WBG Score: 8/10
Player Count: 1–4
Published by: Pandasaurus Games
By Tom @buryboardgames
Dinosaur Island first came to Kickstarter in 2017. Upon release, it captured many gamers’ imagination, akin to how Jurassic Park enthralled cinema-goers back in 1993. When we saw that T. Rex stomp out of the paddock for the first time, jaws dropped. That was the moment we were ready to believe. That was when we dreamed that Michael Crichton’s science fiction could become real. Shove a few frog chromosomes into fossilised amber and bingo! Dino DNA.
Let’s not mince words. In Dinosaur Island, 2-4 player build their own Jurassic World – a zoological theme park. And, quoting the movie’s poster caption: ‘the park is open’. The public enter through the gates and enjoy the attractions. But mirroring Jurassic’s franchise reboot, if your park security isn’t up to scratch, assets could get out of containment. And then there’s running, and screaming…
The crux of the game sees you collecting different types of DNA, so you can build dinosaurs. The more dinosaurs you cook up in the lab, the more end-game points they’re worth. Plus, the higher your park’s Excitement Rating climbs – which attracts more visitors. But the more dinos you build, the higher the need for tip-top security measures!
Dinosaur Island is part-worker placement, part-tile purchasing. There’s set collection, dice, and action points to consider. And, like any Euro worth its salt, you have to manage your tight finances. (There’s a solo mode too, a feature becoming all the more popular and accepted in these COVID-19 times.)
Each player has their own A4 Park Board, representing their own Isla Nublar. (It’s not the actual island, but it might as well be! Dinosaur Island flirts with the Jurassic IP to quite the gushing, fan-boy level. Even the font on the box matches the movie poster! I’m amazed, in fact, that Universal Studios’s blood-sucking lawyers didn’t get involved…)
This mat comprises of an empty grid, bar-one simplistic herbivore paddock. Meaning, you start with one meagre dino in your park. Your second A4 mat is your Lab, which tracks your DNA quotas, lab facilities, and security levels. There’s no denying: even at a two-player count, this game is a table-hog. It’s footprint is as big as that famous Rex’s, squelched into the mud.
A Fly On The Wall In Dr. Wu’s Lab
The first phase is Research. Players take turns placing their three Scientists in a traditional worker placement fashion. It’s go-here-get-this, first-come, first-served, but with a few neat twists. Each of your Scientists have values: 1, 2, and 3. To claim a new type of dinosaur paddock tile, you have to send a Scientist of the appropriate value (or above). Want a low-risk, low-scoring herbivore? You can use any Scientist for this. Want a small carnivore – harder to create, but worth more points? That requires a 2- or 3-value Scientist. Large carnivores – high risk, high points – demand a 3-value Scientist. Once you claim the tile, you place it onto a vacant spot in your park.
The second option is one of the most modular mechanisms I’ve seen in a long time. For set-up, you pick twice as many DNA dice as there are players, plus one. (Seven, for example, in a three-player game.) Each die has a combination of different action faces. Each game of Dinosaur Island differs based upon this random selection of dice among the 12 that come in the box.
At the start of this Phase, the DNA dice get rolled. Players can use a Scientist to claim a die, taking the action it provides. Most of these offer quotas of specific DNA types. Three are rare, with three being common. (Depending on which unique dice you selected at random during set-up, some types of DNA could be rarer, still). You earn die rewards dependent upon which Scientist you placed to claim it. For example: sending a 2-value Scientist to claim a die with 2x pink DNA? You get a total of 4 pink DNA. The trick is that you can only house a certain quantity of DNA in your lab. That’s where the third option comes into play…
Classic Worker Placement, Classic Cat-And-Mouse
The final worker placement location is less of a mad rush, with multiple spots available. Whichever Scientist you send here, you can expand your DNA storage. The total amount you increase by is the value of the Scientist you place there. This is more than a mere last resort for getting blocked elsewhere. You can never have too much DNA! A fourth option exists, of passing, if nothing appeals to you. In such a scenario, that Scientist acts as an extra worker (a.k.a. extra action point) to spend in the later Worker Phase.
Like any kind of worker placement title, this Phase is an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse. Not all Scientists get created equal! This gives you delicious decisions with regards to prioritising what to claim, and when. Turn order can become crucial towards grabbing these array of goodies. In particular with regards to the dinosaur exhibits. Large carnivores are worth 7VP each (but expensive, DNA-wise; more on that, later)! At least in later rounds the current last player, points-wise, becomes the new Start Player. This feels like a fair catch-up mechanism. (It’s a major feature I felt rival title DinoGenics lacked, big-time. In that game, the rich became richer and it’s brutal to those in last-place.)
Honey, Did You Want Lunch At DNAchos Or Dinosaur Fryland?
