Dinosaur Island, Uh, Finds a Way

Jur-acid Park

There’s an undeniable allure to the prospect of running your own dinosaur park, sure. Electrified paddocks packed with jumping velociraptors, automated cars humming past jungle exhibits, the occasional goat bleating its location to a beverage-rippling T-rex.

But right away, Dinosaur Island makes one crucial misstep that sends it hurtling into a ravine filled with hungry compsognathus. Because you see, it’s not merely that we want to operate a dinosaur park. It’s that we want to operate a dinosaur park while it’s teetering on the edge of full-blown chaos theory meltdown.

I'm reasonably certain that this takes place in the same timeline as Jurassic Park, at least in the designer's imagination, which makes this decision even more perplexing.

They’re pink because they’re all female. To prevent unauthorized breeding. Surely that will work.

Every so often, Dinosaur Island approaches the fullness of what it could have been. Your staff have recently cooked up something special — some pteranodons, perhaps — but budget cuts precluded the necessary safety checks on the aviary perimeter. When the customers pour into the park, hungry-eyed at the prospect of glimpsing these winged marvels, the electrified caging around the exhibit shorts, then buckles, then tears to shreds. The crowds run screaming. Some folks are eaten, probably the slowest and dumbest of them, because baby, this is natural selection.

For losing customers, you lose victory points, at the very sensible ratio of one customer to one point. Meanwhile, your customers in the other portions of the park go about the very important business of buying tickets, hats with terrible puns for logos, and ride passes. The following quarter, the park reopens to hearty acclaim, a new batch of eager-beaver guests flooding through those front gates, apparently the same people who aren’t sure how to tune into the coverage of last month’s carnage.

This is the best thing about Dinosaur Island. When you neglect one aspect of your park — usually security, though it can also be attractions, food courts, or just a revenue stream — the problems ripple outward from that focal point like a hurricane tearing Florida a brand new rump-end because a butterfly flapped its uppity wings in Brazil. This is when people get eaten, a few points are lost, and park owners must scramble to extricate themselves from the elbow-deep triceratops dung they’ve buried themselves beneath.

The rest of the time, though, Dinosaur Island is cutesy, vibrant, and a serviceable worker placement game, but also about as fragmentary as Othniel Charles Marsh’s original apatosaurus skeleton.

At least nobody is selling cheese wheels or papyrus or whatever.

Even running a dino park, you’ll spend a number of minutes staring at a market offer.

Let’s look at what I mean.

Dinosaur Island is divided between four parts, each portion important to the overall picture of what the game is trying to accomplish, but none so crucial that they couldn’t have been tightened. First up is the research phase, where your company’s scientists harvest strands of color-coded DNA, increase your facility’s cold storage for all those various DNA types, and occasionally research new dino recipes to add to your park. It’s an ultra-lite worker placement game, one where the best resources are usually fairly apparent, so they’re usually snapped up by whichever company is first in the turn order.

Then there’s the market phase. A functioning park will have extra employees — a genuine highlight being each prospective worker’s abilities — as well as extra lab spaces and park attractions. Oh, and if you missed out on the DNA you wanted, this is where you can pick up a few extra helices.

After that, everyone goes heads-down for a minute to assign their workers to various corporate tasks. DNA is purified into rarer varieties, dinosaurs are “cooked” into existence, security ratings and extra paddocks are built, and something will likely be overlooked. In essence, it’s another worker placement game, though at least there’s a bit more to wrestle with this time, largely because there’s always too much to do and never enough hands to make it happen.

Lastly comes one more light worker placement gig, this time managing the crowds of guests as they pour into the park. Guests are drawn at random from a bag, their volume determined by how much buzz your latest stable of dinos has produced, and split between paying (and point generating) customers and fence-hopping hooligans. The latter are more of a nuisance than a threat of Dennis Nedry proportions. They eat up all your snacks and prevent real visitors from actually getting past the park’s entrance queue, and they’ll happily be the first to flee if a spinosaurus gets loose, but forget about them smuggling out embryos in shaving cream canisters for Biosyn. These are hooligans of the most pedestrian variety.

From a gameplay standpoint, they’re also a terrible idea, liable to demolish a park’s best-laid plans and useful neither as a stakes-raiser or a catch-up mechanic. But, well, there they are. In one sense, perhaps the inclusion of jackasses is the game’s one stab at realism.

"Give us moar money!" / "I'm sorry, Mr. Muldoon, but your business model is untenable." / "CLEVER GARL!"

Worker Placement Game number two of three: sending tiny Muldoons to beg for cash.

By my count, we’re now at three worker placement microgames and one market-day staring contest.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. At their best, these phases have the potential to connect in interesting ways. Your company’s budget is perhaps the most obvious bit of shared genome, as money is necessary both at market and to buy all those fancy spiky walls and tranquilizer rifles and legally deniable Puerto Rican laborers. More than that, your stockpiles of DNA are gathered across many phases in preparation for when they’re tossed into the CRISPR to pop out fertilized dino eggs with a microwave ding. You can even decide that upgrading your cold storage past a certain number of freezers is totally worthless (because it is), and instead force some of those high-and-mighty scientists to help out with paddock construction.

The rest of the time, though, it’s hard for Dinosaur Island to shrug off the sensation that it’s stretching itself just a tad too far. Before long, certain rounds have outed themselves as trivial, gone the way of the dodo thanks to new methods of producing DNA, a chock-full staff, or enough cold storage to refreeze to Arctic. Early on, a park must scrimp and save to afford some poultry netting around its ankylosaurus exhibit; by the end of the game, it’s entirely possible to field an entire herd of dangerous carnivores with walls and guns to spare, have your workers racing to produce the beasts that will generate the greatest thrills, and have no appreciable reason to ever again chip away amber to get at the mosquito encased within.

