Looking Behind the Eclipse: How One Designer Set the Board Gaming World on Fire

 "I always have way too many ideas, with no way to pursue them all. I’m constantly thinking of what I should prioritize, what game I should work on next. All day I’m thinking about games, my brain is just wired that way. " - Touko Tahkokallio, designer of Eclipse.

It's hard to understate the success that the board game Eclipse has experienced since its release in late 2011. Yet in an industry where the designer's name can significantly impact sales, gamers have been left with a common question: who is Touko Tahkokallio? In his own words: "A 30 year-old Finnish board game designer, who also works for a digital game company as a primary job." I recently had the opportunity to chat with the rising-star designer about his history as a gamer, the experience of Eclipse's reception, and what the future holds.

After riding a wave of buzz from the Essen Spiel 2011 trade show, Eclipse became the talk of the industry as it went on to scorch the charts at BoardGameGeek.com. The website maintains a massive database of board game info, but of particular note are their rankings (generated by an algorithm that accounts for user ratings among other factors). Fans place particular emphasis on the "Top 100" here, and Eclipse has made quite a splash. Out of nearly 60,000 games, Eclipse now ranks at number 6 with an average user rating of 8.35/10.00.

Players of Eclipse have spoken, and made their judgement of the game well known in the process. But what are they actually doing after trying the game out? Snatching up copies wherever possible. Eclipse's initial print run is completely sold out, and even with a reprint due to arrive later this month, would-be owners seeking a copy are still bidding upwards of $200 on eBay. With an audience not afraid to vote with their wallets, it has become impossible to deny that Eclipse is red hot.

Aligning the planets

Numerous factors play into the success of Eclipse, but as with all games, its success boils down to one test: Is it fun? Exceedingly so. In order to define what actually makes a game such as Eclipse enjoyable, we'll have to peel back the curtain on Touko Tahkokallio's design.

The first step is to look at where Eclipse came from. Tahkokallio attributes most of his influences in designing Eclipse to his experience as a PC gamer, particularly the mid-90's Master of Orion series. As part of the "4X" genre ("eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate") more easily recognized in titles such as Sid Meier's Civilization series, Eclipse adopts all of the 4X principles and offers paths to victory that reward each.

There's also the matter of Tahkokallio's board game experience. He got his start in modern board gaming by playing The Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico, European strategy classics defined by their streamlined rules, short to medium play times, and competitive balance. These titles are a common source of inspiration for modern board game designers, so Tahkokallio is cut from the same cloth, with one major exception: he has aligned the planets. In one game, Tahkokallio has merged the rich theme and gameplay stylings of his 4X space past with the tight game mechanisms used in European strategy board games.

"The very first real playtest was a huge success. I couldn’t sleep all night. It was really fun to see the whole thing work from beginning to end, but of course it took almost two years to come out. It’s been a very long journey, so it’s hard to pin down any turning point where we knew it was a success."

I pinged experienced board game reviewer Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower to provide some insight on why Eclipse has been met with such success, and his thoughts lined up with Tahkokallio's experience. "[Eclipse] has elements that appeal to many different types of gamers... it's the first heavy economic Eurogame in a long while with an interesting theme," Vasel explained, and Tahkokallio agrees.

When presented with the concept of "hybrid" games that combine prominent Euro and American hobby gaming style, Tahkokalio proclaims "that’s the direction where I’m most interested to see new games. Euro games have shown that you can make good competitive games that can be played in one game night, but to integrate theme? That’s not easy. But it’s something I’m hoping to see more of, hoping it is the future."

Breaking in

So how did one man go from the average gamer to famed designer? After discovering the world of strategy board games, Tahkokallio broke into the market with a decidedly casual game.

"Politix was the first game that came out by me. It’s a game about the Finnish political scene, a satirical game. We have a long tradition in Finland of mocking our political scene, and there are a lot of TV shows that have this type of satire. Originally, the game was made just for a friendly party I was attending, but it was kind of fun. We liked it, and I had a few friends who were also interested in games, so we decided to publish it ourselves."

Touko Tahkokallio with his early game design successes. Image by Mikko Saari, used under Creative Commons license.

From there, Tahkokallio went on to self-publish the abstract game Aether and the trivia game Arvuutin, among others, before looking for publisher support in developing future titles. But when it came time to embark on his most ambitious project, rigorous playtesting and early community interest were what helped Tahkokallio push Eclipse over the top.

"We just wanted to make a game, and weren’t thinking early on whether there would be a publisher or not. There was a lot of great feedback and conversation with the local gamers. It got good buzz in the Finnish scene, and that helped a little bit to find a publisher. It’s easier when they know there is already some interest in the game."

Among the reasons for Eclipse's success stated earlier, the involvement of his graphic designer partner, Sampo Sikiö, from the first stages of game design, was a major factor in gaining that early buzz.

Eclipse uses a unique method for tracking resources and actions, enabled by Sikiö’s design. As players take actions, they move commodity cubes and wooden discs from their player mat onto the game's map, thereby revealing information previously hidden underneath the discs that only pertains should the player have spent those resources or taken those actions.

Intuitive graphic design took the number crunching of a 4x experience out of Eclipse, and made it easily digestible by newcomers and playtesters. It also helped keep the games playtime to a reasonable 30 minutes per player, in stark contrast to most titles in this genre which can be all-night affairs.

Yet even with streamlined gameplay and strong graphic design, Eclipse was still a tough sell to publishers, at least on paper. As a game that aimed to bridge the gap between European and American design principles, along with an audience-limiting sci-fi theme, the risk was always present that Eclipse could end up a game without a strong customer base. The proof, however, was in the playtesting.

According to Toni Niittymäki of publisher Lautapelit.fi, “Honestly, I don't remember how I first heard about Eclipse. We've known Touko for several years, and have worked with him on his own publishing projects Politix and Arvuutin. Even before those, he was a customer who we chatted when he visited our store. Eclipse was mentioned at some point, and along the road we got interested in testing the game. We played one game and were convinced that it's something we'd like to try publishing, even though it was quite far from our "comfort zone", which is lighter, Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride type family/adult games.”

New frontiers for a new designer

Takhokallio is hard at work on the first expansion for Eclipse, hoping to capitalize on his first major success. Eclipse: Rise of the Ancients will add rare technologies, new playable species, and support for 7-9 players. That's great for fans wanting more Eclipse, but if the quality of this game has made you curious to explore the designer's earlier efforts, you wouldn't be the first.

According to Tahkokallio, "most of my games have already found their place, but yes there has been interest. Aether has found a license partner for a US version, but it’s an abstract game, so the market is not as big [as Eclipse's]. Also, Arvuutin will be re-published by a German publisher."

A mock-up screenshot of Eclipse for iOS, courtesy of Big Daddy's Creations.

There's also the prospect of digital gaming. Tahkokallio is working on iOS games by day and designing board games at night, and while he isn't at liberty to reveal the projects that employer Supercell has assigned him to, developer Big Daddy's Creations is well at work on the iOS version of Eclipse. Although they will develop the game autonomously, Tahkokallio will be consulting and providing feedback, while remaining confident that Eclipse is in good hands given Big Daddy's Creation's success with iOS versions of Neuroshima Hex and Caylus.

Publishers want his next title and gamers are lining up to buy his old ones. For the moment, Touko Tahkokallio is on top of the game design world. Where things go from here is all up to him.

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