Space. The final frontier.
It seems like no one living in space can get along all that well. Interstellar space travel, an invention still beyond the wildest dreams of today’s scientists, begats exploration. Exploration leads to expansion. Expansion leads to butting heads against the other space-faring sentients of the universe, and somehow it always comes to blows. There’s so much space in space. Why can’t we all just get along?
Maybe it’s simply because we have to prove we’re better than the other guys. After all, if we let them get too big, they might just decide to swallow us whole, and then where would we be? Inside some weird alien’s stomach, that’s where. Can’t let that happen. We better be the biggest. We better be the ones swallowing others whole.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the universe. Welcome to Eclipse.
How It Plays
Eclipse is a 4x game set among the stars. 4X: Expansion, Exploration, Exploitation, and Extermination. Players will start with tiny empires and build their way into massive, sprawling federations as they spread across the stars. They’ll need to build up production and science in addition to a sustainable economy so they can advance their technology and build powerful ships that can compete in the galactic arena. Otherwise, they’ll risk being cut off from the rest of the galaxy, or worse, wiped out completely.
There’s a whole lot going on in this game, so I’ll try to unpack the basics without drolling on for too long.
Let’s start, instead of sequence of play, with the player board. This board tracks a lot of things: ship designs, researched technology, reputation and diplomacy, economic production, actions, and upkeep. Each race has three resources. Money, science, and production. As you expand your empire and take over planets, you move cubes off the production track, revealing larger numbers on your board. At the end of a round, you produce each resource according to the largest revealed number, so the more cubes you get on the board, the bigger and better your economy.
However, you’ll need to claim influence over a sector before you can land population cubes there. Each influence disk you place increases the upkeep cost of your empire.
The meat of the gameplay takes place during the Action phase. Players alternate taking one action at a time, using those Influence discs once again to take those specific actions. That means every action you take also increases the cost of your empire.
There are six actions to choose from:
Explore lets you turn over a new hex tile and place it on the board. You can immediately claim influence over it, unless of course it happens to contain Ancient ships you have to fight first. Tiles might also contain ancient discoveries, which provide a bonus in some way when influence is placed.
Influence lets you move two of your influence discs. You might claim an empty hex that you couldn’t afford earlier. You might also return an influence disc or two back to your upkeep track if a sector isn’t worth holding on to.
Research allows you to claim one technology token by paying its cost in science. The better the tech, the more it costs. There are no specific prerequisites for anything, but the more technology of each track you buy, the deeper the discount for future technologies. Each token also has a minimum cost even after discounts are applied, so you’ll get your best bang for the buck if you get the cheap stuff first and work your way up. Not every technology is always available – new tech tokens are added at the end of each round – so there’s no guarantee you’ll get what you need if you don’t jump on it.
Upgrade lets you improve your ships. Every ship starts with basic parts; you can add more copies of those parts to your ships to increase their effectiveness. As you research new technology, you’ll unlock more powerful parts to increase your ship’s offense, defense, and movement in a variety of ways. The way you customize your ship is up to you.
Build lets you build two structures, generally using the Production (brown) resource. Initially, you can only build ships. Once you’ve researched the tech, you can also build Starbases, a stationary defensive platform; Orbitals, which provide slots to increase your science or money output; and Monoliths, which provide 3 points.
Finally, Move lets you move a couple of your ships. The number of tiles each ship can move is based on their engines. Most races can only move two ships (or one ship twice) for one action.
Once players have resolved their desired actions and everyone has passed, there is a combat phase. Any ships sharing a sector must fight until someone has retreated or been destroyed. Ships activate in initiative order and roll dice. Every “6” rolled is a hit, but targeting computers can boost the roll just as shields can reduce an enemy’s. Different weapons deal different amounts of damage, and the attacker chooses where to assign their dice for hits.
Players are awarded “reputation” tiles for participating in a battle. The more ships you destroy, the more tiles you get to draw from the bag, but you only claim one tile per battle. It simply increases the likelihood of drawing those valuable 4-pt tiles. However, even if you only participate in a battle, and fail completely to destroy a ship, you still get to draw a Reputation tile. Slots for these tiles are limited.
At the end of a round, players produce all their resources and pay upkeep. New technology tiles are added, and a new round begins.
The game ends after the ninth round.
Far Greater the Stars
Eclipse has been around for a number of years now, so the fact that I’m giving it a review now has probably told you that it’s a good game, worth revisiting and keeping around. If it was bad, it would’ve died off years ago, lost to the shroud of time. But it hasn’t been lost. It’s still here, and I’m still writing about it.
Sometimes it’s nice to review an older game, after the hype has faded away and the initial rush of newness is gone. It’s nice to step back a bit and say hey, this still is a great game.
Where is succeeds wildly is in taking all the complex functions of building and managing a galactic empire (at least in cardboard) and abstracts it down to three key numbers. From these numbers, players can see at a glance what is happening with their empire and what they need to do to make it more awesome.
