Sapiens

Year
2015
Publisher
Author
Cyrille Leroy
Players
2 - 4
Age
10 - 199
Time
30-45
StrategyLuck
InteractionComponents & Design
ComplexityScore

We know that games have been with us for a large portion of our history. Look at any early civilization, chances are that remains of game boards and pieces have been discovered, maybe even whole games. What we did not realize until now is just how important games were even for early stone age tribes, and what a great role Dominoes played for their survival. The game, not the pizza service. Although being able to order a pie when the hunt went badly would probably have helped, too.

At least according to Cyrille Leroy and his game Sapiens, stone age people used strategies they learned from playing Dominoes to secure food and shelter. And he’s a game designer, he wouldn’t lie about something like that. Okay, enough with the nonsense. Sapiens is a tile-laying game that uses the basic idea of Dominoes in a modern, euro-style game. Each tile is a rectangle showing two different scenes, landscapes or activities from everyday stone age life. When placing those tiles, scenes may only touch scenes of the same type, and when they do you earn points and bonuses.

Leaving the Cave
Leaving the Cave

All the tiles you place come from your personal tile pool and go to your personal board, there is no shared board with the other players. On your turn, you place one of the four tiles in your personal pool, refill that from the common pool and the common pool from the draw pile. The tile you place scores Food Points for each of its scenes that touches a matching scene – that’s at least one, because you may only place adjacent to a tile already in play, but it might be both at once if you planned well. How many Food Points you get is printed on the board space each scene covers, so where you place a tile is important for your score, too.

But Food Points are only one benefit of placing a tile, the other is the scene bonus you receive for each matching scene you place. Those bonuses are as simple as they are powerful. For instance, matching a Picking scene – as in picking fruit – is worth an additional Food Point. Given that the highest number of Food Points on the board is four, earning an extra one is a big deal. Not as straightforward, but even more powerful when used right, is the Water scene that lets you swap a tile from your personal pool with the common pool or with another player’s personal pool. Or the Fight scene, which places a token on an opponent’s tile and awards you one of their Food Points when they place that tile. With every player playing on their own board Sapiens is still not a hugely interactive game, but it’s also not what they call multiplayer solitaire thanks to those bonuses. And they may not do much, but using bonuses right can make you really, really unpopular with your opponents.

Forest without the Trees
Forest without the Trees

Other scene bonuses award you Shelter Points, the other score next to Food Points. It’s important that you keep those two scores balanced, because the higher one will be discarded at the end of the game and the player with the highest lower score wins. Your main source of Shelter Points are the caves around the edge of your board. Reach one of them by placing a tile so that one scene covers the cave and you score Shelter Points for it. But earning three Shelter Points as the bonus from a Camp scene is not bad, either. You can also earn Shelter Points when you take a Fire scene bonus and place a bear on an opponent’s board that will block the space it sits on until he spends his own Fire bonus to get rid of it. Why does giving a bear to another player earn Shelter Points for you? Probably because a bear in his territory isn’t in yours, so it makes your tribe safer.

Described above are not all the possible scene bonuses, but they should give you an impression that those things are very useful. Their only downside is that you have to take them the moment you place the tile, you can’t save them for later. That’s where the caves become really useful once more, securing one of those for your tribe lets you take the more rare cave bonus tokens. They do mostly the same as the scene bonuses, but you get to keep them for later and use them exactly when you need them.

The game ends when all tiles are gone from the draw pile and common pool, usually after 30-45 minutes. The winner is the player who’s lower score is the highest.

Sapiens was a game that surprised me in a good way. After reading the description, I had this idea of Dominoes with a theme glued on. But while the basic idea of having tiles with two halves that have to match other tiles is similar, Sapiens adds a nice amount of strategy over any Dominoes variant that I ever played. Unlike Dominoes, where you play tiles in a line, Sapiens gives you a two-dimensional grid to work with, and that gives you many opportunities to lock yourself out of places where you really wanted to place a tile. Planning a few steps ahead is important to prevent that, and that extends to picking your tiles from the common pool.

A successful Tribe
A successful Tribe

The second surprise was the amount of interaction in Sapiens. I can’t deny that play mostly happens on your own board, away from the other players, but the various scene bonuses offer a few options to mess with your opponents. The interaction is all negative, meaning all you can do is mess things up for your opponent, not do anything mutually beneficial. Usually, that’s something that would put me off a game, especially a family game, but Sapiens lets you choose how much you interact. If your group isn’t into messing up with each other, then you just use those bonuses less, the game is a bit less interactive, but it still works and is fun. If, on the other hand, you play with the kind of people that live to mess with each other, then Fights, Fires, and especially Water let you do that. It’s not immediately obvious, but Water is easily the nastiest of the bunch. Swapping out the one tile an opponent can use on their next turn against something they can not is what gets you thrown out of the family home on Thanksgiving before turkey is served. Just trust me on that.

Of course, even with all that, Sapiens is not a very interactive game. It strikes a good balance between puzzling out your own best solution and doing things to your opponents. It’s a light game, but with a satisfying amount of planning required. And did I mention it manages to make a Dominoes game look good? Because it does that, too.