A board gaming friend of mine has wanted to play his game "Eclipse" with me for quite a while (and I have been equally keen to try it) and finally this past weekend, I was able to experience this game.
And WOW, is my initial impression.
I love Twilight Imperium 3 (and 2 and 1 by the way, though not as elegant), and I was fully prepared for a theme less, though interesting enough economic cube pushing Euro game. What I played, was an outstanding and beautifully constructed 4X game that tickled my 4X nerves in just the right way. After a grand total of 1 game, I am happy to declare that I would gladly play either TI3 (which is one of my all time favourite games) or Eclipse, in any given setting.
So why did I love Eclipse so much? Let me take you through the key parts of my first ever game.
The set up:
We played a five player game, and as three of us were Eclipse virgins, we all played terrans. We included the rare techs, super "ancients" and hexes from the Rise of the Ancients expansion.
The first player: Played black, was his first game, is a good strategic and tactical player and does well in most 4X games we play, prefers not to be aggressive.
The second player: played blue, the owner of the game, had played a few times, is generally a good player a most games, likes Euro games and war games, is aggressive when he needs to be in games.
The third player: played green, had played a few times, likes to turtle in 4X games but will ballistically attack if provoked.
The fourth player: played purple, was his first game, generally prefers cooperative games but will play 4X games, usually trying to avoid conflict.
The fifth player: played yellow, was his first game, and is naturally the hero of the tale (well that is me if you couldn't guess).
The first turn:
In some games you spend some small time "pre game" setting up the board in a semi random configuration of your choice.
In Eclipse, they call that the first turn and use the Explore action to do that. I like that this set up uses most the same rules as for the rest of the game (with the added Explore action that was not used at all after the 2nd turn). In fact, there is not much else to do on the first turn, though I was sorely tempted to buy the lone copy of Improved Hull. Making my ships two or three times tougher seemed quite good too.
I went last, so I got to see the explores that everyone else made first. The new players had no real idea of the relative merits and perils of the different tiers of hexes, so the first player explored tier 2 just as a "safe in-between" move, and revealed a discovery tile with no planets.
The owner had explained that at the end of the turn, we could remove discs in systems to help lower upkeep costs ("tactical bankruptcy" but he didn't call it that), so the black player had no hesitation taking the discovery, and he got… a free +3 to hit computer. Seems pretty powerful, an item that would cost 15 research (though could then be used on several ships) for free on his first move...
The owner (blue) went next and explored Tier 1- and got a 3 planet system with no Ancients! Two pretty decent results so far.
We took our cues from that and all explored Tier 1- Green got the double Ancients and cursed, Purple got a 2 planet system, and I got a 3 planet system with Ancients.
So no immediate progress for green or myself, everyone else was satisfied.
In TI3, if you get more systems around you than anyone else, you will have a better economy and the others have to invade you or vote you down to make up for it.
There is no voting in Eclipse, so already I'm suggesting the at Blue and Purple have an "unfair" advantage and should be the immediate threats. Blue told me to settle down, it was only 1 explore in to the game! I love the back and forth negotiation, threats, and sabre rattling in 4X games, and it had started.
After being the only one to go for Tier 2, the Black player then explored Tier 1 and discovered…a 3 planet system with no Ancients.
Everyone proceeded to fill in their tier 2 sections, then the tier 3s. Only once was a hex discarded (by Black).
At the end of the first round:
Black had a 3 planet system, 2x 2 planet systems, 2 discovery tiles (the other one was 6 money, which he took), and no ancients. Black had the "gap" between him and the Blue player, so had an extra tier 1 tile, but 10 planets and 2 discoveries (including the home system) with no fights seemed a very good start.
Blue had uncovered a "super" ancient, the 3 planet system, and just discovery tiles with no fights. Blue got 3 discovery tiles without a fight, but didn't have all that many planets (but still colonised 3 on the first turn)
Green had the double ancients in their Tier 1, and their Tier two was just a "double" pink planet, so they built a line of tier 3 systems behind them, getting 3 double planet systems in a row, no fights. Green was sealed off from everyone else via the double ancients then GCDS hexes (which suited him, as he liked to turtle).
