Dale Yu: First Impressions of Sapiens




  • Designer: Cyrille Leroy
  • Publisher: Catch Up Games / IELLO
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 14+
  • Time: 45 minutes
  • Times played: 2, with preview copy provided by IELLO

sapiens box

I have been looking forward to Sapiens since I first saw the cover art at Origins 2015. I didn’t know much about the game other than the short description of “it’s a lite tile laying game with special actions”.  That 9 word blurb was enough to pique my interest in the game, and the playful/colorful cover art definitely caught my eye.  I was hoping to get a chance to play it at GenCon, but it was not available there.  I was resigned to waiting until SPIEL in Essen, and I was delighted to find a copy waiting on my doorstep last week. The box was immediately opened and the rules were read a few times that night, but it took awhile to get it to the table due to my crazy schedule.

sapiens game setup

In the game, each player controls a tribe of ancient humans, and your goal is to help supply them with both food and shelter.  To do this, you will explore the area around you using tiles.  Each player has his own 5×8 area which has 6 caves and 2 waterfalls surrounding it.  The area is made up of 2 half boards, and players randomly choose pieces to put together their area (each half is different, so there are many different possible arrangements).  Each player has 8 Mountain tokens (one for each of the 8 scenes), and these are randomly seeded in the caves and waterfalls of the player board.

the 8 mountain tokens (with 3 fight tokens in the middle)

the 8 mountain tokens (with 3 fight tokens in the middle)

There is a scoring board which is placed on the table.  Each player puts his two markers on the zero space, the round one for food points (FPs) and the square one for shelter points (SPs).


The tiles are setup for the number of players, shuffled, and each player draws a personal pool of 4 tiles.  Five tiles are revealed on the table to serve as the Common pool.  The tiles are domino-like, each half of the tile has one of the 8 scene types depicted on it.  Then each player starts his tribe in one of the 6 caves around the edge of his board.  One half of the tile is actually placed in the cave and the other half goes out onto the board.  The scene type on the half placed in the cave must match the mountain icon which was seeded there earlier.  Each player will score a number of shelter points as indicated next to the cave on the board.  The player then draws a tile from the common pool so that his personal pool is back up to 4, and then a new tile is taken from the main stack to bring the common pool back to 5.

examples of some of the tiles (you can see the tile backs in the middle)

examples of some of the tiles (you can see the tile backs in the middle)



Play then starts with the starting player and continues clockwise until the common pool is empty.  All players will get the same number of turns.  On each turn, players take the following actions


  • Players must play a tile from their personal pool to their board (and score points).
  • Refill your personal pool to 4 and then refill the common pool to 5


Also, during your turn, you may play a single Mountain token and take its associated action – but you must do this before you start refilling the pools.


To put a tile in play, you choose one of the four tiles in your personal pool and put it on the board.  The tile must be orthogonally adjacent to at least one other previously played tile.  Additionally, any sides that touch must have the same scene depicted on them.  As a final restriction, the Pickling scene may not be played on a plain square (an un-numbered square) on your board.


Then, you do stuff with the side(s) of your newly placed tile that match up to their neighboring tiles.  First, you score food points (FPs) equal to the number on the board space where the new tile goes.  Second, you get to take the bonus action associated with the type of scene(s) that match their neighbors.


Examples of these actions are:

  • Feast – lay an additional tile
  • Picking – earn 1 additional food point (FP) in addition to the number on the board (this cannot be played on an unnumbered space)
  • Camp – earn 3 shelter points (SPs)


Note that you could place part of the tile in a cave, as long as the other half which is on the board is a valid placement by the rules above.  The half which is in the cave must match the mountain token in that cave; if there is not a mountain token there, then any scene type can be placed in the cave.  You score Shelter Points (SPs) for the tile placed there – the higher value if a mountain token was present, the lower value if no mountain token was present.


Remember that, you have the chance to play any ONE mountain token that you have – and this could in fact be a mountain token that you just collected a few seconds ago.  The actions here are mostly the same as the scene special actions.


After you have scored and taken any additional actions, you then refill your personal pool to 4 (taking tiles from the common pool) and then you refill to common pool to 5.  The next player clockwise then takes his turn.


One other thing that could happen on a turn is that a player has no valid tile plays.  If this happens, you must abandon your current tribe.  You flip over all the tiles of the active tribe.  Your tribe then chooses any cave to start from, discards the mountain token in that cave, and places a new tile from that cave to start their new path.  You may never connect up with tiles from the abandoned tribe (but their tiles are turned upside down to remind you).  If you are unable to even start a new tribe, you simply do not play any more – though you are not eliminated from the game – you will still score your points at the end of the game.


The game end is triggered with the common pool and main stack are empty.  When this happens, the game is in the final turn.  Play continues until it reaches the last player in turn order (so that all players get the same number of turns).  Players now look at the scoreboard.  They remove their scoring token which is further on the track.  The remaining token is their final score.  There is no tie breaker.

Red wins the game in this example

Red wins the game in this example

My thoughts on the game


Sapiens is an interesting tile-laying game – a bit more complex than I had thought from my initial read through the rules.  You definitely need to be thinking about how you want your board to develop as the restrictions on laying tiles can really hamper your tribe’s exploration.  Furthermore, trying to get the special actions that you want at the times that you want them is a big deal too.


As you always have 4 tiles in your personal pool, you will usually have a few options each turn as far as which tiles you can play.  You should also be aware of not boxing yourself in – while the rules allow you to restart your tribe in a new cave, not being able to connect to any previous tribes can really limit your possible plays with your new tribe.


While players mostly have their own personal sandbox of their area, this game has a number of special actions which include direct interaction with your opponents.  The Fight special action allows you to place one of your Fight tokens on a tile in an opponent’s Personal pool or onto a tile in the Common pool.  Whenever this tile is played to the board, the playing player loses 1 FP and you earn 1FP.  The Water special action allows you to exchange one tile from your personal pool with one from another personal pool or the common pool.  Finally, the Fire action lets you put a Bear token on another player’s board.  You score as many SP as there are tiles adjacent to this token.  Furthermore, the opponent may not play a tile on the space with a Bear token.

Two player board halves

Two player board halves

Our game kept a fairly nice pace, though we did have a bit of gentle encouragement on a few turns to keep things moving.  There is definitely potential for some Analysis Paralysis here as there are a lot of things to consider on any given turn, and with the possible interactions with tiles, you can’t really be sure of your options until your turn actually comes up.  Sure, you can work on an optimal plan given your tile setup between turns, and in some cases, that will help you have a quick turn – but more often than not, you’ll have to scan the board to look for your best play.  Our first game came in right around 60 minutes which included a rules explanation.


The other thing that might be worth mentioning is that the game didn’t last as long as we thought it would. By the end of the game, we maybe had 40-50% of our boards filled up – and I think we had all tried to be very efficient with our tile placement.  In reality, we weren’t going to use all the spaces on the board, and frankly, if you want to get to more caves (for the shelter points), you really need to stretch across the board quickly to get to the other caves.


The other thing that was nice about our first game is that two players had more SP and two players had more FP at the end of the game.  There are definitely ways to score both, and you’ll have to respond tactically depending on how the game is going, what tiles you have and what your current scoring situation looks like.


I’ve only played twice, so I’m not quite ready for a rating – but I love the tile laying and the scoring.  It remains to be seen how much the AP potential affects my opinion of the game after repeated plays.  Right now, it’s a really good game with quick players, and I’m looking forward to playing it some more.


Until your next appointment,

The Gaming Doctor


About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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