I feel like most kids have a phase where they want to be a paleontologist – dinosaurs are super cool, after all; there’s a lot of mystery about them, and they look great in museums. (Really though, I work in one and I’m always asked “is that the museum with dinosaurs?”). But wanting to grow up to be a dinosaur theme park manager isn’t really something that any kids will answer when you ask their career aspirations (unless they really, really love Jurassic Park and aren’t quite too up on sciences). Truly, I never really wished for either, I just thought dinosaurs were awesome – but having played Dinosaur Island I can now say I’ve come as close as I might ever to managing a dinosaur theme park and all of the work that goes into it, and loved it. I want to share my enthusiasm for the game today – the flow of play, the way it looks and the satisfaction of the game – so I’ll try to not deep dive too much in a “how to play” sort of discussion, but rather try and give my impressions of what goes into playing and the sense of fun that comes out of it, instead.
The gist of this is, as I briefly mentioned, that you’re running a dinosaur park both behind the scenes and out where the visitors are. Regardless of the length of the game, there are 4 phases to every round that are repeated until the game’s objectives are completed. Phase 1 has you assigning 3 scientist tokens to gain DNA, increase DNA storage and obtain the blueprints to create dinosaurs (along with their enclosure). Next up, phase 2 is a market – here you can get yourself lab upgrades, hire specialist folks to work in your park, buy attractions or straight up get some DNA. Then, it’s time to dig in: phase 3 is worker time! Assign your worker meeples to spots in your lab to mix DNA, combine it to create dinosaurs in your park, upgrade security and park space, and more, depending on your upgrades. Now it’s time to welcome visitors to Dinosaur Island – phase 4 has players drawing meeples out of a bag corresponding to their park’s excitement level – hooligans can throw a wrench in the gears and steal the spot of paying visitors – but you’ll hopefully gain points and cash out of any visitors to come in – but no points if they’re eaten, though! (I told you to upgrade your security!)
Diving in it does seem like it’s a lot – even trying to distill those 4 phases down to their basic elements can be hard! It’s even tougher to convince people that the game flow is actually straightforward, because the game itself takes up a huge amount of real estate on the table as well as being a bright palette of colour and bits and pieces. I really, really love it – but it can be a little overwhelming to get situated. I feel like it’s not really until you play through the 4 phases that you really understand what you’re doing – I wish there was a way to combat that somehow. Perhaps it’s in the teaching. I’ve actually had reasonable luck teaching this game recently by starting at the “make dinosaurs from DNA, run what is basically Jurassic Park, and then see if you can milk visitors for all they’re worth without them being eaten” pitch. But the actual machinations of things can be tough – I try to emphasize that really, there’s a simple amount of actions that players can take in any phase. There’s nothing too complicated about it, it’s just thinking ahead a bit with the decisions you make on your dinosaurs/attractions/upgrades etc and what objectives there are dealt out for the game.
Dinosaur Island can be tailored to a short, medium or long game by selecting from the appropriate objective cards. While not the only way to score points in the game, they do provide at least an estimate of the game’s length – once all but one have been claimed by players, the game ends. It can be tricky trying to squish in as much as possible before that’s triggered, and it really means you have to keep an eye on the progress of your opponents. For the first few plays of the game, it was all the short game objectives – I found that I was just getting rolling and wanted to do more, but I think the short game really should be driven by what objectives there are. Medium and long games provide more to dig into and I find it’s so much more exciting to get to build up your park more and work on things longer-term. In a short or medium game you may find some players rushing to hit objectives to end the game and get those bonus points. I find in the long game it tends to escalate very quickly after people have been heads-down getting things done — these objectives and game length could be a bit tougher with players new to the game, though. Discuss with your group about how long, approximately, you’d like to spend and flick through the objectives to see what sorts of things will pop up that might be of interest and help a decision – want to see if you can bust your park at the seams with so many dinos? Upgrade your lab a certain amount? Or perhaps you simply just want to earn a good amount of money in a round to trigger your success. I like the mix of things that come out, the variety objectives offer from game to game and – knowing that it’s likely that only one player will claim each objective, honing in on what you think you can do best. (I’m a DNA queen – my cold storage brings all the boys to the yard.)
The variety the objectives provide is the key aspect that keeps Dinosaur Island fresh for me. so I can come back and not feel like i’m playing the exact same game every time. On top of this, plot twists can really shake things up in addition to the objectives. They’re often something that can have quite an impact – for instance, every time a player takes a DNA die, they also get $2 – in a game where that amount of money can mean a lot, it’s huge! Or perhaps you’ll be lucky to start the game with less hooligans to mess your park up. There’s a stack of these that – while every player benefits equally – can honestly mean you get a different feeling of difficulty and strategy from game to game. There’s really not a lot of games I can think of where these “rule breakers” come out to change a game state in a meaningful way. (Perhaps just the roles and the placement of bonuses on the map in the Voyages of Marco Polo?) With the elements of randomness with the drawing of cards, attractions, lab upgrades and dinosaur “recipes” – not to mention randomness of meeple visitor drawing and dice rolling – it can seem like there’s not a lot to control in Dinosaur Island. There’s plenty of luck, but you can also plan ahead and mitigate somewhat (the specialists you can hire in phase 2 can help a lot with that!) – just like running a normal business, there can be the unexpected. Once you grasp the flow of the game it’s so much fun to crank out your attractions and dinosaurs and bring in visitors effectively and efficiently as you can. (Although, those hooligans really grind my gears!)
Every phase of the game, regardless of objectives and plot twists or even number of players, feels really distinct. Part of me wishes the scientist actions of phase 1 were integrated into the lab, but I understand why it’s up front to not bloat phase 3. Regardless, every part feels like you’ve stepped into some sort of behind the scenes of a park. Managing your workers, your resources, and ensuring the best comes of everything (or at least, hopefully!) makes you feel a bit like you’re sitting in a big corner executive office, watching a bunch of monitors and giving instruction as some sort of disembodied voice over an intercom. It’s all the machinations of running a corporation without the game being overwhelming or punishing (yeah I’ve heard about you, Food Chain Magnate). Now, I know I mentioned above that the physical size of the game and the colour palette might be a little overwhelming when first sitting down to Dino your Island. But man oh man, I love how this game looks. The illustration style, the colours, the pink dino meeples the fun punny jokes, the silly quote tokens that don’t actually get used anywhere – it really lifts up the sense of humour and lightness to the game that would be otherwise missing if it were in the more brown/beige palette of a lot of Euro strategy games. I’m lucky to have the deluxe copy of the game so there’s great stuff like the gorgeous custom coins and the outrageously unnecessary but amazing snap band for the first player marker – it’s all outstanding. Really, perhaps i’m just a 90’s kid at heart – it’s been 25 years since Jurassic Park the movie came out so that plus this fantastic neon aesthetic is just the right combination for me. At any rate, I’m glad that there’s a board game that’s come along that has filled a little spot for those of us who love dinosaurs and fictional worlds with them, but never really wanted to be out there digging for bones. I’m getting my hands dirty messing with science back here behind the scenes – too preoccupied with whether or not I could, that I didn’t stop to think if I should.
Dinosaur Island is a paleo-tastic worker placement /set collection/tile placement melange designed by Jonathan Gilmour & Brian Lewis. It is published by Pandasaurus Games, with art by Kwanchai Moriya, Peter Wocken & Anthony Wocken. Thank you to Jonathan Gilmour for putting this deluxe copy up for a prize that I was lucky enough to win! Dinosaur Island should be back in print later this year (at the same time as the fantastic 2 player dice variant, Duelosaur Island hits shelves post-Kickstarter).