Dale Yu: First Impressions of Paleo (Spoiler Free)

Paleo

  • Designer: Peter Rustemeyer
  • Publisher: Hans im Glück, distributed in English by ZMan Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 10+
  • Time: 45-60 minutes
  • Played with review copy provided by ZMan Games (US Distributor)

In Paleo, players work cooperatively to help their Stone Age tribe survive through the many challenges that they face on a daily basis.  Times back then were hard.  They weren’t worried about finding a 5G Hotspot and a nice latte with a foamy woolly mammoth drawn on top – instead, they had to make tools, find food and invent fire!

In this game, each player controls their own group of people, as shown with their own individual hand of people cards.  There are plenty of other cards in the game, but you will not use all the cards in each game – there are ten different modules in the box, and in each game, you will usually only use 2 of those 10.   The game will be played over a number of days, each with a Day Phase (where you collect stuff, make tools and solve challenges) and a Night Phase (where you feed your people).  If your group can collect the five victory point markers, you’ll be able to finish your cave painting and prove that you can succeed in the harsh reality of the Stone Age.  Otherwise, if you collect 5 skulls, you’ll lose the game.  Remember, the game is played cooperatively, and players will win or lose together.  In this game, there is no restriction in communication, you are able to share whatever information you like and plot strategy together.

The 3-D workbench is placed at one end of the table and the three boards (Base Camp, Wilderness and Night) are splayed out below.  The People, Dreams and Ideas decks are shuffled separately and placed on their spaces on the Base Camp board.  The base card set as well as the cards from the chosen modules for this game are shuffled and then they are dealt facedown as evenly as possible to each player.  These cards form the individual player deck.  Finally, each player takes 2 people cards from the deck and places them face up in front of them, taking any tools shown in the lower portion of their people cards.  The lower right shows one or more heart spaces where your person can take damage, and then a skull space, which when filled, unsurprisingly means that your person is now dead.

The game will be played over a number of days, predictably split into Day and Night Phases.  In the Day Phase, players will play through their deck of cards.  When all the cards are played (or the players have passed), it’s time for sleep.

Players take actions simultaneously in the Day Phase.  To start, draw the top 3 cards from your deck, but DO NOT LOOK at the fronts, you can only look at the backs.  Choose one of the three cards to play this turn (using the art and any additional icons on the card back as a guide), and then place the other 2 cards back on the deck in any order.  The base camp board has a helpful guide to show you what is often found on certain types of cards.  People cards, Dreams cards and Idea cards will always have good things on them.  Forest, Mountain and River cards will often have resources on the back, but there may be surprises lurking too!  You can always look at the backs of the cards in your deck, but you are not allowed to peek at the opposite side nor are you allowed to change the order of the cards.

Once all players have chosen their card for this turn, all cards are simultaneously revealed.  For each card, there are generally a number of options to take.  The group can freely discuss which one should be taken, but in the end, the final decision lies with the owner of the card.  Some choices simply provide things (like resources), others may require you to have certain abilities in your group as prerequisites for the reward, and others may require you to discard cards facedown from your deck (representing lost potential) in order to gain something.  Note that whenever you have to discard cards, if you draw a red backed card, you must take a damage point.  The group can decide which order they want to resolve the cards in – and this may be helpful is gaining a prerequisite on an earlier card to allow for a better choice on a later card.  You can also use your card to help other players, by doing so, you will not resolve your card at all, but instead you can then share your abilities from your group with that of another player.   As a final option, if you can’t or don’t want to resolve an action, you can ignore the card and discard it faceup – well, unless it’s a Red Hazard card; you can never ignore these.

It is important to note that there will be two discard piles. To the left of the wilderness board will be the facedown discard pile.  These will mostly be cards discarded as paid costs to resolve other cards.  Players may NOT look at the back side of these cards.  To the Right of the wilderness board will be the faceup discards. These will be the resolved cards as well as any ignored cards.  Cards in this stack can be freely examined (both sides of the card).

Once all of the revealed cards are resolved in the current turn, then it’s time to do it again.  Continue doing this until all the cards are drawn.  If a player runs out of cards, they are simply out of the rest of the Day Phase – they cannot assist other players nor resolve cards…  Further, players at any time can choose to go to sleep early. When this happens, they simply discard the rest of their cards and do nothing else for the rest of the day phase.  One situation where this might be useful is if you have a lot of red cards left in your deck, and as those cards often have bad things on them, you might not want to have to resolve them.

There are plenty of different results and icons representing those results.  The rules explicitly say that you don’t need to memorize them all, and instead, you can simply refer to the charts on page 7 and 8 of the rules to figure out what happens.  You might gain resources or tools, you could draw extra cards to add to your deck or place on the workbench, you might have to send one of your people to the cemetery, you might gain wounds or you might heal wounds.  You may even be able to gain one of the five victory tiles – when all are gained, the game is won!  Honestly, the icons are pretty intuitive, so it’s not difficult at all…

One specific action on the cards is Crafting.  This lets you make tools from the bright ideas that your people have come up with thus far!  The big 2-level workbench holds idea cards, and these cards may allow you to convert resources (and sometimes require tools) to gain rewards.  Some might be one-time use things, others may be permanent attributes, etc.

