Archaeology is one of the most fascinating subjects to me. The written historical records of humans extends back roughly 5,000 years, and yet we know things about the earth from hundreds of millions of years ago through archaeology and the discovery of fossil records. We have extrapolated so much data that we would have otherwise never known because of a couple of people playing around in the dirt.
Within the ancient knowledge we have obtained, walks dinosaurs. Real life monsters that walked the same planet we do, just a really long time before we did. It’s so difficult to imagine such enormous creatures, and it’s sad knowing that I’ll never be able to see one of these gargantuans in person, but luckily we have entertainment to fulfill these needs. Jurassic Park took the 90’s by storm and started a huge chain reaction of the prehistoric theme in pop culture, one of the ripple effects causing the release of what is currently my favorite board game of all time; Dinosaur Island.
Dinosaur Island is a euro board game published by Pandasaurus Games in 2017, wherein players take on the role of a CEO of their own dinosaur park. Players take turns drafting DNA and dinosaur genome blueprints in order to craft the dinosaurs for your park, which generates Excitement, Victory Points, and Threat for your park. Additionally you are tasked with upgrading your lab equipment, hiring the best specialists you can, and building other attractions in your park in order to compete with the other dinosaur parks. For all intents and purposes, Dinosaur Island is Jurassic Park: the Board Game both mechanically, and aesthetically.
The Park is Open
A game of Dinosaur Island takes place over the course of four different phases. Phase One is the Research Phase. At the beginning of this phase, the first player rolls the DNA dice provided to see what DNA is going to be up for grabs for the round, then players draft out the DNA in turn order. A player can opt to not take DNA in favor of obtaining dinosaur genome blueprints, increasing the DNA storage capacity of their lab, or even passing their action to take additional actions in Phase Three.
The DNA acts as one of the main resources in this game, there being six different types of DNA; three basic DNA strands, and three advanced DNA strands. There are a plethora of different methods to convert DNA types to and from one another, but advanced DNA is generally harder to come by.
There are three different dinosaur types you can draft from, (four if playing with the Totally Liquid expansion, which adds Marine dinosaurs) which include Herbivores, Small Carnivores, and Large Carnivores. The Herbivores raise your Threat level a lot slower, but provide a smaller amount of Excitement for you park, whereas Large Carnivores generate a lot of Excitement, but also raise your Threat level a great deal. Small Carnivores are in the middle sweet spot, generating a decent amount of both Threat and Excitement. Each dinosaur has a DNA cost to create, costed according to their effectiveness. The cost is effectively determined by how much Excitement and victory points they generate, versus the amount of Threat they give.
Phase Two is the Market Phase. During this phase, players go around once again in turn order with the option to purchase up to two things from the market. This can be a new attraction tile to place in your park, an upgrade to the equipment in your lab, or hiring specialists for your park. Each of these things have a unique effect on your game play, and will influence both how you and your opponents take their turns. Attractions can provide you with extra gold to work with, lab upgrades can help make your Phase Three more efficient, getting specific upgrades for your specific game plan.
Phase Three is the Lab Phase, and is done simultaneously by all players on their own player board. During this phase, each player has a number of workers they can assign to different actions, including but not limited to filtering DNA, gaining additional DNA, creating dinosaurs (increasing your Excitement and Threat levels), gaining gold, increasing your security, the list goes on. It would take another two hundred or so words to list everything you could have the option to do.
Phase Four is the Park Phase, when your park actually opens up to visitors. You attract a number of visitors to your park equal to your Excitement level, but if your Threat level is higher than your Security level, dinosaurs break loose and eat a number of visitors equal to the difference. You lose a victory point for each visitor that gets eaten, and gain a victory point for whoever is left over. After this, players clean up and reset the board, and start again until the game ends.
Running a Dinosaur Park for Dummies
Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of playing a five-player game of Dinosaur Island, with all of the Objectives chosen to trigger the end of the game being a Long Game Objective, making the game the longest game of Dinosaur Island you can play, and it was awesome. In order to fit the fifth player, it requires the Totally Liquid expansion, which also adds Marine dinosaurs to the mix. There are a lot of different strategies one can take in this game, so I’m just going to outline the strategy I took to end up second place.
The first thing I noticed, if you’re not first, you’re last. We had a special Plot Twist card that allowed turn order to be drafted at the start of each round via players bidding gold for it. With five players, having access to the first DNA dice and the first of the Market products each turn was an insane advantage, and if you don’t have the gold upkeep to continually bid for first place, you would quickly fall behind. So I took a turn and bid enough to get me first place, and I used that turn to purchase as many high quality items I could.
