Today we’re going to talk about Neanderthal, a game about cultural evolution, the development of societal relationships, and survival-
Andrew: And everyone dying in a blizzard.
…*Ahem*. If that sounds kind of heavy, that’s because it is. And you can thank publisher Sierra Madre Games and developer Phil Eklund for its existence. I know I do.
Andrew: Wait, Phil Eklund? Why does that name smell like textbooks to me?
Rob: The name smells like…? Whatever. He also designed Bios Megafauna.
Andrew: *growling noises*
Rob: Easy there, Champ. Remember what happened the last time you dismissed one of his games.
Andrew: I missed the velociraptor with the bow and arrow?
Rob: You missed the velociraptor with the bow and arrow.
Neanderthal is a unique combination. It sits in this strange middle ground where there are all sorts of interlocking gameplay systems, lots of meticulous rules to remember, and a fair few moving parts, but it’s also much easier to follow than games like Bios Megafauna or High Frontier. Especially High Frontier.
The basic goal is to help your chosen species (Archaic, Cro-Magnon, or Neanderthal; the game is somewhat unique in that it plays 1-3 players) survive so that it can earn the most victory points by the end of the game. Earning victory points depends on things like having lots of hunters, acquiring “daughters” and/or marrying them off, domesticating animals, and so on. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
Andrew: While I’m anxious to vent my frustrations about this game, I don’t know that I’d really call it “complicated.”
Rob: True. I guess it’s not that the game is complicated so much that it’s difficult to explain.
Andrew: That, ironically, I can understand.
There are a lot of little moving parts to Neanderthal. You have hunters – represented by little wooden cubes – that can be placed on different cards in the north and south biomes to hunt or gather. You have elders that provide extremely useful special abilities. You have event cards that trigger all sorts of nasty effects that tend to kill off your hunters and elders. Those same event cards are also used to represent “daughters,” which are necessary for your species’ cultural and social development, and are usually hotly contested by players during a bidding phase.
You also have a static pool of three different kinds of disks that represent three different types of language specializations (orange for social, white for nature, and black for technical), and they’re used for lots of important actions such as bidding, maturing elders/daughters/husbands, training animals, and researching tools. The list goes on, too. The thing is, all of these elements work together in a way that makes them shockingly easy to manage.
Andrew: I’ll admit that I never had a problem keeping up with any of the rules. It was definitely easier to keep track of than Bios Megafauna. That game was-
Rob: Yeah, yeah, I know how you feel about Bios Megafauna. But Neanderthal is different. Kind of.
Andrew: You don’t sound so sure about that.
Rob: Oh I’m sure. It’s just that it’s kind of similar at the same time.
Andrew: You mean like how I decided to start with promiscuous sexuality because the ability to gather seemed useful, and that comepletely screwed me over for most of the game?
Rob: Hey I tried to keep reminding you that you could change sexuality after chaos effects.
Andrew: But it wasn’t until almost the end of the game that I realized how utterly pointless being promiscuous was. It was a beginner’s trap, basically.
Rob: I don’t think being promiscuous was the problem. It just makes you more susceptible to chaos, which means you need to play a little conservatively and not amass a huge army of hunters.
Andrew: But how is anyone supposed to know that when they’re playing for the first time? Being able to gather makes it sound like the obvious, safe choice when it’s actually suicidal.
(And if it sounds like we are speaking in tongues here, just trust us when we say it all makes sense once you learn Neanderthal’s unique gameplay language)
Much like the other Phil Eklund game I keep mentioning (and still love, by the way), Neanderthal puts players at the mercy of randomness quite often. The north and south biomes are populated from two different decks of cards that are shuffled before each game; the event deck doesn’t use all of the event cards for a single game, and there’s a heavy reliance on dice for things like hunting and surviving some of the nasty things that show up on event cards. Personally I don’t have a problem with this randomness, because it forces me to rethink my plans and adapt to each new situation.
Andrew: That’s what random stuff in board games is supposed to do. I never got the feeling that Neanderthal was pulling it off well, though.
Rob: Randomness screws you over sometimes, this is a universal truth!
