Last week I promised that today we’d be looking at Kemet, a new Egyptian-themed conquest board game from the mob that released the amazing Cyclades. Sadly, the game’s been like gold dust, its first print vanishing before I managed to lay my hands on it. I even ordered it on a website, then was emailed the next day and told that they were out of stock. I was distraught, feeling like those archaeologists who discovered a pyramid, only to find that grave robbers had already been in there stealing all the daft statues and shagging all the mummies.
So where do you go when you can’t go to Ancient Egypt? To the Ancient Egypt in the sky, of course. To space.
Eclipse is a space empire-building game. It promises the feel of building a grand empire in space, and everything within the game is tuned towards delivering that. You can build colonies on new planets, spread your influence through regions of space, research new technologies and build spaceships of your own design. The core elements of GRAND SPACE OPERA are here, but the theme never really comes through in a “story” sense. You never really feel like you’re in space, commanding an empire. But wait, that’s not a negative. While you don’t really feel like you’re in space, you certainly feel like you’re playing a fucking FANTASTIC game.
Let me quickly lay out how the game works. I can’t go over everything, because there are quite a few moving parts here, but you’ll at least have an idea of how the strongest elements tick along.
Eclipse is a very clean and simple design. The rulebook is beautifully written, and one read will have you up to speed. (I’ve read some board game rulebooks that are so poorly written you feel like you’ve retained none of the information by the time you reach the end.) The whole game spins on an elegant economic management system. Each player has a certain number of Influence tokens, and you spend these to take actions. Each time you spend an Influence, you’ll be expected to pay more money at the end of your turn. There are three tracks that detail your income from science planets, mining planets and economic planets. As you settle these planets, your income will rise.
THE CUBES – I need to talk about the cubes here. These little tracks – Money, Science, Materials – are obscured by little cubes of your colour. As you settle planets, you move one of the cubes from your track onto the appropriate planet. This reveals another number on your track, and that number is your new income total of that type. It’s a really elegant way of tracking everything, and sums up the elegance of the whole package.
So, every player takes an action each, spending influence to do so. You might spend an influence to Explore, turning over a new space sector hex. New sectors might contain new planets, Discoveries and even NPC Baddies. You can take control of a new sector hex by moving another Influence token onto it. That’s MORE money you need to turn in at the end of each turn. You follow? As you expand, you need to keep your whole economy balanced. You can spend Influence to take a Research action. Oh, Research is cool. Listen.
RESEARCH – There’s a Research board, and at the start of the game, some tiles are drawn from a bag and placed onto it. As the game progresses, more technologies will come out of the bag, but you’ll never see all the available technologies in one game. (Last night I played a game where no powerful Plasma Missile technologies hit the board, and so our ships were committed to risky knife fights. The random tech draw can make for very different flavours of games.) These tiles are limited too. Whenever you research something, you take the tile, and could deny other players the opportunity to research it. That’s always fun. The Research tiles also provide you with tech for new upgrades for your ships. Oh god, the ships.
THE SHIPS – This is my favourite part of the game. Each player board has four ship blueprints on it. They display four different types of ships, with starting loadouts. As you research tech, you’re able to spend Influence on Upgrade actions that let you change the ship blueprints. You can improve hulls, install targeting computers, power up the weaponry – some of you PC gaming freaks will go crazy with this part of Eclipse. It’s almost like a little game in itself, as you balance the power cost of your new ship tech with the power generated by your ship’s core. And then, do you focus on a fleet of fast small ships? Little glass cannons? Or do you tool up your big slow ships and crawl towards your enemies? Do you focus on building high-powered Starbases, and go defensive?
ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK – This is probably the only economy game that encourages players to attack each other all the time. Get this – even for LOSING a fight you can gain Victory Points in Eclipse. That’s cool, right? It gets everyone going. Last night I could see that I was losing, but there was an outside chance I could take control of another player’s hex. The game, by promising me some VP for just getting into a scrap, nudged me towards going on all-out attack in the second last turn of the game. That’s a great thing. That makes for drama. And it was certainly dramatic when all my effing ships got blasted out of the sky. (Combat uses dice, thank the heavens. But DON’T WORRY TOO MUCH dice-haters, your ship upgrades can lessen the effects of luck, if you hate excitement.)
So yeah, for the whole game you’re deciding how much Influence to spend, and how far you want to stretch your economy. You can never do all the stuff you want to do in any one round. You might have to research tech and upgrade ship blueprints this round, build the ships that carry those new technologies next round, and finally make the move that sends those ships down an opponent’s throat a round later. It’s a game for forward planners and thinkers. Most Victory Points at the end wins.
FINAL THOUGHTS – When Eclipse released, all the talk was about how it compared to Twilight Imperium III. I can’t get into that particular debate, because I’ve never managed to get the epic Twilight Imperium III onto the table. It takes, like, a MILLION HOURS to play. But I seriously doubt Eclipse even comes close to being a similar game. You know what Eclipse reminds me of? The great fashion design game Pret-A-Porter. Both games are about expanding your empire (spaceships/clothes) while researching new ways of doing that (Ion Cannon/Designers School) and keeping all your cash-flow in control. Both games also have a weird thing happening with theme. The theme works. It certainly helps as a framework to hang the game on. But the mechanics are so brilliant that you don’t really care much about it. I love theme-rich games, but with Eclipse I was more into trying to make all the mechanics work for me. It’s a game so beautifully designed and tested that it invites you to play with the systems, tweaking and teasing them, to try to find optimal tactics for every event in the game. I loved the ship-building stuff, but to properly play that part of the game, I had to keep an eye on everything else too. It’s all so smart, and it makes YOU feel smart too, even when you’re losing. And I’ve never won.
Eclipse has a lot more going on than I’ve explained. I’ll leave it to you to discover it all when you inevitably buy it. It plays with six players as well as it plays with two. It looks enormous and complex, but it’s actually tight, straight-forward to learn, and very deep. When you play it once, you just want to play it again and again, to try to play it smarter. Don’t play it because you want to play a space game. Play it because you want to know what an amazing game design feels like.
NEXT WEEK - Will I manage to get onto my new boardgamers thing next week? Maybe if I stop playing good games! Wait, what? Relic’s out this week? Warhammer40K-themed Talisman? Oh. Oh.
May your VP totals keep on climbing!