I’m a big fan of the game genre called “4X” – “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.”. I’ve been playing these ever since the ur-progenitor of the genre in the 1980s, Empire, and I actually still maintain an open-source C version of that game. Civilization is my favorite computer game ever, and by what I hear of it Master of Orion – the game “4X” was coined to describe – would have hooked me even harder if I’d known of it when it came out.
I particularly like SF-themed 4X games. I have previously posted a favorable review of Twilight Imperium (hereafter “TI”), a big sprawling epic of a contending-galactic-empires 4X game. But now I write to report on a game that effectively makes TI obsolete – a new design called Eclipse which I think is going to permanently raise the quality bar in 4X games.
When you unpack the components for Eclipse, you’re going to immediately get the impression that it’s Twilight Imperium lite. Hexagonal starsystem tiles for variable board layout – check. Plastic ship models in different sizes – check. Playing mats, describing human and alien species one per – check. This impression is not exactly wrong, but the differences turn out to be more important than the similarities.
One difference is that the game doesn’t start with all the board tiles down. Instead, player homeworlds are arranged in a broken ring with unexplored space between and around them. Unlike TI, which has exploration only as a bolted-on afterthought with the Distant Suns option, exploration is central to this game and one of the ways to win is to explore more aggressively and successfully than your neighbors.
Another difference is that instead of a huge pile of available ships you have only a relatively small handful. Interestingly, this actually encourages combat, because losing your fleet-in-being isn’t a catastrophe that will take you half the rest of the game to recover from.
But the most important difference is not local to one aspect of the game, it’s a global fact about the style of the entire game. Eclipse is as tightly constructed and carefully interconnected as a Swiss watch. By contrast, TI is a huge sprawling pile of game mechanics that make terrific thematic sense but don’t integrate all that well and in some cases are only half-realized (hello, politics subgame, I’m looking at you!).
Here’s an example of what I mean by tight construction. Your player mat has a track with disc-shaped pieces on it. You have to expend one of these temporarily (getting it back at the end of the round) to take a game action such as moving ships performing research, etc. You have to expend one of these permanently to control a solar system. This matters because the track beneath the pieces has numbers on it representing the upkeep cost for your empire; as you take actions and seize systems, it rises. If at the end of a round you can’t cover that upkeep from your money reserve, you have to give up solar systems (taking back disks to cover numbers) until you can.
That one mechanic (somewhat reminiscent of the resource market in Power Grid) creates a delicate multi-way tradeoff between seizing territory, taking actions, and building a money reserve that you can use to finance a late-game surge. Because it does so with very little state, you can reason about your option tree more quickly and effectively than in a game with heavier mechanics. This nets out as faster turns and shorter overall playing time; where a 6-player game of TI can easily take 8 or 9 hours, I’ve seen a 5-player game with mostly newbies take about 5 hours and a following 6-player game take about 4:30. After another play or two I expect my group will get down to the designer’s estimate of a half hour per player.
Most of the the people in both games had previous experience playing TI with each other, and after the first game the consensus was already becoming clear; this game pretty much obsoletes TI. You give up some thematic chrome; the real draw in TI’s sprawling elaborateness is the way it ticket-punches every trope from battlestars to the Galactic Council in a loving tribute to all those classic space operas you read as a kid.
What you get in return is a much better game – tighter, faster-playing, less vulnerable to runaway-leader effects, packing just as much tactical and strategic depth and multiple paths to victory but with much lower total complexity overhead. Eclipse is elegant in the way a mathematical theorem can be elegant – minimal premises worked to a powerful and satisfying conclusion.
I learned this morning that Eclipse, though only released in 2011, has shot up through BoardgameGeek’s game rankings to make #7 in the top ten. I’m not even a little surprised, and expect that game designers will be studying it as an innovative example for years to come.