On the Origin of the Dice Game
By this point in their evolution, most dice games have become kindly creatures. Gentle, even. They want you to have a good time, to roll some bones and chuckle at your fortunes, to relax and have a straightforward and undemanding evening. They may have descended from wilder ancestors, but they’ve become tame, domesticated beasts along the way.
Neanderthal, the prequel to Greenland, is anything but that sort of dice game. It doesn’t care about staying late. Nor does it plan on playing fair. It embraces player elimination — or, perhaps worse, making the unlucky player sit around for rounds at a time with nothing to do. It’s complicated, rough, talks loudly about sex at inappropriate moments, changes the rules halfway through, and sometimes slaps you on the back so hard that you end up with Dr. Pepper charring your sinuses. In short, it has no interest in seeking mainstream appeal. And that’s precisely why I find it so fascinating.
Let’s start with the relatively simple stuff.
For anyone who’s played Greenland, the dice-game portion of Neanderthal will be immediately familiar. For anyone else, the starting rows of cards will probably appear as a nonsensical mishmash of icons, text, and more icons, except these latter ones are upside down for some reason. It isn’t as complicated as it first appears — not this part of the game, anyway — but it’s the sort of thing that requires some getting used to. As I said, this game isn’t particularly interested in going easy on you.
Put as plainly as possible, each card represents something for your Pleistocene tribe to hunt or gather. Wild horses run undomesticated, European asses piss freely wherever they please (very little has changed between then and now), nine-foot-long sabertooth salmon swim against the currents, and terrifying predators like the tyrant sea bear and scimitar cat prowl the landscape. Hunting these is as difficult as bringing the right tools, arraying your hunters, and rolling dem bones. Sometimes you’ll bag a kill, giving you surplus food that leads to a population boom and therefore more hunters to use on future turns. Other times, it’s possible to begin the process of domestication or exterminate species outright, the stories of your pitched battles against the fallow deer resounding for generations.
However, nearly every one of these options brings its own dangers. Many animals are tough enough (or simply big enough) to fight back. Others dwell in frigid climes, threatening your hunters with frostbite. Bringing down big game like a straight-tusked elephant might feel like a tremendous accomplishment at first, but when cave lions or gray wolves show up to drag away your quarry, sending your hunters to pick over the carcasses killed by other animals can suddenly seem like the better move. Even going after an otherwise easy kill can be a dangerous proposition. As extinct species leave gaps in their wake, and as ice sheets gradually choke the north, competition between tribes becomes ever fiercer. With time, your people might be forced into proximity — or blows — with other tribes.
Okay, so none of that was particularly simple. Not that it was meant to be. In the world presented by Neanderthal, survival is tough and flourishing even tougher. Every round begins with an event that will invariably screw you over: one turn you might lose half your hunters, the next you could watch as yet another glacier drives a crucial source of food to extinction. There are ways to control your destiny, though harnessing them is a victory in its own right. A fire-starter elder, for example, can make your hunters immune to frostbite, while knappers, warriors, and trappers give you access to an alpha hunter who excels at different types of hunts. The trouble with these options is that each round represents a full 40 generations, meaning that at the game’s outset your people haven’t yet evolved to the point where they can make use of those abilities.
Cue the really complicated part of the game.
In Greenland there were three resources to manage. Four if you counted hunters. Orange disks represented fuel, whether timber or blubber. White disks were furs or ivory, and black disks were iron. Most rounds were about building up a stockpile of these resources to use in future turns: hunters for more hunting, fuel to keep everyone warm, ivory to trade, and iron to ensure you were formidable if you had to resort to war.
The resources in Neanderthal are far more abstract, representing the dedication of your species’ brainpower to vocabulary, differing forms of sexuality, and various domains of development. This makes the game systems somewhat more difficult to parse. The importance of iron to an iron-age tribe is something anyone can grasp; “technical vocabulary” and “bison portals,” not so much. The thing to understand, however, is that Neanderthal is tackling an enormous span of time, and each of the game’s three tribes — Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal, and Archaic Man — are going through a sort of species-wide puberty. Which is to say, they’re going through some pretty serious changes.
And that’s why there’s the potential for the rug to be swept out from under your feet halfway through the game. As the scene opens, you’re what’s called a “vocal species,” barely beginning to experiment with speech. You’ll use an internal economy of disks, swapping them between your brain, your vocabulary, and new elders, daughters, or husbands. Unlocking new abilities is an incredibly slow process, especially since it’s tied both to the daughters you marry and the animals you hunt. Invest too much into a particular daughter’s innovations and you might find yourself without the necessary brainpower to hunt the alpine ibex or promote that new trapper elder.
It’s slow going, even agonizing at times. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that all this disk-swapping can easily last the first two-thirds of the game, and that’s if you evolve past the vocal stage at all. And until you evolve, entire systems are blocked off. You cannot domesticate animals, or invent tools, or negotiate with other tribes. All you can do is slowly and surely arrange your marriages, shuffle brainpower between desirable portals, and hunt smartly so you don’t die out before finally learning how to act, well, human.
But then, if you manage it, an explosion occurs.
The instant you go from vocal to tribal, everything changes. Suddenly you can promote a whole bevy of elders, each of them providing radical new abilities. Those nasty events that previously wiped out half your tribe are a thing of the past, provided you promote a chief. Tool-making, domestication, communication with other tribes to arrange marriages that don’t involve kidnapping — all become possible in the blink of an eye. Then again, this is something of a double-edged sword, since you can no longer easily bring new daughters into the fold. Personally, I recommend being able to tell a horse to stay in a pen until you want some steak over having to chase it down first.
Ultimately, it’s your tribe’s brand of sexuality that determines how you’re evaluated. A promiscuous species values manly stuff like alphas, hordes of hunters, and domesticated animals, whereas pair bonding means you enjoy marriage while harem-holders would rather be showing off the trophies of all the animals they wiped out. There are a lot of possibilities to track, especially when you learn that you can bounce between sexual persuasions as the situation transforms, but critiquing each species’ performance by its own standards is a touch of brilliance. Even better, it’s hilarious when someone overhears an ongoing discussion of the merits of outright promiscuity versus a harem.
Okay, so that’s Neanderthal, a complicated dice game that would rather knee you in the gonads than hold your hand. It’s brilliant, involved, and does a fantastic job of submerging you in the tricky job of evolving early man. Still, one lingering question remains: is it any good?
Well, that’s a toughie. Like its predecessor Greenland, this is undoubtedly a niche product. Watching your species wither because you didn’t roll well — or hey, because you didn’t manage your brainpower down to every last exacting detail — can be nothing short of frustrating. Failing to evolve, getting stuck because you don’t have access to the right daughter or brain pathways, having your caribou stolen by hyenas, not having enough hunters to support your elders during a storm and watching them all die at once… all of it can be exasperating.
And yet, that’s precisely what makes Neanderthal’s tale worth the telling. Watching your tribe persevere despite having your hunters go join a better-tended tribe instead. Finally domesticating snow hares even though you went tribal after everyone else. Winning that daughter’s hand in marriage and watching the other suitors go home spurned. These are the moments that make Neanderthal more than just a complicated dice game. They make it an awesome complicated dice game.