Top Of The Table – Dinosaur Island

by Matt Miller on Apr 06, 2018 at 03:00 PM

The world has no shortage of licensed board games to choose from. But some of the best games inspired by established brands don’t carry the license that gave rise to the concept. Case in point? Dinosaur Island, from Pandasaurus Games, is a loving homage to everything people enjoy about the Jurassic Park books and movies. With DNA trapped inside of “amber” dice, scientists who craft ever-more dangerous dinosaurs to impress park visitors, and a chance for things to go amuck as park patrons get eaten by out-of-control creatures, the board game hits all the right notes, accented by a great neon-washed early ‘90s aesthetic. Dinosaur Island is careful to never cross the line into actual brand infringement, and emerges as a wildly creative strategic simulation that employs a number of interlocking mechanics from worker placement to dice rolling and set collection.

Like the first glimpse of a brachiosaur towering overhead, Dinosaur Island can be a little intimidating at first glance. The game box is chock full of some incredible-looking components, including game boards with recessed slots for cubes, thick and oversized amber-colored dice that determine available DNA on each turn, and hundreds of tokens, plastic dinosaurs, coins, and cards. The shared art style across all the components is an early ‘90s vibe of hot pink and other bright colors, which is a perfect match for the time-period during which many of us first fell in love with the Jurassic Park fiction. Everything screams high-quality. But there’s no denying the pure sprawl of all the components has the potential to overwhelm the first few times you play. Expect to spend a significant chunk of time completing first-game setup, and an equal amount of time figuring out how to get everything to fit back into the cramped box when you’re done. 

My favorite thing about Dinosaur Island is the variety of gameplay mechanics that come out in different phases of the game, and the way that each ties into the broader dinosaur amusement park theme. Across individual research, market, worker, and park phases, players are not only building their own individual park, but also competing directly with other players for a limited supply of various resources.

Players begin the turn as researchers, employing a cadre of scientists to discover new dinosaurs to revive, gather distinct types of DNA, or increase how much DNA can be stored. Even at this early phase, the choices and divergent paths to developing your park are important, demanding that you think ahead about your broader strategy, and how to work toward that goal. 

Dinosaur Island includes a ton of great looking components, but setup can take some time

From there, the game flips from science to commerce, as each player buys up new amenities, equipment, and personnel that can shape their park into the prehistoric island of choice for vacationers. From the very first turn to the last, I’m consistently impressed by how tight this exchange is, as currency is frequently very limited, and even if you somehow pull ahead on cash, you can still only make two purchases each turn. Because of that, the purchases you make are always a tough decision; you can never get everything you want.

With purchases complete, it’s time to get to work building out your park, increasing security, filling paddocks with dinosaurs, and otherwise getting the park ready for the big day. As this phase is all about messing with your own personal board, the designers have wisely opted to let everyone do it at the same time, outside of turn order – a decision the dramatically speeds up the process. 

Finally, everyone’s park opens, and the visitors head into to meet their fate…uhh…have a great time! If the rest of the game is about setting up the dominoes, it’s here that everything gets knocked down. A random selection of vacationers crowd in to see your attractions, but there’s always the danger of hooligans getting into the mix, represented by differently colored visitor figures pulled from an opaque bag. Hooligans are bad news for any number of reasons, most especially because they take up valuable space in your park, but don’t pay admission. And of course, it’s at this point that if your paltry security forces aren’t equal to the angry velociraptors and T. rexes you’ve populated your park with, visitors start to get eaten – not good for business!

The art style harkens to the colors and design aesthetic of the early 90s

And that is basically that. Across the phases of each turn, it’s remarkable how many different strategies emerge. Will you focus on easily wrangled herbivores, or risk bringing in the big carnivores? Should you invest early in developing your DNA storage, or figure out the formula to create that cool triceratops? Are you okay risking some lax security (and some dead guests) early in the game, in the name of big rewards later on? You’re always looking to manage multiple resources at the same time, even as you compete with your friends to be the first to complete various objectives. These major objective cards are different in each playthrough, and I was happily surprised how much that boosted the replayability of the entire experience. 

Dinosaur Island is an intimidating game the first time you sit down and play. With its wealth of components and player boards, interwoven mechanics across multiple stages of a turn, and the challenge of simply grasping how it all fits together, some players might balk. But that would be a mistake, as Dinosaur Island really isn’t as weighty or complicated as it might first appear. While there’s a lot of strategic depth to uncover, and experienced players will certainly have a big advantage, the core of Dinosaur Island is accessible, and the dinosaur park vibe never ceases being fun. The brightly colored art, silly puns (like a park ride called Jurassic Whirled), and the laugh-out-loud fun of the escaping dinos keeps everyone at the table having a great time across the two hours or so it takes to finish a playthrough. I’ve yet to encounter the player who can’t get behind the fantasy of building their own dinosaur theme park. Everybody secretly wants to be John Hammond, right?

Incidentally, if Dinosaur Island looks like it might be a good fit, you should check out the team's current Kickstarter for the expansion, running through April 20, 2018, which includes opportunities to snag the original game as well. 

Looking for other fun board, card, and role-playing games to bring to your table beyond Dinosaur Island? Check out the backlog of Top of the Table by clicking over into the full hub. And as always, if you’d like some personalized recommendations for your gaming group, hit me up via email or Twitter, and I’ll shoot back some ideas.