So what if a few people get eaten? Dinosaur Island review!

We started off 2019 by diving into one of the most-talked about, most photographed and most socially shared games of 2018 in my un-scientific opinion, and that’s Dinosaur Island! Hey everyone’s doing it: Getting their own private island, synthesizing DNA, growing dinosaurs, and charging people to see them! But of course, it’s an ultra competitive, T-Rex-eat-T-Rex world out there, and the one who gets the most victory points by the end of the game wins.

Overall Feeling

“Everyone built dinosaurs on this turn,” said Tim.

The other 3 of us looked around and nodded, “Well, yeah!” That’s what you do in this game by Pandasaurus Games: You build dinosaurs. You feel like you’re growing and wrangling beasts. You also feel like you’re dealing with workers, working with scientists, growing DNA, wrangling patrons, and dealing with headaches through all of it. You feel like you’re bringing an actual dinosaur theme park to life. It feels pretty darn cool. You definitely do something in this game. You might even grow your very own Tyrannosaurus Rex!

The theme is very unique and I really commend Pandasaurus Games, specifically, Jonathan Gilmour and Brian Lewis, for tapping into this. Of course, we’ve all seen the movies and are so familiar with at least the theme of the series that we can accept competing dinosaur islands as a real thing and we get the general idea of using DNA to sequence dinosaurs and charging people money to see them.

Courtesy of BGG.

For those who are familiar with my reviews, I’m going to add some new headings.

What I liked about Dinosaur Island

Almost everything.  I love this game and would love to play it again.  There are some nitpicks that I’ll get to, but overall you build a theme park based upon dinosaurs, represented by fun meeple.  You roll interesting dice, place workers, and make in-depth strategic decisions.  You attract patrons and sometimes they get eaten, but you don’t get penalized too badly for it.  I mean, what more can you possibly want?

What I didn’t like about Dinosaur Island

There were 3 things that I wasn’t crazy about, and I think they’re worth mentioning in what is an otherwise very positive review:

  1. It’s a complex game with a lot of parts, and a lot of moving parts. The set up takes a while, and there’s a lot to keep track of. If you’re a hobby gamer like we are, this is acceptable for a really good game, and Dinosaur Island is really good, but it’s always preferable to play games with faster setup times and fewer tracks to manage. Further, the theme is light enough that I probably don’t need to have quite this much going on. At the same time, we’re hobby gamers and it’s a good game, and once you get the hang of it, it all works pretty well. There are certainly worse examples of having too much going on than this game, and it’s not like there are parts I’d cut out. The game also plays fairly quickly on the “medium” setting, and the availability of different game lengths is another way to help manage your time, or getting more time for your setup time, whatever is important to you.
  2. The dice rolling means there is some variability of a sort I’m not personally a fan of. In general, I prefer games that have some variability and there’s a great catchup mechanism which assigns turn order in reverse order of current victory points.  So, if you’re trailing, you get first choice of everything on your turn.  Love this catchup mechanism but there’s still the problem that I sometimes see in a game like Stone Age: What if there are 2 great choices, better than all the others?  There’s possibly no difference between what the first and second players’ choices are, yet a huge difference between what the second and third players’ choices are.  Make sense?  It would be better if the first player always got something better than the second player, who always got something better than the third player etc.  Not a biggie, and this is almost part and parcel of worker placement games, and it all works out in the long run, but this is something about Stone Age I’ve never really liked and here it is again.
  3. The final thing is that I felt like in many cases, the game encourages you to do less, take fewer risks, and have a less interesting theme park in the name of winning the game.  For example, you’re generally much better off building a second, third and fourth dinosaur that you already have, versus getting a new dinosaur going, even though in real life, a new dinosaur type would be more interesting than more of the same. To get around this, the game has incentives built into bonus cards, that get you to do things like have 3 species of dinosaurs or 9 total dinosaurs or 10 total security — things like that. Those cards end up driving much of the game because otherwise what you do to win is pretty straightforward — and it can be very hard to beat that straightforward, risk-averse way of winning even with cards. Overall it’s not the biggest problem and maybe it isn’t even a problem at all, but it’s something I’ll keep my eye on.
You can see the bonus cards at the top, worth 7 points if you can be the first to the bonus. Below that is a track that actually has a row of custom dice. Below the row of custom dice are hexes, and some have scientist flasks on them to represent the scientist meeple. The 2 cards with dinosaur silhouettes have scientsits in the hexes to the right of them that already claimed the weakest/cheapest and strongest/priciest dinosars recipes available, but the mid-range dino recipe is still out there. To the right of those dinosaurs are some hexes with which to increase your cold storage capacity.

Setup Highlights

I feel like I write “the setup isn’t too bad” for so many games, but it’s pretty rough for this one. I’ll put this way: I wasn’t even involved, I just saw what had been laid out painstakingly by Deri, and I didn’t envy the amount of time that must have gone into getting it right, much kudos to him. You need some time to get this one ready, but the good news is, it plays fast enough that once it’s out, you can get a couple of plays in like we did.

A lot going on here. The “fast pass” thing is an actual wraparound bracelet that you can wear for first player! Cool stuff. The overall set of components is extensive, and takes some getting used to.

Theme and components

Another thing I often write is that the components are “simple, yet do what they need to do,” but let’s get that ri ght out of the way: Dinosaur Island has some of the juiciest meeple you could ever want to sink your teeth into! Who doesn’t like friggin’ dinosaurs? And there are a bunch of different kinds, even if they are all the same pink color. The worker meeple are basically your classic worker meeple, but the scientist “flasks” are especially interesting. The patron meeple are also pretty fun, with 3 different colors to differentiate the VIPs from the standard folk from the hooligans. The custom dice that the game uses are also really unique and interesting in their appearance, despite being standard (but large) 6-sided dice. The rest of the game’s components are totally solid, from the theme park additions to the specialist cards and such. The ambitious, grand theme isn’t the easiest to pull off, but the components work together to bring it to life in a satisfying way that makes you feel like you really are running your own dinosaur island.

