Sentient is a dice-manipulation game by J. Alex Kevern (World’s Fair 1893, Gold West). As with his other games, Sentient is filled with smart, simple, and rewarding choices. Each turn involves choosing an available bot, adding it to your factory, and deciding how to divide your resources between optimizing your bot and wooing investors. Players who enjoy a satisfying puzzle will appreciate the difficulty in adding the chosen bot to their factory. Each slot has a die on either side that will be modified based on the chosen bot card. But, adding another adjacent bot the next turn will modify the dice once again. The dice at the end of the round will determine how efficiently your bots were programmed and will grant you varying points based on the dice numbers. You may have everything perfectly sorted out — that is, until the last bot you choose changes the adjacent dice. Your plan can crumble and points can easily be lost with an errant decision or wrong choice!
In 1989, the film Back to the Future Part II tried to envisage the near future of 2015. Somewhat gladly, and sadly, some of their predictions were both right and wrong – I’m gutted that after a 26-year wait I still can't get my hands on a hoverboard!
The futuristic board game, Sentient, doesn’t tie itself down to a specific date but could eerily come true over the coming years as it states; “The next great technological revolution is here. Sentient robots for information, transportation and industry, all at our fingertips. Building them is now the easy part. Programming them has proven to be more complicated.”
When I first caught glimpse of this game I was taken by the Blade Runner-esque theme. I was also relieved to play a game about futuristic robots, known here as “Bots”, where there is no violence whatsoever – granted you might choose to plug military bots into your network, but in this game you’ll only be interested in their manufacture and programming, not what they may go on to do - Corporate Strategy 101 here folks!
“Gimme a hard copy right there”
Players choose (at random) the left and right side of a player board – the process of butting the two parts together creates an evocative landscape scene and a very “corporate” name for your corporation (such as Canyon Corporation, Carbon Syndicate or Capital Industries) – a nice touch. Shame there's no Cyberdyne Systems, but that might infringe on a copyright...
The game plays quickly over three rounds – at the start of a round you will set-up the central factory by drawing four Bot cards from the deck and lining them up so all players can see them. You then place an Investor token and coin between each of the cards and on each end.
All players then roll their five coloured dice and place them on the associated coloured spaces on their player board. Each round, all players will take turns drafting Bots from the factory and plug the Bots into their network, placing them in the gap between two dice on their player board, which will calibrate the adjacent dice up or down, and will also score based on the numbers shown on those adjacent dice at the end of the round (different Bots score based on different criteria). A player can choose to pass their turn, replacing all Bots in the factory with new ones from the deck, but this will have an impact on the turn order for the next round.
Investor tokens can be earned based on where players placed their Agents when taking cards from the factory. Investor tokens score at the end of the game in a multiplication effect where the number of Investors of a certain type is multiplied by the Bots you have acquired of the same type.
Players have two types of pawns, Agents and Assistants. The Agents are placed between Investors in the factory when claiming a card with the hope of gaining a majority a the end of the round and claiming the Investor. Assistants have two possible uses - they can be used to add to your influence when placing an Agent, or they can be used to prevent a plus or minus effect of a Bot card.
“Is this to be an empathy test?"
I’ll start by saying I love this game! I said as much to my fellow players the first time I played it upon taking only my second Bot card from the factory – I knew almost instantly this was a hit for me (and just had to have a copy of my own!).
It feels like a lot of thought has been put into it and there is a great balancing act to be managed by each player – the maths puzzle of fitting the Bots into your network and making sure they score, plus the area control aspect of the factory in gaining Investors, the quandary of the Assistants and whether to send them to help your Agents or whether they need to help calibrate the Bots in your network, whether to pass your turn and the implications that will have for turn order in the next round. Last time I played I made sure my network scored well, but it came at the expense of not attracting many Investors. And while I knew I had scored highest over the three rounds I came undone in the final Investor scoring.
Some people say (in a rather derogatory manner) that the theme for this game is “pasted-on”. Even though the designer of Sentient worked out the mechanics of the game then found an appropriate theme to fit it, in my blog post dedicated to theme I show my distaste for this term and urge people to immerse themselves in the theme of a game rather than fighting against it.
The game plays well at all player counts – with two or three players you can plan ahead as the factory won’t have been messed with too much before your next turn, while at four players it’s more tactical, with the area control aspect of the Investors becoming more competitive and decisive.
“We're not computers, Sebastian, we're physical”
The components for Sentient are wonderful. The beautiful wooden Agent pawns remind me of the Blade Runner style agents from the 1990s computer game, Syndicate, while the Assistants look a bit like cogs. The player dice are some of the prettiest I’ve seen, with interesting system/network details etched onto the surface of each one – the most hilarious thing is each player only rolls their dice on three occasions in the entire game!
The artwork is very befitting of the futuristic theme (with a lot of neon). Some have complained that the artwork is repeated on Bot cards of the same type, but I feel it actually aids visual recognition and speed of play. The iconography on the Bots cards is clear and consistent.
I feel that while the Investors work nicely as the stackable card chevrons, there could have been more of an effort to make them look like actual people – adding a shady image of some people in suits in a boardroom would’ve helped in this respect, but I appreciate that may not have left enough space for the bot type, which is the most important thing.
One thing I think Sentient could have benefitted from would have been a board for the factory – as the factory is just laid-out on the table it can often become knocked and untidy – a board would have sorted this, but it’s a minor quibble about a game where the components are excellent.
The box cover is contentious for some – given the game’s somewhat dry robot theme, it shows a topless(!) female service Bot with flowing pink hair – a cover that some at my games group have found overly suggestive given the fact that in the card artwork the service bot is wearing a white shirt.
“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe”
Final Thoughts on Sentient
As you already know, I love Sentient. It plays in under an hour and you really feel like you brain has experienced thorough a workout. It looks good on the table and seamlessly blends aspects of puzzle solving, drafting, set collection, and area control with a bit of dice rolling. The near-future theme hits a sweet spot for me, and it feels like this game could happily exist in the same universe as the amazing Terraforming Mars.
Some have commented online that wherever you look the price is a bit high for a game of this size. That was down to a project management gaffe at the publisher (and not due to artwork or custom dice costs as some have speculated). When weighing up whether to buy a game I think about the average cost and I think the cost of Sentient will average out nicely over the amount of times I get it to the table.
Gameplay anecdotes are becoming almost a regular way for me to sign-off my reviews and one I’d like to share with you is my first ever game of Sentient. We played with three players at my games group and I won the game by two points... But when I got home and posted a photo of the game onto Twitter I noticed one of my Bot cards in the photo that I had scored when I actually shouldn’t have. Taking the three points from my score would have meant I should have come second by a point!! (Needless to say, the following week I admitted my mistake!)
A very famous sentient bot with an Austrian accent once said, "I'll be back!"