Helcon was good. The new location was nice, bigger than before but not too big, all-in-all a well organised con. Thanks to proper planning, I was able to spend my time fairly efficiently.
It did take us almost two hours to get the first game running: waiting for players, handling the three boxes of games I brought — mostly math trades and auction sales — and then 45 minutes of rules explanation. However, it was worth it.
Struggle of space empires
We played Eclipse, the science fiction epic done by Touko Tahkokallio and Sampo Sikiö. It’s still a prototype, but a fairly complete one. They’re just finetuning the game now and looking for a publisher. If somebody wants to publish a great space game, here’s your chance!
We had full six players, including my brother Ville, Hannu and Sonja from our Tampere circles and the designer duo of Sampo and Touko. In the random draw, I got the Empire, the dwindling remains of the old galaxy-spanning empire. This meant I had loads of money and some old fame to start the game with, but my economy was weaker and bleeding money every turn, unless I played very conservatively.
However, I was able to survive and eventually — thanks to some nice money-grinding orbitals — was able to actually make money. Whee! That was pretty much everything I achieved, though, I was dead last and even had my home world invaded by the Mechanema, a species of robots.
The Mechanema, run by Sampo, won the game and conquered the desired Galactic Centre, too. Sonja’s bog-standard Terrans were second, designer Touko was third with his research-loving Progress. Hannu’s murderous Armada (not so murderous in this game) were fourth, Ville’s Descendants — possibly related to the Ancients, whose remains can still be seen around the galaxy — were fifth despite a very flashy and explosive first round and my Empire was last with a clear margin.
The game mechanics
Eclipse is a clever game. At the heart of the game is a really neat influence point system which I wouldn’t mind seeing used elsewhere as well. Each player has a track of influence points. These are used for two purposes, to mark the worlds you own and to mark the actions you’ve used. The influence track has costs marked on the spaces. These start from 0 and go down to negative numbers in a slippery slope. This is the cost you have to pay each round.
This works really well. If you have a large empire and have most of influence discs on board, taking even couple of actions is going to cost you a lot. A small empire pays much less for the same number of actions. So, if you want to take lots of actions, better keep your empire small and efficient and make lots of money.
Simple resource management
The resource collection works well, too. In addition to money, there’s one resource for production and another for science. These are filled with cubes when you start the game and one goal of the game is to get as many of your resource cubes (representing population) on the board as possible. Each hex of space contains usually one to three spaces for cubes, usually reserved for certain resource, allowing the occupying player to play these cubes on board.
Once the cubes are on board, the tracks reveal higher values and thus you can see your current production levels with one glance, without having to constantly calculate how many cubes you have in play. This is a very nice and low-maintenance system.
Tech and ship design
Teching didn’t use a tech tree, but instead a system where you can buy any tech you want. However, only some are available, that is, a randomly chosen selection and every turn new techs — or more copies of older techs — become available. Buying cheap techs first is still a good idea, because later techs in the same category (there are three) get progressively cheaper. You can’t get everything and getting the first access to new techs available is a good incentive to pass to get the first player rights for the next round.
Each player has a board for ship designs. There are four designs, ranging from small to huge and then there’s the immobile starbase. Bigger ships have more slots for stuff. Stuff includes bigger guns, missiles, faster drives, more powerful energy sources, shields, aiming computers and so on. There’s plenty of room for customisation and the different species have some differences in their ship blueprints. Designing ships is easy and fun and — I hear — allows for rather inventive designs and very specialized ships.
Combat is fairly simple. Ships pin opposing ships in the same hex. After all actions are taken, combat is resolved. Ships shoot in the order of initiative (faster ships first), defender shooting first in case of ties. In the first round of combat missiles are fired, then it’s just guns, guns, guns. Each gun hits with a six on a d6 roll. More guns means more dice, computers make hitting easier, shields negate enemy computers, better guns do more damage, stronger hulls can absord more hits before breaking. Fairly simple, but with weak ships, combat can take several rounds when players roll one die each hoping for a six.
Both sides get points for fighting. It’s a clever system where participants draw one victory point chip for fighting until the bitter end (so you always get at least one unless you retreat) and more for destroying enemy ships. Of the chips drawn, you get to keep one and there’s a hard limit of four chips, so a) combat is more rewarding in the beginning (when there are more good chips in the bag), b) even loser can benefit, c) there’s a point when combat for combat’s sake is not useful at all.
It’s hard to tell from one game, but the combat system feels fine — there’s some incentive to fight and not just sit in your corner and getting beaten up can score you points so you’re not totally screwed if somebody hits you.
I enjoyed the game a lot. We were promised the game would take about 30 minutes per player, which held. Well, we took slightly longer, but our game had four newbies and with more experienced players, it’s bound to be faster.
The game has clean and neat euro-style mechanics, which make the game run smooth, yet it feels like a proper space epic — and with just nine turns. The fixed game length will help keep the time taken in check, too.
I must say I’m impressed, and would definitely like to play the game again. I think it’s so good that I’d buy it, were it available. I don’t like the genre much — I’ve had about zero interest in Twilight Imperium, for example — yet this game just works.
It’s been fairly thoroughly tested by now and the testers include several experienced board gamers, who have tried to exploit the system in various ways. The game feels quite ready and already looks fantastic, thanks to Sampo’s excellent art and very cool plastic miniatures the guys had found for the game. If you have an opportunity to test Eclipse, I recommend giving it a go. Had I more time to play long games, I’d probably already be begging for a test copy for our game group…