It’s a problem on two levels. First, while Dinosaur Island isn’t a terrible game by any measure, it’s painfully cluttered. Why have all these phases when they don’t result in interesting decisions? Why include “plot twist” cards that don’t twist any plots, or alternate game lengths when the game proceeds through the same beats no matter your goals? Why not add variety to the way workers work or the way dinosaurs dino? Aren’t these prehistoric thunder lizards the stars of the show? As its stands, dinosaurs exist across three levels of risk without a lick of difference beyond that. But isn’t the fun of dinosaurs that they each have their own peculiar defenses, attacks, and social tendencies? Some are armored, some are fast, some attack in packs, some hawk venom into your eyes. None of that is reflected in the game. You might as well be running a zoo for geese and losing points because your geese have a tendency to break free of their hutches and poop on the customers’ shoes.

Oh, and the second problem? Well. When your park has maxed out its market items and is at its most secure, this is the precise moment it should be at its most vulnerable. That’s what all those goofy Jurassic Park movies are about.

They can't even hack a 1993 Unix three-dimensional file browser! What dumdums!

Hooligans are really just line-jumpers rather than skinnier Dennis Nedrys.

For some folks, none of these issues are going to provide a single sideways wink. Dinosaur Island has plenty to offer, not the least of which is the fact that it lets you pal around with colorful dinosaurs, argue with friends about which is the coolest, and have a perfectly good time meddling with DNA colors and Muldoon-hatted park staff.

In that sense, it’s reminiscent of Jonathan Gilmour’s previous game, Wasteland Express Delivery Service. It may be shallow, but at least it’s easy on the eyes. It may be messy, but at least it’s playing with familiar concepts. And it may inhabit an awkward place between simple and lots that results in a whole bunch of clutter without much gain, but hey — dinosaurs. Those are cool, right?

Posted on January 16, 2018, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. “As its stands, dinosaurs exist across three levels of risk without a lick of difference beyond that. But isn’t the fun of dinosaurs that they each have their own peculiar defenses, attacks, and social tendencies? Some are armored, some are fast, some attack in packs, some hawk venom into your eyes.”
    I couldn’t agree more. Kickstarted this one myself, and have no idea why it is getting so much praise. It’s a very mediocre game with a very neat theme. And I have to say, it’s the worst kind of complex. There are lots of little rules and phases, as you explained, but the decision space is actually very small, resulting in very little strategy.

    Also – there are some things in the game, that I have no idea why you would ever purchase them. For example, the park buildings you can buy that give you a very modest amount of end-game points? Unless those are required for some objective, they just seem like a strictly worse options because you can get more points from almost anything else for a similar amount of money.

    I agree with you, wholeheartedly that it reminds me of Wasteland Express. Beautiful but really not very well designed. I still cannot imagine why, for the life of me, you design a game about dinosaurs and make them so uninteresting (as in not having unique stats or abilities).

    • The response to this review has caught me by surprise. While I was writing it, I’d seen the way everybody else was reacting to Dinosaur Island and fully expected that this would ignite more “You’re way off the mark this time, Dan” comments. It’s just such a darling of a game, you know?

      Instead, I’ve gotten reactions more along the lines of, “Finally somebody is saying something negative about this game.”

      What gives? It’s obvious that there are people out there who haven’t been dazzled by this game’s bright colors and dinosaur wallpaper. Where have they been all this time? Why is it getting such rapturous reviews and high BGG ratings?

      Because, yes, the dinosaurs are dull, the options in the market aren’t often enough interesting, and the gameplay is almost rote at times. You’re more worried about line-jumping hooligans than prehistoric carnivores eating your guests. What.

      • I also posted a review to BGG yesterday (and quoted part of yours). I was slower to do so than usual largely because I didn’t want to deal with grief from negatively reviewing a BGG darling.

        As for why this relatively weak game is getting such rave reviews – here were some thoughts I jotted in response to a question on my review.

        “I think this is a good point. If I can propose my thoughts on the issue you raised, namely that: “there have been a number of American designed games in recent years that take Euro mechanics but water them down in a way that traditional Euro games tend not to.”

        I don’t think nationality has anything to do with it, but I do agree that we are seeing increasing number of these types of games designed. If you want to know why (at least according to me) its because of how the boardgame scene and specifically the boardgame media scene has evolved and how much it factors into purchasing decisions for a large percent of people that buy games.

        A game like Dinosaur Island (I could think of others) seems, during the first through fifth plays, to have a lot of really cool stuff going on. There are all these different systems that you have to manage, and that gives the illusion of depth until you hit that point after a few plays where you actually realize how light the decisions actually are.

        This means that people will likely (just as I was) be very positive about a game like this for a few plays, even if it really isn’t their type of game (like me). I don’t think this is deliberate, it’s just a consequence of this type of game with surface depth, by which I mean a game that seems to have a lot of depth on the first few plays. A consequence of this, then, is that most mainstream reviewers that play games never more than 2-3 times before a review will be super positive. And not just reviewers, I would say a lot of people who are super active on the site and “cult of the new” are kind of in the same boat. I can fall into this camp myself sometimes and I’ve been hoodwinked before.

        So, if you want to know why games of this type (those with surface level depth) keep getting published and being popular, it is because that is what the hobby, or at least enough of people in the hobby, want. These games are being designed because they continue to be successful and are likely easier to design than those gems you described with “streamlined and straight forward rules but with lots of hidden depth and thinking.””

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