Purple uncovered 4 double planet systems and no ancients, and no discoveries.
So everyone so far had used all their colonists on the first turn, and everyone but Blue had plenty of planets to colonise for the next two or so turns.
What about the hero of our tale?
He uncovered 3 discovery tiles. Not bad. Any planets? Sure, a triple system in tier 1 with an ancient, a single system with a wormhole, and a single system in tier 3 with an ancient. So no colonising for me on my first turn!
I was ready to bemoan my fate and happily pointed out to everyone that my immediate neighbours (Black and Purple) had plenty of systems to colonise, but it did mean that my direction for the next turn was pretty clear.
The player to my right (Purple) stopped acting first, so I knew I would be second player. I was still eying that Improved Hull, and I was pretty certain he was going to keep colonising on his turn.
Also, I had discovered an Ion Disrupter and equipped my dreadnoughts so that they had very high initiative, and I had received a +6 materials discovery, and a mixed materials/science/money discovery. I took all three discoveries.
Here is a map of our universe after it had been explored.
NOTE: I could only find images of base set hexes, so Rise of the Ancients hexes have the closest base set equivalent I could find, and an influence disc to show it is a proxy. (I took photos but my terrible phone did not take very clear pictures in poor light)
The blue influence discs are for the wormholes uncovered on either side of my territory.
The hex with just a green influence disc was the "super Ancient" system, conquered by Blue on the third turn.
The yellow influence disc is the ancient system just behind my home planet.
The population cubes are placed on our starting planets to show where we all started (I'm the yellow player in the top left- you can see I'm quite squashed in with no expansion options without fighting, especially compared to my neighbours, Black and Purple).
Turn 2: Gearing up and going to war!
Everyone else kept exploring on turn 2, with blue finding more discoveries, and starting to upgrade his ships with plasma cannons (ready to take on the super ancients, I guessed).
The other three players basically just colonised and explored.
I bought the Improved Hull, upgraded a few times, bought a dreadnought and an interceptor, and took on the Ancients guarding the three planet system in tier 1. My dreadnought had two double hulls, so I was pretty confident it would win, even without the help of two double hulled interceptors (4 shots and 11 hits vs the ancients two shots and 2 hits).
I won easily, and was finally able to colonise.
Turn 3: To the centre
Turn 3, people started buying techs. I bought plasma cannons to upgrade my dreadnoughts again (with ion disruptors I had the energy), and added more double hulls.
I knew 3 planets was still not enough, so I decided to go for the galactic centre.
I reasoned that now I had two interceptors that could take 3 hits each dealing 2/6 hits per round, and a dreadnought that could take 7 hits dealing 2/6 + 4/6 hits per round, so I could take 13 hits and deal about 1.3 per round. The GCDS could take 8 hits and deal 8/6 per round (or 1.3), so the same damage output but not as tough.
I also reasoned that if things started to turn ugly, I could retreat and with so many hulls was unlikely to suffer a bad loss.
It started well- 2 hits in my first round to none for the GCDS.
In the second round I hit again to none, so I was doing very well.
In the 3rd round, the GCDS hit me 3 times to my 0! Oh well, one interceptor down. That reduced my firepower to below its, but I had 10 hits still to its 5, and my dreadnought was fine, so I kept at it.
We traded blows a few times, then the GCDS was so close to dead with my dreadnought still not to bad (and an interceptor to take a 3 hit attack) that I persisted, and eventually won.
So I had the galactic centre on my third turn!
I love dice combat, and I understand that people don't, but the probabilities for this sort of combat system are pretty easy to work out and "gamble" on. This is definitely a combat game, and not at all the theme less cube pusher I had feared. The combat was not outrageously unlucky for me, but if it had turned that way, I could have retreated and tried again. That would have set me back, but I don't think it would have been catastrophic. The only combat decisions that I can see being unduly "luck" influenced are desperate gambits, and I like a game that has that as a mechanism by which a person can have a slim chance of a grand story. Others probably don't like losing to a lucky roll after 4 hours, but I think of it as part of a 4X experience, and hence the theme of the game comes through in its combat system, as the "best" strategy can sometimes (and only sometimes) lose to a lucky gamble, like Luke destroying the Death Star.
