The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Eon Games

Larry Levy

January, 2005

Back in the early 1970s, a trio of friends decided to create a game. It was a wildly impractical affair, with tons of three dimensional components, and a theme that gaming professionals knew to be poison. After multiple rejections from Parker Brothers, the threesome decided to produce it themselves, despite a limited knowledge of the gaming business. You can't get much more kamikaze than that. And yet, the game not only became one of the most celebrated designs of the last thirty years, the company that the men formed wound up releasing half a dozen notable titles. The three friends were (and are) named Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka. That first game was called Cosmic Encounter. And the name of the company they formed was Eon.

Partial Ludography

1977 Cosmic Encounter (with Bill Norton)
1979 Darkover, Dune
1980 Quirks
1981 Hoax (with Ned Horn), Runes
1982 Borderlands
1985 Star Trek: The Enterprise4 Encounter (with Doug Kaufman) 
1991 Ascalion
1994 Buzzle
1999 Die Erben von Hoax (with Ned Horn and Volker Hesselmann

Eon's games were never the most popular or best looking designs. However, in my opinion, they were the most original and innovative games to come out of America during the company's brief six-year existence. Their themes were unique and their games featured crazy and daring mechanics. Even their means of distribution was innovative. You might love or hate an Eon game, but you could never say it was boring.

What made Cosmic Encounter so innovative was that each player had a special ability that allows them to break the rules of the game in a particular way. This has turned out to be a very influential idea (Richard Garfield cited Cosmic Encounter as a major inspiration for Magic: The Gathering) and it continues to be part of current designs, such as Puerto Rico, Age of Steam and Maharaja. As far as I know, Cosmic Encounter was also the first mainstream boardgame (i.e., something other than a wargame or sports simulation) to be distributed exclusively through mail order. Finally, it was the first game to make extensive use of expansions—by the time Eon was through, there were nine expansions to the game, most of which made significant changes to the base system.

Ironically, Cosmic Encounter does not rank high in my list of Eon games (which is hardly an insult, I'm very fond of their games as a group). The basic game is rather simple and high-luck. The game becomes more interesting as you add expansions and give the players multiple powers. Unfortunately, as the complexity increases, so does the chaos. This leads to games where the cards and special effects fly. The friends I used to play this with reveled in the chaos; I merely tolerated it. Though the experience was usually fun in a gonzo sort of way, Cosmic Encounter just isn't the kind of game I could ever love.

While Cosmic Encounter combines different special powers to produce weird effects; Darkover, the second Eon design, is just weird. The game is set in the universe described in Marion Zimmer Bradley's sci-fi books and by all accounts is faithful to that very bizarre world. Darkover is the only Eon game I haven't played, but I have read the rules and it's a strange combination of psychological mind games, party game-style dare taking, and strategic movement. Even in the midst of the crazy rules (the novels describe a telepathic society buffeted by inhibition-reducing "ghost winds"), there's some innovative rules and some genuine strategy. Still, I'd be very surprised if I could ever be talked into playing this (even if someone chanted, "One, you will play; two, you will play;...").

Based on the success of Cosmic Encounter, Avalon Hill commissioned Eon to design another game with a science fiction theme, this one based on the complex world created by Frank Herbert in his Dune novels. Treachery cards from Dune The resulting game was one of the more renowned designs of the 1970s and does as good a job of capturing the feel of a fictional setting as any game I've ever played. Players play one of the six factions on the planet Dune and maneuver both militarily and diplomatically to gain victory for their alliance. Each of the factions has their own abilities which really distinguishes them which, combined with the setting, makes it easy to indulge in some very enjoyable role playing. We had a lot of fun with this one in the 1980s, so I was glad to have the chance to play it again at the last Gathering of Friends. A fine time was had by all, but to be honest, I didn't think the design had aged very well. Dune features a series of high-luck mechanics but the different player abilities can be used to eliminate the luck in different areas. It's a clever system, but it still means that luck can have significant, and occasionally outrageous, effects. That, combined with a minimum duration of three or four hours, yields a game that seems out of place with the designs of today. Still, my fellow players didn't seem to feel the design had lost any of its luster, so I may have a minority view on this one. Besides, I still have to count this as an outstanding design since, in its day, it worked so well.

Quirks is probably the closest thing that Eon came to designing a family game. It also may very well be the first game to be based around the concept of evolution, which has since become a mildly popular theme. As usual with the trio, not only is the theme unusual, but the mechanics are as well. Players try to construct carnivores, herbivores and plants from cards showing fanciful plant and animal parts. The object is to evolve your creations to maximize their chances of survival as the climate changes and to use them to dominate the other players' creatures. The game is lighter than most Eon creations and, like most of their games, has a reasonably high luck factor, but skill is still rewarded. It's also a painless way to learn some concepts in basic biology. Quirks is a pleasant game, with a nice sense of humor, and one that plays well with players of different ages and sophistication.

