Constellation Harmony

Still one of the weirdest, best titles in board games.

My favorite moment of our most recent play of Sidereal Confluence arose from one of the game’s weaknesses. Namely, that TauCeti Deichmann’s game of haggling aliens operates best when played with the right sort of person. What sort is that? The sort who embraces asymmetry while still calling the resource cubes by their colors instead of using setting-appropriate titles like “culture” and “life support.” The sort who doesn’t mind parsing large quantities of information while on the clock. The sort who’s willing to negotiate.

Of those three, you’d think the last would present the lowest barrier. Doubly so when playing a negotiation game. That isn’t how it was shaking out. One of us wasn’t interested in trading away his yellows — pardon me, his energy cubes — no matter how favorable the bargain. We offered him everything. Colonies, stacks of cubes, even a rule-breaking couple of victory points, just to see if he would bite. Offer after offer was rejected.

At last, Geoff broke. With all the pent-up fury of a spurned capitalist, he roared through his mask, “Haven’t you read The Wealth of Nations?” By way of reply, our energy hoarder stared at him with glassy eyes. The realization came to everyone at the table in an instant. Not only had he not read Geoff’s Holy Bible, but he also had no idea what sort of game we were playing.

Although at this point it's hard for me to tell, since the remastered iconography is like switching from ancient script to something modern and standardized.

This makes Sidereal Confluence look almost manageable.

If this sounds familiar, there’s a reason. TauCeti Deichmann originally published Sidereal Confluence through WizKids in 2017. I reviewed it not long after that, and spoke with Deichmann in the middle of last year about the game’s particulars: its long history as an empire-making 4X game, the rich backstory behind its nine alien species, the weaponization of its players’ attention spans and bandwidth through its use of time limits. Of all the many games in my library, it’s the one I was most eager to see get a remaster. In part because the original visuals are garish by comparison, the remaster’s darker backgrounds and more clearly delineated resource icons making each card a cinch to parse. But also because it’s a brilliant supernova of a game that deserves to be witnessed and experienced by more people, if only because it speaks to a possibility-space that so many negotiation games don’t quite break into.

That brilliance begins with its opening conceit, familiar to fans of Star Trek and a thematic counter-punch to adherents of Liu Cixin, that nine alien factions could come together to negotiate a peace. In one sense, its optimism is even more boundless than Gene Roddenberry’s; for one thing, only one of its races is humanoid, and for another they’re so culturally and physiologically distinct that the idea of them all happening to speak English isn’t even a remote fantasy. At the same time, the nature of their conflict is a reminder that competition will be ingrained into any species that managed to claw its way to the top of a food chain. This isn’t naivety. It’s an optimism of pragmatism. Why fight when peace and sharing are so darn profitable? At the same time, why accept peace lying down?

I normally don’t harp so much on a game’s setting, but in this case it’s warranted. Each side isn’t only alien because they happen to be illustrated differently, or even because they happen to have the occasional asymmetric perk. They’re alien because they engage in distinct behaviors. The core game experience remains the same no matter which role you inhabit, but the particulars are so divergent that each faction board is printed with an explanation of their unique systems and even a strategy guide. For once, I recommend new players give these materials a read before diving in. Because each species’ commercial behaviors are reflections of their history, even the fluff can prove helpful.

YOU CAN BARTER AWAY YOUR SPOUSE. Unfortunately, our friend wouldn't part with his white cubes even for a week with my wife.

Everything is a converter. EVEN YOUR BRAIN.

Before we peel back the layers, let’s do some groundwork. It’s easy to make Sidereal Confluence sound intimidating, when the reality is that the whole thing is remarkably streamlined. Here are the four things you need to know.

The first is that every card is a converter. That means pretty much what it sounds like: you put something in to get something out. Maybe you’re transforming an energy cube into a blue cube and a brown cube. Maybe you’re transforming a trio of greens and some whites into a hexagonal cylinder called an ultratech. Maybe you’re manufacturing ships, or resources that can only be traded away, or victory points. Maybe you’re mulching a planet to make something more valuable to your species. Maybe you’re burning up an entire stack of cubes to research temporal manipulation. No matter what’s being transformed, the entire game is about feeding inputs in order to receive outputs. This is the product of all your technology, all your cultural accomplishments, every colony you found and every species-specific concept you’ll be asked to master. And because that’s the case, it isn’t long before the game’s language speaks out. Sometimes it even sings. Either way, looking past the table’s tangle of cards is easier than it seems. Everything is a converter. Nothing is so wild that you can’t evaluate its worth at a glance.

