Neanderthal, Phil Eklund

I’m taking you way way back, to 43,000 BC Ice Age Europe in fact, to talk about…Neanderthal!

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I acquired Neanderthal well over a month ago and have played it several times since. I didn’t want to post about it until I formed a solid opinion. We had a game this afternoon and I’m afraid to say I’m still struggling. So at this point I thought I’d write about it anyway, because it’s such an interesting game.

It’s a 2015 small box game, which I love. A box hardly bigger than a coaster is crammed full of discs and cubes, an intense little rule book (with a huge amount of notes in the back on the subject matter) and a ton of cards chock full of text, images and symbols. It took a while to get to grips with the rules, it’s not badly written there’s just a hell of a lot to take on board. As with most games, when you start playing it through your objectives become clear, but it’s one of those games that leaves me, much like Cro-Magnon (wo)man, scratching my head at points saying ‘whaaaaaaat?’ or ‘whyyyyy?!’

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You start off with your chosen cave man, hunters and ‘vocabulary’ discs. You have a north row and south row of ‘biomes’, cards depicting various prehistoric creatures and tools, to be hunted, invented or taken as trophies. You spend turns revealing event cards that are also female (or daughter) cards. First they tell you if there’s a blizzard, a catastrophe, if there’s global warming or cooling (which rearranges the biomes) and you roll for your tribes elders to see if any er…die. You then bid to claim the daughter card which will allow you to achieve certain goals. The winner of that card must remove the vocabulary discs bid so that she matures and only then can she use her ability.  You do this by hunting on the biome cards, to give you more family members and free up vocab discs in different areas (on your daughter card or your main character card for example) . This phase is achieved by dice rolling (the required numbers are outlined on the biome cards) so it all gets a bit luck based at this point. Depending on what you roll and which creature you’re hunting, you can end up losing half your hunters to a tusky predator. The last phase is using vocab discs (if you are able, this is where the daughter cards come into play) to place knowledge into your character’s brain. This can unlock various abilities. If and only if you get all 6 discs into the brain then you can flip the card and ‘go tribal’ allowing for even more interesting actions, like the inventing tools and gaining animal trophies. Wow. There’s a lot going on here. I could continue or go into greater detail but I’ve pretty much told you the basics of what to expect.

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I think the problem I have with Neanderthal (which may not be a problem for someone else) is that it’s so damn hard to get to the tribal stage, I’ve only got that far twice, both times we were only one card away from the end of the game. It’s hard. I think if you played Neanderthal many times, probably over a course of days then you could crack it. As yet I haven’t found a good strategy. It’s not the kind of game you can pick up and play after a few weeks and it all falls into place again. You have to relearn it rather than build on your existing knowledge. Or maybe that’s just us!

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The reason it’s hard to form a good strategy is because so much of it is luck based, due to dice rolling and the random events. Which very much tallies up with the theme itself. It just becomes increasingly frustrating when I’m not getting anywhere fast. But I like it. I look forward to playing it and I want to crack it. It just feels too much like hard work. Hats off to Phil Eklund, it’s a hell of a smart game. It’s the frustration of not achieving the necessary because you made a lousy roll, when you want to do all the cool things that the game has to offer, but rarely get the opportunity to do so. This game can also be integrated with it’s predecessor Greenland (Neanderthal is a prequel) but for now….I think i’ll skip it. More Info

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A Study In Emerald, Martin Wallace

*Bear in mind that these thoughts are based on a two player game. And that it was mainly composed at 2am when my daughter wouldn’t sleep. 

