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Life Finds A Way.

Dinosaur Island

WBG Score: 8/10

Player Count: 1–4

You’ll like this if you like: Tiny Epic Dinosaurs, Dice Hospital, Unfair, DinoGenics

Published by: Pandasaurus Games

Designed by: Jonathan Gilmour, Brian Lewis

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!

Blood-Sucking Lawyers

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