I first met TauCeti Deichmann at GenCon 2016 at the Asmadi gaming room. He was tucked back into a small area of the room getting ready to introduce his game Sidereal Confluence: Trading and Negotiation in the Elysian Quadrant to a group. I did not have a ticket to join the event but I talked with him about his game and what it was. I was instantly intrigued. He told me that his game was not being published and he didn’t have the resources to Kickstart it. I was hoping to get a game of this in the next time I was at GenCon. Luckily for us we may be able to play by GenCon since WizKids has picked the game up and will be publishing it. TauCeti was nice enough to do an interview with us about his upcoming game to give us a better understanding of what it is all about.
- Also note that the images that you see do not depict the final art or look that the game will have. Many things can and probably will be changed throughout the finalization process.
Tim: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? When did you
get into board gaming? What games do you enjoy playing in your spare time?
Tau: Hi! I’m Tau, I’ve lived in the US North East all my life, and designed my first game when I was five. Admittedly, I was five, so it was pretty terrible. By the time I reached high school I was experimenting with extreme asymmetry. My brother and I designed a game where half the players played gods and half mortal kingdoms — two games running in tandem interacting with each other, with one winner in each game. During college I was averaging one new prototype a month. I create games for the entertainment of my friends and myself — often because there’s something I want to play that simply doesn’t exist on the market. This will be my first game that’s actually published and out in the wild — I hope it is a worthy addition to the world of tabletop games.
When I’m not playing my own creations, I very much enjoy Tzolk’in, High Frontier, The Great Zimbabwe, and if I can round up players Antiquity and Advanced Civilization. But really, what I most enjoy is playing games that I’ve never seen before.
Tim: Why and when did you decide to create a game?
Tau: I made my first version of Sidereal Confluence back in 2001. At the time, it was a monstrous eight hour, nine player game. I wasn’t thinking about publication — I just wanted a huge and asymmetric game I could play with my friends with hectic trade, strong negotiation, and crazy politics. Back then, the game had a board that easily filled a huge table (we used a sheet of plexiglass over the top to keep the board pieces from moving). It looked very little like modern Trade Empires.
In 2011, after playing a game of it, I concluded that the game was worthy of publication — if I could reduce its length and complexity. At that point, I got properly started on developing the game.
Tim: There is very little out there about your game mainly because it just
got picked up by a publisher, what is Sidereal Confluence all about?
Tau: In a nutshell, Sidereal Confluence is a trading and negotiation game where you’re playing an alien civilization. Trading is entirely freeform — almost anything can be traded, deals are binding even across turn boundaries, and there is nearly no hidden information. As such, your imagination is the only limit to a potential deal. The game is about working with other players to become unimaginably wealthy and using that wealth to invent technologies, changing the game for everyone and giving you victory points.
The Caylion at the end of the game: The yellow card at the lower left is being borrowed from the Faderan. The huge pile of octagons (ultratech) is ready to invent gigantic end-game technology (in this case, Metacognitive Ecologists).
Tim: What has been the timeline of the development?
Tau: For many years, I incrementally improved the original version of Sidereal Confluence. It was huge, so it only got played a few times a year, and each play was a major event. In 2011, I decided to turn the game into something publishable. The first task was streamlining the game down to its essence: I started by removing the board, repeatedly streamlined combat down to a simple closed-fisted bid (the antecedent of the current colony and research team bid mechanics), and generally tore out anything extraneous.
Two years later I met Kristan Matherly and Jacob Davenport at the Gathering of Friends. They are part of a playtesting team in the Maryland area. Jacob immediately fell in love with the game and wanted to play it as much as possible. I ended up giving him my prototype. Six months later he got back to me with a treasure trove of advice and recommended refinements from playtesting. Jacob pushed for several key changes to the design: removing the last remnants of combat, reducing resources to seven types (from ten), and letting cards slide under each other to upgrade one another — which drastically reduced the table space needed to play the game. He also introduced the idea of having binding deals and having (nearly) everything be available for trade — allowing some of the most creative and interesting negotiation I’ve seen in any game (even role playing games).
Several species had to change focus with the shift in the rules. The Kjasjavikalimm were my military species — without military they became (still aggressive) empire builders. One of the major features of the ancient Faderan was being centrally located, but without any concept of position they needed something new. So the Faderan gained their relic world deck — a collection of extremely powerful abilities that require their player to change strategies to utilize.