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I wanted to love A Study In Emerald. So that was possibly my first mistake. I’m rather into the Lovecraftian genre. Not on a massive scale but I’ve read quite a bit of Lovecraft over the years and enjoyed films and games based on the Cthulhu Mythos. So I thought this game is perfect for me; deck building, secret plotting, Sherlock and Cthulhu, I’m there!  There are some parts to this game I really like, for a start the art work is gorgeous. It looks like something out of an Oz book, and I love the board and cards, it’s just so darn attractive with some hideous Elder God cards to boot, perfect! But I found it hard to shake the initial disappointment after being so excited for it.
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I thought it was going to be one of those games I’d instantly click with, so I was a bit perplexed that I was struggling to grasp the concept during the first couple of plays. I really enjoy deck building and the mechanics seemed like familiar territory. I’m pleased to say that after a short while it all became clear. Well clear-ish. The rule book was slightly problematic, at first it seemed to be well written and but there are a few ambiguous parts that left us (and Jon being a big rules man) like ‘whaaaa?’ and having to look up online for rules explanations etc. I’m aware that the second edition is more streamlined, and a lot of er loyalists to the original think this version is a travesty. Having had no experience of the first edition and being that it’s no longer in print, that doesn’t really matter to people who have only just discovered the game. Anyway my point is that if this was an opportunity to improve on the original then why not make the rule book a bit better?
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Onto the game itself. I’m not going to talk in depth about the rules because you can find that information anywhere. But to give you a the general idea I’ll outline the basics. You spend most of ASIE as you would any other deck builder, by collecting cards that work for you and enhance your turns with weird and wonderful things. You have a secret ID, you’re either with the elders (Royalists) or you’re fighting against them as a Restorationist. You move your agents around the city spaces and grapple for influence to get the card you want (you need more pieces on the city to get first dibs). The symbols on the cards let you do certain things like move, pick up etc. You need influence cubes to pick up the cards and the cubes go into ‘limbo’ when spent, so ideally you want to claim a card that lets you retrieve all of them so you don’t spend all your turns just picking up cubes. You can also spend turns performing assassinations on your opponent or killing the creatures. If you’re a Loyalist you can get a card that means you ‘claim’ the creatures for final points.
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So this brings me to the pointy issue of points. Because the main aim of any game is to get points and win. So it’s a pretty big deal when it doesn’t quite work. The end triggers when you reach 28 on the score track, 10 on the influence track, if all your agents die or you lose sanity. You score by getting neutral points on city cards, performing assassinations, claiming certain character and creature cards. So there’s a lot to think about there. In a two player it’s quite difficult to keep your ID secret, but if you want to bluff you have to be careful not to get too many cards that will lose you points at the end. Because when the end triggers you deduct any points that were not helpful to your faction. E.g- you’re a Restorationist who wants to appear as a Loyalist so you’ve assassinated another agent but this will lose you points at the end for this. Likewise for the Loyalist, when you get Loyalist characters you have to roll the sanity dice. Lose three sanity and you go mad! So my issue is that in an already complex game with narrow time constraints, what is with the influence track? This was a real problem for us and my main bug bear. You can move the marker on this track up and down depending on whether your the Royalist or Restorationist faction and this affects how your points on the scoring track move. You can use it to speed up or delay the game pretty much using the number of difference on the track. Since reading a few posts on BGG I’m relieved it’s not just us that struggled with it! We ended one game on what I thought was a close call and then I lost all my points to the dreaded track and was a bit like ‘well why’s that happened?’ So I lost all the difference because I was one point behind on the Loyalist track?  I went down to zero? Still so confused! Is it meant to be evocative of the theme? Because it drove me mad! I felt a bit deflated and Jon felt a bit shitty and we were left thinking it would be far better without this odd mechanic. I personally think it doesn’t really achieve what it intended and should of been scrapped. Because it’s not that fun to use. But the rest of the game is good so it’s an irritant. I suggested that maybe we should house rule this in some way or leave it out entirely for future plays. But as Jon said, quite rightly, that with so many other games out there that are all round solid winners why would we play a game where we’ve had to change or leave out a main part of it because it sucks? Whilst this is true, I think as I enjoyed the rest of the game I want to make it work for us. But still  don’t really like the idea of changing the mechanics in place. I think we’d definitely have to give it a couple more turns using the influence track and perhaps finally figure out how this works to advantage without destroying yourself at the end. But if not I’d be happy to play without it. Kind of. In a nutshell;
The negative;
– Influence Track
– A WTF rule book
–  With two players it’s over very quickly and you’ve barely made a dent in the game. We house ruled to put the city cards at the bottom of the draw deck spaces because if you score the city points in the initial few rounds it’s all over in ten minutes.
– Generally with a lot to play around with it’s a shame that the end of game can trigger so quickly.
– Hard to keep your secret identity secret for long with a two player.
The positive;
– A gorgeous game.
– Secret Plotting is great fun.
– The deck building element.
– The theme.
– I like the fast pace, with sudden death imminent there’s lots to get done and turns are lightening fast.
– Much to think about and opportunity to secretly strategise (just not enough time to employ it all!).
– The character cards with some nice surprises (Freud! William Morris!).
– Some gruesome new elders like Gloriana.
If you’ve had a completely different experience in a 2 plus game please do share!

Dungeon Pets, Vlaada Chvátil

Summer 2014….

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This is the cutest game ever! But don’t be fooled, it’s hard! Don’t underestimate the importance of arranging your Imp shopping groups and getting the action you need or when it comes to dealing with your pets needs you could find yourself with a dreaded sorrow cube for your adorable little monster pet. Doing well in the shows and selling your pet to the customer is where the points are at but balancing this with everything else is a real brain twister. It’s so thematic, from the rule book to the board and game pieces and runs smoothly all the way through. So well executed and the design is fantastic. It’s definitely a different and hugely fun type of worker placement and I can’t recommend this enough! I really think they need to make soft toys of the characters, I’d seriously get them all. More Info

Powergrid, Friedemann Friese

Review from Feb 2014…

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Power Grid was a good play and strangely simplistic, akin to a family game and was about two hours of play. You’ve got to keep your wits about you with this one, be eagle eyed and hope you don’t get out bid on the power stations or lose out on any opportunities! The end game is the amount of buildings on your board and once your behind you’re buggered! Jon lost on a technicality and it was a bit of an empty victory me for me. Maybe next time. Gorgeous big board, lovely old school feel, I even didn’t mind the paper money…well not too much but it’s a bit ick to handle and fiddly. But I’ll let it go because it’s such a cool game. More info