Dinosaur parks. We all know they’d be a terrible idea, but that doesn’t stop us from dreaming about how awesome it would be to see those legendary creatures up close. Imagine that hot Tyrannosaurus Rex breath bearing down on you as you gaze up in awe at its comically tiny arms. Thankfully, the security at the park is top notch and there’s no way he’s going to eat you. At least, you hope so. Maybe the lab was upgraded instead so more dinosaurs could come off the factory line to draw in visitors. Or maybe there were an incomprehensible number of gift shops built. These morally questionable decisions are up to you to make as the owner and chief operator of your very own totally-not-Jurassic-Park-because-that’s-copyright-infringement dinosaur park.
How To Play
The goal of Dinosaur Island is to build the most exciting dinosaur park you can and pack in more visitors than fire regulations allow. The game is played over a variable number of rounds dependent on how quickly players achieve objectives. You can also vary the length of the game by choosing from short, medium, or long game objects at setup. Regardless of the objectives, the rounds themselves will play out the same way.
In the Research Phase, players use their hexagonal scientists to gather DNA from the crystalized amber dice, obtain a new dinosaur recipe in a flavor of your choice (herbivore, small carnivore, or large carnivore), increase your cold storage (i.e., capacity for holding DNA), or pass. Passing allows you to keep your scientist to be used in a later phase of the game.
In the Market phase, players get two purchases. You can buy DNA because DNA is like toilet paper: you never want to run out at the wrong time. You can buy park attractions in hopes of luring more suckers – err, I mean – visitors to the park. There are also specialists to recruit who provide special rule-breaking abilities or extra workers for the next phase. Lastly, you can build lab upgrades, which give better versions of your default actions or new spaces to place workers.
In the Worker Phase, players simultaneously assign their plastic worker meeples to actions on their personal board. Here, you can refine DNA, upgrade your paddocks to accommodate more dinosaurs, create new dinosaurs, and increase security to keep all those new thunder lizards in check.
Finally, in the Park Phase, players attract visitors to their park based on the excitement level generated by dinosaurs. As your hand dives down into the plush fluorescent green bag, you hope to not grab any hooligans. These purple meeples sneak into the park without paying and prevent you from earning the victory points that patrons generate. You also need to check if your security level is high enough to match the threat level of the dinosaurs. Otherwise, your visitors will get eaten first (those hooligans are rather nimble, after all) and you’ll lose victory points.
After this, the cleanup phase resets everything for the next round unless all but one objective have been claimed by players. When this happens, the game ends after this current round. Victory points are awarded based on objectives, number and type of dinosaurs, and leftover money. Whoever has the most will be crowned the best paleontological entrepreneur.
“Life, uh… Finds a way.”
With its neon colors and funky graphics, Dinosaur Island pulls you into a 90s wormhole and spits you out on the other side. The allusions to Jurassic Park are obvious without being over-the-top, and you’re immediately engaged in the whimsy of running a dinosaur park.
There is no doubt that this theme is far more amusing than the tired premises we’ve seen over and over again in other games. I used to think theme didn’t matter, but the longer I’m in the hobby, the more I appreciate how much a novel setting contributes to a game’s atmosphere. You can’t help but joke about PR disasters after patrons are eaten, or who (or what) is running the kitchen of the Raptor Grill.
The joy in Dinosaur Island comes from the idea of building your own park. As the game progresses, there is a sense of satisfaction of seeing your park go from a one-dinosaur show to a multi-dinosaur land of wonder. This individualization is the heart of the game as things largely play out in a multi-player solitaire fashion. Slowly and surely, you gain more visitors, generate more excitement, and earn more victory points, round by round. Each phase intuitively flows into the next and you get lost in your own world, eagerly planning to make things bigger and better. The experience as a whole is a lot smoother than any of the obvious plot devices in the Jurassic Park/World franchise.
At the same time, it’s hard to pinpoint any particularly clever or standout fun parts to the game. Once you dig a little deeper, you realize there are some things about Dinosaur Island that make you as uncomfortable as watching Bryce Dallas Howard run in heels.
The phases are easy enough to explain and function mechanically well, but there is an overarching shallowness and disconnect as you move from phase to phase. Decisions earlier on do impact your later phases, but it’s more of a ripple than a riptide.
Unless aiming toward a specific objective, the choice of a Giganotosaurus instead of Pteranodon, or a Wooden Coaster instead of a Security Office, appear to matter more than they actually do. Another player may take a recipe or specialist you were eyeing, but none are so integral to your plans that it ultimately makes a difference. Certain dinosaurs will generate more excitement and victory points over others, but that balance is offset by the DNA cost to create them. Ultimately, the tension in the game is limited mostly to money, which is an intra-player challenge rather than inter-player competition.
The pace of the game is hard to get used to as you spend the first few rounds just building up the basics of your park: recipes, security, a few new dinos, bigger paddocks, etc. Just as the game begins to swell, you see players staking their claim on the objectives. Some objectives overlap more than others, making it easy to grab more than one in a turn. For example, creating 3 dinosaurs in a single round dovetails nicely with creating dinosaurs of 3 different species.
The objectives race does push your decisions, but can be difficult to track how close others are to completing one. There is already enough going on in the game that it’s not always possible to take in everyone else’s player boards. You may get locked out of an objective because you were one phase behind and didn’t realize it. Moreover, if players are going for different objectives, it’s possible the game ends after everyone has only claimed one. No one knew they were collectively about to end things, which is disheartening since it’s around the time your engine was about to take off.
Dinosaur Island offers a lot of promise, so it’s with those expectations that I was let down. Unlike others, I wasn’t bothered by the dinosaurs only varying in cost/points or the spatial positioning on park boards not mattering. Rather, I was expecting a fuller and deeper experience. I thought hilarity would ensue when visitors were eaten. I imagined rejoicing when pulling off the creation of a large carnivore. I wanted everything to click together in a slightly more interesting and meaningful way.
Instead, all the pieces come together with a kind of whimper when you’ve steadied yourself for a roar. Don’t get me wrong; the game has its enjoyable moments, yet at the same time offers no real memorable hook. The charm of the game lies more in the bright pink dinosaur meeples and theme than the gameplay. As the saying goes, I’m not mad; just disappointed.