Five years is quite the gap between debut and expansion, particularly for a game that’s grown such a cult following. Part of it is that Sidereal Confluence took some time to really find its audience. Part of it is that as a design, it’s a very tightly woven and intricately balanced machine. The math behind the inner workings of the economy is byzantine, and I can imagine the amount of testing and development it went through is vast. Bifurcation bears a similar burden, resulting in an expansion that is both decidedly interesting and unfortunately niche.
My perception is that this expansion is not for the majority of you. The bulk of hobbyist consumers have one foot – and maybe their arm, torso, and head – in the hole of the collector. We trade, buy, and sell our souls to scoop up more of it all. Every week new games come out, and I write about them, feeding you equal parts bile and syrup. It’s difficult to get away from.
I’d think it safe to assume many Sidereal Confluence players are in this category. The problem is that collecting, and the weight of our extant collections, mean that we play many different games. It’s difficult to fully explore designs and give them their due. Even more so when a game plays best with a larger group and requires a certain type of player that wants to intermix the cold mechanical calculation of conversion engines with the vivid gambol of bargaining. This is a weird game. Many love it – myself included – but many bounce off like an egg flung at a brick wall.
How often do you play Sidereal Confluence? Once a year? Once a quarter?
Those who play this ingenious design intermittently will not find much solace in Bifurcation. First, the new species it includes are all variations on the existing set of nine. There must be some care blending the contents, as you may only use a faction’s new variation or its original version – never both in the same game. This makes for a very different format than the more carefree implementation of races in a game like Cosmic Encounter. It makes things more logistically difficult, particularly.
It’s clear why this direction was taken. The economy of Sidereal Confluence is carefully balanced. Introducing a host of new playstyles and systems would upset that delicate environment. But it’s also a little maddening.
The base game original technology cards are required for these new species. Again, I get it, reprinting all of those cards would have ballooned the product and made it less appealing from a price and size perspective. But this results in owners needing to find a suitable way to store and organize the game. Right now, for instance, I have the technology cards bagged with the components of each of the new variant species. This is a new mental hurdle to playing the game as everyone is either required to play a variant faction, or we must go through some sorting and splitting of components to get up and running.
It’s not egregious. You could just bag both variations together as there are symbols on thew new starting cards. That’s troublesome, however, as playing with someone not intimately familiar with the game will need some handholding to separate their pieces and understand which, if any, cardboard sideboards are needed. Simply choosing between the two variants may also take some time as someone who plays infrequently may struggle with understanding the intricacies and implications of a particular species. I’ve been around a muppet or two that takes a full five minutes deciding between different catapults in Coconuts. Bifurcation would be painful.
Imagine your last play being a year ago at a convention. This won’t be a stretch for some. You sit down and are randomly tossed the Zeth components. Now, you need to read those player boards and drill down into two very distinct mechanical factions which will have a significant impact on the game’s tempo and social dynamics. They function nothing alike, and the subtleties of course are not outward presenting.
I don’t say this to scare you or denigrate the extension. The aim is to elucidate that this product is aimed at the experienced player. The person who can rattle off different strategies to playing the nine original species. If you’re not sure how to spell KT’ZR’KT’RTL then you best be stepping off. I kid, I don’t think even designer TauCeti Deichmann’s going to win that spelling bee.
For those ready for Bifurcation, you will be treated. The new aliens are incredibly compelling. This is primarily a function of additional latitude on the design side. TauCeti likely committed to more experimentation due to this being a follow-on product and automatically segregated to a more dedicated audience. What I find splendid about the new power suite is the elevation of player interaction. Some of the factions materially enhance co-dependency, far beyond the simple trading foundation of the base game.
The Caylion Collaborative arrive with an entirely new voting mechanism. They have a collection of projects players can throw their weight behind to trigger, benefitting everyone involved. The Kjasjavikalimm Independent Nations can’t even consume what they produce, relying on deals with others to get themselves off the ground. The KT’ZR’KT’RTL Technophiles boast many research teams to trade with others, offering a general boom to the overall economy when things are going well.
The interactions and systems are so radical that the rulebook suggests you only include one or two new species in your first games with Bifurcation.
“Ha, good one TauCeti.”
My famous last words as I proceeded to ignore this advice for a first expansion session. It’s a hard sell telling a group of people that only one of them gets to play with the new toys.
We were able to get along, but it was bumpy. I don’t think I participated in a single Caylion vote, as I grappled with managing deals for the new Yengii Jii constraints system.
The factions with the most sweeping mechanical changes feel as though they are isolated expansion modules in themselves. Include the Zeth Charity Syndicate in a game where every other player is running an original species, and the landscape will fundamentally change. It will overturn standard conventions and require a reassessment of the game state. This is true for the bulk of the new species. Everything feels more open and wilder, less predictable. It feels less safe.
There is tremendous value here in exploring each faction on their own terms, assessing how they shift the field of negotiation and push players into creative deal-making. It’s wonderful and can really enhance the experience when you’re ready for something new and vibrant.
One of the more complex knock-on effects from this expansion is in how lubricated the trading economy is. There are more ways to acquire resources and tweak your engine due to the interaction and incentives surrounding it. Most may not notice, but there is an increase in overall scoring as a result.
I don’t have the hours to properly analyze this, and I’m not sure anyone will for some time, but I worry that there may be too many tools to work around any particular faction limitations. The emergent restrictions of the base game seem less pronounced. It’s more unusual to find yourself in a situation where no one is producing a particular color, as throwing yourself behind a Caylion Project or accepting a Yengii constraint can allow you to fiddle with these nuances. It’s part of the aspect of freedom and in some sense gives Bifurcation its identity. This is something to keep an eye on, although it hasn’t proven overly detrimental in practice.
As a product, this isn’t my preferred format for an expansion. I don’t love the additional burden placed on setup, even if I’m overstating it somewhat in this review. There absolutely will be moments where I see Sidereal Confluence on the shelf and consider it for the evening, only to second guess myself due to that dole of mental fatigue. I say all this while conceding there was little choice on behalf of the designer. Burden or not, even if I never play with it again, I believe we’re better off with Bifurcation given life. It will deeply resonate with a select few. And for that group, I believe it will push the game to new heights.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.