In the two weeks since the last Newcastle Gamers session, the four of us who played Agricola and own iPads (plus Graham) have been playing a game of iOS Eclipse online. We’ve got about halfway through in those two weeks, and it’s turning out to be an interesting little game. (That’s code for “I’m about to be royally shafted in galactic combat”.) Pete sent out a request for a real-life game at Newcastle Gamers, and I was happy to join the fray. This was partly down to the fact that I knew I’d be late to the session (and thus coincide nicely with the arrival of John Si for Eclipse at 5-ish) and partly because I’ve got a lot more comfortable with Eclipse since the iPad version came out a few weeks ago.
The only other time I’ve played Eclipse, I didn’t have a good game. Having blasted through a fair few games on the iPad, I’ve got a much better handle on the pace of the game, how to manage resources and when to play aggressively/defensively, so I entered this game feeling relatively confident. We distributed player boards randomly, then each chose whether to play as humans or aliens; clockwise around the table, we ended up with:
- Me (black): human
- Camo (red): human
- Pete (green): human
- John Si (yellow): aliens – Descendants of Draco
- Graham (white): aliens – Mechanema
John had ummed and ahhed about using the Descendants over the humans, but he went with it in the end. The Descendants can’t engage in battle with Ancients, so their chances of good reputation tile draws are lower (fewer battles throughout the game), but they can coexist, influence and colonise in tiles with Ancients, and gain 1 VP per Ancient ship left on the table at the end of the game.
We got underway with the usual rounds of exploring and researching, and we all realised the other advantage of the Descendants – when exploring, they draw two tiles and choose which one they want to keep. This meant John could pick and choose systems with major benefits (he ended up maxing out his money income by round 6 or so), and he pushed towards Pete’s green territory quite quickly. Pete, on the other hand, had some dreadful tile draws, leaving him very short of money and desperately needing to expand out into others’ territory. I struck up a diplomatic agreement with Camo to my left (with absolutely no intention of sticking to it, but I hoped to lull him into a false sense of security), while Graham’s tile draws and orientations set up a wall between us on my right. Neither of us were heavily drawing science planets, so chances were that neither of us would be able to afford the Wormhole Generator technology – I felt safe on that side.
Pete geared up his ships and pushed out, engaging Camo, John and me (and maybe an Ancient ship). He was beaten back every single time – mainly through extreme bad luck on the dice rolls – leaving him battered, bruised and insolvent. By round 4, Pete realised his actions had left him completely unable to afford his empire’s upkeep, and he had to uninfluence all his sectors and resign from the game. So then we were four. Meanwhile, I’d moved round to block Camo’s exit from his corner of the galaxy and invaded his home sector, John was spreading like a disease across the far side of the table and Graham was in his own little world, surrounded by Ancients and building up a fairly fearsome armada of souped-up dreadnoughts.
I was still very science-poor, so it was a lucky set of circumstances that allowed me to blast Camo into smithereens somewhere around round 6, leading to him also resigning from the game. John and Graham were doing much better in the technology race, but Graham made what turned out to be a grave error – Plasma Missiles came up for purchase and he could afford them, but he didn’t take them. Straight away, John leapt on them and ended up kitting out his dreadnought blueprint with four Plasma Missile tiles. That’s eight dice per ship, dealing two damage per hit, firing before anything else happens in combat. Combined with the +3 and +1 computers, those missiles were hitting on a roll of 2 or more on a D6 by the end of the game. John’s dreadnoughts had become unstoppable. They literally dreaded nought.
Having dealt with the red menace, I concentrated on bolstering my front line. John was clearly going to take the galactic core with his mega-über-dreadnoughts, and it looked like he and Graham might have a face-off. They were certainly both gearing up for heavy battle, so I quietly slipped a few souped-up cruisers round the side and towards Pete’s old home sector, now occupied by John. He responded in kind, making a run for my home sector to try to deny me those 3 VPs. John’s huge empire had left him overstretched for influence discs, even with Quantum Grid and Advanced Robotics (granting three extra discs), so he didn’t have much opportunity to defend himself from me. In the final round, I managed to successfully defend my home sector; I also got lucky and took a sector from John. At this point, I influenced the sector and placed colony ships. There was still one battle to go for me, in a sector with 3 VPs for ownership and a discovery tile worth 2 VP under an Ancient ship. To win, I’d have to defeat not only John’s cruiser but also the Ancient ship, retaining my damage from the battle with John. I didn’t fancy my chances, which was why I’d influenced the sector I’d just won. I lucked out again though, meaning I could have influenced that sector and taken more VPs.
I’d done really well with reputation tiles from battles (ending up with two 3s and two 4s), and I’d been lucky with drawing discovery sectors (giving me 6 VPs), and with my final push I ended up scoring really well. Camo returned to the table to do the final tally…
Final scores – Me: 37 / John: 36 / Graham: 25 / (Camo and Pete both on 6)
Wahey! A win! Handshakes all round!
