The Paleo Diet

Fun fact: the real Paleolithic diet included carrion. Your move, health buffs.

The staggering thing about prehistory is its sheer enormity. Before metallurgy, domestication, and agriculture came along to mark the Neolithic, the Paleolithic spanned two and a half million years, during which archaic humans and anatomically modern humans developed stone tools, fire, cooking, and clothing. Also interbreeding between archaic and modern species, but it’s possible that’s beyond the scope of a board game review.

Speaking of which, Peter Rustemeyer’s Paleo is the product of some significant DNA mixing of its own. With dashes of Friedemann Friese’s Friday, Joanna Kijanka and Ignacy Trzewiczek’s Robinson Crusoe, and Peer Sylvester’s The Lost Expedition, Rustemeyer’s version of prehistory is filled with resources to hunter-gather, perils to survive and, above all, things to learn.

I've seen a few people note that the whiteness of the characters is anachronistic. And, well, it depends where and when Paleo is set. I get the sense that this is the Upper Paleolithic, in Europe, almost on the verge of the Neolithic. Otherwise, the absence of darker skin hues does seem strange.

Meet the tribe.

Nothing illustrates the strengths of Paleo better than its overall structure.

The average day for a band of humans in the Paleolithic goes something like this. Your surroundings are represented by a deck of cards. As the day begins, these are divided equally between players, much the way groups of hunter-gatherers might orient themselves in opposite directions at sunrise to maximize how much ground they’ll cover before returning to camp to share their spoils and tend to their injuries. Crucially, the back of each card shows a hint about what might be discovered there. Mountains are good sources of knappable stone, while rivers are frequented by animals and forests are filled with something called trees which can be used to make tools or keep the fire going. Resources aren’t the only things out there. Some cards show a bramble instead. This indicates danger: the howls of a wolf, dense foliage that’s easy to get lost in, a pit that hisses.

Of course, if danger were so easily sussed out, it wouldn’t have much bite. Sometimes an apparently safe route hides perils. A mountain card that leads to a dark cave or starts a landslide. An injured mammoth rampaging at the watering hole. Thorns in the underbrush. The opposite can also be true. It’s possible that those deadly-looking mushrooms are actually delicious. Just… maybe don’t count on it.

Everybody has their own portion of the deck. At the same time, they consider the top three cards, pick one, and then flip them over together.

Let's see... evil miasma, tent mountain, or evil miasma.

Pick which of three top cards you’ll visit.

Resolving these cards is surprisingly tidy. Every encounter operates according to a simple either/or rubric. Say you’ve happened across a fallen tree. The easy option would be to snap off a few branches. This requires you to discard the next card from your deck in exchange for a piece of wood. Slightly tougher, if you have some expertise in crafting, you could discard two cards to get three pieces of wood. Even better! Except you’re also required to remove the fallen tree card permanently rather than merely discarding it. By harvesting so thoroughly, you won’t be able to return to this particular source of wood in the future. Finally, you could forego gathering wood entirely and instead opt to help one of your friends.

Let’s walk through some of the implications here.

First of all, your deck is constantly changing. Early on, this usually means you’ve harvested something to exhaustion. Dodos are an easy source of meat. So easy that they don’t last more than a few mouthfuls before they’ve gone totally extinct. Deer and boars are harder to hunt — meaning you’ll need more skill icons to successfully bring them down — but once hunted, they aren’t around anymore. The same goes for certain threats. Once explored with a torch, that dark cave isn’t a problem anymore. When you feed that solitary wolf, it becomes your loyal companion rather than attacking you. Man’s best friend, domesticated for the low cost of a skill icon, some meat, and two discarded cards!

This introduces what is possibly the most important “hidden” skill in Paleo — memory. Remembering that mountains yield stone is easy. A mountain is a big pile of stone. Forests are full of trees. Animals congregate where there’s water. It’s a little harder to remember that you might need to bring a torch the next time you swing by the mountains because you’ve gotten lost in that dang cave three times already, and a lot harder to try and remember the exact skills and equipment you’ll need to hunt one of several mammoths.

Over its many scenarios, Paleo even uses your squishy organic memory against you. One module begins when your tribe comes down with a rare fever, one that inflicts a wound on every single character at nightfall. As you explore, you stumble across special berry bush cards. At first glance, their backs are identical. A shaman might offer to teach you which berries she likes, drawing your attention to the minute differences between the shape of the leaves, the presence or absence of thorns, the slight distinctions in shading. Except it’s possible that in addition to fever-quelling berries, the shaman also likes berries that make her puke and hallucinate. You’ve learned to avoid the truly dangerous berries, but it’s still necessary to learn through trial and error — maybe even death — which berries will heal your people.