By this, I mean I drafted efficient dinosaur recipes (low cost or Threat for a lot of Excitement or VP) and purchased lab upgrades and specialists that would allow me to create and filter all the DNA I needed during Phase Three, rather than relying on the DNA to be available during Phase One. This limited the impact that playing last would have on me by always having steady access to the DNA I needed.
Once my DNA engine was built, I focused on generating as much Excitement as I could. Excitement is what determines how many visitors are attracted to your park, and thus how much gold and victory points you get. By collecting more gold, I could purchase better upgrades, and if none are available, I could filter it into whatever DNA type I may need to set me up for the following phase of dinosaur crafting.
The engine I built was far less superior to the one my good friend Joey Wheeler built, as he got a lab upgrade that doubled the number of victory points a specific attraction gave for a round, and another lab upgrade that allowed him to take the action of a different lab upgrade he has. This means that an attraction of his that normally generated four VPs a turn now generated twelve. It was absurd, and won him the game, however if I or the other people I played with had seen it, we could have hate-drafted it before he could get it.
This is just one example of how you can play, each of the five of us had a different strategy that we were going for, some were better or worse than others however.
What Dinosaur Island Teaches
I am not a fan of euro games. I like the concept, but I’ve rarely found executions that felt good enough to play multiple times. For me, they always feel like mechanical soup. Design teams reach into a bag, pull out three to four mechanics, slap a theme on it and print that bad boy for the big bucks. Bonus points if there is a poorly drawn cartoon white person on the cover, additional bonus points if the theme and mechanics clash.
An example of a theme clashing with mechanics is Troyes. In Troyes, you take on the role of one of the high imperials, building the history of the French city. You use dice to represent your population and can direct it to work on your cathedral, combat misfortune, and even just walk around your city. Why is the population decided by a random roll of four different dice? Who’s to say, dice rolling is a fun mechanic, go ahead and use it for anything and I’m sure a Spiel des Jahres will happen along.
In Dinosaur Island, dice rolling is used to determine the DNA that can be drafted out by players. This makes sense because if they have a way to produce dinosaur DNA, it’s not going to produce the same results each time The available DNA will heavily vary based on a multitude of different factors (ie. where the DNA came from, how long it takes to produce the DNA, different strands being rarer than others, etc.).
Without complaining further about Troyes (it’s surprisingly hard for me, I don’t know why I dislike that game as much as I do), what euro game designers need to account for is why the mechanics are what they are. If the DNA drafting was worker placement instead of dice rolling, it would be pretty garbage to play with. I think this issue comes more from postmodernism in the board game industry, however that’s a rant for another day.
Another thing that really stood out to me on my latest play through is just how little player interaction there is. Players draft out the resources and upgrade cards, but after that there is nothing you can do to interact with another player’s park. At all. This leads back to my earlier point of how advantageous it is to go first, not only do you get first pickings for drafting, but no other player can interact with you at all.
In a regular game of Dinosaur Island, turn order is reassigned each round with players going in reverse winning order (whoever is lowest on the victory point track goes first, whoever is highest goes last). This means if you are in last place, you gain immunity from all other players for a round. If you’re in first place, you are at the mercy of all other players. This is an astounding balancing for turn order, and it works beautifully in Dinosaur Island to keep those who fell behind from falling further behind, and keeping those in first place from running away with the game.
I’ve also gone through this whole article without once mentioning the two player version, Duelosaur Island, which is the greatest two player adaptation of a game ever. Quote me on this. Duelosaur Island is a full game of Dinosaur Island, with just a few tweaks added to the rules in order to make it better suited for two players. This is in stark contrast to a lot of two player expansions that take out or change a good majority of how the original game functions in order to slap that “2 Player” sticker on it, regardless of whether or not it works well. Duelosaur Island is up there with my favorite two player games, but it’s a close call between Duelosaur and Raptor, another two player dinosaur themed game (I know, I have a problem).
For my closing thoughts, I would like to say that Dinosaur Island caught me from the theme, and kept me from the design. It feels like everything flows smoothly, without the correct course of action being overtly obvious. The game is tight, and extremely punishing at times, creating a competitive atmosphere, with the theme and artwork keeping it light-hearted enough to play casually. The game itself also does an excellent job of balancing out players with the turn order fix, though you will still have to try to win.