The rhythmic thumping of your helicopter’s blades rumbles in your ears as you crest over the rolling tree line of the jungle below. In the distance stands one of the world’s most breathtaking and intense marvels. The helicopter descends to the landing pad, and you cautiously exit. The music crescendos…
“Welcome to Dinosaur Island!”
The record skips.
Standing before you, a man with a golden sequin-lined coat, purple baggy pants, and obscenely large sunglasses stretches out his hand, his Walkman earphones dangling around his neck.
“So glad you’re here! Here are your Fast Passes; you’ll need these to see the most radical attractions.” He hands you a neon pink slap bracelet. “We’ll be doing the long-tour today so I hope you wore your best air- pump high tops! Our lab has cooked up a few new dinosaurs for you to see. Don’t worry, our security team assures us everything is totally safe. Although, things DO get a bit interesting when one of these boogers escapes! Might I interest anyone in a game of pogs?”
Dinosaur Island is a 1-4 player worker placement-with-neon-glamour game by Jonathan Gilmour and Brian Lewis, published by red-hot Pandasaurus games, that drops you into the manager’s seat of a Dinosaur-themed amusement park. Coming off a year that saw the release of Wasteland Express Delivery Service by the same company, this game was anticipated with expectations as grand as the dinosaurs on the box cover. Did they succeed? Or did things run amok (and Nedry ruin life for all of us)?
A Game 65 Million Years In the Making
Dinosaur Island is played over multiple rounds that each have 4 phases, each of which thematically ties to an aspect of building your Dinosaur Island. Each phase of the game is also associated with one of the clearly-labeled boards on the table.
In the research phase, scientists are in the Lab harvesting DNA. The best part? No mosquitos required! The start player will roll some gorgeously chunky “amber” dice that have multi-colored DNA symbols on them. The face-up side determines what DNA is available to take in this round which is very important because DNA is a key resource of the game. Players will eventually use DNA to make dino babies. It’s not weird, it’s science! In turn order, players will take one of their Scientists and deploy it into a lab space to take one of the following actions: take a die and add the matching DNA to their player board, grab a new dinosaur recipe and add it to their park board, or increase the storage capacity for DNA on their player board. Alternatively, players can choose to pass on using a Scientist, and instead use them as a worker later in the round.
As park manager players take turns buying the things they need to make their park as bodacious as it can be. In the market you’ll find four columns of materials. In one column you’ll find lab upgrades which give players bonuses on their player board in the next phase. Next, you’ll find attractions which come in the form of amusements, merchandise shops, and food vendors, each of which help your park in a unique way.
Players can also hire a Specialist which will give them unique bonuses and often extra workers. Finally, players can purchase sorely needed DNA for cold storage in case they didn’t harvest it in the previous round. These items all cost money, and you can only make 2 purchases during this phase. Money is tight in this game so players will be forced to think about what is most-urgent to get their parks running efficiently.
All players will assign their Workers on their personal player board at the same time. The player board essentially represents your Dinosaur manufacturing company, and the business that’s managing the park. Your workers can busy themselves creating dinosaurs from the DNA your scientists harvested, increase security to keep your park safe, and upgrade exhibit paddocks to make room for more dinos. Because who doesn’t want to see a pen filled to the scales with Velociraptors?!
The last phase represents opening your park for the day and managing the visitor traffic. In turn order, each player will draw visitors out of a bag equal to the “excitement” level they’ve reached which increases for each dino that’s bred. Visitors can then be placed in the park, filling as many spots as possible. More visitors = more money. More money = more dinos. And you know the rest…
“Mo’ dinosaurs, mo’ problems.”
All players will check to see if their security level meets the threat level of the dinosaurs they’ve bred. And if it’s not high enough… well, hold onto your butts. Visitors are “eaten” and you’ll lose points! For every visitor that successfully makes it into your park, and survives the day, you gain money and points!
There are several objectives that are also selected at random and placed near the game boards. As players build their Dinosaur Island, they will also complete these objectives and claim them. The game ends once there is only one objective left unclaimed by a player. At that point, players score points for the Dinosaurs they’ve bred and for attractions in their park. The player with the most points wins!
Spared No Expense
Pandasaurus Games, while a relatively young company, is quickly gaining a reputation for having high quality components and eye-grabbing artwork. Dinosaur Island is no exception. The player boards are large and thick, with recessed slots for all your DNA, Threat, and Security tracking cubes. The oversized DNA dice are absolutely scene-stealing as they are made of a clear gold coloration that resembles amber. The worker meeples and dinosaurs are a sturdy sculpted plastic. Those lucky enough to get the Deluxe Edition were treated to plastic Scientists as well, and a variety of extra types of Dinosaur Meeples.