Part of this success is due to the clever design of the player boards. Albeit somewhat time-consuming to set up, the population cube/action disc system keeps all your numbers right in front of you. You don’t have to add up the production resources of a bunch of planets. You don’t have to juggle different costs of actions, or managing yet another resource when it comes to influencing sectors. It’s simple: everything you do costs money, whether it’s another action or controlling another sector. You can easily compare the money you are making to the money you’re spending, and it only takes some basic addition to figure out what to do next.
There’s immediate feedback to pretty much everything you do, which proves immensely helpful as you learn the game and try to figure out what works best. You drop a population cube on the board, and your income number immediately goes up. Ah hah, you realize. I need more brown planets so I can bump up my ship production.
Everything revolves around those population cubes, so it forces you to think about how to get more on the table. First you have exploration, where everyone is scrambling to find the best sectors to conquer. It’s nice that you don’t have to spend time building ships to explore, although you certainly can to spread your influence to distant corners of the galaxy. Of course you may run into some Ancients, and you’ll need some decent ships to fight those.
Exploration is pretty much always rewarding; you might find an empty sector, but at least that’ll give you a Discovery tile. You can always pull your influence away from an empty sector after you’ve claimed the bonuses, saving your empire from the expense. Exploration also allows you to create the universe, and being able to place Wormhole connections can let you protect your territory. You can wall off your opponents and create choke points, preventing anyone from just walking over your territory. Later you can always research the Wormhole Generator technology to bridge those gaps.
After the initial burst of exploration, you’ll turn your attention to other ways to get those population cubes on the board. Maybe you’ll initiate diplomacy – you can’t trade goods directly with other players, but you can exchange ambassadors. This allows you to put a population cube of your choice into play, inherently boosting your production. It also discourages conflict, which can put your mind at ease as you work on establishing your production engine or building up your technology. Or maybe you just need one player to leave you alone so you can attack another player. The “traitor” card provides enough motivation for players not to backstab their allies early on, but it is also small enough that it might be worth going against in the later game. That actually works very well in this game, where it would be very easy for everyone to lock into diplomatic alliances and then get stuck if there was no legit way out.
But diplomacy isn’t your only option. You can try to invade your neighbors to take their delicious planets, or send your ships to the galactic core where resources abound. (You’ll also have to take on the GCDP, a powerful defense platform that ensures no one can slip in too early and get a huge resource advantage). You can work on your technology – either to create more advanced ships, or to unlock useful tools like the ability to build Orbitals (which can take on population cubes) or the ability to colonize Advanced planets.
Technology is another cleverly streamlined system. There are three rows of tech, that gradually increase in power and cost. But, there’s no strict tech tree. You never have to worry about whether or not you have the prerequisites for something. If you really, really need an advanced technology early on, you can save up for it.
Still, the game rewards incremental upgrades with discounts. The more technology from a specific row you have, the higher the discount, and you can get huge percentages taken out of the more advanced technology. Each tech has a minimum cost even with discounts, so you can’t just get those weaker techs later for free.
The end result is that you’re going to have a different set of technology every time you play. What works best for you depends entirely on the galactic situation. While certain technologies are almost always invaluable (like, for example, the techs that give you extra Influence discs), you’re always going to have choices. It’s also not overwhelming – you can think about what you need to accomplish and find the technology that you can afford that helps the most.
Technology is researched with its own resource – Science – which again, goes back to those population cubes. Need more tech? Find more pink planets, move your science population onto Orbitals and ambassadors, and go from there.
The third resource, production, is how you get stuff on the board. Stuff like ships, starbases, and orbitals. Ships can be customized to your heart’s content with new technology, and it’s so much fun. It’s this aspect of the game that really makes Eclipse unique, and not just a clever economic engine.
Everyone starts with similar ships – a collection of basic components that allow them to move and shoot tiny little lasers. Some of the alien races do start with unique configurations, but overall it’s mostly the same.
Each ship also has a number of squares that components can be added to – including covering up some of the original parts. These parts come in different categories. Reactors provide energy. Weapons add dice (and increase damage per hit). Shields make it harder to hit your ship. Targeting computers make it easier to hit your enemies. Hull increases the number of hits your ships can take before they’re destroyed, and Engines increase the number of sectors your ships can move for a single action. These parts can be mixed and matched, with pretty much the only requirement being that you must have the Energy to power all your parts. (You can’t, for example, decide in the middle of conflict which system to power. It just has to all work).
You can come up with quite a wide variety of impressive ships using this incredibly clever system. I’ve seen ships with nothing but walls of armaments and targeting computers, relying on blowing enemies to bits in their first shot. I’ve seen ships that can take a pounding, hopefully to last long enough to destroy their enemies with their weaker weapons. And I’ve seen everything in between. I don’t think I’ve seen an identical (or even that close to identical) ship configuration over all of the games I’ve played. Admittedly, it’s hard to specifically remember the first game I ever played to compare it with the rest, but the point is there is freedom, and many of your options will work.
