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Subject: Neanderthal: The solo experience rss

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Brian Pierce
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Basics of the solo gameplay:

When you play Neanderthal solo you will play the game as all three species (Archaic Man, Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon), with each species represented by a player card and wooden cubes in their color. The game starts with 10 Event/Daughter cards, and this serves as the timer for the game. When this deck runs out the game will end, but there is the possibility that additional cards are added to this deck throughout the game. There are also 12 (6 north and 6 south) cards placed face up on the table. These represent biomes that players can go to hunt during the game. Each player is given 15 language discs (5 in each of three colors) and a starting sexuality card. The players choose one side of their starting sexuality and place the required number of language discs on the card (0, 3, or 6). These sexualities give the species certain abilities and/or penalties in the game and dictate their remaining available language discs, called their “vocabulary”.


The three species you will control in the game

Each turn begins by drawing an Event card and systematically working through the events on that card. These will remove/bring into play new cards, kill of your hunters, kill off your elders, force you to discard elders and/or daughters, add new cards to the event deck, etc. Once this is completed, the card is rotated 180 degrees and the Daughter depicted on the card is auctioned off to the players. The card lists the colors of language discs that can be bid, and in the solo game you will basically decide which species you want to win the card with a minimum bid of 1. Once the card has been won, that species will take the Daughter card into their tableau and place their bid disc(s) on the card to show that she is an immature daughter. Once matured, a Daughter can provide players with special abilities.


A sample Event/Daughter card

Next players place their hunters out into the playing area. They can place them on one of the available hunting biomes, place them as an elder on their player sheet (either mature or immature depending on abilities), place them as an immature husband on a mature Daughter in their own player tableau, or place them as a courting husband on another species’ mature Daughter. If two or more species have cubes on the same card once all cubes are placed, the conflict must be resolved. In the solo game this would be very rare, because you are responsible for assigning the species to each card and are unlikely to compete with yourself.

The cubes are then resolved – hunters on biome cards roll dice equal to the number assigned, elders and husbands in your playing area are placed successfully, and courting husbands roll a die to see if the marriage takes place. Successful hunts on the biome cards (rolls of either 1/2 or just 1) will grow your population, allow you to clear placed vocabulary discs in your player area, award trophies to place in your tableau, and award you cards (Inventions or Domestic Animals) that can be taken into your hand for play later. In this way, the more hunters you send to a biome the better your chances of success. However some cards fight back and you could lose hunters to frostbite, animal attacks, or even predators tracking you down.


An example biome card where hunters can be sent. On this card a Gathering species may gather (due to Wild Barley), hunt rolls of 5&6 will kill hunters, hunt success requires the roll of two 1's and gives 3 new hunters and allows you to remove 2 black discs. The card can be taken as a trophy if 3 identical die results are rolled.

The final steps of the round involve gaining rewards from any mature Domestic Animals already played in your tableau and then taking an Elder action. There are three types of Elder actions: clear a language disk off a card in your tableau that matches a disc in your brain portal, use the portal ability of a mature daughter, or play an Invention or Domestic Animal card (only available to Tribal and the only action type they can take). This process is repeated until the final event/daughter card round completes and the game ends.

A key aspect of the game is the idea that many cards/ cubes typically enter your tableau as immature, which is marked by placing language discs on/under them. A main focus of your play throughout the game will be to find ways to remove these discs, which will mature the card/cube and give you access to its abilities, and also give you access to your language disc again. Discs can be removed with the end of round Elder action or by the rewards granted from successful hunts on biome cards.


An example of how language discs are distributed in your tableau throughout the game

The goal of the solo game

Your goal is for at least two species to survive until the end of the game, with two of the three species having one or more mature Domestic Animals in their tableau. To understand what you should be doing during the solo game we can work backwards from this goal. Playing a Domestic Animal into a tableau requires that you have one in your hand and that the species has first converted to tribalism. You can add cards to your hand with successful rolls of a certain number of identical dice as dictated by the card in the biome. However each species has a hand limit equal to their number of mature elders. So we will need at least one mature elder and to successfully roll to pick up a Domestic Animal card. In order to convert to tribalism the species must completely fill their brain portals with six discs during the game. Brain portals are filled by using the abilities of a mature Daughter (in your tableau or in another tableau that is married to a mature husband of your species) at the end of each game turn. This means we will need access to Daughters, either by winning them in the auctions or marrying the ones in the other species’ tableaus. This outlines the basic strategy for the solo game.

The solo experience

I have found that the solo game typically takes me around 1.5 hours to complete, but this will depend on the number of Event Cards that are added during play and your speed of play. This is not a casual solo experience, because correct play will require you to remember the unique special abilities (from Daughters, Elders, and Sexuality cards) for all three species. You will need to juggle an overall “plan” for all three species in the game, and this requires a good deal of attention and focus. I find this particularly engaging about the solo experience of this game, but be warned that you will be tasked with basically playing the game for three players at the same time. While this might sound tedious, it is actually fascinating to manage the game from the viewpoint of all species. Each turn you will need to make tough decisions about which species need the good population growth biomes, which species should get the biome to easily clear a certain color of language disc, etc. In particular, it is fun to decide which Daughters should go to which species, and what marriages should be arranged.

