Tabletop review: Eclipse

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Each game of Eclipse has humble beginnings. First moves typically involve very little choice, as 2-6 players take turns revealing adjacent star systems, searching for planets rich in resources to fund their fledgling empire. Rarely will anybody build or research to start, lacking incentive and resources to do so. They explore and expand, building their small bubble of influence.

It’s placid almost, and there’s little direct contact, as most players seek to build their forces rather than launching themselves into a costly war and becoming easy prey for uninvolved players. They shift focus from expansion into research, outfitting their ships and civilization with new technology, in preparation. There’s a strain under the surface, the constant need to push each round to its fullest, that drives players into occasional silence. But the game moves along briskly, systems interlocking in a coherent way that guides players down their chosen course of action.

Eclipse spirals out, and choices beget choices. Whichever alien species you picked naturally affects your decision tree. The Hydran Progress are research intensive, starting the game with advanced labs and the ability to research two technologies in one turn. The Planta can expand to two hexes in one turn, and their ships gain extra power from photosynthesis. And so on. Smart players will exploit these advantages and those offered by the expanding universe, preparing.

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Because eventually somebody will mass their ships adjacent to the galactic center. They’ve built a fleet of interceptors, cruisers, and dreadnoughts, outfitted with plasma cannons and phase shields and gluon computers, and they’re ready to attack the big bad in the galactic center. They want those resource-rich planets. They want to dominate – and in the eyes of every other player, that’s unforgivable.

Interstellar war breaks out.

And it’s incredible. Eclipse builds up with carefully meditated strategy mechanics, then gets dirty with classic dice throwing. Players chuck handfuls of Starburst-colored dice amidst groans and jeers, galactic fates shifting and solidifying, the beginnings of one civilization’s ascendancy and another’s decay.

But the best thing about it, really, is that battles never undermine that strategic edge. Each player has been outfitting his ships throughout, trying for optimal builds, balancing offensive power with evasiveness, hull strength with chance to hit. Every dice roll is random, but smart upgrading leans battles toward the player with the keenest eye and the strongest build. And things are never completely hopeless, as rolling a six always hits and a one always misses, even before to-hit modifiers are applied to the dice.

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Shifting playstates make Eclipse wonderful. There are clear eras to the game’s civilization building, as expansion leads into technology leads into battle. Each era feels essential toward victory, and each is enjoyable in its own way, be it the hopeful uncertainty of exploration or the nervous realization that vital technology has just come into play.

And Eclipse is beefy enough to make each gameplay arc feel solid. There’s a lot of game here, requiring player mats and hex galaxies, plastic spacecraft and wooden cubes. It’s the sort of game that dominates small tables and short nights. The playtime on the box states that the game takes 45 minutes per player, but there can be a lot of difference between groups, depending on player experience and analysis paralysis.

Even so, the player mats do a fantastic job of illuminating vital data amidst myriad game pieces, and time playing the game is actually spent playing. Everything is clear at a glance, and there’s little fiddling with game upkeep.

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Eclipse’s endgame relies on victory points, which is something of a downer. I understand that massive games like this need them to allow various strategies to succeed, but it feels somewhat arbitrary to tally up victories at the end of nine rounds to see who won. Still, there’s a good amount of strategic leeway, and the set turn limit prevents the game from sprawling on. Victory points are something of a necessary evil, really.

Eclipse’s biggest misstep, I think, is the overpowering influence of plasma missiles. They shoot before other weapons, don’t cost any energy to place on a ship, and fire two shots at once. They have downsides, of course, in that they can’t fire repeatedly or attack planetary colonies, but plasma missiles such a powerhouse that they undermine most ship builds.

Players without plasma missiles build ships in a completely reactionary manner, with the singular goal of surviving missile assaults. It really eats away at players’ ability to make diverse, interesting ships, and it can make the game feel unfair for people without missiles or the right technology to counter them. It’s a shame.

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Still though, Eclipse’s well-considered mechanics mean that players can lock opponents into battle before they can move into important sectors. And the effects of battle typically aren’t so devastating. Losers earn victory points for battle as well, though typically not as many. Unless a player makes a string of poor decisions, victory always feels attainable. Battles have outcomes, not punishments.

And the weight of every action feels incredibly satisfying. Eclipse precisely nails the fundamental emotions that make board games great: the simple joy of discovery, the satisfaction of strategic decisionmaking, the primacy of destruction. The scope of the game is large, with randomized set-ups and varied alien powers lending immense replayability. There’s so much technical perfection here, without losing any of boardgaming’s simple pleasures.

Eclipse is one of boardgaming’s greats. Shame about those plasma missiles, though.

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