I was also getting regularly playtesting at the local RPI Games Club and Spielbany — a group of game designers who support and playtest each other’s games. Spielbany resulted in many of the changes to streamline play, especially for new players.
By spring of 2015 I considered the game done and pitched it to several publishers. It takes publishers a while to review games, so I kept refining it. At Chris Cieslik’s recommendation (Asmadi Games) I re-arranged the phase order and expanded the powers of the Trade Phase. After that was mostly minor balance passes and tweaks to the graphic design to clarify play. I was worried that none of the publishers would pick up the game, so I was developing as if I would be forced to Kickstart it.
In 2016, Chris was kind enough to offer me a table in Asmadi Games’ room at GenCon to demonstrate the game. The response was far more amazing and enthusiastic than I ever could have hoped for. Afterward, both Asmadi and WizKids offered to publish the game. I truly wish I could have accepted both offers — they are both amazing companies.
I ended up going with WizKids and am very happy with their work. They will be able to make a much better final product than I could ever had managed alone, and they have much wider distribution so more people can enjoy it.
Tim: What games or designers had an influence on you and the game Sidereal Confluence?
Tau: Sidereal Confluence has two clear inspirations: Avalon Hill’s Advanced Civilization and Sid Sackson’s Bazaar. The original Sidereal Confluence was more like Civilization — as it had combat and territory control. These days, what remains is the fast-paced and free-form style of trading.
Bazaar was the inspiration behind using arrows to indicate converters, although Bazaar never actually used arrows — it has bidirectional equal signs instead. Still, the idea of converting one resource into several others owes a great deal to Bazaar.
Tim: What has been the biggest hurdle in developing Sidereal Confluence?
Tau: Well, the game started as an eight hour monstrosity. The single biggest hurdle was bringing it down to a bit over two hours. The first things I did were remove the board, focus the game almost entirely on trade, and increase the per-turn return on investment. In the original game, you could expect about 30% profit each turn. Now, it starts that high and increases until it is approximately 100% profit on the last turn. With higher rate of return, the game should suffer from runaway leader effect. I have catch-up mechanisms (being an engineer, I call them “negative feedback loops”), but they’re all extremely subtle — they shouldn’t be able to handle profits this high. So absolutely everything had to be extremely carefully balanced. My core balance spreadsheet has accumulated tens of thousands of cells of math and analysis.
Ripping out the board only managed to drop the game to four hours. The rest came from tearing out the combat mechanics, streamlining the game’s phases, removing about four and a half turns from the beginning of the game to skip the slow buildup, and numerous other refinements to ease play and streamline player analysis.
Tim: Many people will be turned off by the player count only being able to
play 4-9 players, what made the decision that such a high player count is
needed to play?
Tau: Well, actually the game does support 3 players, I just don’t advertise it as such because it works poorly with brand new players at such a low player count — they tend not to be able to turn on their economies effectively. Also, the three player game has a completely different feel than the bigger games — it’s cutthroat negotiation instead of relatively friendly trading.
I guess a proper explanation of what trading and negotiation games are, and their dynamics with player count, is in order.
Let’s start with the other extreme: the nine player trading game. The core essence of a trading game is that all interactions between players are positive sum. In the platonic ideal of a trading (no negotiation) game, the value of each trade is always equally split between the two players making the trade — there’s no profit to be made by negotiating for a better deal. A player wins by making lots and lots of profitable trades — more than the other players. Thinking about it from the opposite perspective, any time two players make a trade, everyone who wasn’t involved in that trade loses out by not getting half the profit from it. In a nine player game, whenever two players make a deal, they’re putting themselves ahead of the other seven players. Do that enough times with enough different players and you win.
Things break down at the other extreme. If there are only three players, and two of them make a profitable deal, they’re each doing better than the third player. This is a much smaller swing than in larger games, and with only two people to trade with it’s impossible to make it up in bulk quantity of trading. In a three player game, we’re much closer to the ideal form of a negotiation game.
In a negotiation game, players trade with each other, but not frequently. Trading is still positive sum, but players win or lose by how they split the profits of trade. If I can get 60% profit from each trade and the other players get 40%, I’ll win. (We would have the opposite outcome in a trade game, since demanding 60% profits means people agree to trade with me less frequently, which is more important than the gains from each trade). Most pure negotiation games (Res Publica for example) focus on limited information — such games are about bluffing your opponent to trick them into giving you the larger profits. Trade Empires isn’t that kind of game: information is free and it is generally easy to figure out what your opponent is planning to do with the resources you are selling them. It is admittedly harder to do the analysis to figure out what that is worth, given compound interest and the fluctuating value of resources over the game.