That’s just one example. Paleo brims with others. It’s one of those games you can pretty much set up and play, one person’s familiarity with the icons filling in everybody else as you go, yet it’s constantly putting a new spin on the things you’ve already learned. Scenarios aren’t even “scenarios,” but modules that are mixed and matched to create unique challenges. Trying to cure the tribe’s fever during a blizzard is an entirely different proposition than trying to cure their fever while at war with a rival clan, or while exploring a wide river, or while hunting mammoths.

Or, more importantly, cultural persistence. Which raises a big question about what "victory" means in Paleo.

Inventions and crafts are essential to survival.

In essence, Paleo offers a surprisingly thematic approach — and we’re using “theme” in a fuller sense than “this game has caveman drawings,” although I do appreciate Dominik Mayer’s illustrative style. Much like the prehistoric peoples Paleo depicts, survival isn’t as easy as wandering around eating things. It’s about constant alertness and learning, about recognizing threats and then remembering them long enough to either avoid or eradicate them.

It’s also about cooperating to overcome those threats. This is one of the areas where Paleo truly shines. As you explore, you’ll often come face-to-face with perils you can’t defeat on your own. Sometimes this happens when you stumble across an unexpected danger, but it also happens when you opt to engage with one of those bramble cards. This isn’t as foolish as it sounds. For one thing, it might be possible to stomp the snake that’s hissing in that nearby pit, removing it from your deck forever. For another, you might have noticed that you’re often required to discard cards from your deck in order to earn an encounter’s reward. Hence the tricky part: whenever you discard a bramble, you receive an immediate wound. Avoidance is often the best option, but sometimes it’s necessary to face a threat head-on.

Which is why cooperation is so important. When picking cards, somebody might announce that it’s time for them to flip a bramble card or return to a card with a tough skill check. Everybody else is now encouraged to do something safe. Of course, there’s no guarantee that any card is entirely safe, and Paleo is just chancy enough that there’s always a risk that everybody winds up facing dangers of their own, rendering them unable to help one another. More often, everybody will flip their cards to reveal that most players are safe. They can then forego their own encounter to lend their skills to their beleaguered friend. By pooling their resources and talents, even Paleo’s most dangerous cards can be toppled.

In this scenario, the risk is "being cannibalized by the White Hands tribe," and the rewards are... limited.

Every scenario offers its own risks and rewards.

There are plenty of other details that bear mention: items and crafting, the finer story beats, how resource scarcity gradually forces players into a race to either win or dwindle. This review could easily cover another thousand words discussing those aspects.

Instead, I’m content to leave it at this. Paleo is a masterwork precisely because of what it evokes. Its smallest details are no less expertly crafted, but they function so well only because they’re part of a whole that’s as familiar as the fossils, bones, and artifacts our Paleolithic forebears left behind. I went into Paleo anticipating a game that used its prehistorical setting as wallpaper rather than as marrow. Rather, the outcome is as delightful as it is surprising. By focusing his gaze on memory, learning, and cooperation, Rustemeyer has not only created an excellent cooperative game, but also illuminated a portion of our heritage that’s only viewed dimly. The result is a game that’s as wonderfully human as it is compulsively playable.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on July 17, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I’ve played it durin Essen, and was extremely disappointed. Gameplay was really tedious and felt really monotonous, so we decided to leave halfway through.

    • Sorry to hear that, John. The core gameplay doesn’t really change, but the later modules are significantly more interesting than the initial pair. Presuming that’s what they had for their demo, anyway.

      • I don’t really like co-ops that much, so maybe that has something to do with it. Thou your review and Spiel des Jahres convinced me to give this another try, maybe we missed something our first time 🙂

      • I’m often wary of cooperative games, too, but I think Paleo works on a slightly different level than most. It discourages quarterbacking, and its approach to pooling information and resources feels more genuinely cooperative than the dull tradeoffs we see in most co-ops.

        That said, I don’t think it will win anybody over if they don’t like the format! That’s entirely fair. Some folks don’t like competitive games, some don’t like cooperative games. So it goes.

  2. Excellent review for this masterpiece of a game. About an hour ago Paleo won Kennerspiel des Jahres 2021.

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