Friday, 10 May 2019


Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Neanderthal is a Phil Eklund design, and he is famous for complex rules and rich themes. Neanderthal is the sister game of Greenland. It was released later, but the setting is of an earlier age, so I guess you can call it a prequel. In this game you play prehistoric human species, the Neanderthals being one of them. You evolve, you develop language skills, and you form tribal societies, ushering the very start of human civilisation. At game end, you score points based on the structure of your society and your achievements.

In the middle you have the player board, which is double sided. This is the basic side, which means you have some vocal communication abilities, but nothing fancy yet. If you develop your brain enough, you will flip the player board to the advanced or tribal side. That means you've established a tribal society. The card on the left is your marriage system card. You draw a random card at the start of the game. The card is double-sided, each side showing a different system. There are a total of three marriage systems in the game, but you will have access to only two of them, those on the card you draw. Each system has pros and cons, and also determines how you score points at game end.

At the top right you have your workers. This is a worker placement game. If you look closely, one of them is bigger. That's your alpha male. If you get to use him, he gives you some bonus abilities. The discs are your vocabulary. I find vocabulary a rather abstract concept. It is an unusual mechanism. Usually you want to have many free vocabulary discs on hand, because they give you advantages in certain situations. E.g. having more swear words gives an advantage when fighting. Many actions in the game require you to commit a vocab disc on a card. This temporarily locks the disc, leaving fewer discs in your free discs pool. The action you want to do is not yet complete, until you find a way to remove the locked disc. Only then your action is complete, and you'll enjoy the benefits, plus the disc is returned to your pool.

These 12 cards form the common play area, representing prehistoric Europe. Every card is the habitat of an animal specie. Neanderthal is a worker placement game, so these habitats are where you send your workers to.

Sending your workers to a habitat does not guarantee you'll reap the benefits. You need to roll dice. The more workers (well, actually hunters) you send, the more dice you roll. In this photo, the two rows of icons on the left tell you what you need to roll to gain some benefit. The first row says if you roll two successes (usually 1's and 2's), you gain 3 workers, and you get to unlock one black and one orange vocab disc. The second row says if you roll four of the same number, you get to claim this habitat card. The information on the right side tells you what you can do with the card after you claim it. This particular card can be converted to a domestic animal. If you manage to do so, every round it will give you two new workers and let you unlock one black vocab disc.

The board situation changes. Global cooling causes habitats to shut down due to ice cover (1st row, 3rd card in the photo). Fewer habitats lead to fiercer competition among players. Sometimes players claim habitat cards. In some cases a new card is drawn to replace the card taken, but in some cases that space is left blank.

More than one player may send hunters to the same habitat. In such cases they will do one round of fighting before they hunt. Some people may die in the fight. Whoever remain standing get to attempt to hunt. The player with fewer hunters get to hunt first. If he is successful, other players leave empty-handed. This is an interesting dilemma. If you have more hunters, you have an advantage in fights, but you will be disadvantaged during the hunt.

This is an event card (bottom half) as well as a daughter card (top half). At the start of every round, an event card is drawn and resolved. It then becomes a daughter card to be auctioned off to players. The event card deck is the game timer. When the deck runs out, the game ends. The deck starts with 10 cards, but more may be added during the game. This happened many times in our game. That's a good thing, because 10 rounds is not enough to get much done. The events in the game are brutal. You can easily lose half your population, and your precious elders.

This is a reference card. The left section are all icons for events. The game has many rules and it is hard to remember all.

When bidding for daughter cards, you bid based on how many vocab discs you are willing to commit. I won this daughter by committing three discs. When the discs are still on the card, the daughter is not mature yet. She can't marry yet, and she doesn't give any benefit. You need to remove all the discs to get her to a mature age, and only then she can take a husband. Once married, both you and the husband's owner get to enjoy the benefits. You can send your own tribesman to court and hopefully marry your daughter, but it is more difficult. You might as well let others send their tribesmen. It saves you some effort, and one worker. If you are adamant about others not sharing your daughters' powers, then you'll need to spend the effort.

