|Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy (2011)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Heavy [3.70]
A short time ago, we discussed Exodus: Proxima Centauri. One of our concluding remarks was as follows:
People sometimes talk of Exodus as a streamlined version of Twilight Imperium. It strikes me though that what I’d really like to see is a streamlined version of Exodus itself.
I’ll let you into a little secret. I already knew what game I was thinking of when I wrote those lines. It was Eclipse: A New Dawn for the Galaxy and it’s basically exactly what I wanted to see – a kind of homeopathic Twilight Imperium where dilution has been repeated to the point there are only trace elements of the original left. Unlike with actual homeopathy though, the resulting brew of mostly water that we get here actually works.
I’m certainly not saying that Eclipse is ‘a simpler Exodus’, because that’s not true – for one thing, Eclipse is the older of the two games. What I’m saying here is that Eclipse manages to capture what I like about space exploration games in a collection of mechanisms that sync up like the gears of a fine watch. It’s the Brianne of Tarth of space exploration games – large, imposing, a little scary, but possessed of an undeniable grace and elegance.
As is usually the case with games beyond a certain complexity, I won’t even pretend that any overview I will give of its systems is remotely comprehensive. We avoid rules explanations in general, focusing instead of what emerges from the intersection of mechanisms and the roles those mechanisms play in experience. For some games though, more gets lost than gets incorporated and this is going to be one of them. There’s a lot going on in Eclipse.
More than anything else, Eclipse is built on the idea of managing the complex logistics of a stellar empire. You have a handful of things you can do in any round of the game. You can explore for exploitable planets. You can research new and thrilling technologies. You can upgrade ships with those same new technologies. You can build up your armada, and you can move ships from sector to sector provided suitable wormhole paths exist between them. Mostly though what you do in a round of Eclipse is obsess about influence.
Think of influence like this – an empire takes resources to manage. It needs its low-level bureaucrats and mandarins. It needs a literate clerical class, and a tax infrastructure. It needs the pantomime of a participatory democracy, or at least the regional dictators capable of enforcing a despotism. It needs communication regimes and protocols that are robust enough to survive cosmic scale. It’s… quite an undertaking. Those of you that may delve deeply into the Warhammer 40k literature will know that organisational inertia is a big part of the theme, and it’s easy to understand why.
Eclipse represents this growing administrative burden by having every sector you control restrict the number of actions you can perform in a round. Essentially, every time your domain expands, it becomes mired in a kind of creeping lethargy. More and more resources need to be invested into fewer and fewer activities. It takes time in a large organisation for things to get going. The influence system in Eclipse is an abstraction for the ever-increasing layers of middle management you need to navigate just to order a box of paperclips.
It’s really nice – a wonderfully simple and effective mechanism that makes you consider the necessity and feasibility of advancement. It adds a powerful sense of value to new sectors you explore. If you find an empty sector with a single exploitable planet you might well say ‘Nah, not worth our while’. A single rich sector with room for four or five colonies though… well, that’s not just a nice to have. It’s the kind of thing over which empires will go to war.
Mitigating against these ever-increasing opportunity costs are technologies that act as an evolution of administrative policy. Accessing those depends both on the availability of the tech in the central market and the research base of your empire. The planets you colonise will contribute raw materials, scientific advancement, or the financial assets that can fund and subsidise your expansionism. Later techs are expensive but powerful – you’ll need a lot of science planets to claim them. To protect those planets, you’ll need a lot of materials to build a powerful fleet. To get both of those you’ll need to explore and conquer. You can grow large and slumberous if you don’t mind having a hard-ceiling on how much you can do per turn, but that’s a hard ask of people. The influence system forces players into exploration, optimisation and conflict and it does it without throwing a pile of complex rules and incentives into the mix. Wrestling with a recalcitrant influence track is done via all the mechanisms that are best supported by its exploitation.
Yeah, it’s really nice.
The aim of the game otherwise is very straightforward. Control sectors for points. Win battles for points. Research technologies for points. Largest number of points at the end wins. It’s a fairly small-minded goal for a game with such an interesting central driver, but it manages to make each of the activities interesting in their own right.
Let’s look at combat.
On the face of it, combat is a slow and blundering affair. Your roll a number of dice determined by the weapons installed on your ship. If they hit, they knock armour off the enemy. If the enemy is reduced to zero armour, they’re gone and you claim the prize. At its simplest level, it’s exactly as ponderous and dull as it sounds – mostly a task of recording successive misses until someone gets lucky. It’s not much fun.
When you combine this with the technology system though, well… things get a lot more interesting. Exodus gave players the opportunity to upgrade ships. Eclipse though gives players the chance to design them.
Each ship type you own will come with a series of technology hard-points, and you can install whatever you like into any slot. A ship has no fixed functionality at all – it gets only what you provide. You can leverage this in interesting ways. Essentially a simple ship has a weapon, an engine of some kind, and a reactor. The reactor outputs a certain amount of power, and this is used to fund the energy requirements of most of the active devices. Armour can be layered on without cost, for example. A tachyon drive needs fed.
So, maybe you want to install an antimatter cannon into your dreadnoughts. That’s a devastating weapon – four points of damage per hit, which is enough to wipe out a significant fraction of ships with a single blow. A standard drive though is nuclear and only outputs three energy, and after the drive is paid for there’s only two left over. That’s not enough for what you need. So, what do you do?
You could, if you have the technology, upgrade the reactor. A tachyon drive, expensive as it is to research, outputs nine energy. That’s enough for you to fit two antimatter cannons if you like!
