As with any good story about board games, let’s start by talking about the dice.
No matter how good or bad a game is, when I pick up thick, chunky, strange but cool-looking dice with some real heft to them, I always go back to the line from the Leonardo DiCaprio character in Django Unchained:
“Gentlemen, you had my curiosity…but now, you have my attention.”
That’s what you get when you tell me I’m getting the best thing from a previous game in any future version of that same game. And if that thing is quite possibly the greatest tactile sensation in dice history, well…you have my attention.
Dinosaur Island: Rawr ‘n Write by Pandasaurus Games attempts to capitalize on the craze that is roll-and-write games, by streamlining an already solid base game in Dinosaur Island and slimming the box and the playtime to about 30 minutes. We reviewed Dinosaur Island a few years ago and loved it; while the reasons for that feeling were many, one of the most prominent high points from Dinosaur Island are those sexy, “amber” dice that just feel great in the hands.
Don’t rock the boat, someone smart at Pandasaurus commented during the development of Dinosaur Island: Rawr ‘n Write. And that person deserves a raise, because based purely on the fact that my favorite dice ever have returned, you need to check this new version out.
Same Game, More Polyominoes
Dinosaur Island: Rawr ‘n Write (let’s go with Rawr ‘n Write, for short) is still a game about building a theme park, not unlike the parks in those small, independent films—I kid!—based on a certain book by Michael Crichton. My colleague Justin Gibbons’ previous review does an excellent job of breaking down the original 2017 game, so if you are not familiar with the original or its concept, take a peek at his piece.
In Rawr ‘n Write, the design team of Brian Lewis, David McGregor and Marissa Misura strip out parts of the base game and simplify everything down to three simple actions: roll and draft dice, use those dice like workers to activate various actions, then eventually run tours in your new theme park to score points and generate excitement.
Roll and write games are getting more complicated every year, and Rawr ‘n Write gives you quite a bit to think about as you plan turns. With only 6 draft/action phases and 3 chances to run your park, the game feels like it could use one extra round to get things rolling. Just like the base game, you will need to gather money from your dice drafts and action selections to hire Specialists, or help to fund larger Buildings in your park that can score big for you by the end of the third and final round.
Working with not one, but two sheets of paper for your park, actions are breezy but planning is quite thinky. Draft 2 dice, showing something simple: a coin, or maybe 2 of the 6 different dino DNA types you need to craft dinosaurs which will live in paddocks in your park by species. You might even roll roads which let you connect various exhibits in your park, or attractions such as rides, food stands or merchandise shops, which provide bonuses when you run tours at the end of each round.
No matter the player count, players will be left with one die showing a resource that all players will receive, but which will also generate Threat for your park. Just like the base game, Threat has to be managed with Security; if Threat ever tips the scale in its favor, that could lead to trouble when end-of-round calculations are made.
Next, dice are used to take 2 actions from a board showing 5 choices, like adding roads, gaining Security or cash, and making dinosaurs. You might also take an action to duplicate the resources produced by one of your 2 dice, as long as it is just resources and not attractions. If a space is blocked, that could mean more Threat for your park (this is bad).
When all players place each of their 2 dice, you’ll run through a series of actions to collect cash, possibly roll more dice, trigger bonuses from your Specialists (essentially staff you can hire into your park) and run a jeep through your park to take guests on a tour to boost your Excitement rating, which adds even more combo bonuses.
And that park? A large grid sits on one of your two sheets of paper, which you’ll use to draw polyomino shapes representing everything you are building: dinosaur paddocks, attractions, larger buildings, roads. If Tetris-type games are your friend, you’ll be right at home in Rawr ‘n Write; the spatial puzzle is a big part of the planning process here. If you can build a park connected by roads that lead to a park exit, you’ll score that exit’s bonus at the end of the game.
Complicating matters: when your Threat outpaces your Security, people start dying in your park, tracked by a simple series of circles and dots on one of your sheets. Every few deaths mean losing something else of value: surplus DNA, roads, dinosaur paddocks, maybe even having a Specialist quit on you.
Scoring is a potpourri of triggers which will be added up to determine the winner: points for dinosaurs, points for specialists, points for Buildings, points for park exits, points for almost everything. The scoring summary area is excellent and allows for making swift end game scoring calculations.
Wading Through the Rulebook
My first play of Rawr ‘n Write happened to be with my friend and colleague Andy Matthews, the founder of Meeple Mountain, during our trip to PAX Unplugged last December. We had to learn the game in the worst possible way: by coming in cold, and reading the rulebook.
The rulebook here is DENSE, to the tune of an almost-unheard-of-for-a-roll-and-write-game 23 pages. 23 PAGES!! I couldn’t believe it. To the credit of the folks at Pandasaurus, Rawr ‘n Write assumes you have never played the base game, and spends almost as many pages defining the concepts of this game as it does the rules. That’s helpful, but it could have really benefited from a “quick start” guide, if anything else in the form of a back-of-the-rulebook round overview. The iconography guide that is on the back instead is helpful, but it’s not enough.
Also not included, but asked about by new players each time I’ve taught Rawr ‘n Write: the die face distribution of the 10 dice in the game. Those dice are beautiful, but from a planning perspective, the people are going to want to know what their chances are when dice are pulled from a bag and rolled for building each round’s draft pool. That’s also not included in the rules.
That said, what is here is good. Pandasaurus does a great job with components and while Rawr ‘n Write is mostly no exception, the rulebook doesn’t shine like the Pandasaurus rulebook for Wild Space. (Also, I can’t really explain this next part save for what must be planned: why is the insert for Rawr ‘n Write so empty? There’s room here for another 10 dice, so while I don’t know the future around expansion content, the box could be even smaller than it is now.)
Rawr ‘n Write does the thing I most wanted: to replace the base version of Dinosaur Island, with the same intent but quicker gameplay. Obviously, Rawr ‘n Write is not nearly the production that the base game is, but for about $25, I can make that work and it’s much easier to get to the table.
The solo version of the game, like many roll-and-writes, does an excellent job of using a scripted automa/AI to do what would happen in a multiplayer game of Rawr ‘n Write. I’ve played that a few times already to squeeze in games between day job activities, and it’s always a fun high score challenge with a set of personal objectives to aim for while a slim deck of cards dictate the AI’s actions.
I’ve played this solo (3 times), as well as once each with 2, 3, and 4 players. 4 players felt like too many; it slows down what is already basically a solo puzzle, because players all have access to the 3 public Buildings and Specialists drawn in each game. However, it’s fun to be blocked from drafting certain dice or taking certain actions without taking on a massive amount of Threat in a round, creating the necessity for choice every turn.
Rawr ‘n Write’s main barrier is its weight, and certainly that will change based on your audience. Based on conversations with my read of my colleague David McMillan’s review of Hadrian’s Wall, Rawr ‘n Write is not heavy, but it IS heavy for a game featuring a pencil, paper player sheets, and the roll-and-write (or “flip-and-fill”, if dice are swapped for cards) formula. Don’t pick up Rawr ‘n Write if you are looking for a light filler experience; games typically take 45 minutes to an hour with 4 players.
Rawr ‘n Write is a great game and a fun puzzle. I don’t typically run out to grab roll-and-write games but this one is sitting pretty in my collection for now. And those dice!!