Full disclosure: A review copy of Paleo was provided by Z-Man Games.
I haven’t gotten many cooperative games in a while, weird. No particular reason for it, I suppose, just a sign of the times and the games I’m getting to play. Oh well, we’ve got a new one as part of a larger batch from Z-Man. As of writing, I am still under a pretty hard lockdown order, so I haven’t really been able to go anywhere or play anything, so I’m relying on titles that are on Tabletopia. Thankfully, Paleo is one, so, we got it played. Want to see what I thought? Keep reading!
In Paleo, players take on the role of early humans doing what they do best, surviving. You’ll have to craft tools, fight animals to dominate the food chain, and occasionally dodge inclement weather if you want to make it long enough to pave the way for your people’s success. Thankfully, you’re not alone; you’re all in this together. You have a lot to do every day if you want to survive the night, but it’s possible … for most of you, anyways. Will you be able to lay the foundations of civilization? Or will you just end up a footnote in a museum’s collection?
The game’s setup depends a bit on your modules, but you can deal with that as you start. Generally, you’ll start with the A and B modules; later levels will get more complicated.
Either way, place the three boards in the middle of your play area:
Then build the Workbench:
Resources go next. Set the Wound Tokens nearby:
Also place the other resources by the Wound tokens:
Place 5 food on the storage area; note that this does not change with player count. You should place the Cemetery near the Workbench:
Now, for cards:
You’ll notice some have sets. Combine the A set and the B set with the 1 set (the 1 set is the standard cards). Shuffle those. Set the People, Dreams, and Ideas (sets 2 / 3 / 4, respectively) on the base camp board (they have spaces for them on the board), face-down. You can place the Skulls and the Cave Painting tokens near the board with skulls on it, as well.
Players draw two people from the People deck and place them face-up in front of them, taking any of the Tools that are present on the cards:
You should be all ready to start! Take the deck you created earlier, shuffle it, and deal it out completely to form the player decks. It may not divide evenly, and that’s fine.
A game of Paleo is played over several rounds, as you try to lead your people to that ultimate zenith of modern art: the cave painting. If you can do this, you will be remembered forever for your nuance, your attention to detail, and your weirdly-shaped skulls. If you fail, well, at least you’ve got the weird skulls thing going for you.
Each round has a day phase and a night phase. Let’s go into each.
During the day phase, you will explore and try to gather resources and complete parts of your cave painting.
Exploration is really the interesting and meaty part of this game, so it gets the most detail. To do so, you’ll look at the backs of the top three cards of your deck. You can look at the board to get a sense of what might appear on them, and there are occasionally icons on the back to potentially give you even more of a clue as to what might be there. The one thing to note is that people, dreams, and ideas will always have something good to help you. Other cards, well, they may be more dangerous.
Feel free to discuss what card you’re going to keep as a group, but you have the final say on which card you pick. Once you’ve decided, place the other two cards back on top of the deck in the same order you drew them, and then all players reveal their cards simultaneously. You may now attempt to resolve cards. Generally, cards offer one or more potential resolution pathways, sometimes requiring abilities that your group must collectively possess (group meaning the group of people one player has in front of them), sometimes requiring resources or other cards, and sometimes just giving you Wounds (as a negative action). If they have a hand symbol, you may instead team up with another player to work on their card as though your groups (and resources!) were shared. You may also, provided a card has no negative action, discard a card without effect. Some cards require that you discard cards from your deck. You must discard the top cards of your deck face-down, and for every red card you discard, you suffer 1 Wound.
If you take a Wound, add it to one of your characters. If you would be forced to place a Wound token on a Skull space, they die! They’re placed in the cemetery and a skull is added to your board. Skulls are bad.
Sometimes you get pieces of a Cave Painting for resolving a card. Add it to the board. If you get all 5, you immediately win.
Keep cycling through this, choosing and resolving cards, until players are out of cards in their decks or have chosen to go to sleep early. When you go to sleep early, you discard the rest of your deck, face-down, without effect.
After all players are asleep, the night phase starts. First, each player must feed every person in their group by discarding 1 food per person. For each person you cannot feed, you take one skull but keep the person in your group.
After feeding, you must resolve all current Mission Cards. You must do one of the effects on the bottom, which are usually “discard some resources” or “take a Skull”. Skulls remain bad. You cannot skip or ignore mission cards, and occasionally cards will add Mission Card effects to the game (as evidenced by the moon symbol at the bottom of the card). Either way, make sure that you resolve the cards before moving on!
Once all Mission Cards are resolved, take the discarded cards, create a new deck, shuffle it, and redeal it out to all players. A new day begins!
End of Game
The game ends in one of two ways:
- You collect 5 Skull tokens. You lose, but think of the anthropological contributions your bones will make!