Next is the Market Phase. Players take turns to buy up to two items to enhance their park. There’s a set price, plus the item’s marked price (if any). Attraction tiles come in the form of food stands, rides, and merchandise stalls. You place these tiles onto your island’s grid, like dinosaur paddocks. They range in price, and some pay out end-game points. Some are mega-expensive, and not affordable in the time given for shorter games. Longer games, with tougher-to-achieve Objectives, provide enough game-time to fill your coffers with dino-dollars.
Lab Upgrades improve your default facilities. Investing in these helps maximise efficiency in the all-important Worker Phase. Sometimes you have to overbuild on top of your default Lab board, but this never feels punishing.
Specialist staff are asymmetrical and provide game-long benefits. Some give you extra workers for the Worker Phase, which is crucial. You can hire up to three Specialists. As an alternative, you can spend money to buy more DNA. (You’d do this with the next Phase in mind, if you’re short on certain DNA to create dinos.) If none appeal to you – or if you can’t afford any – you can pass, claiming $2 instead. Passing means missing out on a chance to invest, but sometimes you need the extra cash to spend in the next Phase.
Time To Play CEO: Now You’re John Hammond
The Worker Phase is a simultaneous event. Here you deploy your workers to perform actions in your lab. Workers are action points. The more you have, the more things you accomplish. (Hence hiring Specialists that provide extra workers being an appealing long-term investment!) Lab actions include Refining DNA (mixing 2x common DNA to create 1x rare DNA). You can spend DNA to build a new dinosaur. (If you make dinos, you obey the DNA requirements on their tile.) Pay them in, and then you add a dinomeeple to the paddock.
When creating a dinosaur and placing it onto its tile, the paddock needs to be large enough to house it. Another option in this Phase is to pay to upgrade the paddock size. Plus, once you place a dino, your Excitement Rating increases. The more dangerous the dino, the more exciting it is. It also carries a Threat Level. Careful: if this Threat Level exceeds your Security Level, it’s bad news for the guests when gates get left ajar…! Another option, then, is to invest in better security.
This latter feature is a fascinating one, because it comes at a price. You want to create as many dinos as possible, because they’re worth end-game points. Also, because the higher your Excitement rating, the more guests you attract to your park. And guests mean potential income and further points. But there’s a couple of hurdles you have to overcome…
Open The Gates, And Welcome Your Adoring Public!
The Park Phase is where everything starts to stitch together. Each player picks visitors blind from a draw-bag, equal to their Excitement Rating. The bag has 80 meeples inside; 70 are regular yellow Patrons, but 10 are pink Hooligans. It’s a complete lottery to what you draw, of course. You get $1 per Patron you draw; Hooligans slip into your park without paying an entrance fee!
Then you allocate Hooligans to viable spots within your park. They push to the front of the queue – boo! You place your polite Patrons, afterwards. Dino exhibits hold as many Patrons/Hooligans as there are dinosaurs in it. Attractions have varying spots for guests to visit, too. (They’re vital to housing larger quantities of guests, later on in the game.) If your Excitement Level exceeds the physical space your park provides, you’re wasting potential points. Once all Hooligans (and, secondly, Patrons) have a space, excess guests have to wait, forlorn, at the park entrance.
Next you check your Security Level versus your Threat Level. Plus, if not all DNA dice got claimed during Research, there’s more bad news. The die with the highest Threat Level pips gets added to everyone’s Threat Level total. This factor can impact your choices in the Research Phase, like an unspoken game of ‘Chicken’. Will anyone take the sacrificial hit and claim that die, so as it won’t punish everyone’s Threat Levels?
If your Threat Level beats your Security Level, you lose the difference in Patrons in your park. (Hooligans are sneaky, and can run away from hungry dinosaurs.) You lose 1VP per Patron eaten! You score 1VP per Patron left in your park, after this. (You can opt to take $1 per Patron on a Food Stall instead, if you want). Nothing for Hooligans. Nothing for Patrons stuck outside the park.
The Chaos In Among The Structure
After this Phase, you do some minor clean-up and reset for the next round. But first… let’s talk about Hooligans. From a theme point of view, they make a lot of sense. Sometimes you get a few rotten apples make it through the turnstiles in real amusement parks. They queue-jump. They’re rowdy. They make life miserable for the majority of the well-behaved guests. Talking from a pure Euro-gamer’s perspective though, they could irritate players. Their presence in your park is one based on the luck of the draw, which can leave a sour taste. Yes, luck evens itself out over time, but that doesn’t make you feel any better if the bag draw spits in your eye!
This wild element of luck feels a little jarring in among a game that elsewhere rewards you for your efficiency. (As a comparison, the luck of the DNA dice roll feels more of a positive output.) Drawing one or two Hooligans per round might not sound like much, but it adds up. You earn less money from Patron income. You earn less points from Patrons in your park. At least one way to mitigate this is to hire certain Staff cards. Some give you opportunities to discard and redraw guests, for example.
You have a track to measure your park’s security against the threat of dinosaurs. What if there had been another security track for keeping on top of Hooligans? That way, if you draw some of the pink rotters, at least you might get respite from this track. Or even a reward for handing them into the authorities? As it stands, they offer nothing but irritation. I suppose they represent a nod to Ian Malcolm – they are the chaos factor. If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain.