Again, the Day Phase continues as long as there are still cards to be resolved.  When everyone has played through their deck or voluntarily gone to sleep, the game moves to the Night phase.  First, you must feed your people. For each Person card in front of you, you must discard 1 Food token. For each unfed person, you must put 1 Skull token on the night board.  Remember that if you place the 5th skull token on the board, the team loses!

After feeding, if there are any face up Mission cards, they must be resolved.  There is usually a choice on these cards, and the group can decide which option they want to take and can split the costs amongst the whole group. Finally, if you have any cards in your group that have night actions shown at the bottom, you must also resolve these now.

The game then moves into the next day.  All the cards are shuffled (well, a fair number of the cards may end up being discarded as you resolved them), and the cards are again dealt out as evenly as possible.

My thoughts on the game

Well, so far, we’ve just scratched the surface, but since it is SPIEL week, we are trying to get our initial thoughts down on paper so that others can read about it.  So far, I must say, I am super impressed with the system.  The game has a nice flow to it, and we were honestly able to pick it up pretty easily once we started.

We did play our initial game with only 3 groups – as the rules suggest.  Having played it through once, I think this is likely a mandatory thing.  We had a hard time dealing with all the feeding needs (especially as we really didn’t know what to expect), and the additional burden of 2 more drumsticks each night phase would have piled on the skulls for sure!  As a game developer myself, I definitely try to stick to recommendations about how to play a first game, as someone has probably put in a buttload worth of work to figure that out for you.

The card choice mechanism is really neat.  I love the way that the groups can decide what cards they think are best to play on a given turn, but can only base it on the card backs. There are definitely some surprises that come up, and sometimes remembering what cards you have seen before may help you make an even more educated guess as to what might be coming in the future.  Each turn, there is a constant sense of discovery/anticipation as you flip over your card and then hope that you get a card back that you want!

You will definitely need to help each other along the way – and it seems like just about every non-hazard card gives you the opportunity to help.  If you suspect (from the card back) that someone is going to have a “big” card, the other groups might want to try to avoid hazard cards just to leave them available to help.  Most of the cards which grant victory tile pieces have such high requirements as to need at least one, if not two, helpers.

That being said, you can’t continually avoid the hazard cards.  At some point, it might be better to just take one and hope you can deal with again (again, possibly with help).  If you do actions that require you to discard cards, and you discard red hazard cards in the process, you will take damage.  If you choose to play a Hazard card, you at least have a chance to mitigate and avoid the damage whereas it’s an automatic thing when you discard one…  If you near the end of the round, you might be able to keep pushing off the inevitable and then go to sleep and simply ignore them though.

The cycling of the cards is another interesting facet to the game.  If you discard cards for an action (or going to sleep early), these cards get discarded face down – thus, you never know what is on their back.  So… in later rounds, when you see a specific card back, you are probably not 100% sure what the possibilities are because someone likely discarded a card with a similar back in an earlier round.  And, you’ll never know if that same card was discarded multiple times – so you could still be in for a nice/rude surprise even in the late stages of the game!  Having a good memory will help as you can at least try to make the most informed decision possible as you learn what is on the card backs.  Furthermore, as you play the game more, I’m pretty sure you’ll remember what is on most of the base cards, and you can build an internal probability chart based on that… Each module seems to have 10-15 cards in it, so they will surely change the odds a bit, but not overwhelmingly so.

In the initial scenario that we chose, things were tight with resources.  We spent our first few days just learning the cards and figuring out how to mainly feed ourselves and not die at night.  As we got the hang of it, we started to be able to anticipate what cards would lead to what results, and that’s when it really became fun.  I think that our first game took 6 rounds, and we were victorious!  We actually were not close to losing, but we were also playing the easiest scenario possible per the rules.

If you’re going to play soon, a few caveats about the rules.  I would have liked a bit more explanation in places.  Sure, I know that they are intentionally vague because of spoilers… but setup was a bit dicey.  But, this can be easily solved.  First, just know that it’s OK to look at the backs of the cards in initial setup. In fact, you have to look because the icons/letters/numbers that you sort by are only found on the backs, in the upper right corner. You can honestly do it without seeing much else of the card.  But we missed this fact and we spent the first few minutes fumbling around confused.  Second, when you are building the decks for your game, as you add in the modules… BE SURE TO TAKE OUT THE MISSION CARDS FIRST, and then shuffle.  The rules tell you to shuffle, and then in the next sentence in bold, it tells you to pull out the mission cards first.  Maybe that could have been sequenced better… Other than that, the rules pretty much get you to where you need to go.  Other things may have to be looked up as you discover things, but we didn’t really have many issues once we figured out how to set it up.

So far, this is a fantastic cooperative game. But I’ve only played it once, and only with 3 groups.  We’re going to play with 4 groups later this weekend and with a harder scenario, so we’ll probably come back with a longer review in the future.  But, for now, I’d say that I’d highly recommend that you check it out if you’re a fan of cooperative games.  The deck exploration is really great, and I really like the fact that this is the sort of cooperative game where it’s hard to be quarterbacked – because each player has their own deck.  Each flip of the card could bring the unexpected, and that is what keeps the game so interesting.   Additionally, as you combine the different modules, you will have to first figure out how those module cards work, and then later, figure out how they work together…  Lots of room for exploration in this box!

Provisional rating: I love it!

Until your next appointment

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2020, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

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