I'd really no option but to fight my way to systems, but once I had, I was in control of a very nice core of systems and a big dreadnought that currently out teched everyone else. I also had a 3 and 4 VP combat chip.
Interestingly, Blue conquered a "super Ancient" on this turn, which would have been at least as difficult as the GCDS, but never moved to the centre to challenge me- I guess he didn't want a fight so soon, or feared my 7 Hull Dreadnoughts! (I bought a 2nd one this turn at my home system to take out the Ancient behind me).
After that, the game was pretty stable up until the last turn. We all had our bits of space, I had very nice systems (that I dropped star bases into) and kept my tech up so no ship could out tech me.
I'm sure it was tough to shift me with the defences I had, but as I blocked the middle, Purple and Green could only get to me (Blue and Black could fight me or each other) so I was expecting to have to fight for the centre. But people only attacked me on the last turn, and from having a small number of nice systems, I had plenty of tech and could take a lot of actions.
The final "push" becomes a final drizzle:
In fact, coming in to the last turn, I had the best engines and drives of anyone, plasma missiles, the best targeting computer, all the anti missile rare techs (so no one else could), wormhole generator, and neutron bombs. The other players were scared of my fleets, as well as me sneaking into their systems and destroying their colonies.
I was in no hurry to fight, since I already had good VP chips and didn't want anyone else to get any chips for combat if I could help it, and I was in a winning position, so I actually made no attempt to attack anyone and just put myself in a position to defend or retaliate if my defence failed.
The plasma missiles I have seen complaints about, and it was hard for me to judge from this game if they are overpowered. For a start, we used rare techs that can mitigate missiles (that is why I bought them all). Also, no one went on a rampage through other systems, as most of us had star bases with missiles by the end of the game. I'm sure my missile bases were a deterrent from all out attack (I was bragging how I'd get "30 shots" in before my opponents could fire back- counting my missile interceptors at the galactic centre as well), but I'm also sure that my wormhole generators, high moves, and neutron bombs were also deterrents. I never feared other players plasma missiles, but I did have two rare techs that targeted missiles. I just feared fighting them and giving them VP chips (I didn't need any more).
In the last turn, scared of my techs but needing some VP chips, Blue and Black attacked each other, and purple and green just threw single ships at my systems to get VP chips and still have defences.
In the end, being forced to tech and upgrade my ships early and attack, had given me a decisive advantage that no one else took from during the game.
The final scores:
My 2 credits worth:
The game went for pretty much the advertised 240 minutes (not counting rules explanation), which was pretty good for a game with 3 newbies.
The game lacked the political narrative of TI3, but had more actual combat even if it was threatened less.
There was still a lot of subtle (and some not so subtle) intimidation with the techs chosen, and the economy was beautiful and easy to manage.
The tactical combat was different from TI3 with wormholes, limited and costly actions, and pinning; all very nice additions to the tactical mix, though I also love the TI3 command activation system. Eclipse is a very solid grand tactical combat game, but is fitted with many other nice systems as well to make it a great 4X experience.
The game had a lot of components, but did not feel "fiddly" to me, as each move only involved a few pieces. As the actions are evenly spread out, the down time is quite minimal for this sort of game, and it is easy to plan your next action while waiting.
I really loved every aspect, even the allegedly potentially unbalanced exploring and the dicey combat. But I already love those thing in other games, and they were no more unbalanced in this game than other 4X or combat games.
I would say if you don't like those random elements but like Eclipse, you should try Khemet, as the last 2 turns of Eclipse felt like a game of Khemet (except that everyone starts from the same position in Khemet).
Whilst I love Khemet, I also love the chance to flex some strategic muscles and build an empire over time, and gain (or fight against) an advantage over turns that takes diplomacy or luck to overcome. Eclipse provides that, and I felt I earned my early advantage and held the other players off from attacking me enough to keep that advantage, which is exactly how a 4X game should play.
After a grand total of 1 game I would easily give this a 9/10, and I am very keen to play again and explore the replayability of the game (though it looks as replayable as any other 4X game).