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Pandasaurus Games: DINOSAUR ISLAND
A Jurassic Park style game designed by Jonathan Gilmour & Brian Lewis
Illustrations for this 2-4 Player Game by Kwanchai Moriya
Available in local game stores and online

 

DINOSAUR ISLAND

has an Art Deco pop-art passive aggressive box cover that vies hard to be the either worst cover art of any board game I have ever seen or the most unique. I wouldn't be surprised to discover it had been modeled on a low hued Grateful Dead album cover. The bulk of  the cover and the game's component content is inspired by 1930's neon colourisation, but those brightly pastel shades make the monstrously massively dangerous creatures from 65 million years ago look about as threatening as Jelly Babies, and just as sweet. In fact the colours throughout the game are designed to negate any darkness that players might otherwise expect from a game where people can be eaten, if they even take it the least bit seriously. That is probably what the designers wanted, bright and cheerful instead of dark and gloomy, and for a lot of players the change of direction in colour schemes may be just the ticket. However though, despite the 1930s styalisation and the nods and winks to Spielberg's original movie, for me there aren't enough comedic interludes to carry the lightness represented by this colourful luminessence.

The illustrations are super good, especially the dinosaur artwork on the cards and 'dino recipe' tiles where several different species of dinosaurs are portrayed including the flying Pterandon, the T-Rex, the Brontosaurus and of course the Velocoraptor, all of which lead to the question of why make all of the pieces one species, the Triceratops, and in luminous pink plastic?  Of course the answer to the 'why' question is obvious - to propogate the sale of the Upgrade packs: 8 different species with 4 of each (£17.99) or 3 of each (£14.99) 4 x Pandasaurus only (£3.99) - makes good business sense.

 

The people meeples are in two moulds, those wearing hats are the player's workers in Red, Blue, White and Green, and those without hats who are Park Visitors or Hooligans, 2 types, Red & Yellow. I cannot perceive the reason that these Visitor and Hooligan meeples have been created in one of the player colours (Red hooligans) especially with all the other colours available in the world. Visitors pay singular $dollars (not denoted as $thousands or $hundreds as would be more likely), Hooligans sneak in, always stay the longest, and never buy anything. Both lots, Red and Yellow, are shaken up in the drawstring bag and drawn whenever visitors are required.

The game is for players aged 8+ and young players (or more likely young children in the same room as the game) need to be watched carefully because the pieces look very much like candy/sweeties.

Also there are an amazing amount of good quality pieces, hence the purchase price ranging from £45.00 - £55.00; you are paying for the components. The cardstock used is strong, but just a quick warning for your first time setting up, be extra careful when pressing the die-cut tokens, tiles and counters out of their sheets. I am always slow and methodical when popping pieces but despite this I still managed to pull some of the top-print paper from the compressed card.

Like the series of Jurassic Park movies, DINOSAUR ISLAND is about collecting dinosaur DNA and recreating these majestic beasts in a controlled environment where visitors will pay to see them. Players have their own Park boards onto which they build new paddocks and expand on their variety of dinosaurs - the more dinosaurs the better - adding tourist-trap shops and eateries, to encourage more visitors and thus more revenue. For fans of the films and to add an aire of wit there are a few double-sided tokens with comments and call-outs, but too few to really spark any interactive conversation or even spark life into the proceedings. The game is well thought through to bring the essence of a DINOSAUR ISLAND park to the table

DINOSAUR ISLAND is filled with colourful pieces, dozens of cards, tiles, tokens, 50 pink dinosaurs, a soft cloth drawstring bag and numerous counters. There are also one Park board per player and three other boards, Research Centre, Track and Market, that make up the playing areas. It is a game of resource management and worker placement mixed with balancing finances, security and threats and there are many options available to the players to perform these actions. However, apart from taking a die, card, tile etc that may better serve an opponent, there is no true player interaction, neither is there play cooperation. I admit that personally I prefer games where the players are in opposition, but some themes, such as LotR™ for example, there is a need for cooperative play. Dinosaur Island (aka Jurassic Park-a-like) is a game that looks like it should be collaborative and indeed has a symbiotic theme.

  

The players are Theme Park managers who work for investors who know that several years ago scientists discovered the secret of extracting dinosaur DNA from pieces of Amber. (The designers have very cleverly recreated this by making exquisite dice with sides that, apart from two special sides (dinosaur and people meeple), have various numbers and types of DNA). Now they have to keep their Parks viable by drawing people in to see 65 million year old creatures. Unfortunately they are in competition with each other to have the best park, and having the best park means having the most dinosaurs, the most ferocious dinosaurs and of course cash cow shops and cafes. 

To throw some additional extras into play there are Plot Twists which give bonuses to anyone who can hit their requirements; these cards are in play throughout the game. Similarly there are Objective cards but more than one player can complete them but to gain their effect they have to be fulfilled 'in the same turn'. Once the Objective has been fulfilled the player/s who did so collect the valuable VPs and the cards are removed from play.

    

To create dinosaurs DNA is needed, but for creating better dinosaurs the assistance of scientists and technicians etc (available on specialist cards) makes the science easier. The majority of the DNA play takes place on each players LAB Board, moving marker cubes up and down along the precisely created sunken DNA columns, the cubes and the columns being colour coded, three cubes, light blue, mauve and purple (deep blue) for the lesser DNA strands and three, Green, Red and Yellow, for the rarer DNA strands. Each column also has a Black cube above the coloured cubes which limits the number of each type of DNA you can create; this Black cube moves up and down according to effects that occur during play.