But… wait! We forgot the Traitor card. The one I picked up in round 2 or 3 for stabbing Camo in the back. That’s -2 VPs for me. BOOOO. Let’s try that again…
Final scores – John: 36 / Me: 35 / Graham: 25 / (Camo and Pete both on 6)
A win for John, and a well played win at that. I actually lost in three different ways:
- Traitor card for -2 VPs;
- I drew Conformal Drive on a discovery tile early on and took the tech rather than the 2 VPs, but I couldn’t power it at the time so it was left on my board. I never got the chance to fit it, so it was a wasted tile;
- Had I influenced the final sector I won instead of the previous one, I would have had several more points.
This game of Eclipse played out much better than my previous one, but although I’ve come to accept the dice-based combat, the luck of the sector tile draw still niggled at me. That’s what pushed Pete out of the game so early on, and I’m not keen on player elimination. I was so short of science income that I couldn’t compete with John in the arms race, so it was down to blind dice-rolling luck that I wasn’t reduced to dust. And when I can nearly win a game through blind luck… that just doesn’t sit right with me. Still, I had an excellent time playing. The four hours flew by.
Blind luck was exchanged for “you’ve only got yourself to blame” in my other game of the night, Trajan. A recent acquisition of mine, this feels like the stereotypical “points salad” Stefan Feld game, apart from one key factor: the mancala. On your turn, rather than rolling dice or playing cards, you select your action by moving coloured “action markers” around the six bowls of a mancala printed on your personal player board. The six bowls each relate to an action, which each relate to a region on the main board: military, construction, seaport, forum, senate and the eponymous emperor. (That’s what the rulebook says, anyway. In reality, this is the embodiment of the wafer-thin theme in a eurogame. Even the rulebook doesn’t attempt to disguise it much.)
How much choice you’ll actually get over which action you take is entirely up to how you manipulate the action markers around your six bowls. Given that this was the first game for three of us (Lloyd, Jon and John Sh) and the first real-life game for me (I’ve played a few on Boîte à Jeux), we generally didn’t do very well at getting what we wanted out of the bowls. It’s a skill in itself, and the rulebook makes a point of saying that your first game will be very much a learning experience. It’ll all get better with time.
There’s not a huge amount to say about Trajan, except that I really, really liked it. There’s no emergent narrative. There’s little player interaction. There’s barely any notion of theme. I tried to tack on some extra theme during the rules explanation… at the end of the day, it’s just points, points, points. But it’s really engaging. The pace and length of the game is controlled by the number of action markers moved by each player on their turn, but even if you slow things right down, there’s still not enough time to do everything you want to do. Perfect euro frustration.
I failed to prioritise the senate, meaning I didn’t pick up many tiles to grant me scoring bonuses at the end of the game. That meant I had to rely on picking up those points, points, points all the way through. I’d made an early grab in the construction area, so I knew I had a 20-point bonus tied up for final scoring. Making sure I satisfied the people’s demands for bread, games and religion (re-themed as either rocket propulsion or flame-throwers in our game) became paramount to maintaining the points I had, and the biggest penalty I picked up was 4 VP. But in the last few rounds, Jon went nuts for shipping, bringing in point after point after point, and it just got him the game.
Final scores – Jon: 122 / Me: 120 / Lloyd: 102 / John Sh: 93-ish (thereabouts)
Great game. I was concerned it might outstay its welcome, but after 20 minutes or so of rules explanation, the game ran for only about two hours. And it was very logical to explain; just like Feld’s Castles of Burgundy, what initially seems like a terrifying plethora of components, rules and options quickly boils down to a few semi-intuitive concepts. The only (very minor) quibble I have with Trajan is the sheer number of components and the fiddliness of setup. There are 125 bits of wood, 60 cards and 214 card tiles (in nine different varieties which all need sorting into various piles). It’s not enough to put me off, but it might be enough to put someone off when they see all the different bits coming out of the box. Also, in a two-fingered gesture to colour-blind people the world over, the four player colours are red, green, brown and blue. In poor light (and the bulb had blown in our corner of the room), I struggle to tell the difference between the red and brown, or between the green and brown. I can (thankfully) tell red from green, but I know there are people with blue–green problems. Surely publishers are aware of the problems of colour recognition? Surely black, white, red and yellow will solve colour problems for all but the most heavily afflicted?
And that was that. Midnight had been and gone, so I headed for home. Only two games played, but both great in different ways. Eclipse was a sprawling epic with loads of good table-talk, while Trajan was a heads-down brain-melter. A very good night of games – to be very quickly followed by another excellent evening of gaming, more on which later…
All photos by Olly and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until we drop at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!