Eclipsing the competition.

Empire building in the vast, cold reaches of outer space has been a popular topic in gaming for many decades: both for video games and traditional board games. Many would have thought it had been mined for all it had. So it came as a shock in 2010 when a little-known Scandinavian publisher released the board game Eclipse to a solar storm of critical adulation.

When you play the game, it’s not hard to see why. Most of what you could want from the genre is packed in there: explore the unknown reaches of the universe; conquer planets; and research technology to build your own ship designs in order to do battle with other players and a neutral alien race. This is all delivered via exceptionally clever mechanics which brilliantly balance tactical manoeuvres with demanding resource management.

There’s a cost, of course, which is that this is a very challenging game on every level. Juggling the manifold options and priorities that the game places before you requires skill and dedication, and it’s a complex game to learn. Although the play time is manageable, learning the game and finding other players willing to do the same is a tough request.

Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy

Enter this iOS implementation of the game from Big Daddy Creations, Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy. Done right, it has the potential to make this excellent but inaccessible game something that anyone can and should play. From the start the app oozes polish and sophistication with bright, detailed graphics and good use of sound and multimedia. But there’s a hurdle to overcome before you can enjoy the rich meat of the game itself.

It’s the tutorial which leaves something to be desired. It’s a complex game to learn, although one that quickly becomes familiar once you’ve mastered the basics. What we needed was several small tutorials that gradually built on one another. What we’ve got is one long, detailed walkthrough of the opening turns of a game, and even then it doesn’t actually cover all the details. Prepare to be confused for your first couple of games, unless you put in the time to tackle the lengthy rulebook. This shouldn’t be much of an issue for seasoned board gamers, but people unfamiliar with the genre may face a bit of work getting to grips with the detail.

Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy

Once you’ve made the effort to leap the mechanical barrier, though, you’ll find a stunning experience waiting for you on the other side. The underlying game is a breathtaking composite of pretty much everything that’s interesting about modern table top games. The result is a game where no path or strategy brings guaranteed success: everything hinges on making appropriate decisions in an ever-fluid game state. That fluidity includes the propensity of neighbours to attack one another, of course, and stealing systems off your enemy is a double whammy as you get richer while they get poorer.

Traditionally, this has made it difficult to design games which have both deep mechanical strategy and free-form fighting because the latter tends to trump the former when everyone jumps on the leading player. That happens in Eclipse, but its genius is simply that your action pool is limited, and focussing on combat means less exploring, less research, and less colonisation. You might buy a short-term advantage but it’ll hurt later on. All aspects of the game are just fiendishly balanced.

It’s a testament as to the depth and breadth of this game that it feels more like a classic digital space empire title such as Starbase Orion or Ascendancy than a board game. You have the same sense of detail and epic narrative, but in Eclipse all the mechanics are laid bare for you to appreciate and understand, resulting in a superior strategy experience. And that also means it’s absolutely engrossing to play it against other human beings.

Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy

But even then, you don’t need to: there are three levels of AI, the best of which is easily capable of challenging a competent human player. It’ll give you many, many hours of absorbing solo play. If you do want to take on the enemy AI, there’s a regrettable layer added over GameCenter that you’ll have to deal with, and asynchronous games can be slow burning. But that just gives you more time to appreciate the majesty of the game in front of you.

Before playing Eclipse I believed that what it set out to achieve was nigh impossible. The board game offers many things that seem mutually incompatible. The app squeezes a game needing acres of table into an iPad screen. You’ll need dedication to experience this marvel: the rules are complex, the strategy makes your head hurt and the app isn’t as good as it should be at making the game accessible. But if you’re up to the challenge, the effort you put into this game will be rewarded a hundredfold in terms of entertainment.