When the title of your game is Sidereal Confluence: Trading and Negotiation in the Elysian Quadrant, you better make it worth it. The narrative pitch is that players represent different alien races coming together to forge a new intergalactic government. With such a wide array of philosophical differences, it’s a constant struggle to leave your indelible imprint on the concordance. Whoever is best able to shape the regime in their image will walk away the victor, puffing their reptilian chest and thumbing their furry nose at the other species. But is throwing down your Mushmouth impersonation and fumbling along with the title worth the effort?
Sidereal Confluence is many things. It’s a Euro-style cube optimization puzzle. It’s a diplomatic game of negotiation. It’s asymmetry out the wazoo. Yeah, your mind’s already buzzing, but before we get there let’s talk about what this game is not. This is not a deeply thematic title.
While that sense of negotiation is present, you never really feel like alien entities bargaining to cut up all the tiny dots of life spanning the stars. That sense of corruption and lack of understanding of the proletariat doesn’t seep into your green pores. You don’t feel like you’re executing complicated research or facilitating the machinations of far flung societies. Fortunately, all of that doesn’t matter. This game is a one-way ticket to crazytown with your head hanging out the window and cold wind flaring your nostrils.
So back to what is. Your play area will balloon throughout the game and threaten to swallow any available space. You’ll fill this vast expanse with cards, cards that portray little economic engines; small slices of commerce and industry. Resources in the games consist of a multitude of cubes representing different aspects of society such as culture, food, and data. You’ll be shoving some into a converter and squeezing out a greater quantity of varied colors on the other side. It’s all about pushing snowballs downhill as growth perpetuates growth.
This in and of itself would be a snooze-fest. My cousin enjoys taking a black and blue cube and converting them into two green and two white. And you know what? I don’t play games with my cousin. His personality is one shade brighter than the dried-out embalmed husk of King Tut’s body.
Sidereal’s trick is that it takes an intergalactic village. In order to run all or even some of your converters, you need to trade with other players. This all occurs in real-time as bartering is executed and promises are exchanged. It feels a little less seedy than a backroom Frank Underwood deal, but that social element is present and injects some theatrics into an otherwise straightforward economic engine. Much of the strategy of the game is in extricating what you need at minimal cost. In an interesting twist, you may exchange promises but they are indeed binding. Harsh victory point penalties arise if you are unable to come through which serves as a huge stick.
In addition to pumping out greater quantities of cube wealth, players are also funneling resources into research teams. These cards are acquired via auction in between rounds and represent dedicated scientific pursuits to further the advancement of alienkind. When you complete one of the economic converters on the research team (that action of putting cubes in and pooping cubes out) a large amount of victory points are gained as well as a fresh new converter. This has a civilization game feel as you advance your society through technological progress. The big twist here is that every other player at the table will get their own version of that advancement at the end of the round. In Sidereal Confluence, that unique aspect of cooperation extends beyond the negotiation and into the mandate of interstellar improvement. It’s all about lifting each other up as opposed to beating each other down.
Wheeling and dealing to maximize your engine is compelling. The needle begins to break off the register when the unique alien races arrive. Each species is wildly different. Not simply from a setting perspective–although there is that too as we have star-faring whales and a race that’s basically an entity of mathematic probabilities–but mechanically speaking they are quite foreign. Wholesale mechanisms that shift core concepts in wild directions are the norm. One faction does not natively share technologies they research and can use this as a bargaining chip. Another has a whole suite of economic converters but they can’t run them on their own, instead they need to lend them out to other players. The Unity receives their own special wild resource cubes that no one else generates. All of these are bananas.
Sidereal Confluence can support up to nine players with all factions in play. This is insane and not recommended for the faint of heart. Much of the strategy of play is deciphering your engines and racial qualities, determining how they mesh with the melting pot at the table, and working that economy for all its worth. The dynamics shift substantially depending on the mix of species and it never quite plays out the same way. It’s fascinating really and speaks to the care and thought put into this release that it feels wonderfully balanced across the entire 120 minutes of play.
The big challenge with this unique design is in first contact. It’s a large footprint title that appears unwieldy at a glance. When you spread out all of the cards and try to decipher how the multitude of engines operate, it can be daunting to say the least. The flow of play is also very alien and the fact that most everything is merely functional graphically doesn’t help to draw you into the depths.
Sidereal Confluence is a demanding game whose appeal may be somewhat narrow. For those who delight in social maneuvering as the means to efficiency amid a Cosmic Encounter-like spread of asymmetry, this one will take you to the far reaches of the black. This is the type of design that needs to be lauded for its accomplishments as well as for its unrelenting creative vision.
Do you enjoy trading and negotiation games? Let us know in the comments!
Cover Image Credit: Charlie Theel
Image Credits: Wizkids, Charlie Theel