Thursday, January 17, 2013

Eclipse Game Review

Sometimes I review games that I've played a ton of times. This time, I'm reviewing a game that I've only played once. Generally, I would prefer to have a tiny bit more experience with a game before judging it (particularly for categories like strategy) but in this case, I know it's entirely possible I will never play this game again. The game in question? Board game geek's game of the year: Eclipse.

Eclipse is the popular new 4x game, and has received a lot of accolades. 4x stands for "explore, expand, exploit, exterminate" which is a category of games that focus on empire control and growth. When teaching gamers a 4x game, people will often respond with "Oh, so it's like Sid Meier's Civilization computer games?" Uh, well yes, they basically follow the same kind of premise.
Like most 4x games, Eclipse is pretty expansive so it's hard for me to give a proper overview of the game, but I will do my best. One of the appealing factors of Eclipse is that it's been tagged as taking only 30 minutes per player to play, which is much faster than Eclipse's spiritual ancestor Twilight Imperium. The goal of Eclipse is to have the most Victory Points by the end of 9 rounds. Some of the VPs are secretly recorded, so you can't always tell who is winning or by how much. In brief, you want to have more fights, more territory, and more technology. 
Each of these 9 rounds consists of a bunch of actions you can take, but the actions you take are limited by your resources. Science gets you more technology. Resources can be used to buy more ships. Money is used to pay for the size of your empire AND for the number of actions you can take. Your action choices are:
  1. Explore: An action that you will take a lot early on as it gives you more planets (and resources)
  2. Influence: A fiddly action for min maxing planet placement that you might take later in the game
  3. Research: Getting new technologies that can make you more efficient or to do special things, but mostly allows you to make your spaceships more powerful
  4. Upgrade: Actually pimping out your ships with your techs
  5. Build: Make new spaceships
  6. Move: Move your spaceships
Make no mistake: Eclipse is a war game. There are some alien races that you can fight, but midway through the game they will all be dead. I'm pretty sure it's near impossible to win this game without attacking or at least respecting the possibility of attack from your fellow players (aka building a fortress). Some would probably argue with me on this and say that you can win an economic victory, but I think that requires either all players to be "playing nice" or for you to have a very defensible position (which really means you already did what I said in regards to it being a war game). 

For a 4x game, Eclipse is incredibly smooth. That being said, Eclipse is definitely a 4x game for 4x players (I don't think it pretends to be otherwise, but I had received that impression from some other gamers). Eclipse is rife with the meta-diplomacy that I tend to just shrug and roll my eyes at - in case you can't tell, I'm not much of a 4x player myself. I enjoy the Civilization computer game because I am punching computers. I take little joy in raiding my friends in Eclipse or in any other 4x board game, but some folk are gleeful for any opportunity to do so! In the game I played, one player was going for an economic strategy while the other 4 of us were playing what I will call "normal" strategies. One of the players was leaps and bounds ahead by spamming scientific resources early (giving him super ships), and when I tried to get the other "normal strategy" players to agree to attack him - one person backed out at the last minute resulting in the third player being demolished by the Mega Empire. I meanwhile built up a defense and chewed on the economic player with no choice left but to meekly settle for second or commit suicide against the Mega Empire.
FUN: 2 - This is a personal rating. I'm not a 4x player for the most part and Eclipse did absolutely nothing to change my mind in terms of that. With the right group of people I'd be willing to give it another shot or two, but it will never be something that I suggest. The only sentence you really need to read in this review is: if you like 4x or think you like 4x, check out Eclipse. If you don't, you aren't really missing anything.

STRATEGY:4 - I'm more inclined to give this game a 3, but it won a lot of awards for strategy and I've only played once, so I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt. There are a lot of options in this game, particularly when it comes to what technologies to build; options and variety are what give the game depth.
That being said, I felt like most of us followed a pretty basic path. Early on I wanted to explore planets. In the middle of the game I wanted to pimp out my ships and kill aliens/ancients. At the end of the game I stared at my opponents and tried to conquer easy to take targets. I've heard that there are a variety of strategies that can lead to victory, but after playing I honestly don't see a way to succeed that doesn't involve building a pretty strong army, even if it's just for the purpose of preventing your opponents from attacking you.
The catch-up mechanic in most 4x games is to "kill the carrier," but in the case of Eclipse, chasing after the leader gets you killed as well. This seems like it leads to situations where the person who blinks first will take down the leader, and cost themselves a serious advantage in the process. You acquire victory points for fighting in the game, but you don't actually need to fight all that often to acquire a suitable amount. Maybe the game requires a few play-throughs to dive into the intricacies, but the time commitment of doing that isn't trivial. An issue with Eclipse is that if you get down, you can be completely out. It can be halfway into a game where you are trying for an economic strategy, and if someone commits to crushing you, you just won't have the time to come back from that before the game is over, effectively meaning you sit around for an additional hour waiting to lose. 

SOCIAL: 2(4) - I gave this game a 2 because I personally take little joy in choosing what player to attack. In general, you will make one ally, and then have at least one adjacent enemy. The scoring mechanism of the game makes it pretty hard to completely ignore the other players and still be competitive, so you are actually motivated by the game to start fights. Later on, you can literally choose who you want to hurt which can lead to some "feel bad" situations - that is, if you are a softie like me. If the kind of games you like playing with your friends is where you wheel and deal with each other, then Eclipse is pretty perfect for that situation! There is no trading, but you can certainly make alliances and coordinate attacks. If that is for you and your friends, this game is easily a 4 or even a 5 as the game is primarily based on the movement of your adjacent players.

FLAVOR: 4 - The flavor in this game is very strong. The names of the technologies are cool and there are 4 classes of spaceships/stations that you can build to fight your opponents with. The use of wormholes to restrict movement is a nifty additional rule in restricting movement. The fact that space is limited (only a certain number of tiles) is a little bit silly, I wish there was a mechanic that incentivized players to interact other than "space is limited." Additionally, the way in which you construct your spaceships can lead to some pretty cool and flavorful situations. For instance, one player equipped his scout ships with heavy duty lasers and no armor and dubbed them "Kamikazes." Meanwhile, I was drawn to the idea of creating a "Juggernaut" and loaded armor onto my huge ships. Making "Minefield class" defensive space stations with first to fire missiles was pretty sweet as well. Sadly, I think there is a limit on cool combinations as there are only so many unique options to make.

MISCELLANEOUS: 2 - In the end, Eclipse still takes a pretty long time to play for what it is. By the end of 3 hours I controlled 8 whole hexagonal regions, and that was the ultimate fruits of my labors. Because of the nature of the game, weak players can be easily picked apart by stronger ones which makes initial seating order a big deal in the game. Additionally, the proclivity for the game to end in MAD (mutually assured destruction) situations leads to a fair amount of stare downs, which to me, feels pretty anti-climactic for a game where I was trying to build awesome spaceships.  I will say that the spaceship pieces themselves are sweet, but there's a reason the game costs at least 80 bucks.

Parting thoughts on strategy: Do something broken. Find one type of ship and try to make it absurd in some kind of way, and then build a lot of that same ship. Realize also that you can't "bum rush" people in this game, as you have to research technologies, upgrade your ships, build your ships, and move your ships. It takes a few turns before you can start fighting other players, and then be careful that you don't get taken from behind.

Best of luck expanding, exploring, exploiting, and exterminating!

No comments:

Post a Comment