I’ve just picked up a new boardgame: Eclipse (2nd Edition). As well as being fantastically fun to play, it’s also supremely well-designed. One element in particular is how Eclipse addresses some common 4X problems around instigating combat: attacker’s guilt and a higher combat risk for attackers.
Particularly in boardgames, where players are sitting face-to-face, many players are uncomfortable with unprovoked aggression, even when the game requires it. Even a successful attack, if unprovoked, can leave the player feeling bad for victimising someone who did nothing to deserve it. This is natural, it is human, and, for designers, trying to avoid this problem can be frustrating.
The root of the problem, I think, is the losses of the ‘victim’ relative to uninvolved parties. We don’t see the same reactions to profiteering, for example, where one player exploits the position of another to gain money/points/whatever without that player losing anything in the process. We also don’t see the same reactions in two-player games: the game unavoidably pits the two players against each other, so there is no victimisation. I believe that the problem arises specifically from the fact that the victim was targeted over other players, and has lost something.
A related problem is the attacker’s risk: what if they attack and lose? Attacking usually costs something: in Eclipse, it costs turns, which translate to both time and money, and it risks ships, which have value. If the attacker then loses the battle, they’ve lost time, money, and ships, all to hand an opponent a bunch of points. This represents a far greater loss than the defender risks, and so disincentivises players from attacking unless they can muster overwhelming force.
It is the uninvolved third parties who often get the best outcome. They risk nothing, lose nothing, come out objectively better than the battle’s loser, and may be in a good position to threaten the winner of the battle, who may have gained points or territory, but likely suffered some material losses. It may be better to sit back and wait for others to attack, than to go on the offensive yourself.
These factors all discourage players from attacking, which can result in wargames involving rather less direct conflict than one might expect from the name. So, how did Touko Tahkokallio, Eclipse’s designer, solve these problems?
Several factors combine to reduce the losses suffered by an unsuccessful defending player:
Fantastic design, and only a small part of what contributes to the game’s enjoyment!