You probably don’t have access to tachyon reactors though, so maybe you install a second nuclear reactor. Or perhaps instead of using antimatter cannons you fit the ship with cheap ion cannons. Maybe you build a resilient, hard-hitting war-ship that can take and give a beating. Or maybe you build a fast-moving rocket ship – fragile as paper but carrying enough first-response plasma missiles that you hopefully won’t need to worry about being shot.
Or, maybe instead of packing multiple cannons with their poor hit chance you invest in computers that make it more likely you hit in the first place. A gluon computer will massively increase the chance of every hit landing – why bother with two antimatter blasts that will likely go wide when you can have one that almost always hits?
In this light, combat isn’t just a case of trading off dice-rolls but an opportunity to field-test your own creativity. You can eye up the posture and readiness of an opponent and, slowly over several turns, build a fleet capable of dealing with them. You might go for hit and run piracy, or build an armada comprising up of slow-moving Imperial Destroyers. Maybe you leave a single ship in a system, fitted with no engine, but dozens of armour points and a shitty ion cannon. Maybe it’s only role in your fleet is to threaten boredom in the event of an assault.
And again, all of this is tied intimately into the idea of influence because your capacity to do anything with this fleet is always bound up in the agility of your empire. You can research two technologies at a time, but only if you have the scientific advancements to afford them. You can upgrade only two technology hard points with an action, which means that you can’t instantly retrofit a fleet. You can move two ships at a time, which makes managing a large armada an investment of effort. To deal with this you’ll see influence over the galaxy will shift with time… you might find yourself abandoning sectors that no longer do you any good, or making an attempt to conquer richer territory in an act of rationalisation. Maybe in the event of a bitter war you abandon multiple sectors containing your scientific base in the hope you can reclaim them later when the situation normalises. It makes the evolving map of the galaxy feel energetic. It makes managing administrative inertia fun.
I’m genuinely mesmerised by how powerful the influence track is for creating the texture of a very nuanced game experience, and its inclusion here is a master-stroke of genius. It’s a system of such precise effectiveness that Eclipse can do away with a lot of other systems common to games of this ilk because they simply aren’t necessary. You’ve got quite enough to be getting on with, thank you very much. Managing influence is a skill you need to master, but when you do you’ll find every part of Eclipse clicks into almost perfect alignment.
So yeah, Eclipse is an absolutely excellent game.
Look, it feels supremely churlish to take a swing at a game for being difficult to play well when it’s been so generous with its design to reward you for the effort you invest mastering it. But in giving people such room to be clever it’s also made it possible to completely screw yourself over if you make even the smallest mistakes.
Look at that influence system – it needs you to be constantly evaluating the worth of your sectors. It needs you to be reassigning colonies and control so as to focus your resources when they do the most good. But also, the system permits you to tie yourself into knots early on. There are a lot of edge cases in the decision tree. Let’s say a two-planet sector comes up – a science world and a materials world. Should you claim it? The answer is… maybe, but make sure you choose correctly. The turn of activities that sector costs you to maintain will compound and compound over the whole game. What you’re doing is constantly evaluating gain and decay curves in your mind and working out whether their intersection is in your favour. You will recover if you decide poorly. The game is merciful in the way it permits you to undo mistakes. For the entire rest of the game though you’ll be feeling the consequences of the error because it impacts on everything and knocks all of your following plans out of sync. When playing against good opponents, they’ll take advantage of your precarious position to push you on your backside.
It’s thrilling to develop a good ship and throw it out into a wild combat to see what it does. However, it’s a bit like when you see a bit of complex tech with a warning label saying ‘no user serviceable parts inside’. The extent to which that’s true depends on the skill of the user. Balancing all the competing design goals of a ship classification, in the proper tempo permitted by the research marketplace and your own science production, is a massive challenge. When do you want to save up for one super-powerful reactor, and when do you want to just use two weaker ones? Again, there are intersecting curves of trade-offs, and in this case they also oscillate within the wider curves of the influence system. A misstep here is very exploitable by your opponents. Make a mistake and you’ll find they’ll be carving you up all right.
And… combat is exciting when you’re using it as a testing ground for your design sensibilities – when it’s a kind of air-tunnel into which you throw untested ship configuration to see how they work. A lot of the time though it’s just… a bit boring. Most ships will hit only on a six, so you might spend many rounds of combat with just… ‘roll, miss’. ‘roll, miss’. ‘roll, miss’. That will change, but the first few encounters you have in every session will be unsatisfying. It’s an odd game where tweaking the geopolitics of sector ownership is more interesting than life-or-death battles over the fate of the galaxy. It’s like if Star Wars had been filmed entirely in the Galactic Senate.
These are small problems though with a game that is generally extremely good, and the extent to which they are even problems depends on how often you’re going to be able to put this in front of your friends. Mastery over these neat, elegant systems will grow with familiarity. It’s a game that can take up to three hours to play though. I think it’s fair to be critical when there’s reason to doubt it’ll get played often enough to give anyone the opportunity to actually take advantage of its design. A game with this kind of expectation of its players would have been ideal at, say, a third of that playtime. In this case I think Eclipse just expects that it will be played too often and too easily. For most groups, the time between play sessions will all but ensure that accumulated skill will have atrophied before it gets to be refreshed. That’s obviously not going to be true of every group, but it’ll be true more often than it’s not.
I’d say of the two relevant games we’ve covered on the site Exodus is the more obviously exciting and Eclipse is the most obviously interesting. They’re two excellent games, but probably not distinctive enough to both deserve a place in your library. The one that should win out over the other depends on whether you prefer to play games where the majority of the action takes place in your own thinking, or the majority takes place on the edge of your seat.