Eclipse: Second Dawn for the Galaxy Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2020
Playing Time: 60-200 Minutes
It would be clickbait to refer to Eclipse as a more streamlined, slightly more Euro-style version of Twilight Imperium (TI). Fans of both are often quick to tell you in no uncertain terms that the games provide different experiences.
However, the comparison between those games is inevitable due to their overlapping themes, phases, and occasionally individual mechanics. Some may see them as entirely separate entities, but for many others, the comparison is both appropriate and necessary in order to discern their preferences in games.
I’m also a TI player, so my aim here is twofold. One, cover Eclipse as it is. Two, compare it directly to TI. As much as I’m able, I’ll keep the two sections separate. But for many gamers like myself, both sections will hopefully have some usefulness.
Eclipse: Second Dawn For the Galaxy is a 4X (which stands for Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) space epic that will play out over *checks BGG page* 60-200 minutes. Hm.
Ok, so if two people who know the game play it, and you don’t include setup or teardown time, sure, maybe you squeeze it into 60 minutes. But setup, teardown and teaching alone will take you 60 minutes with new groups. The first time you play, especially if it’s with 4-6 players (where the game will generally shine brightest), it’s safest to allot about five hours to account for everything. Seasoned groups of 4-5 can end in about three hours, but it’s not a short game.
Game boxes lying about the actual time involved isn’t news, though. That’s more or less par for the course in the industry. So let’s talk about gameplay.
This is a 4X game (Exterminate, Ex-Lovers, Eggnog and Xylophone, as mentioned earlier) that will see you expanding and refining a space-based empire alongside your opponents.
There are ship-building mini-games, research tech trees, round-to-round upkeep costs that balance your action selection, throaty space battles with handfuls of dice, numerous alien species that offer novel permutations on starting abilities and weaknesses, and exploration of tiles that are unknown but invariably one of a handful of types found in the game. In the center is a big ‘ol space station on a hex that promises a bunch of victory points but can be difficult to defeat and then maintain.
Each of these is tied to the game’s action economy, which includes six primary options. The more actions you take, the more your end-of-round upkeep will cost.
Official alliances are possible but are often temporary. Breaking an alliance comes with a (possible) penalty.
Ship combat is a rock/paper/scissors system with numerous monkey wrenches thrown in. So it’s more like rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock, volcano (the broken schoolyard variant of my youth).
The game seems to want to mitigate any advantage with at least a reasonably worrisome drawback. Explore too much? You’ll be at risk of military annihilation. Conquer a bunch of systems? Too many of your action disks may be tied up on hexes, leaving you with few options for next round’s actions. Go hard on computer upgrades for your ships? You may lose to someone with superior initiative. And so on.
Player elimination is actually possible, but is rare. Its presence in a game of this length is potentially worrying, but I’m going to treat this review as if it doesn’t exist, because it would take a really vindictive group to eliminate a player entirely.
I’ll come back to many of these things further down.
Volume and Density of Information
There are some “epic” games that possess the grand narrative sweep you’d expect of such a description, but they have lots and lots of information to digest. The result is a round-to-round reality where your attention is on your own units, cards and resources, instead of on the communal struggle between players.
Eclipse doesn’t suffer from this as much as some. The resources and such are mostly digestible at a glance, leaving you to ponder more overarching strategic considerations.
The flip side of that is that there’s a little bit less narrative heft. Streamlining resource elements, ship upgrades and tech generally means that—from game to game—your path to victory can feel a bit more similar than in other strategic epics.
Dune is an “epic” game, for example, and individual sessions of it feel more different from one another than in Eclipse. But if you enjoy the experience Eclipse delivers, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Exploration – Eclipse’s Strong Suit
You won’t know the configuration of the map at the start of the game, but after a single play, you’ll know every type of tile that could appear. They generally fall into one of a few types.
Much of the strategy becomes how you use them to create a competitive landscape. Do you create a bottleneck hex to block invasion, then build your area of the galaxy away from everyone else? Or directly engage with people to attack and/or ally with them? Those are two options, but more nuanced ones also exist.
