I have some friends who don’t like games much. They think it’s dull, or takes too long – but last week, for the first time, they asked to play one: Poetry for Neanderthals.
If you spotted the gimmick of that opening, you’ll be a good fit for Poetry for Neanderthals: think of it as a game in the vein of Articulate or Pictionary – but with clues only allowed to contain one-syllable words. The punishment for missing the mark on this? A whack from the “No!” stick, an inflatable club with an angry face, and losing a point.
How To Play (In Theory)
The structure of the game is simple: divide into teams, making sure the people sitting on either side of you are on the opposite team. Then, players take it in turns to draw cards from the deck, each containing a word – say, fight – and a longer word or phrase, like pillow fight. (Like similar games, your clues can’t contain any of the words on the card.) If your team guess the shorter word, that’s a point; if you get the longer clue too, that’s three points, and you move on to the next card. Don’t worry – if things are starting to look dire, you can bank the one point anyway!
That’s about the extent of the rules – take turns, give clues, get bonked on the head by an inflatable club, repeat. But while the game is beautiful when it works – teammates getting on the right wavelength, clues given in seamless caveman prose – the real joy of Poetry for Neanderthals comes when things go wrong. Saying a word on the card? Bonk! Giving solid clues, but nobody getting it, so you – in frustration – resort to saying “inside” or “toilet” in frustration? Bonk! And the game goes on.
How It Goes (For Real)
Much like its theme, the core gameplay is simple – but deceptively tricky. Many players resort to treating it like charades, thinking carefully about each word they use, and deploying a cryptic set of hints: “Bright! Shiny! Red!” (If you’re thinking “crab”, by the way, you’re doing better than I did with that.) Or worse – settling on one clue, and then going for the Fawlty Towers school of communication, repeating it louder and louder until the time runs out. I still haven’t recovered from the clue “use Bob!” being shouted at me across the table, as I failed to guess sponge in time. It’s the kind of game where you never know who’s going to be excellent and who’s going to be terrible until you play, and that’s part of the joy of it.
There’s one more step to Poetry for Neanderthals, though it is entirely optional: At the end, the winning team – having totalled up their points, and gloated in a suitably grunt-y way – get to draw one of Grok’s Words of Love and Sad, and fill in the blanks, Mad Libs-style, with their three favourite cards from the round. There aren’t any points for this, but the rules do encourage the losing team to be ready with the No! stick in case the poetry isn’t up to scratch. (Be warned - I have never once played a round where the poetry was considered up to scratch.)
And that’s it! But…
It must be said, there are a few downsides to Poetry for Neanderthals, and it’s probably useful to mention them. The rounds tend to be short and a bit frantic, and as mentioned can be quite frustrating if you waste a lot of time just not getting it, a problem made worse by the fact that every card you skip costs your team a point. It’s easy to get distracted when you’re bonked over the head unexpectedly, too, wasting precious time on the clock figuring out where you went wrong, and while the rules do allow pausing the timer to dispute a ruling, in practice this never really happened with any of the groups I played this with.
The other major problem with Poetry for Neanderthals is the cards themselves. They vary wildly in difficulty, a fact not helped by many of the expressions for three points being phrases I’d never encountered before, or couldn’t find any way to express – “Bacon, bacon, bacon!” is a new one for me, and “Caesar salad” was nearly impossible to get across. Yes, you can just take the one point for the shorter word and move on, but it can be frustrating to feel like your team lost overall because you got unlucky.
The final issue – though it’s unlikely to come up for me, since I tend to play with the same people – is that experience is a huge advantage. As soon as you know the three-point phrase for each clue, you can leap right there, freeing up precious time to grab more cards and more points before the timer runs out.
Don’t get me wrong – these issues are minor, and Poetry for Neanderthals is still a great time. Between the cartoonish bonks of the No! stick, and the frantic attempts to get the point across, it’s a fast-paced, fun party game that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It was a hit with both relatives and friends, in more ways than one!