Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.
“Wait a second,” you say, “Dinosaur Island does not actually use the Jurassic Park brand.” Thats true; however, you dont have to squint hard to imagine Richard Attenborough on the games cover or to soak in the overwhelming 90s vibes. This may not be a Jurassic Park board game in name, but its certainly one in spirit.
Who doesnt want to run their own dinosaur theme park? This streamlined Euro-style design has players acquiring electrified paddocks, filling them with bright pink dinosaur meeples, and raking in wheelbarrows of cash. Youll attain different strands of DNA to complete recipes and craft pre-historic beasts. Sometimes your security wont be up to snuff and a guest or two may get eaten. No worries, though; your PR firm will smooth things out.
Dinosaur Island hasnt been out long, but it has already achieved extraordinary success. In addition to massive funding in two Kickstarter campaigns, the game sold through its first print run in retail at the pace of a striking velociraptor. With expansions and a two-player spinoff on the horizon, this island is only getting started.
Bones of the past
Dinosaur Island is a gangly Brachiosaurus of a game as it spreads across your table and claims a healthy amount of real estate. Despite a wild sprawl of side boards, card decks, and player mats, its a surprisingly simple design thats easily digested. In particular, the game borrows mechanisms from Euro-style predecessors featuring worker placement and public drafting.
The flow of Dinosaur Island is not altogether smooth as it jumps from phase to phase, with each phase comprised of unique rules and processes. On an individual basis, each phase is simple enough to foster quick learning. This light overall weight allows players of varying skill levels to dive in, gradually reconciling the different ways each phase of the game intersects with the others.
The first phase is the most straightforward as you spend scientists to claim strands of DNA or acquire new recipes to manufacture your carnivores and herbivores. Theres a continual philosophy here of introducing small twists to keep things just interesting enough; this phase is all about utilizing randomized DNA via rolled dice, as well as apportioning workers with different values to each player. (Your scientists are numbered 1-3 and serve as a multiplier when utilized to acquire DNA or as a necessary requirement to select the more costly dinos and paddocks.)
This is absolutely a resource-management game. Youre filling your cold storage with different genetic strands (resource one) in order to construct dinos (resource two) which require ample paddock space and security. Youre using these once-extinct predators to attract patrons (resource three) and score victory points based on filling up your park.
One of the key phases of Dinosaur Island is the public market, where youll purchase park attractions, buy modules for your lab, and hire specialists which grant asymmetrical powers. These critical decisions feed resource acquisition and conversion heading into phase three. Since much of the game lies in virtually identical inputs and outputs that result in mathematically narrow swings, the selection of these modules is a large differentiator in player builds and downstream effects. While the DNA and dinosaur birthing is a prime attention getter, choices about upgrades and supplementary attractions such as Ferris wheels and hat stands prove significant.
The third phase happens simultaneously as players utilize workers in their personal labs to spend that precious DNA and tinker with their park options. You can increase your security level, gain supplementary income, or increase the size of your existing paddocks. It all happens quickly and keeps downtime minimal as play rapidly shifts into the park phase.
This final stage has players actually filling their parks with small meeples drawn from a bag. If youre lucky, youll pick up red-blooded patrons quick to file in and ogle your enormous beasts. If youre not so lucky, you might pick a hooligan who jumps the fence and avoids the turnstiles. Hooligans leech your efficiency by filling up limited park space and denying you income. Like much of the game, its simple, quick, and trades off excitement or deeper engagement for streamlined play.
What kind of park is this?
If youre looking for an experience that features runaway T-rexes and velociraptors as you sneak through laboratories and jungles, youre out of luck. Dinosaur Island is not targeted at adventure; its focus is more on putting you in the seat of amusement park tycoon. You select attractions and fill out your acreage with fantastic beasts. You make money hand over fist, and if security is not quite up to the task, you merely lose a few points.
While not always an “exciting” game, this is a clever design of interwoven mechanisms that feed interesting decisions. It felt to me a bit like renowned designer Vlaada Chvátils work (though much simpler); theres a similar feel to his 2011 release Dungeon Petzin that discreet mechanical concepts are tied together with surprising clarity.
Theres also no denying just how beautiful this product really is. Its a huge box offered in two versions: one a deluxe Kickstarter package with lavish metal coins and several aesthetic upgrades, as well as a slightly more modest retail release that still spreads its many appendages of neon across your table. From double-layered player boards that firmly hold cubes on track to the many unique illustrations—Dinosaur Island is simply gorgeous to stare at.
Yet the largest accomplishment of Dinosaur Islands design team lies in crafting this work from the ground up in service to their thematic vision. This is not a dry experience by any means, as everything from DNA procurement to customer acquisition is handled with precision and care. Despite the fact that weve seen plenty of games with similar genes in the past, this one stands apart with a solid vision and excellent execution.