- You collect 5 Cave Paintings. You win! You should still think about the anthropological contributions your bones will make. It’s just a healthy part of processing your mortality.
In the odd event that you get both simultaneously, well, you still win. They’re game designers, not monsters.
Player Count Differences
So there’s a delicate balance you have to strike in Paleo, and that’s mostly centered around player count. At lower player counts, cards are much harder to complete, because you have fewer people who can help you out. This is mitigated somewhat by the rounds being longer, so you have more time to get what you need. And, generally, you’ll have fewer people in your camp, so you won’t have to gather as many resources. So while the individual cards are more difficult, the overall game is maybe a bit easier, once you get going. At higher player counts, that target shifts, as you start with more people. Cards are easier, but you have fewer of them and you need to get food as quickly as possible, or you’ll take a bunch of skulls at the end of the (now shorter) first round. It’s a dangerous combo, but it’s a bit easier to get the ball rolling because you have more people to mitigate more difficult cards. Just remember that you have fewer cards per person, so those big discards are more of a hit to your deck! Either way, I don’t have a strong player count preference, but I won at two and lost at three, so my peanut-sized vindictive brain slightly prefers two players. I think it’s also easier to manage communication and resources, so that’s why I slightly favor two.
- I think an important thing is accepting that you cannot complete the game in one round, and another important thing is accepting that you cannot take many cards on your own. There’s a real desire to try and get more people and complete tools and get through the game in one round when you’re first starting the game, and unless the later modules introduce that, it’s really not possible. Focus on surviving, then focus on thriving. That’s also a good lesson in general, for life, but it works here. Make sure you have enough food and resources to get through the night, and then you can try and go after the paintings that you need to win.
- Remember the things that you see in a cycle; generally, they’re going to come back around, and if you see cards that would give you a piece of the cave painting, they’re worth remembering. It’s important to remember the cards that you see but don’t remove, because cards are pretty rarely added to your decks, so you’re going to see the same cards over and over for the duration of the game. Get used to them and you may be better luck predicting what you are going to see during the next day.
- It may behoove you to keep a torch handy. There are a few cards that want torches, specifically, to avoid problems. It also helps if you’re looking for an extra resource of that type.
- Similarly, try to cover your bases. If you’re weak in one area, try getting more people to cover that gap or crafting tools to cover that gap. It’s very possible that your initial group may break weak on one type of resource or ability, which should incentivize you crafting to try and bridge that gap. If you can’t, well, make some ropes, then; that usually covers all your bases.
- You should try to shoot for 4 people or so. At least among your entire player group. You may not want 4 people each, especially if you’re playing at higher player counts, but having one person with 4 people usually means they can handle their own stuff pretty well and help you with yours, too, which is great! Just try to avoid making them do everything.
- Sometimes you’re going to have to go for broke, as well. Especially as you near the end of the game, you’ll likely hit a point where you either win that round, or you lose. If that’s the case, then it won’t matter how much food you have at the end of the round, so get that painting done! Discard cards if you need to and burn through your resources. Eyes on the prize, and all that.
- At higher player counts, you’ll be able to more easily accomplish cards, but you’ll also have an increased risk of folks going hungry. Like I said, you’ll start with more people, which is a very easy recipe for disaster if you don’t get a good cycle of food production going. If that happens, you’ll take a lot of skulls pretty early and it won’t be particularly easy to recover from a big hit like that.
- Completing cards that give you access to Secret Cards is generally a great idea. What do Secret Cards have? Well, they’re secrets, so I can’t tell you. But they, in my experience, at least tend to be helpful, so it may be worth investigating them further.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I like this form of cooperation! It’s not hidden information or limited communication, it’s just collective resource and time management. It means that you do need to manage things like who talks and who makes the decisions, but fundamentally everyone can put their heads together. It’s nice.
- It reminds me of The Grizzled, without being as emotionally heavy. It’s still got some depressing, since your people can die and you get skulls, but it doesn’t have quite the overbearing “war is hell” weight to it. I think that makes The Grizzled more interesting as a commentary / art piece, but it makes Paleo a lot easier to show to friends without all the additional emotional weight. The game still communicates the challenge and danger of being an early human, but it’s less tough.
- It’s got nice scaffolding for raising and lowering the difficulty level. They have ways to make the game easier and harder, and both are solid options! I appreciate this a lot in cooperative games, as not everyone is going to have the same experience range or, honestly, tolerance for difficulty, and letting players pick the challenge they want is always the right move, in my opinion, provided that the game can support that sort of modularity.
- I also like the concept of Secrets and Dreams, and how those can really give you the right boost at the right time. I like that for a mostly invariant deck, occasionally new cards get added that may be just the thing you need, or … completely irrelevant! Dreams more so than Secrets, on that last one; Secrets are usually pretty helpful.
