Why We're Still Playing Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy19 Oct 2016 14
At the time of writing, 22 of the top 100 board games (as ranked by BoardGameGeek) have received the app treatment with at least two more (#2 ranked Through the Ages and #28 ranked 7 Wonders) imminent. Being an inveterate cardboard addict, I’ve downloaded and spent time with each of these attempts at transistorizing tabletop gaming, and I’ve come to see them as belonging to two different camps: board games that are popular because they became apps (ex: Star Realms, Patchwork) and board games that became apps because they are popular (ex: Puerto Rico, Pandemic). Maybe there should be a third category of “apps that became board games because they are popular,” but I’ll leave that aside until Risk: Plants vs. Zombies cracks the top 100.
While I don’t think apps from one category are inherently superior to those from the other, in my personal Code of Points developers adapting games that have persisted in the top 100 benefit from a higher difficulty rating (and here ends my first and final extended gymnastics metaphor). I’d like to highlight what I believe to be the best example from this camp, Big Daddy’s Creations’ Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy.
Singing Eclipse’ praises within the confines of Pocket Tactics is the definition of non-controversial, it garnered one of the twelve five star reviews PT handed out in 2013, after all. In holding it above its competitors, though, it’s in contention with two other five star club members from the same year, Agricola and Pandemic (2013, a fine vintage), Board/Card Game of the Year Winner and Runner-Up, respectively. So why is Eclipse still deserving of your loving attention when tabletop ports (and even original “board games”) are showing up on our tablets faster than new editions of Catan are showing up in Barnes and Noble? Two words: follow through.
The best predictor of an app’s staying power is the developer’s involvement post release, and Big Daddy’s been very busy in the past month. In September’s update, Eclipse went full 2.0, eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting and eXterminating its way onto a variety of operating systems and integrating cross-platform multiplayer. This level of multiplayer support has been instrumental in the success of games like Star Realms, and it’s already paying dividends online; it’s never been easier to get a game going with strangers. And when you do, you now have a full suite of options to tailor your experience, including variable timeouts, and a popular variant that removes those pesky plasma missiles that tend to have an oversized impact on gameplay. For the record, I don’t have a problem playing with them, but the midgame does often become the Plasma Missile Variety Hour so it’s nice to have this option, at least until content from the Rise of the Ancients expansion is incorporated (Big Daddy pls).
But maybe you’re like me, and turn to apps less as a means to facilitate play with your fellow humans and more as a way to grind out games gonzo style and satisfy that tabletop monkey on your back without alienating friends and loved ones. Well stop whimpering to yourself while staring at your bulging Kallax (#shelfie) and bask in the glory of Eclipse 2.0’s AI updates. I can’t roll back my app and un-trade-in my iPad from three years ago, but I remember larger AI games being a slog in Eclipse 1.xx. So much so, that I basically took an 18 month break from the game. Turns are much snappier in 2.0, and hang-ups far fewer (on both my Apple and Android devices). The AI itself is very serviceable at the highest setting, and tweaks are still being made as the update history attests. Your computer opponents are really better at looking like they’re doing well (making smart ship upgrades and tactical strikes) than winning the game (maximizing endgame points), but that’s minor; my offline games feel tense and exciting.
Eclipse was a masterclass in UI design at its launch, and it’s only gotten better in the recent update. I’m a big fan of the way Eclipse uses sliding drawers to guarantee that any gameplay-relevant information is never more than a single click away, but the key has always been that your opponents’ turns are displayed/recapped utilizing the same interface. In a game this complex it’s a huge achievement that I’m never left wondering, “wait, what did they do?” and having to hunt through game logs to see what I missed. The counter-example at the forefront of my mind is Core Worlds Digital, a recent app implementation of a heavier than average deckbuilder. It’s a slick looking app, and a great game, but after every turn all I see from my opponent is that their resources went down and their victory points went up. I have to scroll around while trying to remember the prior game state to see which of my options have been removed. It’s disorienting, despite being familiar with the gameplay, and I’ve never had that sense when playing Eclipse, at least not once I had a handle on the rules.
If your copy of Eclipse is currently stuck in iCloud limbo, or you’ve been put off by the perceived learning curve, I urge you to give this app a second look. There’s still nothing like this game in my offline or digital collections and most importantly there’s never been a better time to get on board. Eclipse lives in the rarefied air of hobby gaming’s Mount Olympus, but thanks to the continued efforts of a committed development team what was once an “event game,” relegated to one or two plays a year at conventions or with a few committed friends can be fully explored and appreciated by anyone with a spotty wifi connection.