A player actually controls 2 cards: The card to the right is my island and includes the dinosaur pens and buildings that I put down. The card to the left, starts at the far left with the black and white cubes on those cardboard-in-cardboard tracks. (to the left of that is another player’s island tile, it’s a big game that requires a lot of space so we’re bumped up next to each other). The black cubes represent my cold storage capacity, the white cubes represent my DNA of each type — the far right 3 DNA types are the rare, valuable ones. To the right of those tracks are my standard action areas for the workers, who are at the top. I have a couple of empty spots right now that can get filled by specialized (non-attraction) buildings and such. To the right of that is my security track. The space to the right of that is for specialist cards.

Interesting mechanics and game play

It’s actually a pretty standard worker placement game in many ways, the interesting mechanics are the way you gather DNA to make your dinosaurs. You throw the very interesting dice that I mentioned, and then the players, in turn order according to reverse score (lowest score first, highest score last) use their scientists in classic worker placement fashion. As mentioned, it’s a great catchup mechanism that generally prevents any one player from spending the full game in the cellar, and can even help propel a player from last place to first, making the game dynamic in a fun way. It does have the Stone Age problem of sometimes a very big disparity between certain choices but this catchup mechanism helps offset it.

Then each player takes 2 more sequential, but non-worker actions, one at a time. This part of the game felt a bit clunky for me, but I learned to appreciate certain things about it from a game design perspective. It’s almost like it’s there to shoehorn in the buying of buildings, e.g. rides or merchandise, and the hiring of specialists; e.g. specialized science, security and sales personnel who can increase your security, reduce your costs, help you get more patrons, etc. This phase and even some of the cards don’t fit into the game naturally, IMO, but once you get the hang of this phase, it works. The designers effectively created an “other” phase to include some stuff that otherwise had nowhere to go, and it’s all pretty cool stuff that makes for a richer game experience. It only makes sense to hire a top scientist or to build some big, non-dinosaur rides at your theme park, right?

My player card, with white meeple workers. Where I used to have 2 empty spaces I now have the transformer and Dino Security station, and you can see my 3 specialist cards to the right. My security level is at 7, my threat level at 4, so I’m in pretty good shape as far as that goes. I finished second place by just 3 points, so this is a pretty good set up.

Then the third phase is non-sequential worker placement of workers on your own spots and buildings, which means that players can do this simultaneously since there is no competition for spots. This includes the really fun actions of building friggin’ dinosaurs, as well as upgrading the size of your pen, upgrading your security, synthesizing DNA and other fun activities. It’s just really fun to put down dinosaurs. It’s really fun to build a park full of dinosaurs. That’s what the game is about.

Do-something-ability

I think the message is loud and clear at this point. This is the standard we go by, and it may even supplant building a farm in that regard, if not quite terraforming a planet. You want to feel like you’re doing something? Let’s build some dinosaurs! Let’s build a theme park of dinosaurs!

One of the bonus cards grants 7 points for the first player to get down 3 different dinosaurs, so there we are. Plus I’ve got a nice non-dino ride, so this is shaping up to be a pretty good island. Just no big, exciting dinosaurs here.

Replay Ability

Well, we played it twice, so that tells you something. It’s just darn fun to build dinosaurs, and you can build different types in different games. There are also different bonus cards that come into play, so every game will have different types of theme parks developed. What was fun was, our second game was particularly lethal, with a high threat level and lots of people getting eaten on every island. Other games will be heavier on non-dinosaur buildings and maximizing income and that sort of thing.

As mentioned, the setup is long and painful, but also as mentioned, the length of a medium game is totally manageable. I think we played each 4-player game in a couple of hours or so, with plenty of interruptions. We could definitely go faster if we wanted to, now that we all know how to play. Yet, there is so much going on, there are a lot of decisions to make, so it will never be any sort of quick playing game, nor does it intend to be. It’s not the marathon I feared it would be, though, and that makes it more replay-able.

Allosauruses and Pterodons and a ride, this is a fun island! As long as no one gets eaten.

Game Design Notes

So there’s a lot in common with Watering Hole: The Bar Game so I couldn’t help but note some things. Both games are similar in that you have a play mat in front of you and you fill it up with upgrades and stuff. Both games have a similar “threat level” that you need to manage, with potentially dire consequences of failing. You also have patrons in both games. People have already suggested “VIP” patrons for the Watering Hole and now I’m leaning more heavily in that direction after playing Dinosaur Island. Of course, the upgrades and dinosaurs in Dinosaur Island are way better than the ones in the bar game, but the patrons you compete for in Watering Hole are a whole thing unto themselves and a unique aspect to that game. I like how in Dinosaur Island, you track the victory points every round and even use those in a catchup mechanism. I’d like to figure out a way to incorporate something like that into the Watering Hole. I also like how they pulled off the “sequential non-worker action phase” and I’ll definitely keep it in mind for future games.

The Verdict

Dinosaur Island is a great game, a classic worker placement game with great theme and components with a compact play time. If you don’t like the idea of building your own dinosaur theme park, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. I will say that this one is too deep for the casual gamer fan, with a long set up time and a lot of components. It’s for hobby gamers, and would be a great addition to any hobby gamer game set. You don’t have anything quite like this.

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