Reviewed by Chris Wray
PALEO (Hans im Glück/Z-man Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 45-85 minutes; $59.99)
Many games try to evoke the feeling of exploration, but few succeed. But when an exploration game does hit the right notes, it becomes a modern classic. Whether traversing an uncharted island in Robinson Crusoe, or searching lost temples in The Lost Ruins of Arnak (featured in the Winter 2021 Gamers Alliance Report), gamers love the adventure of discovery, and they reward designers and publishers that do it well. Paleo, designed by Peter Rustemeyer, is, in so many ways, the exploration game I’ve always wanted to play. It feels like a modern classic, so it is no surprise that it was one of the hottest items leaving SPIEL.digital. It is currently nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres.
In this cooperative game, one to four players explore landscapes and face challenges in the stone age. There is not a map – rather, the game is almost entirely based on a card driven system – and the players need to work together to play the right cards at the right time. The ultimate goal is to complete a cave painting, so your presence will be known for thousands of years. The painting is in five parts, and players win if they earn the full set.
Each player begins the game controlling a couple of early humans, and these hunters and gatherers have different skills. Some are better at hunting or combat, while others are hardier. Others yet have special skills. Along the way, you can add members to your tribe, but each member requires food, which must be paid at the end of the round.
The game is driven by a central deck, and it is divided among the players at the start of a round. On a player’s turn, he or she looks at the next three cards in their deck, and chooses one to play.
The fun is that the back of the cards give you hints about what is on the other side. Does your team need wood (one of the in-game resources)? If so, you’re more likely to earn it in the forest, and many of the cards show that background, so you might pick one of those. The same with food; you’re more likely to get it if you notice animals on the back. Obstacles have a red back, and it can be bad for the team to play several of those at once. There is a mechanism for skipping cards if you think they might be a problem.
After players choose their cards, they are revealed, and the players must decide cooperatively which obstacles they will face. Players can join each other in these mini-quests. Will they band forces to hunt a mammoth? Or go their own ways to collect resources?
Players can take damage from various obstacles, or they can also take it if they don’t have enough food by the end of the round (which comes when the players cards run out), and if the players die, they lose the game. So it is imperative to complete that cave painting early!
The result is a game that feels like you’re exploring something. You can often look ahead- because the back of the cards gives some information but you never quite know what opportunities and obstacles are in the scenery ahead. And earning caveman technology and building a tribe contributes to the feeling that you’re gaming 10,000 years ago.
Paleo comes with 10 different modules which can be combined in sets of two (or, in certain instances, three) to create different challenges. The cards vary in each module, so you truly are exploring what’s out there: you don’t look at the cards in advance. And along the way, you’ll find yourself earning different technologies, finding new challenges to complete, or earning other in-game advantages from dreams.
Paleo is a joy to play and it was one of my top 10 games of 2020. Though there is a lot in the box – the modules greatly contribute to replayability – players learn it in small doses. And since it is cooperative, it is one of those delightful games that the team can learn while playing.
The artwork (done by Dominik Mayer) is attractive, and the components are well produced. Assembly is required for the technology display but it is a nice touch. The rulebook is well written and the supplement (which describes the models) is logically arranged and quite helpful.
In short, Paleo deserves the praise that has been heaped upon it. This game will work with a wide variety of different audiences, most notably family gamers. It has enough depth and interesting choices to intrigue serious gamers, yet it is easy enough for anybody to play. And given the oh-so-clever implementation of its theme, there’s a chance we could see spinoff games in the future. – – – – – – – – Chris Wray
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