And the coins. The coins are some of the best I’ve seen in any game. Each one feels like you’re holding a piece of treasure; they are thick, clearly sculpted, and lacquered with varying colors by denomination. You feel like you’re playing with collector coins from an amusement park. They also weigh as much as a baby triceratops, and are fun to toss around the table as you play. Finally, my favorite component beside the coins is the pink “fast pass” slap bracelet, which serves as a fun, and slightly distracting first player token.
The brontosaurus in the room is the artwork. Bold, bright, colorful, pizazzy. The game is loaded with bright greens, deep purples, electric yellows, and neon pinks. The art direction looks heavily to the late 80s- early 90s for inspiration. This made several people hesitate to back the game during its Kickstarter run, and was the subject of plenty of debate. Personally, I love it. The artwork is not shy, nor does it need to be. This is a game that’s about making gigantic dinosaurs that roam around next to whirling teacup rides, after all. When your subject matter is huge, why not make the art follow suit? Tone is important in gaming, and the combination of the art style and component quality immediately immerses you in an addictive environment to spend a couple of hours with friends.
Speaking of huge, this game is a hungry T Rex and will eat your table. A four-player game will have no less than 11 boards filling up the tabletop real estate. Be prepared for some slightly long setup time with the gargantuan number of lab upgrades, amusements, dino recipes, specialists, and paddock upgrades… and then squeeze your two player boards around all the above. This game will turn heads when it’s on the table.
Clever Girl. Clever Grill.
The dinosaurs in this game take their little pink claws and scratch several itches for me. I love the blend of worker placement mechanics with the scientists and lab workers, combined with money management and Sim-style amusement building. Although I sometimes hesitate when I see dice in a game, the DNA resource management works great. Strategically, there are many paths that can lead to having the most gnarly Dinosaur Island. Do you choose to breed herds of mild, but not-quite-as-exciting herbivores? Or take a riskier route and create expensive but thrilling packs of teeth-o-sauruses? You’ll also need to tailor your strategy each game depending on the combination of objective cards in play, and what the game offers you in the market and DNA pool.
One thing that may deter some players is the element of math in this game. In many ways, it’s not only a resource managing game, but a numbers balancing game as well. You have a few tracks to manage; your DNA storage, your threat level, your security level, and your excitement level. And all of that to move your points marker. You do have to get used to doing a few number checks, particularly when you make dinosaurs. Every dinosaur will move your threat and excitement levels up, and in turn you need to balance your security and increase visitor capacity as more people are attracted to your park.
Another caveat is that for the most part, the Dinosaur types are all similar. While you’ll get variation in the types of DNA they take to create, the amount of points, excitement, and threat is all the same for each dinosaur category (herbivore, small carnivore, large carnivore). I hope in the future this game gets an expansion, and we see some variation in the amount of threat, excitement, and points that the dinosaurs generate in these categories.
That said, while the game visually may look intimidating to some, it’s still very accessible. There was great potential for this game to turn into an overly-fiddly natural disaster. But Dinosaur Island attracts both seasoned and new gamers with interesting decisions within the step-by-step phases of the game. The colorful artistic design invites you in, and the inside jokes on the attractions, such as the “Clever Grill” or “Jurassic Whirled” immediately set off an enjoyably quirky vibe.
That Is One Big Pile Of… Fun!
With all that’s going on in the game, the fun factor roars the loudest in Dinosaur Island. This is a magic ingredient for successful games. And Dinosaur Island is definitely fun. These pink dinosaurs beg you to grab some friends, take the game for a spin, and enjoy a ride or two. I feel gamers of all ranges can find something to like in this one. It incorporates familiar mechanics from a variety of games, throws them into its DNA blender, and creates a Dino-sized pile of enjoyment for everyone at the table. I look forward to trying a mixture of new strategies, and beyond that, I look forward to seeing how the Dinosaur Island brand develops in what is a… breakout hit (look out for raptors).
“This concludes our tour!” your guide says, as you exit your tour Suburban, hefting his boombox over his shoulder. You’re just glad the theme music is over for the time being. “We hope you enjoyed your stay at Dinosaur Island! Next time, we will have some totally tubular new exhibits for you to check out. SO sorry about that Gigantosaurus incident earlier today. I’m sure that visitor will be just fine in the med wing. These things do tend to happen, but you know what they say… life finds a way!”