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Designer Diary: Eclipse - New Dawn for the Galaxy

Touko Tahkokallio
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Note: I developed Eclipse together with Sampo Sikiö, and during the development process, Sampo and I both wrote detailed designer notes in the game's forums. In this diary, I try to not duplicate those notes but instead find fresh approaches to talking about the game. Want to know more about the development process? I've gathered those earlier notes in this Geeklist: Designers' Notes for Eclipse.

Short introduction to Eclipse

In a game of Eclipse, each player leads a space civilization and pursues insurmountable glory for their mighty empire. But be warned that there are many obstacles on the way – some parts of the galaxy are already inhabited by the mysterious Ancients, and the other rising empires also have ambitious plans for galactic domination!

Eclipse is a 4X game, with the abbreviation standing for eXplore, eXpand, eXterminate and eXploit. At the start of the game, the Galaxy is mostly uncharted. During the game, players explore the uncharted sectors of space and colonize new star systems. Players may develop new technologies that help their civilization in many ways, in addition to building gargantuan fleets with which to wage wars. Fleets can consist of different types of spaceships, and each ship type has a customizable blueprint. Certain technologies allow you to upgrade your spaceships with more powerful ship parts such as drives, cannons, power sources, shields and missiles, making them even swifter and deadlier war machines.

The game in play

At the start of the game, players choose the species they want to play, and each player can choose between a Terran faction or a unique Alien species. Terran factions are identical in terms of game play and provide a flexible base race for playing the game. The six Alien species each have their own special strengths and weaknesses; it's recommended that you play the first few games with Terrans to get to know the game better, as some of the Alien species can be tricky to play at first.

Technologies in Eclipse

There is no single way to win Eclipse. Instead players can gain glory in many ways: controlling star systems, developing technologies, waging wars, exploring new sectors of the galaxy, building colossal monoliths, and forming diplomatic relationships. Some species can also gain additional points for their special powers. Combat is encouraged by rewarding players with reputation points when fighting against the other players or the neutral Ancients that dwell in the galaxy. Fighting is not the only way to gain points, though, and more peaceful strategies are possible as well.

Eclipse is a strategy game for 2-6 players, and with experienced players it can be played in 30 minutes per player. The game is published by in cooperation with its international partners: Asmodee, Ystari, and Asterion Press. The first batch of 450 games was flown to the Spiel 2011 game fair in Essen, Germany and sold out there. The main shipment of the print run, which arrived via slow boat, should hit the stores any time now, if it hasn't already done so. What I think is pretty incredible is that the main shipment has also sold out (at least at the publisher level) before hitting the stores! Fortunately, the second print run should come out at some point in 2012.

Some Personal Background

I love thematic games! Well, at least in principle I do. In practice, however, many times I find myself disappointed after playing a thematic game. Why is that?

I think one of my main issues with many thematic games is that in order to score well, you may have to do things that conflict with the spirit of the game. A typical example of this would be a game that thematically revolves around fighting, but in order to win the game, you need to actually avoid fighting. In such cases, the game can be a quite different experience if you try to optimize your success, compared to just playing casually and enjoying the atmosphere. Suddenly the atmosphere vanishes because of the group's competitive playing style. Also sometimes, if the ultimate cause for the design was the atmosphere, it can be possible that not enough effort was employed to guarantee smooth and interesting game play.

Orion Hegemony

Anyway, analyzing this a bit further, I think the main problem for me is that I like to play games competitively and enjoy the challenge that the game offers. I realize that not all players find this important, but I think many others do. Of course, this doesn't mean that we "competitive players" desperately have to win all our games, but we enjoy trying our best. As designer Reiner Knizia has said: "When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning." I think this saying is spot on.

Probably this is the main reason why I find myself playing mostly "Euro games" in the end. Although Euros can be a bit dull sometimes, they typically work like a well oiled machine, providing nice mental challenges in a reasonable playing time – yet there's no real reason why a game could not be both thematically coherent and meaningfully playable in a competitive way. That said, theme and balanced game play are perpendicular features, so it can be tricky to fit them both in the same package.

Categorizing the Game

So when designing Eclipse, one of the main goals was to try to meet the challenge of combining a rich theme with balanced strategies. Did we succeed? There is always room to improve, but personally I think we did reasonably well. However, if we had to choose between these two qualities, I would say that the balanced game play was the number one goal for us (for the reasons explained above). Despite this, I feel that we did not have to make any major sacrifices on the theme side as the theme and mechanisms started as best friends early on.

Obviously people want to categorize everything, and Eclipse is probably no different. So is Eclipse Euro- or Ameritrash? I have heard both answers. Many American-style games are known to be long, use dice, and have a luck in the game play. Eclipse shares some of these features.

Dice used in Eclipse

Some early commentators have even gone as far as claiming that Eclipse is a luck-based game. I want to use this opportunity to explain why I disagree. The game does use random tile draws and dice, so aspects of luck are always present and players who seriously dislike luck might want to look elsewhere, but I don't consider the luck factor to be decisive in determining who will fail and who will prevail.