But that brings us to the second detail, which is that you won’t have everything you need to run your converters, so you’ll need to trade for it. True, sometimes you’ll be able to process your own inputs, especially if you’re playing the right species or you’ve annexed the right colonies. Even then, you’ll only likely be able to run one or two converters on your own. This is where Geoff’s exclamation from earlier begins to make sense. In one sense, this is a truer expression of modern capitalism than modern capitalism. You have what I need. I have what you need. The things we already have are largely useless to us. So let’s trade what we have so we can produce the things we need. It’s such a simple proposition that the occasional obstacle proves extra galling. Like when somebody decides that squatting on a dozen useless cubes is to their advantage.

Lee, I know you're reading this. Make trades, Lee. Make trades.

Want to win? Make trades.

Plenty of games are about trade. What makes Sidereal Confluence so different is that it lets you get creative. There are guidelines, of course, listed on the reference card that everybody gets right at the beginning. Three small cubes are the equivalent of two large cubes, which roughly equal an ultratech, and yadda yadda yadda. This formulation isn’t useless. As a suggestion, it’s perfectly serviceable. But when it comes to real exchanges, suggestions aren’t reality. Reality is far too elastic for such a rigid equation. Sometimes three small cubes are the equivalent of five large cubes. Sometimes an ultratech is worth all the wealth at the table. Sometimes a ship-starved faction should trade away its very soul for a chance to reach the stars.

But even more than that, Sidereal Confluence goes a step further by letting you become part of the trade. “You” as in your cards. Converters can be traded, even if only temporarily, letting one species briefly adopt the powers of another. But also “you” as a person sitting at the table trying to broker a deal. Because you’re nearly as fungible, as tradable, as useful as the resources that swap hands. You can make binding promises, even those that are multiple turns removed from the current circumstances. You can make deals that involve more than two people. Depending on your species, you can promise to stop extorting somebody’s wealth, or bank resources for interest, or deploy universal resources nobody else can access, or transform somebody’s colony into a garden world. You can make deals that have you saying things like, “I’ll give you these four blue cubes you desperately need — if you can give me access to Lee’s two white cubes.” You know, the ones he refuses to trade with anybody. In Sidereal Confluence, these nudges don’t penetrate the membrane that is the game’s magic circle. They simply expand it.

Of course, that brings us to the fourth and final detail: that to prevent these talks from dragging into the wee hours, every trade phase is timed. Don’t let that add to your anxiety. If anything, this is exactly what the game needs: a fourth-dimensional boundary that prevents it from stretching that membrane to the point of bursting. You’re always in motion, but only rarely hurried. Even negotiations with recalcitrant resource hoarders can’t drag on forever.

These auctions are so light I always forget to mention them.

Some light auctioning doles out colonies and research teams.

I recognize that I’m failing at making it sound as straightforward as it really is. At times, its openness is intimidating in its own right, like being welcomed an hour early into a theme park and suddenly freezing up, paralyzed by a wealth of decisions like some literal expression of Buridan’s donkey. Aren’t there countless factors to keep straight? Dozens of converters? Conversations overlapping until you can hardly tell one thread from another?

To some degree. It’s important to remember that the most important resource in Sidereal Confluence isn’t a cube or a hexagonal cylinder. It’s your ability to read the table, read your fellow players, read the information being thrown at you. Even then, Deichmann proves himself masterful with how he paces this glut, even providing options to reduce it to its most digestible. Every converter can be upgraded, from the lowliest planet to the loftiest technology. In most cases this involves another tech sacrificing itself, disappearing beneath the card you’ve just flipped. Early on, that might sound terrible. Your advances in nanotechnology are gone forever! But think again. Now you have another tech that’s more powerful than before. And more — you have fewer icons to sift through, fewer converters to attempt to feed, and those that remain are more potent than ever.