This is the basic side of the player board. To flip over to the advanced (tribal) side, you need to upgrade your brain. There are three spaces on the brain, and they can hold at most two discs each. The space between the black and white sections of the brain may hold one black disc and one white disc. It is holding one white disc now. You need to have 5 discs on the brain in order to advance to the tribal age. This is not easy to do.

There are four spaces for elders - the 3, 4, 6 and 5 spaces. It is not easy to promote people to elders. For the 3, 4 and 5 elder positions, you need to have upgraded specific parts of your brain sufficiently before you can promote. In this photo the #6 elder is still an elder-in-waiting, because of that black disc beneath him. That disc needs to be removed before he is officially an elder, and his elder powers take effect.

This is the other side of the player board - the tribal side. It looks very different, but it actually contains much of the same information as the basic side. The elders positions 3 to 6 are still here (along the leftmost column), and you get two more elder positions with new powers. This board organises the elder powers by phases of a game round.

This is a marriage system card. It lists the point values of various components of your society, and these vary depending on the marriage system you choose to adopt. A marriage system card may lock down some of your vocab discs. This particular marriage system above (harem) locks down one disc in each colour. This is an important consideration when you determine whether you want to switch to another system. One advantage of this harem system above is your husbands in your tableau area may move about to fight suitors from other players. Normally husbands (in this game) stay home and do nothing.

The game ends when the event deck runs out. This is not exactly predictable because some events will cause an additional event card to be added to the deck. Even when you draw the last card, and expect the game to end that round, the supposedly final event may just add yet another card to the deck. Planning is tricky near game end. You may be tempted to do something that takes a longer time but will score many points, but it is risky. If you choose to do smaller things that score few points, the game may extend, and you are left with nothing valuable to do in that additional time given.

The Play

I played a full three-player game with Ivan and Allen. I think the game is best with the full complement. There were many rules to go through and explaining rules took a long time. If you look past the many rule details, Neanderthal is essentially a worker placement game, with dice. There will be some randomness. I was spectacularly unlucky with my die rolls in the game we played, especially in the first half. I think I made no progress at all in the first three rounds. I assigned most if not all my hunters to hunt a large animal, and they failed. That meant I had wasted a whole round. If the game were a 10 round game, I had just wasted 10% of my game because of bad luck! Some events may cause elders to die. You roll dice to see whether your elders die. When such events happened, I kept rolling the exact numbers that would kill my elders. I attempted to send my tribesmen to woo others' daughters. They kept getting rejected, and sometimes they even got killed. That can be interpreted as the young man falling into depression and killing himself, or he was upset and distracted when returning home and got into a fatal accident. However we chose to interpret such incidents as the young fellow offending the girl and getting castrated. He then bled to death. The players at the next table were probably wondering what kind of horrible game we were playing, or what kind of psychos we were.

Ivan said to think of the game as a simulation. That means many random disasters will befall you, just like how life was tough for prehistoric man. This can be off-putting because Neanderthal is not an easy game to learn. If you spend so much effort to learn to play it, only to find that you are being played by it more that you are playing it, it can leave a bad taste. This certainly flashed through my mind because of my epic level of bad luck. However the epicness got so high it became entertaining. Amazing even. Eventually my bad luck dissipated and things got more normal. You do still have some control in the game. There are ways to mitigate risks. Your efforts do sometimes yield results, at least often enough that the whole exercise doesn't feel futile.

The courtship aspect of our game triggered further inappropriate table talk. Daughter cards with vocab discs are immature, and cannot be married. However it is viable to court such daughters. During the action resolution phase, it is possible that the player owning the daughter unlocks the discs and makes the daughter mature first, before the other player who has sent a suitor successfully woos the daughter, and the young couple gets married. It's a win-win because both players will gain the daughter's power. How the three of us pictured the situation was this: On the eve of the daughter's 18th birthday, the suitors queued outside her tent waiting for midnight. Once the clock struck 12 and she turned 18, it was time for the wedding and the bedding. Sometimes the vocab disc unlocking failed. We interpreted that as the parents having miscounted the daughter's age, so they had to tell the suitors to go home and come back next year. The players at the next table were probably wondering what kind of sick people we were.