After all, when considering how luck driven a game really is, there are several things to consider. First, luck itself is pretty meaningless as you need to compare it to the depth available in the game. A game that has enough room for skillful play (i.e. depth) can compensate a lot for luck. Based on my experience, I would say that Eclipse is actually a very skill-driven game. I don't know if it's good or bad news for you, but be warned: Skillful players tend to beat newbies in this game!

Second, random elements need not equate to being unbalanced, and therefore causing a luck-based experience. It is certainly possible to create a game in which the events are different, yet equally powerful when compared to each other (assuming, of course, that these events are exploited correctly). We wanted to do something like this with the exploration part of the game and balance the different options the best we could. The variability in exploration and in available technologies is an important factor in making each game feel like a unique experience.

Using dice in combat naturally creates genuine uncertainty and surprises, even for the most experienced players, yet the possibility of customizing ships gives experienced players lots of ways to improve their probabilities in combat. Even so, "improve" but does not mean "guarantee", and the probabilities will not always be resolved the way you thought – at least not in this part of the multiverse.

Sampo gets pwned! ...yet still scores around 35 points

Note, however, that due to the random aspects of the game, especially in Exploring, no single fixed strategy works in Eclipse. Players who want to force their favorite strategy from game to game will find themselves typically losing. These players will probably claim that they were "unlucky" with their explores as they didn't get what they wanted, but skillful players don't really want anything; instead they know how to best benefit from the situation they encounter and create their strategy accordingly. I have seen some players scoring high scores (35-60 points) from game to game, and I don't know how that would be possible in a luck-driven game.

Confronting the Typical Conflict Game Problems

Several factors can be seen as the motivations that led me to work on this game in the first place. One of them is arguably the Master of Orion video game series, yet I would say that the main motivation for Eclipse came from another direction: I was not completely happy with how things were done in other civilization-building board games that I had played so far.

Some have commented that the player board in Eclipse shares some similarities with those in Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization. These people are on the right track as the whole thing actually started after playing a game of Through the Ages. Although I very much liked the basic idea of the player board in that game, I thought there should be a more convenient way to handle the production/upkeep part of the game. This pondering lead to the production core found in Eclipse and provided the starting point for the whole project.

Picture of the player board (late prototype)

One thing that I thought was especially lacking in my board game collection was a civilization game in which the expansion happens on a spatial map and which involves direct conflict in a balanced way. Through the Ages, for example, chose to explore the non-spatial aspects of the civilization experience – which is arguably a wise choice, as spatial multiplayer conflict games tend to have common problems. For one thing, it can easily happen that either waging war is too important (there is no other way to win the game) or that the players fighting together will both lose compared to the other neutral players. When you combine this with the possibility of economical expansion (i.e., a "snowball economy"), the equation becomes even more tricky to solve. Yet I thought that if executed right, the goal could be so intriguing that I wanted try to find new ways to tackle these problems.

In fact, the way in which players gain reputation points in combat is there mainly to guarantee that an aggressive playing style and a more peaceful existence are both possible strategies to realize in Eclipse. In the same way, the influence disc mechanism in the game guarantees that as players conquer more space for their empire, their actions become more expensive. Although the idea is not to bring every player to equal footing (which the system doesn't do anyway as large empires benefit from massive production), it does cause new problems for managing a large empire, countering the economical snowball effect to some degree.

Blueprints for Planta Seed class Interceptor and Hegemony Protect class Starbase

The second problem related to many spatially related conflict games is the openness of the map. This can be especially a problem in games that use a map made of hexagonal tiles or a hexagonal grid. Since hexagons have many connections to their neighbors, the maps tend to get quite open – especially in space, where coming up with geographical restrictions is a bit tricky.

To emphasize the potential problem related to openness, consider the following scenario: Let us say that players A, B and C are neighboring players in a conflict game with an open map. Player A launches an attack against Player B, with most of A's ships moving to fight deep in the enemy territory. Player C sees a void in Player A's area and therefore launches an attack against A, as he has very little defense in his territory – OR if players are careful in their actions (if they are playing competitively), Player A sees better not to attack in the first place, as he realizes that C will come after him if he does so. Players are therefore forced to turtle, as it is not beneficial for anyone to launch the first attack.

The main solution for countering this situation was to create a map that is more restricted than a hexagonal map and where players may affect how the topography of the map is formed, which is why the spaceships in Eclipse can cover vast distances only through the Galactic Wormholes. Thematically this also works nicely, as having only subluminally moving spaceships that travel galactic distances and fight wars on a galactic scale is actually much more unthinkable.

Some examples of Sector hexes with discovery tiles

When exploring the galaxy, the players may affect how the Wormholes are located in the given game by suitably orientating the sector tiles. Through the clever placement of tiles, the players may create choke points that can help in defending their empire. More aggressive (or diplomacy-oriented) players can try to open up the map, ensuring that they have many connections to different parts of the galaxy.

Some Final Words

Eclipse has been out for a while now, albeit with a very limited availability, but I think the reception so far has been pretty amazing. We are so happy to see people enjoying the game! Maybe it will even mean that someday we'll get to play the official versions of the expansion materials we have created so far...

Touko Tahkokallio
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