This careful design even extends to the game’s nine species. Asymmetry is rightfully popular these days, but also no small measure of hesitation when considering whether one has the mental energy to eke out yet another niche in these games’ larger ecosystems. I’m thinking in particular of something like Cole Wehrle’s Root or Patrick Leder’s Vast: The Mysterious Manor, in which every faction or character operates by its own rules. One doesn’t learn these titles only once, but anew across a half-dozen plays.

For all their differences, the traits of the species in Sidereal Confluence function more as guiderails than entirely new subsystems stacked within the same game. True, each comes parcel with their own notions and limitations and possibilities. The nomadic Im’dril can only run so many converters at a time because they’re being operated aboard spacegoing vessels. The plantlike Caylion grow worlds unlike any other, but struggle to reach new planets. The Yengii are permitted to withhold their inventions from the larger assembly of species, but must therefore uncover other ways to increase their renown. These details pull double duty. One, they provide context for the actions of that species, and yes, the occasional system that requires some degree of understanding before play is possible. But at the same time, that context narrows their range of possibilities from overwhelming to finite.

In other words, rather than making the game harder to play, each species provides its own manageable framework, an entry point into the wider galactic community. The table will buzz with many conversations at once, but only one or two will concern you at any given time. As the Im’dril, you can only manage a few converters, so a few choice resources will go father than heaps of cubes. The Caylion are always on the lookout for pristine worlds. As the Yengii, you’re always checking to see who needs a particular tech license. This is radical asymmetry, but it’s unlike other approaches. More than perks, less than isolated minigames, Sidereal Confluence uses asymmetry as attunement, modulating a cacophony of information into a harmony.

More cards, please.

That’s better.

It’s no mistake that a game about dissimilar species finding common ground should feature comparable process in its language of play. In both, it evokes the opening tuning of an orchestra, first discordant and then swelling together, that same unifying tone that as a child caught my ear and made me think it was an opening piece that ended before it had truly begun.

In my original review I called Sidereal Confluence a singular accomplishment. The more I experience it, the more true that seems. Little has changed from that more garish incarnation. But only because so little needed to.

 

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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on February 8, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. You just motivated me to download “The Wealth of Nations” to my Kindle for 99 cents.

  2. I think I would love this game, but midgame pictures of the thing are such a terrifying sight. It almost looks like a Numberwang parody of board games.

    I get that they create design problems, but it’s amazing how rare trading mechanics have become in games. Trade is one of the deepest and most complex behaviors humans engage in! And it’s a skill that’s almost universal to humans. Just think of the decision space inside of your average grocery store and Sidereal Confluence looks like Candyland.

    • Good point! The second one, that is. Sidereal Confluence is downright simple compared to me trying to navigate the shampoo aisle.

      The first point isn’t bad, either. I just wish I could impress on people that it isn’t nearly as intimidating as it looks.

      • The new edition certainly helps. The old one had a graphic design that was pure wife repellant.

        It’s a pity the timing is incredibly unfortunate this time around. A large group game about passing things back and forth?

      • The timing is unfortunate indeed. At least it’s coming out now that we’re getting the vaccine rather than a year ago? I guess?

  3. Jesús Couto Fandiño

    I need help. I mean, I’m watching this and I want it so much… and I have the original, and it never sees table at the club, and the one time it did… I sucked at it 😛 I was that guy that would be reading a “how to influence people” self-help manual after realizing the market is having a lot of activity and NONE of it is related to me, as nobody cares about what I sell or want to buy. Really, I know I’m not precisely a charismatic person but damn… not that bad 😛

    And again, I’m still wanting to buy the new edition, just because it is prettier.

    • Jesús, that’s hard to hear! Which faction were you playing? That can have some effect…

      • Jesús Couto Fandiño

        The Faderan (I think thats the name? The guys with relic worlds), but I’m sure the fault was more in me and the conditions – a game at a convention, with people I dont know that well – than in the game.

        Really I’d need to play it a few more times, but somehow nobody at my usual group is interested. Was in fact looking forward to a better performance last year convention… that we ended up not doing, of course.

      • Aha! We’ve uncovered the source of your trouble. I like playing this one at conventions, but only with groups who are planning on it. With strangers it can be a hard mountain to summit, and doubly so because you don’t know everybody well enough to really communicate with ease.

  4. One thing to note: the 10 minute trade phase is an optional variant of the game. The standard game has the trade phase untimed!

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