To me, this is one of Eclipse’s strongest elements. Tile variance isn’t so large that it can surprise you. But how you use them is where their strategic potential is unlocked. You can effectively close off or open up entire sections of space due to how you place some tiles, and could require your enemies to research technologies to, say, bridge gaps that would otherwise be impassable.
It also means a warlike race will want to link liberally to others, while an insular race will want to hide away. The interplay in these elements creates a lot of interesting moments.
Combat – Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock, Volcano
I’m a touch less enamored of combat, but I won’t deny that it’s easy enough to survey your opponents’ player board to gauge the relative strength of their ships, which helps to assess risk. Many other games have a lot of combat information hidden behind special ability cards or player screens. There’s an uncertainty there that can be exciting, but it also makes things less strategic.
The system itself is elegant without sacrificing depth. There exists many ways to build your fleet, each with strengths and weaknesses.
My only marginal issue here stems from that fact above: combat becomes intensely mathematical, to the point where analysis exists that shows percentiles that correspond to your chance of success in particular encounters. Obviously such averages gloss over a lot of variables, but the point is that it’s a much more precise game than many other dice-chuckers.
The appeal of Ameritrash-style combat, at least in part, is due to the fact that there’s an ample amount of chaos or randomness. Even in such games that are dice-less, there are unexpected moments that defy attempts to turn it strictly into a puzzle to be solved. Which isn’t to say you can “solve” combat in Eclipse, but that it’s welcoming of this type of analysis.
So instead of gauging whether or not my opponent would be willing to commit extra resources/cards etc. to more solidly defend a territory, as I might in some 4X games, I’m instead simply crunching odds with something resembling on-the-spot napkin math.
So here in combat, ironically, I think we see the strongest Euro-gaming influence. It’s a system that can be mapped out and calculated more than the premise initially implies. Dice rolls still matter, of course, and outcomes aren’t predictable when sides are more or less evenly matched, but decisions can definitely lean toward the analytical side instead of gut reactions to board state and player dynamics.
What I just described will be a noticeable step up from many Ameritrash games for some gamers, while for others it’s a step back. It’s certainly not a dealbreaker for me in what is an excellent overall game, but I prefer just a smidge more chaos in my proceedings.
Comparison to Twilight Imperium (TI)
Purist fans of both games reel a bit at this comparison, and the majority of text below is spent parsing the differences between the two, and what gamer types might enjoy one more than the other.
But let me get this out of the way: Eclipse scratches almost the exact same itch for me as Twilight Imperium. As mentioned, I’m going to talk about differences in a moment, but the similarities are myriad. Take this description: “A rather long, epic space empire game about variable races that are exploring a hex-based map with a large, victory-point generating structure in the center, making deals and going to war while upgrading their tech trees, upgrading their ships, and manipulating dice rolls to produce favorable outcomes in battle; battles which feature planetary combat after space battles; oh, and the different tiles can provide hindrances to connecting to other empires, but you can research technologies to more easily bridge this gap.”
I could go on, but you get the point. That whole paragraph accurately describes both games.
Again, plenty of differences exist. But if you’re grouping games into similar categories, this isn’t even just the same genre. It’s the Netflix remake of the movie.
The claim that this is the Euro version of TI isn’t entirely right, though. I mentioned the combat above, but in terms of volume, I’ve actually found that the average number of combats per hour is at least as high as TI. This is due to the fact that combat is incentivized in the form of victory point (VP) tokens that are drawn randomly after combat. Doing well in combat will reward you with more chances to draw a high-VP token. But simply taking part in a battle will give you at least one (unless you retreat).
The result is that even more pacifist empires will want to squeeze their way into a handful of battles. Depending on what victory conditions you draw in TI, you will often have to be very warlike, but other times can play a slightly more insular game.
So combat may be a bit more analytical, but the macro-view of the game will often seem wildly visceral and chaotic.
