Depends on the God, I Suppose
If God really loved dinosaurs so much, the big guy wouldn’t have treated them to an asteroid sandwich. In that regard, Kasper Lapp’s Gods Love Dinosaurs is a piece of revisionist theology. The divine course of history thrown into schism, the natural order turned on its head, all to placate the feelings of dinophiles.
As a plaything, though, it’s reasonably charming.
It’s easy to mistake Gods Love Dinosaurs for a lighter game. Crud, it’s easy to mistake it for a heavier game. Double crud, it’s easy to mistake it for candy. Reality places it somewhere closer to Evolution than Bios: Megafauna, although it’s lighter than both, but not so light that it isn’t occasionally punitive of slight mistakes. Food chains, after all, are notoriously tricky things to keep a steady grip on.
And here, it’s all about climbing that chain right to the apex. As a god, you love dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are calorie guzzlers. Put fact one and fact two together, and everything happens to fulfill the appetites of your dinosaurs until, yourself willing, you’ve bred more of the things than the gods seated across the table from you.
Allow me to start somewhere other than the beginning. There are three categories of critter to manage. Prey such as rats, rabbits, and frogs are the little guys. When they activate, they freely expand into nearby spaces. There are two limitations to consider. First, you need the proper land. Rabbits aren’t about to dig burrows in the marsh, frogs think the greenery of the forest clashes with their natural hues, and rats like the shade. Second, their growth is kept in check by their initial population. One frog becomes two frogs, never three frogs. Which means that tending a wide marsh, but only keeping one frog near the periphery, is going to take a very long time to populate the place.
Moving up a link are the predators: tigers and eagles. They’re similar in that they can starve to death without smaller creatures for sustenance, and that multiple snacks will leave surplus population in their wake. That’s how they expand. Eat one critter and they don’t shrivel up. Eat two and now you’ve got an extra tiger. The difference between tigers and eagles is subtle but important. Tigers are flexible but slow, prowling two spaces at most. Eagles can travel three, but only in a straight line. Hope you’ve lined up your frogs and rabbits and rats like the salad bar at a chiaroscuro.
And then there are dinosaurs. These terror-lizards slumber in the mountains until it’s time to feed, at which point they range afar. Their needs are simple: eat and retreat back into the mountains. If they eat prey, they survive. If they eat a predator, they survive and lay eggs, which can hatch into new dinosaurs later on. The best god will naturally have the most eggs and dinosaurs.
Before you go asking about how your dinosaurs and another god’s dinosaurs interact, let me intrude: as befits a god, even a petty lower-case god, your world is your domain, isolate and inviolable. Multiplayer solitaire, to use a familiar term. This isn’t to say there aren’t points of intersection. These are limited to the board at the center of the table. Most turns are limited to selecting a terrain tile and affixing it upon your growing planet, along with any creatures that dwell there. The only rule is that your new tile needs to touch a preexisting tile. You may have created all these landmasses ex nihilo, but now that they’re here it’s nice to put all those pearls on a string.
What gives this selection some degree of interaction is that it also drives the activation of the game’s many species. When a column is emptied, the type of animal in that column reproduces and expands and hunts in every possible world. Meanwhile, a dinosaur token moves between columns, stepping forward whenever it activates. This provides the occasional point of friction. Not only will you sometimes hear somebody groan because you grabbed something desirable, but it’s also possible to finagle a situation that advantages you without really helping out any of your fellow gods. Say, by permitting bunnies to get it on when a rival deity doesn’t have any rabbits, or loosing the eagles before somebody can put food within reach. These gods love driving their peers’ species to extinction almost as much as they love dinosaurs.
It isn’t much, this sliver of interaction between gods. At times, Gods Love Dinosaurs is a lonely experience, the table silent as everybody contemplates the expanding boundaries of their creation, the ratio of prey to predator to dinosaur, the heap of eggs in their nest. I’m not opposed to multiplayer solitaire as a rule; solitude can be a fine thing, especially when the folks at the table aren’t in the mood for more direct fare.
And to his credit, Lapp’s trickles of interaction are meaningful even in their remoteness. There’s more to consider with each wedge of landscape than it first seems. New animals, slices of terrain for your world, mountain sanctuaries for your dinosaurs, and the not-quite-meta consideration of which column to empty and therefore which animal to activate. There aren’t many rules or restrictions behind these placements because there don’t need to be. The meat of the game is in, well, loading up your charcuterie without leaving the cupboard bare.
This is the real tension in Gods Love Dinosaurs. For the most part, you want your predators to eat as much as possible because it leaves more predators for your dinosaurs to eat. But thin out the marshes, forests, and fields too sharply and your momentary population boom is liable to be short-lived. Entirely eliminating a species of prey, for instance, tends to result in a wide tract of desolate terrain, unpopulated and therefore useless. Worse, an ill-timed activation can see your predators and even dinosaurs dying from starvation.
At first blush, Gods Love Dinosaurs looks like it was designed for children. Gods love dinosaurs! Rawr! Chomp chomp chop! Tiger eats frog! Yum! Except that isn’t quite the case. Instead, the ecosystem you produce could almost be described as fragile. At the very least it’s a delicate thing. Sometimes it’s necessary to resort to tactical starvation — not in the same sense as Meltwater, but surprisingly close, with certain predators sacrificed so your prey can thrive again. Timing is everything. There’s no reason for anyone but your dinosaurs to survive the end of the game, so you do want to chow down at some point. But while you can see that point on the horizon, it isn’t always obvious exactly how many critters you should eat, or how many predators you should introduce, or when’s the right time to migrate your dinosaur to a new range of mountains so the nest back home has room for a hatchling.
If anything, its big limitation is repetition rather than its muted approach to player interaction. Scoring is simple — eggs plus dinosaurs — which doesn’t leave much room for experimentation. Terrain is handled so breezily that most worlds usually contain three big patches, with only the occasional interstice. Even the tiles are sorted into four piles, all the better for ensuring that all the terrain and animal types march dutifully onto the board in roughly equivalent quantities and sequence. But this means you’ll never see a game where rabbits are dominant over rats, where tigers only appear later on, where nobody can find a dang marsh to save their lives. Just as games can become too textured, so too can they become too smooth, with nary any grip underfoot to propel it forward.
That lack of friction gives Gods Love Dinosaurs a slight whiff of antiseptic. It isn’t much to harp on. The whole thing glides together, beautiful but a little too sanitized, exciting in pursuit of balance but rarely exciting in its struggles against imbalance. Its plays are enjoyable but unmemorable, running together even as I look forward to seeing it on the table again, to hunting for the best tiles, those that will benefit me while disadvantaging my local pantheon.
I’ll put it this way. Gods may love dinosaurs. But this critic merely likes them. Take that, gods!
A complimentary copy was provided.