Objectives: More Flexibility Than A Brachiosaurus’ Neck
Want a short, medium or long game? Pick as many Objective Cards as there are players (plus one) from the short, medium or long decks. These sit face-up in a public pool. These goals are what drive the game, incentivising your long-term strategy. They’re worth extra points, and it’s a race to accomplish them. If you complete one, you place your Corporation Token on it. Other players have until the end of the round to match said goal. If they cannot complete it in time, then you alone earn its end-game points.
Some Objectives demand certain quotas of dinosaurs or Attractions in your park. Others involve earning income, or building attractions. You can also add in Plot Twist cards, which alters the gameplay in varying directions. Both are superb for replayability, since you can create a unique experience each time. As a result, there’s no one-strategy-wins-all to Dinosaur Island.
The game has no set length. Instead, it has an end-game trigger, which occurs once there’s only one Objective remaining. Until that point, the game has a formulaic round structure. To begin with, you’ll need the rulebook to hand to ensure you don’t forget anything. But Dinosaur Island’s rhythmic nature means you’ll learn at a quick rate.
Anyone Fancy A ’90s Dino Rave?
The first thing that captured the public’s attention about Dinosaur Island was its art. This colour palette is extreme. It’s an obvious homage to ’90s nostalgia – fluorescent oranges, lime greens. The dinomeeples are DayGlo pink. It smashes through subtlety like a Pachycephalosaurus head-butting your senses. Yes, it’s a nod to circa ’93 art and graphic design fashionable for the era. It’s also one hell of a gimmick. You’ll either love it or hate it; there’s no sitting on the fence with this because you can’t ignore it. You have to applaud the bravery of artist Kwanchai Moriya.
This 2.0 version of Dinosaur Island comes with different custom dinomeeples. In the initial release, they were all pink, plastic Triceratops silhouettes. Now you get different shapes for the different categories of dinosaur. Herbivores are still the Triceratops, but small carnivores are now Velociraptors. Large carnivores are Tyrannosaurs. These are both aesthetically pleasing and also function as a quicker means to gauge one’s park, at a glance. I’d feel a tad let down were all the dinos the default Triceratops – which says a lot about the industry’s standard right now. Dinosaur Island’s had to evolve, too. Publishers are trying to keep up with each other, spoiling their clientele with quality components.
The DNA dice deserve individual praise. Wonderful and chunky, they’re amber-translucent in colour. For fans of the Jurassic series, these are one among 65 million nods to the franchise. There’s 30 Attraction Tiles and many of them have delightful names, adding oodles of flavour. I grinned in delight when I saw one restaurant called ‘Clever Grills’. The draw-bag is a flocked fabric. It’s massive considering it needs to house 80 small meeples! But hey, players won’t struggle fitting their hand inside it, so no complaints there.
The player boards are marvellous in their cardstock. These things are durable! The Lab Boards are dual-layered, which is handy for clumsy players in case they knock the table. Their cubes, tracking their various DNA, Security and Threat Levels remain safe. There’s a lot of cardboard in the box, and I found it nigh-impossible to fit everything into the default insert. I even searched for tips on YouTube! I ended up removing the insert, instead having nuermous zip-lock loose in the box.
Yeah, But John, When Pirates Of The Caribbean Breaks Down, The Pirates Don’t Eat The Tourists
Glancing at grid-like player mats, one might assume: ‘Is this like Dinosaur Agricola, then?’ That’s not the case, though. There’s no ‘feed your people/animals’ mechanism in Dinosaur Island. If you want that kind of game, I’d suggest trying Tiny Epic Dinosaurs, or DinoGenics. The worst-case scenario that occurs if your Security Levels are shoddy is you lose a point or two.
I even once toyed with a strategy where I didn’t sweat and panic about maintaining security every round. Instead, I focused my interests towards building dinos, accepting the occasional small loss of points. (PR would hate to hear their corporation’s CEO admit that!) But this let me race towards other goals, and I had, arguably, more fun doing it.
When digested, Dinosaur Island isn’t as complex as it looks for a game that spans an entire table. It’s a medium-weight Euro, sure. But the Phases are formulaic, so newer players should pick it up after the first round. The heart of the game is all about your DNA tracks. You need to manipulate these in a set collection fashion to build dinos. If not to meet the selection of Objectives, but to raise your Excitement Level. Because that’s how you attract more visitors, and visitors bring in the money. Invest that money into further attractions, and the cycle continues. Ahh, capitalism…
The fact there’s 39 Objective Cards, spanning over three difficulty levels, is superb. It’s replayability-galore, personified. Plus, there’s 11 different Plot Twist Cards. Some make the game a smidgeon more welcoming to newer players. You can tailor Objectives and Plot Twists to make Dinosaur Island as challenging or beginner-friendly as you wish. I’m now keen to see where Pandasaurus Games’ goes with this, with the forthcoming Dinosaur World…