Several iOS games have attempted to follow in Master of Orion‘s 4x (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) footsteps: Ascendancy, Starbase Orion, and the ill-fated Empire of the Eclipse have all trod this territory with big, long-haul games of galactic domination designed to be played over hours and days.
In bringing award-winning phenomenon Eclipse to the iPad, board game digitizers extraordinaire Big Daddy’s Creations have delivered a 4X game that can be played in about an hour. It’s a proven tabletop design from a similarly proven developer, which has made it one of the most anticipated releases of the year. There’s more about what makes Eclipse so special after the jump.
In a great game, elegant gameplay exists in tension with the presentation of a strong, engaging theme. Within the boardgaming world, European designs of the 1990s and 2000s (especially of German origin) tended toward elegant gameplay with minimal connection to the purported subject matter, and were known as “Euros” or “Eurogames”. Highly thematic games with less intuitive but more subject-accurate rules tended to come from the U.S. and were known as “Amteritrash”. The last decade has given us a burgeoning hybridization which tends to use evocative presentation, well-chosen mechanics, and complexity located on the components (such as cards or the board, rather than built into the rules) to bring games with all the austere grace of Euros and vivid world-building of U.S. games to vibrant life. Eclipse is the game which gave me confidence that “Eurotrash” is a fertile category of modern games, rather than a mirage caused by a single excellent design. The iPad version does even better than the tabletop game in this respect by retaining the ruleset but showcasing their original, species-specific ship designs in an attractive battle interface.
During each of the nine rounds of an Eclipse game, each player gains three resources: money, science, and materials. Money is used to buy actions and upkeep the empire, science allows the purchase of upgrades from the tech tree (not all of which are always available), and materials are used to build your fleet and certain stupendous engineering marvels. You may have encountered orbitals in Halo, Ringworld, or the Culture novels, or the monoliths of 2001–advance far enough, and these can be indestructible monuments to your greatness. Of course, fail to invest adequately in your military, and they may soon be someone else’s monuments, which important benefits to their occupiers, regardless of who built them. The alien species play quite differently, and the variability in the layouts and discoveries is so great that Eclipse has tremendous replay value.
While there are numerous instances of tight design elements which accomplish various thematic and gameplay goals without significant rules overhead, it’s worth providing a couple examples to convey the cleverness involved. When exploring, you reveal a hex which has some number of planets, maybe a weak defensive unit or two, and some number of wormholes. If two adjacent hexes have wormholes facing each other, that border is passable. It’s a single, simple, intuitive rule. The neat trick is that, when you explore a hex, you get to choose the orientation of it, which means you have some control over the permeability of your borders. Several other pieces interact with the wormhole rule to give the game its structure–for example, hexes closer to the center of the map have more wormholes, with numerous consequences.
The second example is the diplomacy model. If you border another faction, you may have diplomatic relations which have some minor benefits. Attack that faction, and your relationship ends and you are branded the traitor, worth -2 VPs. Memories are apparently short, though, because there can only be one traitor. As a result, everyone is incentivized not to betray a trust, but less so if they expect others are also untrustworthy. There’s no formal state of war, but players generally behave as though there is because not having diplomatic relations means there’s no cost to grabbing whatever territory you can. Since the traitor can’t propose any new diplomatic relations, peace only returns when the betrayed party is placated. Where less elegant designs use explicit rules about whatever behaviors they seek to encourage, Eclipse often uses simple nudges which result in thematically appropriate emergent behavior.
Big Daddy’s Creations have done an excellent, but not flawless, job of translating Eclipse to iOS. Their use of slide-out trays for the tech tree, ship upgrades, and diplomatic relations is effective, and the game is generally quite attractive — except for the images of the races inherited from the boardgame, none of which will be winning any beauty contests unless there are some fetishes with which I’m unfamiliar. Little touches like ship animations with acceleration evocative of a jump to lightspeed and contextually-appropriate omission of inputs are common and impressive, but tend to highlight the examples of their absence. Scrolling through opponents’ battles is too slow and requires more taps than are justified. Similarly, you must assign a target even when facing only one opposing starship. Worse, it appears that shields are incorrectly implemented, such that you only receive the benefit of the shields of the worst ship on your side of a battle. I also encountered one crash out of the app, which prevented further progress in that game even after reloading. The post-release attention Big Daddy’s Creations have given their other games, combined with their commitment to develop the boardgame’s expansion as an in-app purchase, leaves me confident these issues will be fixed relatively soon.
Multiplayer handles both synchronous and asynchronous play using a custom account which allows the sending of invites both by Game Center and email. There doesn’t appear to be any way to limit the time available, nor an option to forfeit once a game is in progress, and there’s no log of what’s passed since the last time you checked in. However, there is (synchronous-only) chat, which contributed greatly to my engagement in the game. Despite lacking some of the ancillary features we’ve come to expect from competitor Playdek, BDC’s Eclipse multi is a blast, and I am eager to play against some of our Pocket Tactics forum users.
I am torn. On the one hand, I want to resent you, the readers of Pocket Tactics, because you’re the reason I’m writing this review and not playing Eclipse right now. On the other hand, it is a genuine pleasure to share the good news that Eclipse is an excellent game implemented well, deserving of the time of nearly every iPad strategy gamer.