Sentient is a new 2-4 player, 45-60 minute card selection, dice manipulation, area control, set collection, thinky puzzler game from Renegade Game Studios. It’s designed by J. Alex Kevern with art by Chris Ostrowski.
There’s a surprising amount going on in Sentient, which feels appropriate when compared to his 2016 hit game World’s Fair 1893. At its core, it’s a game about selecting cards which both modify two of your five dice as well as give you goals to achieve with those same two dice. But how you choose the cards and the way in which you choose them have implications throughout the other aspects of the game. This one gets a little circular in its description, so hold on to your butts!
At the start of the game, each player gets a player board with one of five Investors (Information, Service, Transport, Military and Industry). The Investors come into play at the end of the game when set collection scoring occurs. More on that later.
Then each player rolls their five dice, placing them on the appropriate spots on their player board. Four Factory cards are dealt to the table, with a 1 point token in between each and one on either end. Placed above the 1 point token is one of the five Investor tokens. These tokens come into play with the area control portion of the game. More on that in a few seconds.
Each player is given a set of Agent pawns, Assistant pawns and Turn Order markers of their player color. These tokens come into play…RIGHT NOW!
The first player takes at minimum one Agent and one or more Assistants and places them above one of the cards in the Factory, in between two of the Investor tokens. They then take the card, and install, or place, it below their player player board between two of their dice. In each round, each player will take up to a maximum of four Factory cards in this manner.
When the card is installed, it has two important sections of information: how to score points from the card, and how the card may or may not modify the dice it was placed between. The two icons in the upper left and upper right corners of the card will either have a plus, minus or equals symbols which will either increase, decrease or leave the value of the die as is. This modification is mandatory, but can be negated using Assistant pawns as I’ll get into later. Below those icons are the meat of the card which, depending on the type of investment segment the card is from, will require you to meet certain criteria on the two dice the card is played between. You may need to have the sum of the dice be within a particular range, or be a specific value, or other requirements as stated on the card.
At this point it’s worth talking about the dual purpose of the Assistant pawns. As I said above, you can place them along with an Agent pawn for claiming a card from the Factory. But they can also be used to block one or both of the effects of the dice modification icons on a card you’re installing. By placing an Assistant pawn over one or both of the symbols, you are not required to modify the die. This can be very important since the three center dice of your player board will potentially be impacted by two different cards, leading to a bit of a balancing act as you try to maintain the desired die value that’ll help you best satisfy the cards played below it.
For example, if I installed this Transport card in the picture on the left, my dice values of 5 and 5 will satisfy the requirement in order to score me 3 points. Unfortunately, though, after applying the dice modifications, in the middle picture, my dice no longer satisfy it. However if I use two Assistants to block the dice modifications I can still earn those points. You do have to ration your Assistants, and not block every modification you play, which I’ll get into now.
Stepping back to that first use of the Assistant pawns, placing them along with your Agent increases your control over the two Investor tokens they are played between. The more pawns you have placed, the more likely it is you will get that Investor token at the end of the round. This leads to yet another balancing act where you’ll want to increase your control but doing so reduces your opportunities to mitigate the dice manipulation caused by the cards.
At the end of each round and for each Investor token, you will determine which player has the majority of influence by counting their Agent and Assistant pawns that are either side of the Investor token, with the end cap Investors only having one area to count from. Whoever has the most influence gets the Investor, and the second most influence earning that player the one point token. Getting dizzy yet? Well, let me give you one more piece of interconnected information then and see what that does for ya!
“Why do I want Investor tokens, Copac? Because I like the art and they are neat little chevron shapes and can stack nicely?” NO! YOU’RE WRONG! Well, ok, you’re not totally wrong. The primary reason you want them is for that whole set collection aspect I mentioned a few paragraphs back. After each round is complete, you’ll collect the cards you played below your player board and keep them for the end of the game. Then you’ll count how many cards you played for each Investor segment. You’ll multiply that number by the number of Investor tokens for each corresponding Investor segment you were able to collect through each of the three rounds. You’ll add those points to the points you scored from each card at the end of each round.
If you can’t tell from the roundabout way I felt compelled to explain how the game works, Sentient is a game about balance amongst a collection of interwoven mechanisms. It has a nice puzzly feel to it, again akin to World’s Fair’s similar balancing act of area control and set collection. That doesn’t mean these two games are the same, but I’m definitely getting a feel for what I believe Mr. Kevern is trying to accomplish with his designs.
While some games give you lots of relatively distinct paths to choose from, Sentient gives you a fairly limited set of paths, which each choice directly impacting your nice and optimal current board state by mucking around with your dice while potentially hamstringing or at least diminishing the returns of future choices. The game plays relatively quickly and there’s some degree of repetition in the cards and their abilities, but if you were a fan of World’s Fair 1893, or of thinky puzzler sort of games, or enjoy plate spinning as a hobby, I’d highly recommend you give Sentient a look!