Teaching Evolution Through Board Games

THE GAMES

Neanderthal (second edition)

Playtime: 60-120 minutes

Teach time: 40 minutes

Game difficulty: Medium-heavy

Number of players: 1-3

Timespan: 45,000 years ago

Key educational concepts:  human evolution: cultural, social, and language; climate change; Neolithic revolution

Favorite rules video:  how to play: clublu vlog or Rhado's overview

Rulebook: link

Overview

Neanderthal tackles the early steps of modern human evolution. You play as one of three human species: Archaic, Neanderthal, or Cro-Magnon, during the peak of the last glacial cycle. Each species has subtle differences in their brain structures, providing a slight advantage in two of the three major cognitive areas: tools/technology abilities, social abilities, knowledge of natural history.  The goal of the game is to develop a robust language and culture while surviving the primal hardships of Pleistocene Europe. You achieve dominance by co-evolving your species’ genetic makeup and its culture through interactions between other tribes and hominids. Women, who were the predominant caretakers and teachers in these societies, are thought to have been central to linguistic and cultural evolution.  In the game Neanderthal, daughters from other tribes drive these genetic and cultural exchanges, which are integrated into your tribe. All of this evolution is framed in the context of your species’ mating system: promiscuous, harem, or pair-bonding – which can be changed and dictate your tribe’s social structure, evolution potential, and level of interaction within the tribes. Specialize your tribe’s elders to maximize its survival, evolution, and growth. Elders can be specialized in fire-making (mitigating environmental hardships), war (decreasing competition with other tribes), big-game hunting (increasing food intake and prestige), inventions (providing novel ways to hunt), or animal domestication (taking the first steps towards the Neolithic revolution). Victory depends on which strategy you choose, and may include how you develop your tribes’ hunters, elders, women, vocabulary, trophies (big-game diversity), inventions, or domesticated livestock.

           Learning and teaching the game

The game’s rich attention to scientific details that are carefully integrated into the mechanics makes this an absolute masterpiece of game design (this is true of most Sierra Madre games). However, these factors make this game incredibly dense and difficult to learn. These factors also result in an extended playtime. Lastly, to adequately comprehend the full brilliance of this game and make it worth the substantial learning investment, the game really should be played several times.  Given these factors, I am hesitant to recommend this game for education purposes broadly.  However, I structured a small graduate-level evolution course around playing Bios: Genesis, Bios: Megafauna, and this game. I recommend teaching this game in three phases: 1. Brain development and mating system, 2. Hunting and reproduction, 3. Roles of daughters and tribe elders

           Gameplay

This game is played over ten rounds. Each round consists of a series of phases. Event & Daughter Phase. At the start of each round, an event card is drawn. These usually end up hurting your tribe in some way. However, the existence of a ‘tribal’ species (something that happens in the game once your species becomes vocal) with many specialized elders can mitigate most of these hardships. Players then compete for the single daughter card available by bidding key game resources. Without daughters in your tribe, you cannot develop your culture or language.  Hunting Phase. The game then moves to the hunting phase (actually, this entails three phases, but for brevity, I will discuss them singularly). In this phase, players take turns targeting animals that provide the three main resources used in the game, facilitate reproduction (as a result of lots of food), opportunities to secure inventions and a game species as trophies (for some mating systems/cultures this can result in a lot of points), and access to animals that can be domesticated. In this phase, players roll a die for every hunter sent out, the values dictate the collective hunting success of your group and, at times, the dice values result in fatalities from the hunt. Portal, Neolexia, Elder Phase. In this phase, you puzzle out the engine you have developed between your resources produced, your mating system, the married daughter’s in your tribe, and elder’s to maximize language and cultural evolution. This entails using the special abilities of elders and daughters to move resources into your species ‘brain’ to develop your species’ tools/technology abilities, social abilities, and knowledge of natural history.  Once your brain possesses a level of development, you have evolved the linguistic, hunting, and social abilities to support/facilitate a tribal community, and your species becomes ‘tribal.’  Until then, due to limited cognitive and verbal abilities, you cannot domesticate animals, invent tools, or negotiate with other tribes.  All you can do is slowly arrange your marriages, expand brainpower, and hunt smartly, trying to survive.  But once, or if, you manage to become 'tribal', an explosion occurs and can promote a bevy of elders that provide new game-changing abilities.

           Education value

This game is an absolute educational gem and could be used to reinforce many key evolutionary concepts. This mostly due to the complex synergies between cultural and biological evolution.  It connects these things in a fun and logical way. I absolutely love the connection between mating system, language evolution, and the cultural values that lead to endgame victory points.

           Fun factor

The game is a rewarding mix of strategy and tactics that will leave you pondering your decision for days. It’s brilliant, involved, and does a fantastic job of submerging you in the tricky job of evolving early man. This game is easily one of my favorite Sierra Madre/Ion games. However, with that said, the complexity and the many situational rules make the game feel like a mix between simulation and a strategy board game. This isn’t a bad thing but does limit the general appeal and its broad utility in the classroom. Despite this, it is totally worth the investment in learning it.

Box cover (image credit: Phil Eklund)

Player Placards (image credit: Charkroun Karim)

A few of the game cards (image credit: Charkroun Karim)

A close-up of the Neanderthal player placard (image credit: Phil Eklund)

Comparisons to Bios: Origins and Greenland

This game shares its design with two other games from this group, Neanderthal and Greenland.  While there are similarities, sometimes many, each of these games has a distinct flavor with enough differences to justify owning all three. They mix up similar ingredients. However, it’s the amounts of each ingredient and the different gameplay goals that vary the final product. For example, in Neanderthal and Bios: Origins, a vital part of the gameplay is focused on developing your brain/language/culture.  In Neanderthal, this is the primary focus of the game, whereas in Bios: Origins, this plays a much-reduced role. Dice-based hunting to gain resources is central to the gameplay of Neanderthal and Greenland, but absent in Bios: Origins. In Greenland, hunting is the core mechanism in gameplay and can be absolutely brutal.  Whereas in Neanderthal, hunting feels slightly easier to do successfully, is also less central to the main gameplay objectives. Bios: Origins is the only proper civilization game and has a full-sized board game with a large map of the world, and as a result of this, a central part of the gameplay is associated with exploration, urbanization, and confrontation. Bios: Origins is by far the most unique. However, all three games are fantastic.  Of the three, I like Neanderthal the best, followed by Bios: Origins. However, to be honest, this ranking could easily change. If you want a game that you can use in an evolution or biology classroom, Neanderthal is your best bet

Northern and Southern Europe Biome Cards - What will you hunt/discover? (image credit: Charkroun Karim)