In terms of noticeable differences, the kinds that change how the game feels, I see four: One, TI’s primary action selection is a bit more punitive. In Eclipse, you’ll always have all possible actions available to you. Depending on what strategy cards are drafted, and by who, in TI means that you often have to triage some actions to later rounds.
Two, there’s no diplomacy phase like in TI once Mecatol Rex is taken. This eliminates some negotiation and opportunities for table talk, but also eliminates a phase that, in my experience, isn’t always dramatic. Some diplomatic decisions are game-changing in TI, but I’ve had entire games of it without a single exciting vote.
Three, TI has a bit more of everything. Cards, upgrades, technologies, special actions, victory condition options, etc. etc.. This arguably creates a deeper game, but also one that has noticeably more fiddle. Amidst my love for TI, one of my gripes is that by the game’s second half, it’s nigh-impossible to parse all the information in front of you, combined with the myriad possibilities available to everyone else. Even after several plays, I have yet to have a session of TI where I didn’t forget that I had a particular card, tech, or ability at some point. No such problems in Eclipse, though it sacrifices the unexpected moments that typify many of TI’s better sessions.
Lastly, you always know what will produce victory points in Eclipse. TI’s randomly-selected options reward flexibility as much as focused, long-term planning. Maybe that’s the Euro influence people are referring to. You have to adapt to circumstances in both, of course, but the ways you’ll score VPs will always be the same in Eclipse.
Which Is King of 4X?
You’ll notice I’m not taking a stand on which is better. That’s a fool’s errand. The unpredictability of TI, and its staggering depth, means that it has the potential to tell better stories, which is a big reason why I play games. But Eclipse has started to supplant TI in my primary game group as our go-to space epic, because it’s simply easier to play while recreating enough of the excitement that we’re sated.
Eclipse also gets the nod with some of my friends because in many sessions of TI, someone is very clearly “out of it” by about the midway point. The latter half of the (very long) game is rarely great for them. There are ways to mitigate this, but we’re not power gamers, so it’s an occasional issue for us. Eclipse obscures enough of the victory point information that hope generally stays alive until near the end.
I think it’s probably wrong to suggest that “there’s a place for both at your table.” That’s the type of uncritical reviewer-speak that causes me to roll my eyes. “Yes, just buy anything that’s marginally good,” their broad conclusions seem to be saying. “Surely one or both won’t end up collecting dust on your shelf for years to come.” You can’t see me at my keyboard right now, but I’m sighing at such logic.
There’s room for both at some specific tables, but others gamers will have a clear preference. TI is the more dense, more sprawling, and more raw version of these concepts. Eclipse cleans up the messier bits and (for some) retains the core experience. Whether or not it loses too much in translation, or eliminates your least favorite parts of TI to make an even better experience, will often be the difference between loving and disliking it.
Eclipse: Second Dawn For the Galaxy Conclusions
I don’t belabor the TI comparison to provoke discussion on which is better (there’s a lot of that already, I realize). I include it because it’s important to those who are assessing massive, $100+ boxes of gaming glory that might only see 1-2 plays per year. Figuring out whether or not you’re likely to enjoy a game before you buy it is more important than ever.
It also relates to how we approach games. The subtle difference in fanbases between the two will seem silly to some who see two very similar games. But hiding under the surface are differences that will matter to some, and won’t to others. “Scratching the same itch,” as they do for me, isn’t the same as saying they provide equivalent experiences.
But at the end of all of that, they’re both obviously good. Yes, that’s a subjective assessment, but it’s corroborated by the fervor of fans playing and analyzing both. And it’s a delight to see, when we can carve out specific niches within a genre that cater to specific gamers.
I enjoy seeing that hobby-wide dialogue, as told through iterative designs that are introduced and catch on, and thus, I enjoy the existence and continued refinement of Eclipse in this excellent second edition that will hopefully introduce a lot of new gamers to its boundless reaches.