Andrew: But usually there’s a way to adjust for it. We play a lot of games with random elements, but none of them have managed to basically shut everyone out for half of the game.
Rob: It was just bad luck.
Andrew: That kind of bad luck should be accounted for in a game’s design. We went for more than half the game before a single daughter card came up that would allow us to expand our brain thingies, whatever they’re called. And that meant neither of us could really, you know, develop.
Rob: Bad luck!
Andrew: Half. The. Game!
At least the randomness of the dice rolls can be adjusted for, most of the time. The number of hunter cubes you place on a card determines how many dice you’re able to roll for that hunt. 1s and 2s rolled are usually all you need, though some hunts are trickier and will only succeed with 1s. Some are also more dangerous – for example some cards will result in a hunter’s death for each 4 you roll.
On top of simply throwing greater numbers at a task, you can also train an Alpha hunter (represented by a wooden cylinder) who can use various special abilities that depend on the elders you currently have. Stuff like being able to count as an automatic 1 when hunting big game, for instance. There are also tools that can be built and animals you can domesticate to get even more of an edge.
Andrew: Too bad tool use and domestication is nigh-impossible to pull off.
Rob: It’s not impossible, it’s just usually something that you can’t do until later in the game.
Andrew: Right. We had, what, two rounds where we were “tribal” and could potentially make use of those features?
Rob: Yes, but the lack of daughters who would let us reach that point in the earlier portion of the game really slowed that possible progression down.
Andrew: Right! And the fact that our ability to advance to those new mechanics was shut down because the right cards didn’t get drawn for the first 45 minutes isn’t awesome design to me!
Rob: No, it was bad luck. And you’ve only played the game once!
Andrew: *sighs* When some of the most interesting elements of your game are gated off like that, it becomes a problem. We never had the time to try them, let alone enjoy them.
Depending on your preference, Neanderthal can be played in the normal competitive fashion, cooperatively, or solo. Unlike the default rules, victory points don’t mean anything in co-op or solo play. Instead, the goal is for players to work together so that they can reach the end of the event deck with at least two tribal species – each with at least one domesticated animal. This is much easier said than done.
Andrew: Because being tribal is a myth we tell our children at night, a fabled time of harmony and happiness unknown to us in the frozen reality of this arctic tundra we call existence.
Rob: No, because it’s just a brutal game. One species will be doing well and then suddenly all their elders die off or a blizzard kills a couple of their daughters. Then another risks a dangerous hunt and suffers high losses. That’s just Neanderthal.
Andrew: You said that before, when we each lost a bunch of hunters and elders during an event. It seems more like resignation to me.
Rob: I’m resigned to love Neanderthal, if that’s what you mean.
Andrew: You know it isn’t.
Figuring out the best crowd to recommend Neanderthal for is admittedly kind of tricky. Fans of other games by Phil Eklund will almost certainly enjoy it – especially if they enjoy Greenland, which can actually be incorporated with Neanderthal to make a sort of mega game. But I don’t think it’s necessarily just for Phil Eklund fans, either. Despite all the minutiae, it’s actually quite easy to learn and surprisingly accessible to new players.
Diana: I can vouch for that!
Andrew: I’m still not convinced. I guess what I was most struck by was the feeling that Neanderthal has everything it takes to be a truly unique, engaging, genuinely awesome game. I went in expecting a game about survival, evolution, and development, but the cards made it feel more like a meat grinder. But mostly I felt like it’s full of big, amazing ideas that never quite came together.
Rob: That’s funny, because I mostly feel the same way. Except that it does pull off those ideas. I think you should give it another couple of plays. It might just change your mind.
Andrew: Oh yeah, absolutely! I’m really looking forward to playing it again.
Rob: Wait. After all that? Seriously?!
Andrew: Uh, yeah, obviously! I think it’s got all the potential in the world! Why, don’t you want to give it another chance?
Rob: …I hate you.
If surviving the cold and developing your tribe sounds like your idea of a good time, you can grab your copy of Neanderthal right here. We really do recommend it (even Mr. Grumbles here)!