- Interesting theme, as well. I think the only game that I’ve played that comes close to it is Paleolithic, and that’s just a very different game. I don’t see a ton of “early human” games (EDITOR’S NOTE: Eric, inexplicably, has not played Stone Age).
- The gameplay and the theme mesh together really well. I think the game does a nice job of letting you choose from some potentially good or bad options by picking cards based on card backs, and then relying on your friends to help you out. The Night Phase challenges make you really feel some aspects of the difficulty of surviving between rounds. It’s a nice bit of ludonarrative consistency, and I think the game is stronger for the nice meshing of gameplay and theme.
- The modularity is also a nice bit, as it allows you to grow the game as you get more used to it, mechanically. It’s a nice campaign mode; perfectly reasonable if you want to spend time at one level to learn the mechanics or if you want to lower the difficulty and blaze a trail through all the content that’s available. Either way works and the game supports it, so there’s a lot to do in this box!
- I think the cycling of the deck as a tactic for helping players prepare for subsequent rounds is really interesting, mechanically. It makes you commit some parts of the game to memory, which I don’t love, but even if you don’t remember everything you have, at least, a vague sense of what to expect, which I think helps build up almost an instinct? You avoid certain cards and go after others because they’re what you need in the moment. Again, a nice intersection of the game’s mechanics and its theme; it makes the design feel tight.
- There are a lot of currency types to manage. This is one thing that’s a bit weird about the game, and that’s just the types and number of resources. There are the skill types that you need to craft and complete certain cards, but other cards require tents or pelts or torches or traps or all of these second-degree currencies that aren’t immediately obviously currencies, as well. That … is odd, just because it’s unexpected and so you may spend it to help bolster a task only to find out that you need it to complete a card. It’s not bad, it’s just … odd.
- All the shuffling and dealing out all the cards does get a little tedious after a while, as well. This one I’ll gripe a bit about because you’re not just shuffling a bunch, you’re also dealing every card in the deck out to every player, and that gets old pretty quickly. If you’re playing with multiple people, have them take turns as dealer so that one person doesn’t get tired.
- The rules are pretty dense, which can make warming up for your first play a bit challenging. The rulebook is solid, there’s just a lot going on. I think this may affect reviewers a bit more than folks who like, buy the game and are hyped to play it. You got the game, there’s sort of a sunk cost thing already there so, darn it, you’re going to get that game played. I’m often just casually browsing rulebooks to see which game is the easiest to play depending on how much energy I have. So it’s less about playing this specific game and more about “I have enough energy for a game of about X weight; is this game it?”. Just different strokes. But this may make your first play a bit tough, just because there’s a lot going on that you need to be adequately prepared for. Just make sure you’re giving yourself time to get through the rules!
- It also can make setup a bit of a drag, though it helps that there are basically bags for everything. The nice thing about all these modules is that there’s a ton of content! The problem with tons of modules is that you need to get X cards from Y bag and make sure this thing is on that board and these things are in play and assemble a few things; it’s just a lot. I’m a bit more sensitive to this, as well, since I tend to play games by myself for the photoshoot so it means I’m setting everything up alone, so longer-setup games tend to be a bit more aggravating. That said, they included a lot of bags, so at least there’s places to put everything away.
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, I think Paleo is a lot of fun! It’s not really what I expected, and I think that helped a lot. I was definitely pleasantly surprised after my first play. I’m not sure exactly what I did expect, but what I got was a cool and complex form of cooperation where often I’d have to put aside what I wanted to do in a particular turn because someone else needed my help, and I like the social dynamic that that would create. We had to support each other, because otherwise none of us won. I think that’s pretty cool. I fundamentally understand that this is one of the core foundational elements of modern cooperative games, yes, but I think that the theme of the game, early humans fighting to survive, did a really good job making the gameplay feel more critical, like our decisions maybe mattered a bit more? I’m not sure why I felt like these really overlapped so well, but I really do think that they did. From there, the rest of the game follows well. It’s not without its baggage; it’s an ambitious game, perhaps maybe a little too ambitious, and so the sheer volume of content adds to its complexity and occasionally makes it a bit unwieldy. The rulebook is good, but pages are devoted to using specific cards or how certain interactions occur, and that (while very helpful) can be a lot for new players. A quick start guide can go a long way towards helping new people not feel overwhelmed. During the game, managing the various forms of currency that the game asks you to spend to progress can be challenging, but the micro-successes of completing cards and missions can be really gratifying. I think it all comes together for a great overall experience, and as a result, if you’re looking for a fun cooperative title, or you really just want to go mammoth hunting, I’d recommend checking out Paleo! I was very pleasantly surprised.