With (nearly) no hidden information, negotiation based on deception and bluffing just doesn’t work. Instead, aggressive negotiation tends to be from a position of strength — “fair is what the market will bear” and when a player has a near-monopoly over a single resource, the market will bear whatever prices they set, or the market will break. With fewer players, there are more near-monopolies over various resources, and negotiation becomes extremely tight and aggressive. Some players love this style of game, but not as many as those that like the more open trade of larger games, and it is a very different feel than in a bigger game. So I don’t advertise Sidereal Confluence as supporting 3 players, even though in practice it does.
Tim: What does Sidereal Confluence do differently than other economic/trade games
that makes it unique?
Tau: There really aren’t that many strong economic/trade games — the closest two are Advanced Civilization (which is more civilization/trade), and Chinatown (which is probably the best match). There are plenty of lighter games (such as Settlers) that have a little bit of trading going on, or games that focus only on trading (such as Pit and Bohnanza) – but none of these have anywhere near the level of complex negotiation that Sidereal Confluence produces. One commonality with all of the above games is that they use randomness to drive trade — random card draw means that players generally have to trade to get what they need. Sidereal Confluence is the exception — I use a carefully tuned economy to ensure that you never produce enough of what you most need. As a result, players never get a “lucky draw” and thus spend a turn not bothering to trade, and if you do manage to produce what you need it’s because you’ve carefully orchestrated that on previous turns. This results in more trades per turn, and more complex and interesting trades, than anything else on the market.
The game is incredibly asymmetric — not only do different species require different resources to do well, but their special abilities mean that they are playing fundamentally different games. The Unity produce wild resources and their economy can consume any old junk — for most players the economy phase is about getting rich and the trade phase is about fixing the types of resources. For the Unity it is the reverse. The Eni Et are poor, but they have the best converters in the game — excellent for getting rich quickly. They have one problem: they can’t use those converters; but they can loan them to the other players. The Zeth are running a protection racket — they can steal from you, but not if they trade with you. So how much is it worth to trade with them? There are nine radically different experiences in the game, and that’s before you start reacting to what your opponent is playing.
Sidereal Confluence strikes a balance between being a competitive game and having cooperative elements. Players get ahead by helping each other do well — interaction is almost always positive. If a deal isn’t a good idea for both players, one of them will refuse and it doesn’t happen. A friend of mine summarizes the game as “a competitive game where the player who cooperates the best wins”.
Outside of role playing games, most games limit player creativity and cleverness. There’s good reason — if players can do anything they want, they’ll generally find a way to break your game. Trade Empires rewards creativity in trades without breaking. It does so by being balanced several levels below that which the players can access — at the root equations that drive every converter and every dynamic of the game. After all, the game needs to work properly when players do things that I, the designer, never thought of. A side benefit of this is that the game still manages to surprise me, so I never get bored of playing it.
Tim: When and where can we expect Sidereal Confluence to me available for purchase?
Tau: WizKids is planning to have the game for sale sometime in 2017. They have the worldwide rights. I don’t know more than that yet — WizKids will have to figure out what’s best for the game.
Tim: Do you have any other games that you would like to develop in the
future? If so, what?
Tau: I have been designing games continually for the last twenty years. The games that are closest to release are a Dwarf-Fortress-inspired deck wrecker; a reverse bidding game about desperately trying not to build castles; and an inductive (not deductive) party game hybridized with a light RPG where the players play mages with absolute dominion over some branch of reality (to date, the Earth has been destroyed in about a third of the games).
I’m also working on a few games in the Sidereal Confluence universe, although none are nearly so polished. I have an RPG in the setting that I accidentally designed while working on the tabletop game, and there’s a two player strategy game set in an alternate setting where the Sidereal Confluence never formed — most similar to War of the Ring. That one is still in the “eight hour monstrosity” phase of development and will need a lot of work if I manage to bring it to market.
Tim: Is there anything that you would change during this process?
Tau: There’s not much to change from my perspective. For most of my games, I’ve stopped designing once it was done-enough. For Sidereal Confluence, due to the time the publishers needed, I kept working on it for an extra year — so it’s achieved a level of polish that is relatively rare. I’m open to changes if WizKids wants them — I’ve offered to help rebalance the game as needed, but thus far they’ve been happy with the rules as-is.