I will say, the combat can throw people off if they’re expecting a more war-oriented game. You do get points for winning combat… but you also get points for just being there, even if you get wiped out. Points aren’t necessarily the only reason to enter combat – you may want someone’s territory, or you may be pre-emptively defending yourself – but I’ve seen people enter these massive battles and only get rewarded with a point or two. Given the limitations of combat, it’s going to be hard to take over the universe. Just be aware of that.
Back to the good stuff. While there’s definitely a learning curve in regards to how to win this game, I think Eclipse does a good job of simply rewarding you points for doing stuff. You get points for every system you control – the values are printed right there on the board, so you know what’s worth defending or fighting over. You get points for researching LOTS of technology. You get points for winning combat. You can see the technology that awards you points – primarily, building Monoliths. In people’s first game, they often tend to forget some of the edge cases – like those monoliths – but after a game they can see pretty quickly how they can score more points. It’s not entirely obtuse.
This is quite a long game. The box claims 30 minutes per player, but usually I’ve seen closer to 45 minutes. There are so many decisions to make and things change rapidly, it just takes time. And that’s fine. It’d be nice to squeeze a 4 player game into 2 hours, and maybe that would happen if we played the game all the time, but expect to fill an evening. Incidentally, four is my favorite player count. You still have a full galaxy, but you don’t have to wait as long for your turn and the game clips along at a nice pace. If 6 really fit into 3 hours, that would probably be my preference, but I haven’t seen that happen. Not helping is the setup time, which is pretty massive. There are a lot of tiles to sort and stack, and I highly recommend investing in some custom trays to keep your upgrade tiles sorted and easily accessible during the game.
With a game that length, some of the more luck-induced elements can be frustrating. I definitely think Eclipse is fun to play whether you win or lose; you get the excitement of expanding your empire, the strategy of trying to build your economy, and the thrill of conflict. Not to mention discovery, technological advancement, and building your awesome ships. But if you draw a lot of empty space tiles in the early exploration phase, or run into Ancient ships you can’t fight off, that can be frustrating. If you really need a particular technology but it doesn’t get drawn – or other players keep nabbing it before you get a chance, there’s not much you can do about that. Combat is dice-based, so you might feel like you lost an important sector thanks to some bad dice rolls.
On the other hand, I think there are so many options, if you get stuck in one corner you aren’t necessarily locked out of the game. You can try a different tack, go for a different tech, shift your strategy, keep exploring. Over the course of the game, the luck of tile draws and combat dice tends to even out, so you can’t give up. I remember one game in particular that for three or four turns – almost half the game – I was stuck in a section of the map with limited resources AND two Ancient ships that kept blowing up my cruisers. Finally I was able to get an upgraded ship out there to blow up the ancients and open up new sectors. I found some resources, took a risk and conquered the galactic center, and ended up winning the game. This even after spending the first 1/3 of the game falling behind economically.
If I have one complaint about the game, one reason why I would still pick Twilight Imperium in its massive glory over the clever, streamlined game is that it lacks real soul. The graphic design, the art, it’s all functional but it’s so flat and drab. Everything is grey, and your boards look more like spreadsheets than anything. There’s no story; the planets have no names, nothing unique about them. Even the alien races don’t feel extremely different. This makes it feel more like you’re just playing a game rather than inhabiting a universe.
So yes, Eclipse condenses the timeframe and streamlines the rules, but it does lose something intangible by doing so.
But it does fit in an evening instead of a day. So that’s good.
Eclipse is a game that has already begun to stand the test of time. It’s a worthy and engaging game system that streamlines the economics of building a massive space empire into a manageable and interesting thing you can wrap your brain around. It provides plenty of opportunity to explore unique strategies and score points in different ways, and it gives you a chance to live your 4X desires in just a few hours. It may not have the lifeblood of Twilight Imperium, but it’s a solid, entertaining game worth visiting. Or, if you’ve played it, maybe it’s worth revisiting.
The stacks of chits are so messy!
At some point you just give up trying to keep them neat.
I guess that’s one more reason to buy trays.
A buddy of mine uses a full tackle box, so the plano trays are stackable. Much like Merchant of Venus, if you sort at the end of the game, it doesn’t feel as long.
Great article! Eclipse was one of about a dozen games I played and examined when designing and developing TAU CETI. It handled, albeit inelegantly, the vast array of production, science, and treasure. The number of actions seemed consistent with what other games provided, and combat wasn’t overdone. While I too love an entire afternoon dedicated to TI3, it’s more about the experience around the table, as I still don’t see TI3 as epic as much as I endure its length. As for Eclipse, now that it’s available from Steam I can enjoy a game anytime I want to kick back and control my section of space. I invite you to check out TAU CETI, as it’s the only published 4X game which is both cooperative and competitive in nature.