In the multiplayer game, converting to Tribalism is optional and the auctions for a Daughter card every round are heavily contested. Players will fight to get access to the correct Daughter portal abilities throughout the game. In the solo game, you are the mastermind tasked with assigning these Daughters to any species of your choosing. Since you aren’t crazy, you won’t bid yourself up and instead will simply select the species to receive the Daughter and bid one language disc matching the disc colors allowed. Once the Daughter is matured, you will then be able to send a courting husband from another species to marry this Daughter. If things work out, you will now have access to this portal power (and any other Daughter abilities) with 2/3 species. In order to flip two species to Tribal (required to win!) you will need to fill all 6 of the brain portals on each species. This means that you will need two of the species to have access to abilities that can fill every portal, and this is where the puzzle of Daughter assignments and marriages comes into play.

When I play the solo game, I also don’t simply treat it as a win or lose scenario as suggested in the rulebook. Instead, I treat the victory condition in the rulebook as a success check, but then assign myself scores for all three species. This keeps the game very interesting, because it pushes me to make tactical decisions during the game. I play to win the game, but also to achieve a high score by focusing on the individual score conditions of each sexuality card. I have played around a bit with assigning a final score equal to my lowest scoring species, but I have mostly played to optimize my total score when adding all three species together.

The replayability has also been excellent so far. The cards that populate the initial biomes and the Daughter cards available have a dramatic impact on the flow of the game. In one game, I was blessed with bountiful hunt cards that grew my population at a remarkable rate. I was able to grab several trophies early in the game, and push for successful Domestic Animal rolls early in the game. My only challenge was getting the right portals filled to convert to Tribalism, and the constant population drops from Chaos events. In contrast, my very next game was a brutal death slog through the frigid wastelands of Europe. My opportunities for population growth were few and far between and typically involved predators coming to destroy any progress I could make. I was constantly fighting just to maintain enough hunters to survive. Both games provided a very different play experience, and were very fun in their own ways. The same can be said for the Daughters that have come out in my various solo games. There is a ton of variety in these abilities and how they impact the game.

All in all, I find myself continuing to pull this one off the shelf for a solo fix. The gameplay is turn based so there is an addictive element of doing “just one more turn” before calling it a night. You have both strategic and tactical planning, and you must constantly make adjustments to those plans as the game goes on. I also really enjoy the mental gymnastics of trying to keep the abilities and plans for all three species in my head at once. In your first few plays it is very easy to find yourself saying “Oh man, I forgot that Archaic has been a gathering species for the last three rounds because of that marriage!”, “Ahh, I took those wanderlust hunters from their available hunters and not the dead pile!”, or “Oops, that husband I placed last round was from a Promiscuous species and illegal to place”. However, once you play the game a few times the rules begin to settle into place and mistakes will be minimized. The only rules referencing I continue to find myself doing is to double check that I complete all events correctly.

Like all games that feature both solo and multiplayer, there are some differences between the experiences. The multiplayer game of Neanderthal can be very competitive, with both players struggling to get access to Daughters and biomes to complete their goals. The solo game is more about balancing the long-term and immediate needs of three unique species, while working towards a final goal.

What you miss out on in the solo game:

Competing with other players over hunting biomes, Daughters, and marriages
Ignoring Tribalism
Auction competition for Daughters
Importance of player order for placing hunters
Variable victory points from sexuality cards (if you ignore final scoring, but don't do that)

What you gain in the solo game:

Puzzle of trying to pair the correct Daughters with the correct species and choosing the best marriages.
The cost benefit analysis of choosing which hunting locations are needed for each species and selecting accordingly.
Tactical choice of where to place wanderlust hunters.

Conclusion

You don’t need to have a Ph.D. in the Natural Sciences to enjoy Neanderthal. The game provides a fantastic solo experience in a small box and has captured my attention much more than the solo play of the companion game Greenland. The gameplay is engaging and mixes strategy and luck in an enjoyable way, the card variety offers great replayability, and the turn based structure leads to addictive play. The overall strategies in the solo game are not as varied as the multiplayer experience, but the game provides you with a challenging task and it is wonderful to navigate your way through the variable game conditions to achieve victory. The game can be set up quickly, takes up a fairly small footprint, and plays in a reasonable sitting. In addition, the graphic design of this game is beautiful and highly functional. In my eyes, a significant step up from the first edition of Greenland (which now has a second edition matching this style). If you are interested in a heavier solo experience in a small box and aren’t put off by some mitigateable luck, this game needs to be on your gaming shelf.

Note: All images are from the BGG image section. Special thanks to Cole Wehrle and Karim Chakroun for uploading them.
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George Triantafyllidis
United Kingdom
Torquay
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Thank you.A neat review

Quote:

You don’t need to have a Ph.D. in the Natural Sciences to enjoy Neanderthal


No, but you could easily earn one after reading the rules/notes and playing the game

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Brian Burnley
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Totally agree with your conclusion based off two solo plays. Thanks for posting!
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Moe45673
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Replacing a competitive bluffing phase with puzzly resource management is exactly what Loyang does and is a game I enjoy much more as a solitaire experience.

While I just bought this game and have yet to play it, your overview makes me think all that's gained in the solitaire variant will make me enjoy this despite the loss of competition.

I also printed out Juan's biome variant for the solitaire game that Eklund himself said is worth adding to the living rules.

Really excited to play this. I also bought Greenland (second edition) because the games can be played together and I'm a completionist and it was there
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Josh Bodah
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Just played this solo and felt that it was a bit of a flop. The competition is really a core piece of the game in my opinion. It fuels all of the games interesting decisions. Good thing is that you can add dummy players pretty easily that still keep the game interesting
 
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