Pandasaurus has, as a company, jumped into the deep end of providing the Board Game hobby with a bevy of highly thematic gaming experiences, by providing a gateway to world’s that were familiar enough to relate to, but legally distinct enough to avoid any Intellectual Property issues. Coaster Park let players build roller coasters and theme parks, evoking memories of the incredibly popular Roller Coaster Tycoon computer games. Wasteland Express Delivery Service was a big ol box of Mad Max. And the game we’re looking at today, Dinosaur Island, is regarded as the closest thing we currently have to Jurassic Park: The Game.
Dinosaur Island is a 2-4 player game in which players compete over the course of a number of rounds to earn the most points. Rounds are consisting of four phases in which players earn and spend resources, build attractions in their parks and manage visitors that have been attracted to the park. Before the game even starts, some fun twists are thrown into the mix. First, a number of objective cards are drawn at random, depending on the length of the game you’re wanting. These act as a source of bonus points to achieve, as well as an end game trigger. Once all but one of the objectives is met, the round finishes and end game scoring occurs. The other thing that happens is two plot twist cards are drawn. These add two additional rules to the game. These two aspects of setup make for constantly changing strategic landscapes each time you play Dinosaur Island, assuring that each time you play, you have to adjust how you react with every element.
In the first phase of the game, the first player rolls a handful of chunky amber colored dice and place them on the board. Players alternate making decision on this specific board until each has has made three choices. DNA can be claimed and stored, storage space for DNA can be expanded, temporarily sending a scientist to work for you in phase three could happen, or you could get a recipe that will allow you to build dinosaur attractions in your park. Right off the bat, players are presented with a wide variety of options and strategic paths. Managing your park’s security compared to the current threat level is vitally important too, and dice that haven’t been claimed in this phase run a risk of being added to the threat level of all players parks. When the threat level is greater than your security, that’s when people start getting eaten. Phase two commences, giving each player two chances to interact with the market board. Here players can hire specialists that give them abilities or extra workers, they can buy DNA, attractions or upgrades for their labs which they’ll use in the next phase. Speaking of which; Phase three is played simultaneously. Workers are placed onto the individual lab boards in front of each player, making a sort of custom worker placement game for each individual player. This is the phase when you actually spend DNA to make dinosaurs, adjust your security and a number of other things. With each new dinosaur added to your park you gain excitement, which draws in paying customers! But with each new dinosaur also comes an added threat risk, so you’re constantly having to juggle between throwing as many giant lizards into your park as possible or instead paying to up your security. Phase four has everyone drawing visitors from a giant bag. Most of these visitors are paying customers, but a small amount are hooligans, who guarantee a spot in the park, taking up valuable spaces that standard patrons could use. Players earn $1 for each non-hooligan they draw from the bag. After that, they fill their park with as many patrons (hooligans first) as they have spots for them in the park. Each paying customer also earns 1 victory point. However, if your threat level is greater than your security level, you pay the difference in patron’s lives. Each eaten patron loses you one point. Play continues until all but one objective is met.
The first thing to mention about the actual gameplay of Dinosaur Island is the variability. The fact that there are two rules in each game that are on a kind of alternating roster is really cool. One game you could start with an extra worker and a special purple die that gives you better DNA, the next you could be getting free security, but there’s more hooligans in the bag. Toss in the different objectives and it means that each session of Dinosaur Island has to be played at least a little different than any previous game you might have played. While I can see how this would be frustrating for some, not being able to constantly rely on the same game state each time, it works really well, especially in the longer games when you’re given time to explore the systems.
The fact that the game time is variable is really great as well. Want to play a short game? There’s specific objectives for that. Want a medium game? Sure! Even the “long game” isn’t terrible, clocking in at 2ish hours, and is the most fun way to play. The systems within the game allow for a good mix of solo eurory planning and more in-your-face drafting. Players are obviously working against each other to have the best dino park in the world, but there’s no active attacking going on. That doesn’t mean you can’t make decisions that will negatively affect your neighbors. Choosing which DNA die to draft and what market items to buy can be done in a way that, while helping you, could leave your opponents in a lurch. Maybe the threat level is going to be kicked up more than they can handle because you chose to not take a die that had a particularly high threat on it. You could certainly buy the restaurant they had their eye on if you’re first in the turn order.
Having a large game like this that’s comprised of a number of smaller, simpler systems allows players to learn in an intuitive way and makes a daunting experience much more digestible. The theme is so strong in this. It feels a little like Agricola with dinosaurs, but often times it’s much more than that, in terms of scope. There’s enough things to juggle each round to be interesting, but not so much that it becomes frustrating at any point, except with the physical components.
While the components themselves are beautiful and really well made, there’s a lot of them. One of the most intimidating things about a game of this size is opening it up for the first time and being struck by just how many boards, chits and meeples there are. If you didn’t know much going into it, you’d assume that this is a far more complicated game than it actually is. A thought that isn’t eased at all once the games setup. Why? Because it’s massive. The term “table eater” is apt. Each player has two large boards for their play surface and the shared area has three boards. All of which clearly mark the flow of the game and allow easy reference and access. But this takes a large table, even with two player. It’s a more manageable game with the solo mode, which is also really good, but it’s by no means at any point an overly reasonable size. But with that table presence comes a series of systems and rules that are a ton of fun to play. Finally the art has been and will continue to be divisive. The color scheme alone is enough to make you double take. Borrowing heavily from the graphical design travesty that was the early 90s, this game pops. For better or worse, it pops.
- Simple to follow phases make this big game easy to follow.
- Beautiful components.
- A great deal of replay value.
- Heavily thematic.
- So, so much fun.
- The art is vibrant and bold.
- Massive table presence.
- Set up and tear down is lengthy.
- The art is vibrant and bold.
In conclusion; Dinosaur Island is superb. It is one of the most thematically rich euro experiences I’ve ever had, while maintaining a puzzly level of strategy that I’ve come to love. I like feeling like I’m in control of designing and building a theme park chalk full of Dinosaurs, and this lets me do that.