Do Androids Dream of Electric Algebra?
Sentient is a bit of a weird one. By plugging robots into your mainframe — and doing your best to keep things orderly when their growing awareness starts to kick back — you hope to position your company at the forefront of the sentient revolution. It sounds like the first act of a robot uprising story, not a game designed around basic algebraic operations.
It doesn’t help that the game’s setting is about as substantial as chalk dust. As a thought experiment, my gaming group redesigned the whole thing on the spot to be about trying to persuade our pal Geoff to do us a favor, wherein his mental states — things like “playing Angry Birds right now” and “has another question about the rules” — might begin to affect our collective mood. It worked just fine.
But that’s where Sentient sets itself apart, because in spite of its insubstantial fluff and algebra-based gameplay — or perhaps thanks to it — it’s a surprisingly excellent filler.
As I mentioned above, the goal of Sentient is to plug robots into your mainframe — represented by a row of five dice — and hopefully spit them out the other end as contributing members of society. That’s the easy part. It’s everything else that gets in the way.
The first of many complicating factors is that your awakening robots aren’t likely to simply play along. Each one has something they want out of your dice, and it’s your job to provide the right values in order to earn their points, but each robot is also liable to alter one or both of their adjacent dice up or down when plugged in. String this fact between the four robots you’ll be slotting into your mainframe in a single round, and that’s a whole lot of potential change. Perhaps even more infuriating, robots must first be claimed by little trenchcoated agents, but their placement will also determine your contract bids at the end of the round. And since contracts are one of your primary earners once the game ends, we’re now up to three major things you need to consider every time you pick up a robot.
It’s an insanely tricky system, and we haven’t even talked about the way each robot asks for different inputs. It’s entirely possible, for instance, to find a robot that would perfectly conform to two of your dice if it weren’t for the fact that it would also mess up those dice in the process and that placing an agent to claim it wouldn’t earn you the contract you’re angling for. Sentient is nothing if not mentally taxing, especially for a game that wants to wrap up in forty-five minutes.
This is where your assistants come in. Each player gets five of these per round, and they quickly become your most precious commodity.
Firstly, assistants can be sent along with a bidding agent, effectively doubling or tripling your bid at that location. Bids are usually up in the air right until the last moment, and because each agent is actually bidding on both adjacent contracts it’s possible to create little centers of power that your corporate rivals would do well to stay away from. Having four or five agents and assistants in a single spot will often guarantee you consideration toward that contract, or at the very least toward the pity-prize victory point beneath it, so it’s tempting to spend all your assistants this way.
Then again, they can also be used to prevent your robots from messing with your dice, and that’s no less considerable an option. Each assistant can only prevent a single manipulation, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of such a small-seeming action. It’s entirely possible for your final robot to screw up the dice that keep its neighbors chugging along, thus creating a little cascade that robs you of a bunch of points, so keeping an assistant or two on hand for any last-minute exigencies can be crucial.
Assistants expand Sentient’s decision space by leaps and bounds. Should you spend a clutch of them to scare off counter-bidders early, or hold them in reserve? Spend two to lock down a high-risk robot who’ll earn a ton of points, or settle for something less flashy? Even with only two uses there are plenty of ways to turn them to your advantage.
Of course, both the game’s conveyor belt of robots and its dice-based mainframe are subject to some measure of luck. But it’s less chancy than you might first expect, and not only thanks to your once-per-round reset of the card offer. Instead, each robot offers something different, and it’s entirely likely that you’ll be able to fit something into your mainframe, no matter how you’ve rolled or which robots are currently available.
In fact, each of the game’s five robot types is somewhat thematically appropriate, especially if you squint. Transports are all about having one die be greater or lesser than the other one, while Industry bots are about evens and odds, and Military bots focus on sums and differences. My personal favorites are Service and Information robots. The first type gives you an income — say, eight points — but then tells you to subtract its higher adjacent die from that value. Information bots, on the other hand, function like optimized search engines, where they demand a number and give you a couple points for having one adjacent die hit it, but then give you a whole lot more if both dice do.
Basically, it’s tough enough getting one Information robot to work. But putting together a group where an Information bot is also helping a Service robot, alongside other options that all happen to meet their criteria and earn points — well, that’s sublime.
It’s a lot to take in, and it’s possible that Sentient occupies that peculiar headspace where it’s a little too heavy for a half-hour game but too light for longer fare. As is the case with many thinky games, it’s also subject to lulls and pauses, especially since each claimed robot will give the next player something new to math out, consider bidding on, and eventually slot into their mainframe.
But it’s also an incredibly smart little thing, and employs its basic algebra in a way that’s fun, immediate, and potentially educational. By combining a bunch of math puzzles with an area-control bidding war and the resource management of your assistants, this just might be one of the slickest filler games to hit the table in some time. Being proficient at Sentient means optimizing your performance in multiple areas, from set collection and arithmetic to the mental gymnastics of outbidding your competition, and watching it all come together is like viewing a masterclass in hybrid game design.
I like it, in short. I really like it. It isn’t the sort of game that’s going to strike gold with everybody, but for groups that don’t mind being challenged, Sentient is a wonderful option.