Normally, I like to give a game a little time to settle into my head before I attempt a review. The idea being that with only a glance at the rules, and an initial run-through of a game, one is going to miss a few things. Nuances of particular rules, or a deep-set understanding of a game’s ebb and flow. The more I know, the more likely it will be that an analysis of a game’s value will itself be valuable.
That said, there is some value to be derived from first impressions, especially in the field of board games, because if a game can reveal itself quickly, if it can grab your attention first time out, you’ll be motivated to go back and pick up the nuances when you play it again later, maybe even the same night. It’s a strong candidate for # 1 thing in common with all good (however you define that) board games. Certain games can grow on you, but this presupposes an inclination to give the game a second chance, which sometimes doesn’t happen in our world of so many games to play, so little time.
On Christmas night, once mealtime had passed, the four-month-old Sophia had settled down, and a little bit of alcohol had started to flow, one of our group (friend of the family, Steve) whipped out a copy of Eclipse, which, over the past month or so, has grown to be very popular amongst members of the Wilmington Board Game Group. Seemed like at least once or twice a week, a group was gathering to play this game. The group ‘buzz’ put it up on my radar, but my timing always seemed to be off; arriving too late to get in at the start of a game, or playing something else when it was brought out later on a given evening.
I knew before we sat down that it was a bit of monster. Hundreds of components. Little cardboard tokens, the ever-present tiny wooden cubes, plastic space ships in three different sizes, sturdy cardboard tiles representing an emerging board, and a monster rule book to match. It’s among the games commonly (and somewhat unfortunately) referred to as “Ameri-trash” which is not, generally, my cup of tea. Still, and in spite of a long-Christmas Day lethargy that had started to settle into my bones about the time that the box hit our big dining room table, three of us opted to learn the game from Steve.
So much of a first-time gaming experience is dependent on the quality of its teacher, and Steve did a good job. We students of a game can often distract a teacher with too many questions that lead teacher down an explanation path that he (or she) is not, in the moment, prepared to take. To his credit with Eclipse, Steve fielded a few questions here and there, but figuring, correctly as it turned out, that many of the clarifications we were seeking with our questions were better off being revealed during game play, he got us up and running smoothly.
Okay, so first and foremost, we learn that victory in Eclipse is measured by victory points and that there are all sorts of ways to get them (this should have a familiar ring to it). The most readily comprehensible means of doing so occurs when you, as a player, place an ‘explore’ tile onto the board, attached to what’s known as your home base (or adjacent to a previously-placed tile; the universe of the game is, in fact, the universe). If you further ‘claim’ this tile by placing your colored token on it, the victory points associated with this tile (printed on the tile) will be yours at game’s end. On your turn, one of half a dozen possible actions you can take will include this selection of a random tile from three separate piles of them, labelled I, II and III. Which of the three you select will depend on where you are planning on placing this tile – between you and a central station (I), one row further away from the central station (II) or extending outward beyond II (III).
Your ability to ‘claim’ this tile as your own will depend on whether it is ‘clear’ or whether it comes with an already resident alien force, which you must battle and defeat before you can claim it. The tiles are marked in a way that makes this obvious when a tile is drawn from one of the piles. You will be able to claim other tiles being placed on the board by your opponents, which also involves battle. If the tile has your stuff on it at the end of the game, you claim the victory points associated with that tile (if memory serves, the points range from 1 to 4).
Other means of obtaining victory points involve tokens earned when you successfully conquer a world inhabited by aliens, random point tokens drawn from a bag after a battle (win or lose), and points awarded for any of a series of ‘research’ projects available for you to pursue during the course of a game. It would appear, based on what I’ve learned about this game, that our scores at the end were fairly representative of the scores that can be earned in a four-player game; our winner (one of the students, Mike) finished with 36, while I came in second with 33.
Our first experience with this game was very non-confrontational. Good thing, too, because before we could defend ourselves against a player intent on doing battle, we’d have needed to know a lot more about our offensive and defensive options. As it was, we all sort of concentrated on the development of an economic engine that allowed each of us to develop our little corner of the game’s space universe. We battled a few aliens, when they showed up on the tiles we drew to expand, but for the most part, we kept trying to chalk up victory points, one expansion tile at a time.
Our winner, Mike, picked up on a few battle enhancements that gave him extra dice, with deadlier results. . . something like four ‘damage’ from a single ‘hit’ on the die, and being able to ‘hit’ on four numbers; 3, 4, 5, 6. I wasn’t following any of that, but I wrote it up on my internal blackboard as something to remember for next time – look for the ways to enhance your capabilities in battle (so I’m already thinking ‘next time’). The development of my own economic engine was inhibited at first, as I perused options available to me on small, cardboard tiles, printed in a much smaller font. And there are a lot of them; enhancements that give you access to specialized resources, extra tokens for settlement, and the ability to speed up your spaceship(s), to name just three. There are 21 of them, altogether, broken down into three separate categories, seven enhancements each. Some of these activate immediately, others require the action of an ‘Upgrade,’ one of the six possible actions you can take on your turn. The learning tree is getting bigger and bigger, leafier, more things to take into consideration. Which to choose, what are your circumstances, and how best to improve them in your quest for victory. And it caught me up in a whitewater rapids journey to game end, after nine rounds of play.
Took us almost four hours, of which at least one was spent listening to our teacher, Steve. You might be able to cut two hours off that time with a group that knows how to play. Then again, a more experienced group has the potential of being more aggressive, which could eat up some time with battles and counter-battles, and back to the drawing board, if one of your spaceships gets wiped out.
It’s got Cult of the New written all over it. It’s shot up to # 5 on the BoardGameGeek rankings list, in both the ‘Board Game’ and ‘Strategy Game’ category, eliciting over 6,000 ratings, with an average rating of 8.32. It’s just behind Puerto Rico, which spent years as the list’s # 1 game, before its Cult of the New status wore off, and the number of ratings it received, climbed to its present 29,360. There are only 14 games on the Geek’s list of 62,350 games with an average rating of 8 or higher, and Eclipse is now among them. There are naysayers, of course, but the overwhelming majority of respondents really like this game. And I’d number myself among them; itching to get back to the table for a second crack at it.
The hitch to all of this is a price tag that starts around $70 and goes up from there, depending on where you pick it up. You almost have to ascertain whether you’re going to like it before you’re going to plunk that much down on a game to make it part of your collection. Or at least I would; $70 seems a little steep to me, and I’m happy that a few members of the local group have already shelled that much out ($90, in one case), so that I don’t have to. Did not receive a review copy of this game. For those tempted, it should be noted that you could see approximately nine movies for the price of Eclipse, but you’ll be able to play Eclipse numerous times. By the time you’ve hit nine plays of it, you should be pretty good, and the price-per-play will begin a downward spiral that’ll eventually reduce the amount to a dollar or so. It could easily inspire that kind of repetitive play. It hits a ‘sweet spot’ between Euro and Ameri-Trash fans; the former enjoying the layered complexities of its decision-making, while the latter relishes rolling dice in battle. Nice to have a game available that bridges that often wide gap. I’ll be going back for more, first chance I get.
Eclipse, designed by Touko Tahkokallio, with (very nice) artwork by Ossi Kiekkala and Sampo Sikio, is published by Asmodee Editions and Ystari Games. It can be played by between two and six players, and comes with an age recommendation of 14 and up. There are already expansion sets, three of them, about which I know nothing. As noted above, it retails for around $70, with some bargains to be found. A copy available at the BoardGameGeek marketplace was selling for $57 (new) at time of this writing.