War by Other Means: Sidereal Confluence (WizKids)

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Financier Raymond Defoe hadn’t played Sidereal Confluence: Trading and Negotiation in the Elysian Quadrant (by TauCeti Deichmann, WizKids, 2017) when he riffed on Clausewitz, saying, “Economics is war pursued by other means,” but he may as well have. This simultaneous-action trading and economic engine building game, which plays from four to nine (!) people, requires that players, taking on the roles of nicely differentiated alien species, cooperate through trading to build up their economies, but behind the polite facade, there’s malice aforethought.

Sidereal Confluence in play.

Players start with a tableau of species-specific technology cards in play, each of which contains the game’s central mechanism, a “converter” that takes a set of resources and, once per turn, ouputs a larger, different set of resources. No species can generate enough outputs to fulfill its specific input needs, let alone to research and upgrade technologies to create new, more efficient converters. So, the game is about trading, and everything in the game, aside from victory points, is both tradeable and public knowledge. Need two white cubes to finish a research project? The table knows what you need (and why, if they’re paying attention) and will price accordingly. But, they have needs, too, and deals can be made. Have a converter you’re not using this turn? Trade it for a turn to someone with the resources needed to run it for a cut of the proceeds.

My gaming buddies (Mike Vogt, Neil Stanhagen, Joe Jackson, and Joe’s son) and I got Sidereal Confluence on the table this past weekend. We’re all wargamers at heart, so we went in looking to cut the other guy out of what he needed to win—and in the process realized that we were harming ourselves instead. After the first turn, where we grudgingly made exchanges and insisted on usurious exchange rates, our economic engines were quite anaemic.

This is not a zero sum game; the converters continually pump more and more resources into the game, and more resources are constantly needed to upgrade to the better (and more lucrative, VP-wise) technologies. No, this is a game about arbitrage, about maximizing delta through efficiency and understanding the flow of supply and demand.

Once we figured out that you don’t need to “win” a trade, you just need to come out of it with slightly more than you went in, either in resources or tempo or even goodwill, everything changed, and that’s when it got nicely nasty. Trading became less about immediate personal needs and more about the table’s needs. Blue cubes (biotechnology, in the game’s parlance) about to be in demand? Figure that out a turn before everyone else does, corner the market ahead of time, and take your pick of the offers to fuel your own economy afterwards. As so often in life, it’s better to be a seller…

Sidereal Confluence is certainly not for every game group. Trading, the heart of the game, takes place simultaneously. There’s no orderly queue for offers—think the Chicago Mercantile Exchange futures pit and you have some idea. It is, frankly, a panic for players afflicted with overanalysis syndrome or min-maxers in general; while they’re trying to figure out what they need for a hyper-efficient exchange, the other players have already traded and re-traded for what they need, and to then prise it out of their hands (or claws or pincers or whatever species-equivalent appendage they have) will cost. All trades are binding, too, so no take-backs if you’re slow to the trading floor or poor at math. One either relishes this kind of free-for-all gaming experience or runs screaming from it.

Sidereal Confluence in play.

As with most card tableau games, it can get messy, and the main knock I have on the game is that the space required to set up your own play area grows along with your economic engine, such that you need a lot of space per player (or far neater gamers than I’ve yet to meet). Pair that with the need to see everyone else’s tableaux and resources, to properly trade, and you have the potential for serious usability issues. With five, in a rough oval, I found myself trading mostly with the two people on either side of me, just because of the difficulty of parsing that set of cards and cubes across the way; add more players, and more space, and I can’t see how the two sides of the table wind up interacting.

Play time clocks in at two hours, roughly, and given the simultaneous nature of gameplay, I’m inclined to believe the box when it says two hours regardless of player count, from four to nine. Most promisingly, the game teaches fast, and after that initial turn of parsimony, we were trading, leveraging, wheedling, and dealing with the best of them. Oh, it was still a conflict, but it’s always best when a dagger comes with a smile and a receipt.

(Top photo courtesy of Mike Vogt.)

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