There are so many parts to DINOSAUR ISLAND, set into Phases that are followed in specific order. Phase One sees the players, one at a time, assign 2 of their hexagonal tokens (aka experts) to the Research DNA Board. This includes gaining DNA, taking one of the pre-rolled Amber dice and claiming the side of that die that is showing, multiplying its DNA total by the value of the scientific specialist who claimed it (1, 2 or 3) - the two special dice sides can only be claimed by scientist #3 and are never multiplied. These scientist specialists are also used for Researching, claiming Dinosaur recipes, and increasing the DNA in your cold storage - this being the DNA columns previously mentioned.

      

Phase Two opens the Market place which is where players spend their cash to hire one of the previously mentioned specialists, build attractions, upgrade existing laboratory tiles and creating dinosaurs etc. The Market is a well constructed mechanic with four market stalls priced in column order $2, $3, $4 and $5; for these amounts there are various amounts of DNA available. Forming a Row off of each Stall there are Attraction tiles, upgrade tiles and Specialist cards. These are available by paying the cost of the Market stall plus the cost of the tile you wish to purchase. After each Round the tiles and cards move up one row, what remains of the top row being removed completely and a new lower row installed. Not a particularly new mechanic agreed, but the twist of the additional cost makes it more interesting and with money being tight to begin with some tiles will be out of the game before they get the opportunity to come into play. Neat!

 

Onto Phase 3 which is where you assign your workers (an unused scientist may be used as a worker now) on your board, selecting the jobs they can do such as refining basic DNA; mixing it with other DNA strands to create one of the Advanced (Green, Red or Yellow) DNA types, creating Dinosaurs and of course paddocks to keep them in; there's no point in creating a dinosaur if you have nowhere to keep it. Another option you may wish to take is to increase your security to ensure that it is at least equal to your Dinosaur Threat level. 

Phase 4: Visitors are drawn from the bag, Yellow Meeples are good Red meeples are bad. Visitors pay $1 each to enter, Hooligans sneak in without paying and take all the prime positions. After visitors have arrived it's time to place them onto your Park board (hooligans get placed first) and check your Threat and Security levels. Having a higher Threat level than Security level means that a number of dinosaurs get loose and eat a number of visitors (apparently they don't like the taste of hooligans) equal to the difference (Threat overSecurity) before they are recaptured (this capturing of escaped dinosaurs unfortunately isn't part of the game). Visitors, not Hooligans, that aren't eaten score VPs for the owner/s of the attractions they remain at. After these phases there is a clean-up, returning of pieces to their respective players and the game is reset.

 

Balancing Security with Threat is a major part of the game play. If your Threat level is higher than your Security level at the end of the Round then visitors get eaten. This does not bode well for your park as losing patrons cost points. Thankfully the Press isn't interested in people disappearing down the throats of 65 million year old creatures so there is no adverse publicity to get the park/s closed down - I guess you can always get new visitors but new dinosaurs are much harder and way more expensive - players just lose a few Victory points and carry on. There isn't even a mechanism whereby the escaped dinosaurs are recaptured back to their enclosures or destroyed by the authorities. If the latter was a possibility it would force players to balance Security and Threat rather than just accept the loss of a few VPs when visitors are devoured.

 

A park filled with awesome creatures should be exciting and dangerous yet the game mechanics turn these Theme Parks into the mundane business of collecting money and resources, spending money and resources and using money and resources, and building. There is an old saying about too many cooks ... etc. and DINOSAUR ISLAND fits that proverb very well. In the game there are many components and they give the impression that because so much time and money has been spent on them the game has to be as good as the sum of its components, thus in this case, 'amazing'. For me the numerous components are a smokescreen that hide a fairly simple game within a multitude of mechanics played out in an organised fashion.

DINOSAUR ISLAND is a sum of many parts or phases as mentioned previously. Because of the movement and removal of pieces each turn it is almost impossible, or at least very difficult, to plan ahead, except perhaps for your first action when you are the start player on the next turn. So despite all the options and possibilities available each player is basically playing a solo game with what the game mechanics allow them. 

 

Not one of the many players I introduced to this game were eager to play it again. They all felt that as far as value for money is concerned you are paying for a box full of reasonable visual components around which has been weaved an adroit set of rules based on the popular series of movies. There are three different variations on game length, short, medium or long, each with separate decks that add to the previous deck to expand the game time ie. there are decks of cards for the short game, for the medium game and for the long game. If you want the short game use the short game deck. If you want the medium game add the medium game deck to the short game deck. I think you can work out how to create the deck for the longer game.

At first I liked the idea of having three game lengths, though after playing the short game, which lasts around 45 minutes, we concluded there is little point in playing the medium or long games as they are only more of the same, simply expanding the time it will take to complete but really adding nothing in return for them to be more enjoyable or of any more fun. I say this because many of the options in the game are derived from randomness that occur whichever game length is selected. 

Speaking as we were above of playing against yourself, there are the components for an actual SOLO game which are sealed separately. In this version you play the same game but with slightly different (and fewer) components. Although it is basically just a cut down version of the main game it works just as well. In my opinion, and I believe that I am in the minority, because of the lack of player interaction in the main game, for me at least, the SOLO game is actually preferable and thus basically more enjoyable. Neither the SOLO nor General game are addictive and thus there is a lack of replayability which naturally isn't good for any game where so much time, effort and money has been put into it.

There are also available several mini packs plus the 'Totally Liquid Xtreme Water' expansion edition with 32 water living creatures; 8 species with 4 of each in similar plastic to the dino's in the original game except they are Turquoise blue coloured (£19.99).

 

   

The extra dinosaurs, expansion packs and upgrades look like they add new player pieces, different dinosaurs (colours and species) and possibly new/different options. You should be able to find these online or in your local game store.

 

 

© Chris Baylis 2011-2015