We had to kill a mammoth, the survival of the tribe was at stake. We needed hunks of meat, and skins too. Alone, well, this one mammoth turns out to be a baby mammoth. Pretty pathetic. But do it anyway? Yes, do it!
We knew that. With the death of the young we invoked the wrath of the flock upon us. We barely survived that rush.
The story of the baby mammoth was not written anywhere in the game. It just happened on the table, while playing board game paleo. The cards on the table and our imaginations merged into this story. And many others followed.
Paleo is a prehistoric simulator and story generator. A microcosm of cardboard. Each player controls his own group of people. There are gatherers, hunters, inventors, watchers, each with its own powers. All those groups belong to the same tribe: you win or lose a game of Paleo together. Cooperative, that’s called in game land. There is a nice balance between what you can achieve yourself and what the tribe needs. The resource supply is shared, but tools are managed on a player-by-player basis.
You experience adventures through a nice setup: at the beginning of each new day, each player receives a stack of cards. You must choose one from the top three cards. But: you only see the back: forest, mountains, or river, you don’t know what’s hiding on the other side. A bison cadaver, undergrowth or an abandoned cave? Each challenge requires a different approach: spears for the hunt, torches for the cave. A bit of luck: if you don’t have the right qualities yourself, you can always ask another player for help.
It’s amazing how each card tells a story. Suppose: on the back of a card is a lone wolf with three options. Taking two injuries (a fight!). Discard a Torch token (chase away!). Or discard a leg of meat to get back a wolf token that permanently increases the group’s vigilance (we’re domesticating that beast!).
Or this one: you come across a piece of forest. You can get some wood out of that. And if you have a lot of hand axes, you can pick up a lot of wood at once. But then the forest card is discarded forever. An ecological parable on a map. And a dilemma for the players: short-term profit now, or the sustainable route for later?
The first time, Paleo is overwhelming. There are so many options, so many piles of cards, with tools, people, dreams. But the icons on the cards slowly acquire meaning, like a lost primal language that you make your own. And before you know it, you hear yourself say: “Wow. There is no sleeping bear in this cave, but an awake cave lion. Can you help a spear?”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 17 July 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 17, 2021