Let’s travel back in time to the Palaeolithic era. They were simpler days, filled with hunting and gathering and terrifying wild beasts that would gore you to death, or trample you under foot… On second thoughts let’s just play a game about living in the stone age instead!
In Paleo the players work cooperatively to beat a given scenario composed of two different decks of cards. While the winning conditions of each game of Paleo remain the same, paint a picture on the wall of your cave to record your adventures for future generations, the method of how you do this changes with each different combination of decks.
Each player in Paleo begins the game controlling two prehistoric humans. Each human has one of three icons, strength, awareness and skill or they are a guardian who is not particularly good at anything but can soak up damage. Players shuffle the deck and divide it up amongst them.
Each turn the players can look at the backs of the top three cards of their portion of the deck. Each back will tell the player a little about what they might find on the front. Forest cards might grant wood or food, mountain cards stone or furs etc. Hazard cards lead to dangerous encounters, but they also cause wounds to players if discarded for other tests so sometimes it might be worth facing them head on.
After each player has chosen which card they will face, all the cards are revealed. Generally Red cards are bad and must be faced, while blue cards can be ignored, but will usually offer some benefit such as resources. Players can freely choose the order they resolve their cards in and players whose chosen card shows the Help icon can choose to discard their card to help a fellow player, lending their icons and tools to help that player pass the test on their card instead.
In this way Paleo presents a true coop puzzle. At the start of the game your tribe will be weak and will often need to cooperate to survive. For example players might choose to set up for one player to fight off a hazard card, by choosing a safe card like the home/campfire card which will ensure they can choose the help option and lend their aid.
Once you have cycled through the deck once the day ends and you must feed the tribe and deal with whatever horrors the night phase brings. Typically this will mean you need specific resources or items or you will gain skulls. If the tribe gains five skulls the game ends.
Once the night is over, the day begins again and the deck is redistributed amongst the players. However this time the players have their knowledge from the previous day to draw on, they also might have new tools or items or even new tribe members. Play continues through Day and Night phases until the players have completed their cave painting or they have accumulated 5 skulls.
Paleo is a really different and interesting take on the cooperative game genre. Each round players can make choices about how they want to handle the world around them. They can all go their own way, or they can set up situations where they can help each other bring down a big foe or solve a complex puzzle. With a dozen scenario decks Paleo also offers a large amount of replayability straight out of the box and each scenario brings a different twist to the game. In some you might need to hunt woolly mammoths for food, while in another you might need to defend your camp from wolves. You might be exploring new areas, like the river or searching for shelter.
Paleo feels odd and esoteric at first, but actually offers a unique and refreshing take on co-op games that gives players real choice and agency. This is not your typical “Take four actions, now do a bad thing” repeat à la Pandemic, you feel in control of your own destiny, rather than being in the hands of fate.
On the third day of Christmas, Santa gave to me... Three Woolly Mammoths...