Hoax is one of my favorites from Eon. It's essentially the threesome's playful attempt at putting roleplaying into a board game and probably does a much better job of it than more ponderous attempts from the likes of Avalon Hill. The game is based on a very simple resource acquisition mechanic, where sets of resources can be turned in for Victory Points. There are six roles in the game, from King down to Peasant, and each role has one or two special powers. The roles are randomly distributed at the beginning of the game. The thing is, on your turn, you can declare yourself to be any of the six characters and use one of its powers! Players can challenge the authenticity of an opponent's character, but since there are penalties for both declaring a fake character and making a false accusation, you have to be careful who you challenge. To keep this from being total guesswork, you can narrow down your opponents' possible roles over the course of the game by asking for information. Hoax can be a bit fragile and definitely requires the right kind of group, but when it works, it's an awful lot of fun. As the rules say, "Although the game is simple, people are complex." Best of all, there really isn't another game like it. A German version of Hoax (Sein oder Nichtsein) was released in 1989 by Hexagames; there was also an expanded version (with seven roles and some modified rules) called Die Erben von Hoax that appeared in 1999.

Some word games operate at the letter level, others at the word level (a few even work at the sentence level). Runes is the only game I've ever heard of that uses letter segments! Eberle, Kittredge, and Olotka figured out that you can form every letter in the alphabet out of four basic shapes: a long straight segment, a short straight segment, a large semicircle, and a small, U-shaped curve. The basic game challenges the players to deduce their opponents' words by guessing different shapes for the letters of the word, but Runes is actually more of a game system, since the components can be used to play a number of different games. Although the gameplay doesn't quite match the cleverness of the central idea, Runes is still an entertaining mental exercise that (once again) is completely unique. There was also a German version called Buzzle (I have no idea how they handled umlauts!).

BorderlandsI've stated my love for Borderlands on these pages before [See Borderlands]. Part of that passion is that at the time it came out, I was searching for a Risk-like design with less luck and additional complexity, possibly with a resource subsystem. Then I discovered this game that exceeded my wildest dreams. The intent of the Eon designers was a little different—they wanted to create a Diplomacy-like game that could be played in two hours. Needless to say, I feel they've succeeded on both counts. The reason Borderlands remains one of my Top Five games is the richness of the game experience. It includes positional tactics, negotiation, trading, development, and transportation. Above all is the brilliant no-luck combat system, the best I've ever encountered in a game. Despite the fact that it is completely deterministic, it consistently produces surprises and sharp play. It all adds up to an extremely enjoyable, intense, and highly interactive game. Unfortunately, it also has a fairly steep learning curve, making its introduction to the uninitiated somewhat difficult.

Although Borderlands isn't terribly well known today, it may have had a greater impact on gaming than is usually supposed. I mentioned in my 1999 review of the game that it had some surprising similarities to Klaus Teuber's classic Settlers of Catan, unaware that Bruno Faidutti had publicly stated much the same thing (Bruno refers to Borderlands as "the forgotten father of Settlers"). Even though the prospect of a skilled designer like Teuber being influenced by a long-forgotten American design from the previous decade seems unlikely, there was a German version of the game (Ascalion) that was released in 1991. I don't suppose we'll ever know for sure, but the fact remains that Borderlands anticipated many of the innovations in one of the most popular games ever created, a dozen years before its release. It truly was a game ahead of its time.

Borderlands was the last of the Eon designs. Three years after the company sadly closed up shop, Doug Kaufman commissioned Eberle, Kittredge, and Olotka to create one last game for West End Games, using the Star Trek license the company currently possessed. The resulting design, Star Trek: The Enterprise4 Encounter, was not their best effort, but is still fun and, as usual, has an unusual feel. Each player has a "copy" of the Enterprise (duplicated by Captain Kirk's old nemesis Trelane, in a typical bit of mischief) with a subset of the full crew. The players are trying to acquire crew members who between them possess all six of the game's skills. They do this by traveling to planets where crew members are stranded and by challenging opponents and swiping some of their crew. It's not the sort of game that would get any play in 2005, but twenty years ago, it was innovative enough and sufficiently state-of-the-art to make it worthwhile.

And that was that. The trio tried their hand at computer gaming, with some success (including Lords of Conquest, which was based on the Borderlands system, and the current popular online Cosmic Encounter web site), but they haven't had a new boardgame published in twenty years. No one ever said that the pioneers in any field were guaranteed success (quite the contrary) and the Eon designers suffered the same fate of many others who were ahead of their time: remembered fondly by some, but unknown to most of those who enjoy the hobby they helped to establish.

Even with their limited output, the trio was able to establish their own unique design style. They were obviously fond of science fiction and did an excellent job of infusing that genre's futuristic settings into their games. Skillful play was always rewarded, more than was the norm for the games of the time. Compared to today's designs, Eon games had a fairly high luck factor, but it never dominated play. The central idea in their initial design, of powers that allow players to break the rules of the game, appeared over and over again in various guises, but they always managed to come up with a fresh approach for their favorite toy. And the most obvious similarity, of course, was the innovative ideas in their games, which were always original and frequently audacious; they were not afraid to play with the very foundations of these designs.

Innovation is one thing, but quality is another. The highest praise I can give the Eon designers is that I've never played one of their games that I didn't enjoy. Their ability to consistently come up with clever ideas at a time when such innovation was rare was remarkable. Operating on a shoestring may have meant that their creations had limited exposure, but it also may have had a freeing effect, allowing them to let their imaginations run wild, something they obviously did regularly and with great glee. Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka chose the name Eon for their company because they want to create games "that would last the ages". They very well may have succeeded.

- Larry Levy

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