asynchronously in multiplayer with your buddies.
You might NOT like this game if:
- You need intricate and complex systems – this is a board game port so temper your expectations!
- You like long games with a large number of systems/planets to control.
- You have a low tolerance for chaos and randomness.
- You hate dice and drawing random tokens out of bags.
Eclipse is available as a physical board game or on iOS (iPad only!) through the Apple App Store for $6.99.
Oliver has played approximately 20 games of Eclipse using an iPad Mini (1st Generation).