Size matters. In board games too. The appeal of Small Box Games isn’t just that John Clowdus makes small things, it’s that he makes things you can carry around without much trouble, that can fit ten to a shelf where a single regular-sized game might sit, that provide some of the best ounce-for-ounce gameplay out there.
Take Neolithic, for example. Crammed into a box the size of a deck of playing cards, this is the sort of thing that would be easy to overlook on a game store shelf. But to discount it for its size would be doing it a disservice, because this is one of the cleverest little games I’ve played in a long while.
Size matters in Neolithic too. No, I’m not just talking about the size of the stones you bonk together to make fire — and no, I’m also not talking about the size of the stones you bonk together in the breeding hut, you goof. But the size of your tribe, your village, your herd? Absolutely.
The Neolithic Period was the tail-end of the Stone Age (which is why neolithikos translates into “new stone age”), a time when people were figuring out innovations like farming, domestication, and pottery, and hashing out the social behaviors to deal with things like surpluses of food and the ownership and inheritance of livestock. Unsurprisingly, the human remains we’ve discovered from this period are occasionally marked by violence, and some settlements were ringed by palisades. Thus, as befits a tribe in this period, it’s your goal to develop as quickly as you can, working to outpace your competitor lest you be left in the dust of prehistory.
This is a worker-placement game for two, but don’t let its limited player count fool you: this is a breakneck race to the finish line where every single action matters. At the outset, you’ve only got a handful of villagers and some potential innovations; play your hand right, and you’ll slide into the Chalcolithic Period with a host of domesticated animals, a sophisticated village, and the rudimentary beginnings of a culture.
Like many of Clowdus’s designs, the central conceit here is that every card can be used in more than one way. The center row represents a bunch of areas your tribe can focus, whether hunting or gathering, spending time playing “getting to know you” in that stank breeding hut, or putting in the effort to dream up new innovations. Send out your villagers — be careful to ensure they’re suited to the task you’ve put before them or your opponent will grunt and fling something — and they’ll come back with a few armfuls of resources for your village. Simple.
Or, well, perhaps not so simple. First of all, the other tribe’s villagers will scare yours off if they’ve already positioned themselves somewhere before you show up, so you might find your options severely limited every turn or two, at least until your opponent brings his villagers home for a celebratory boar roast. The second difficulty is that even the various card offers aren’t entirely straightforward. When hunting, for example, you can bring home a bunch of meat, perfect for a tribe shooting for the “animalistic” culture card, or you can guide some of the animals home to maybe domesticate later.
In gameplay terms, every card is double-edged, and the direction you enshrine them in your village them will bestow very different benefits once. Visiting a location generally gives you the option of putting something straight into your village or stashing it in your hand to maybe use its advanced side later on. Do you want some meat and antlers right away, or to domesticate those goats at some point in the uncertain future? Stockpile clay and flax, or spend some time improving the village? It might initially seem like the advanced option is always preferable, but there are ways to earn big points for hoarded goods, and all those high-scoring innovations require some sort of prerequisite. Want to invent bread or discover the benefits of roasting your meat before you tear into it? Well, you’ll need a few healthy pinches of the raw ingredients first. Nobody wants to be the tribe with a dozen nice houses but no notion of how to brew beer.
Plus, getting all these cards into your village can be tricky, especially if you take too many into your hand for later consumption. Every few turns, when all the hunting grounds and gathering fields have gotten crowded, it’s time to bring your villagers home. Each returned villager will let you build a single card into your village, ranging from special single-use rituals, which burn up a valuable innovation card but might swing things your way, to finally having your villagers settle down and become the arbiters of your growing culture.
It’s no mistake that the villages that fare best are those that made the smartest possible sacrifices along the way, balancing their need for working villagers against their hopes of a better tomorrow, or their stockpiles of raw materials against the possibility of domesticated animals and better innovations. The result is an uncommonly clever game, one where you can think you’re making great decisions, only to regret domesticating those wolves ten turns later when you realize you should have hunted them down and used their bones to craft fine jewelry.
I like to joke about the Small Box Games Curse, which I completely guarantee I didn’t invent. The Curse states that for every three games John Clowdus designs, there will be one I love, one I like, and one I hate. So far it’s proven largely true.
Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Neolithic is that the next couple games must be absolute stinkers, because this is easily John’s best design since Omen: A Reign of War. It’s smart, snappy, rewards making hard decisions, and lets you work to disrupt your opponent without ever having to reach across the table to mess with their village. Size matters — though this time, it’s small that wins.