on May 19, 2015
When the word Eclipse is muttered in defiant breath amidst a gathering of gamers everyone's eyes widen a bit, hearts beat a smidge faster and dopamine is released in just slightly higher doses. This is the definitive 4X Sci-Fi game full of operatic drama and engaging stimuli. It reaches deep into your soul and sheds warmth like a loving caress. It's a game that has not softened in the several years since its release, offering greater depth and appreciation upon its dozens and dozens of plays.
This game is most often given the epithet of Twilight Imperium-light but that is a moniker that should be mostly disregarded despite a small amount of truth. The development and progression of Eclipse is more comparable to the PC classic Masters of Orion 2, a titanic and influential video game release that shook the world of strategy gaming. It was the definitive 4X game of its time and continues to stand unrivalled in features and engagement. Eclipse consistently borrows and touches on this influence in a venerable way which translates perfectly to the tabletop realm and births one of the most fascinating games to be released in my lifetime.
All of the expected and routine elements of this genre are included - you have military conquest with large space battles, harvesting of different types of resources, diplomatic relations amid political brokering, and very solid exploration. Watching the galaxy unfold as you explore from your starting hex is interesting and evocative. You can't help but feel a rush of giddy sensation creeping up your spine when you flip the next hex. When you follow up your sector scanning to bludgeoning native aliens with your clenched steel fist your soul weeps with joy. Eventually you butt up against your neighbors and makeshift Berlin walls are formed in the starry cold, with threat looming into the far reaches.
What separates this man from the boys is two-fold. The first quality that you absolutely will become enamored with is the ship customization system. You can build and outfit your different types of ships with customizable parts granted from researching different technologies that are available. This results in asymmetrical play via player agency as opposed to random distribution which is fascinating. One player may decide to bulk up his ships with mounds of hull and shields while another goes for distance nabbing new drives to power his ships across multiple hexes in a single action. There are several different types of weapons, defenses, and drives and a system of counters and reactions emerges as players want to combat specific builds and tweak to their heart's desire. It's a whole layer of game that just isn't there in most other games and the Lego-like toy factor of building destructive vessels of maximum carnage and ferocity is something I'll take every day of the week.
Lumped in with this ship part sub-system is the absolutely stellar technology mechanism that gets away from the typically restrictive branching tree solution. Eclipse allows you to research whatever you want but provides discounts to future purchases based on what techs you've already acquired. Available technologies are pulled from a bag randomly, meaning you can't necessarily count on Plasma Missiles appearing early in the game. This maintains the best elements of a tree structure - promoting incremental growth - but does so in a way that's not restrictive or punishing. Flexibility in combination with strategic reward is a powerful aspect that is leveraged to a high degree.
The second quality that really defines this game is its focus on economy and action management as the backbone of the game's tempo. In Eclipse you are granted the ability to take as many actions as you'd like granted you can afford to pay for them. There's an abstract mechanism at work in that each additional action incurs greater cost, which must be accounted for during the cleanup phase. As you settle more planets and generate greater economy you will be able to pull off more actions, however, the act of settling itself uses up another precious action disc which means that in of itself adds to your cost. It's a really odd mechanic dual-utilizing a track with available tokens being utilized for both actions and ownership but it works surprisingly well. This quality and dovetailing of systems really highlights the core strength of this game - elegance.
Everything in Eclipse flows so damn well and intersects so cleanly that it's one of the easiest games in a collection to pick up and play after an absence from the table with little to no rules refreshing. Beautiful and simple iconography in sparse amounts combined with systems that gently push a user in the right direction lead to satisfying situations of strategic uncertainty amidst easy to grasp resolutions. It's remarkable and it's hard to fathom how a group of designers could even create such a perfect ecosystem yet it hums along and keeps singing no matter how you engage.
The only complaints to be leveled at this design could stem from the somewhat sterile setting. Flavor text is sparse and while the races certainly appear and play in interesting ways, I don't necessarily feel like individual plays coincide with a greater narrative. There are definitely stories to be forged here, yet they reside in your own imagination, sparked by dramatic acts enabled by the smooth mechanisms. What's interesting is that this sparse notion of setting fits well with the entire design's personality of buckling you in and taking you to the action with little effort.
The second issue, which is more pressing, is that the game is very much scripted in the early going. Some of the races and incentives found in the expansion alleviate this, but for the most part you will want to explore and hopefully settle economy flush planets in the early game. The presence of the game-controlled Alien defenses will cause your path to branch slightly but it's merely a speed bump with a wealthy pot of gold at the end. On rare occasion, a player might deal with setbacks early on due to poor early explorations but typically this is mitigated through the discarding of explored sectors, a strategy which is often never fully grasped until a player becomes experienced.
These minor blemishes are more akin to a birthmark on the small of the back as opposed to outright deformities. When you sit down to engage in intergalactic war and influence the collision of empires your wide grins and buzzing synapses will take center stage. Eclipse is a landmark in the sea of cardboard. Bring it to the table and let it fulfill the goal it was destined for.