Ivan (yellow) did well and was first to advance to the tribal age. At this point his player board had been flipped to the tribal side. He had two elders. Other than the marriage system card, he had five other cards in his tableau. 1st row, 2nd card is a trophy. Trophies are worth points but give no power. You can win such trophies by hunting some animal species to extinction. 2nd row, 2nd card is a domesticated animal. Domesticated animals are worth points and give some benefits. You need to win such cards from the board before you can do domestication. This particular animal is not fully domesticated yet. There is still a white vocab disc on it. The disc needs to be removed before the point value and the benefits take effect. The other three cards are daughter cards. They are all mature - no discs on them. However none were married yet at this point, partly because the suitors I sent kept failing to impress them.

This was Allen's (red) play area taken at the same time. Allen's player board was still on the basic side. He had three discs on his brain, so he was two discs away from advancing to the tribal side. He had two daughters, and both were married to Ivan's tribesmen (yellow).

This was my (green) play area taken at the same time. When you compare this against the previous two photos, you will appreciate how poorly I fared. I only had one vocab disc on my board, and this was the first free disc. That means I hadn't progressed at all! I only had one daughter, and she was very very immature (3 discs). Notice that among my workers there was one yellow worker which came from Ivan's supply. This was due to some inter-specie marriage event.

My situation was horrible in the first half of our game. Fortunately later on I spotted an opportunity - the marriage strategy. My marriage system was pair bonding, so each husband I had would be worth 3VP, which was high. I sent out many of my tribesmen to chase girls. I (green) had husbands in both Allen's (top) and Ivan's (bottom) areas.

This was my MVP who made my marriage strategy possible. He married Ivan's daughter, and the power he gained for me was in any courtship, my tribesmen would be successful. All my lads were Romeos because of him. No more risk of castration.

Three of the spots in northern Europe were covered by ice due to global cooling. We had fewer hunting grounds. Two spots were empty now because the cards there had been claimed as trophies.

At this point all three of us had advanced to the tribal age. Our player boards had all been flipped. Allen (red) saw that the marriage strategy was very effective, and decided to compete with me. He had sent 9 of his tribesmen to steal my wives! In this game it is possible to challenge a husband and try to take his place. Husband and challenger will fight. It is not easy to kill the other guy. Even if the challenger kills the husband, it is not guaranteed that he will win the heart of the missus. He still needs to woo her, which is not easy.

Allen's Operation Wife Stealing was scary. I had a lot to lose. Thankfully he was successful only in a few incidents, and I managed to retain most of my husbands, and thus the victory points.

In the end, Allen and I could not catch up to Ivan. He had many trophies, and he had domesticated animals too. Domestication was not easy to do. Allen did manage to win one trophy before the game ended. It was a large animal and it was not easy to hunt. We all cheered for him. To hunt a big animal you need to wait till you have enough people, and you will need to commit many if not all of them. Even then it is still a bit of a gamble. Such die rolls are very exciting.

The Thoughts

Neanderthal is certainly a gamer's game. It has many rules, and it has some unusual rules which require some effort to internalise. There are some unique and interesting ideas - quirky and endearing. This game will be somewhat challenging to learn even for experienced gamers. However if you take a step back and look at the whole, this is just a worker placement game, with a dose of luck. Your workers' actions aren't always successful, and disasters strike all the time. Sometimes you make no progress at all in a round, or you may even regress. This can feel very negative. I think it is bold of Phil Eklund to make such a design decision. I can appreciate the statement he is making. This is the prehistoric age after all. You have no vaccines. People die. Hunting mammoths is not exactly a walk in the park.

You do have some control amidst the unexpected twists of fate. You can mitigate risks somewhat. You can decide your risk appetite when sending workers out to hunt. You have space to strategise and try to improve your situation. You will eventually progress. You should think of Neanderthal as an experience game. Play for the experience and the story, and not purely for the competition and the battle of wits. Sometimes you really feel for your opponents when they lose half their population because of a stupid comet. The prehistoric ice age is not easy to survive.

No comments: