Ever since Jurassic Park premiered, everyone has wanted to build a dinosaur theme park. While board games have been slow to embrace the theme, the past year has seen its share of dino park building games. Dinosaur Island and the forthcoming Dinogenics come easily to mind. Like dinosaurs, these games are big, heavy beasts that take a lot of time to set up and play. And they’re not for the youngest dino lovers among us. But Mesozooic is something else entirely. It gives you the chance to build a dino park with nothing more than a deck of cards, a deft hand, and a knack for puzzle solving. More sprinting raptor than lumbering brontosaurus, the game is quick and simple. But is it fun?
How It Plays
In Mesozooic, you’re trying to build a successful dinosaur zoo. To do this, you’ll be drafting cards, placing the cards you get in a sliding puzzle grid, and then sliding your cards into favorable scoring positions.
Each player has their own basic deck of cards. Before the game begins, all of the player’s decks are shuffled together, along with the neutral cards. This forms the main deck for the game. (Each player keeps their Director card in front of them. All other cards are shuffled.)
Mesozooic is played over three rounds. Each round has three phases: Choose, Build, and Score.
The Choose phase is the drafting phase. Each player is dealt 11 cards from the deck. The rest of the deck is set aside. Players simultaneously choose two cards for their zoos and place them face down in front of themselves. The remaining cards in your hand are passed to the next player. This choosing and passing repeats until you have chosen 11 cards. (The last time the cards are passed, you simply keep the last card.)
Now you move on to the Build phase. Each player shuffles their 11 chosen cards and then lays them out randomly on the table in a 4×3 grid. The bottom right space remains empty to create the slider puzzle effect. The empty space will move as you play. After you finish building, you will place your Director card in that space for scoring purposes.
Everyone has 45 seconds to slide their cards around in the grid and build their zoo. You’re trying to arrange cards so that they’ll score points for you in the next phase. You can only use one hand to slide cards, and cards cannot be stacked, or picked up and moved. You must slide them into the empty space one at a time as fast as you can.
When the timer runs out on building, it’s time to Score. Place your director card into the empty space in your zoo. Completed enclosures are worth 6 points. An attraction scores 2 points if there is a maintenance truck next to it. Note that your director card also serves as a truck. Multiple trucks next to an attraction mean you can score it multiple times. Monorail connections are worth 4 points each, and topiaries are worth one point, no matter where they are in your zoo.
Scoring ends the round. Take all the cards back and repeat all of the above until you have played three rounds. The game ends after the third round is scored. Each player drops their lowest score and adds the two remaining scores together. The player with the highest total score wins. If there’s a tie, the player with the highest dropped score is the winner.
There are some advanced cards included that increase the difficulty and give new ways to score. There are also rules to adjust the difficulty for younger and less experienced players.
Slip Slidin’ Into Park Management
As a child of the 70’s and 80’s, I remember well the little plastic slider puzzles that were staples of the birthday party favor circuit. Some had numbers or pictures (my favorite had a picture of Wonder Woman), but the goal was always the same: Using the single open space on the grid, move the tiles around to form the picture or get the numbers in order. (If you got hopelessly stuck, the solution was to raid dad’s toolbox for a screwdriver, pop the tiles out of the frame, and then stick ’em back in. Not surprisingly, that was also the solution for the Rubik’s Cube, but I digress.)
Seeing this same idea turned into a board game fascinated me. A slider puzzle is a solitary experience best suited for a waiting room or road trip. What could a designer do to turn it into a game that could be shared among friends? Turns out, quite a lot.
First, Mesozooic starts with a fun theme. The concept of dinosaur parks/zoos has been on the rise since the new Jurassic World movies started coming out and board games are embracing it. But while most of these try to replicate the business aspects of such a park — growing your dinosaurs, managing guests, selling food and souvenirs, etc. — Mesozooic simply has you building the rough layout of the park. Make sure the transportation is connected, the exhibits complete, and the maintenance workers in place to keep it all going. Oh, and throw in some topiaries for beauty. That’s it.
Yes, it’s pretty abstract. Pushing cards around for 45 seconds can’t be that thematic, after all. But the basics of building a park are there if you look hard enough. Of course, you won’t get to apply a ton of careful thought to your park. You’ll have to settle for making the best you can out of what you’ve got in such a short period of time. There’s almost no way to optimize every single thing. The timer will empty and you’ll see about five more ways you could have arranged things better if you’d had more time. (Or been allowed to use two hands.) You’ll also probably have that moment mid-game where you realize that you’ve hopelessly screwed everything up and you just start frantically pushing cards, hoping to score any points at all!
That’s all Mesozooic is trying to be: A fast, light, fun, slightly chaotic game of racing against the clock to slide your pieces into something that gets you points. And yet… For all its simplicity, it does offer a little bit of strategy during the drafting phase. No, it’s never going to be a brain burner, although the sliding puzzle does torque my brain in a novel way. But it’s not as mindless as just shoving cards around, either.
During the draft, you want to acquire cards that will work well together. Some cards have multiple scoring features, so those may be more valuable to you, if you can make them work. Maybe you try to get a lot of monorails and hope you can make those connections. Or you try for a bunch of enclosures or attractions. You’ll probably end up with a mix of everything, but you can apply some thought into getting things that go together. This makes Mesozooic an easy way to teach the basic concept of card drafting if you’re hoping to guide people to more challenging games. It’s a very simple and low stress draft where the stakes aren’t all that high and hate drafting is rare.
You can hate draft a bit in the two player game, however, making that count my favorite. When you’re drafting with just the two of you, it’s easier to see what strategy the other player is aiming toward. Then you can decide whether to use a couple of your card picks to deny them what they want, or keep plugging along with your own thing. With more people, the draft is more chaotic and you have no real idea what anyone else is doing.
The thing is, no matter how well your draft goes, the building phase can still go badly. This is because all those great cards you got are now placed randomly into the puzzle grid. Those three monorail cards that you knew would work so well together? Yeah, they’re on opposite corners of the grid and now you’ve got to bring them together. It’s also possible that everything you want ends up together, making your building phase a breeze. (Your opponents will hate you. They’ll be frantically trying to score and you’ll just be sitting there tweaking little things for ever more points.) Most of the time the experience is in the middle. Some stuff is well placed, while some of it is scattered and you have to try to corral it into something positive.
This luck aspect will bother some people greatly. But bear in mind that Mesozooic is a 20-minute, family weight game. It’s a filler that’s designed to be a fun activity, not necessarily the most strategic thing out there. It’s a game about trying to get the best stuff you can and then frantically trying to make something out of the parts. Since the game is played over three rounds and your lowest score is dropped, that round where nothing came together is less painful. And the whole thing is over so quickly that it’s easier to tolerate randomness. If you get hosed, you can always just play again or move on to the next game. You haven’t invested an entire night.
Aside from the luck, the other potential problem is the real-time aspect of Mesozooic. If playing against a timer is stressful for you, you’re not going to like this. I don’t usually enjoy real time games like Escape: Curse of the Temple or similar, but this one doesn’t bother me. I think its because the puzzly, timed part is solitaire and I’m not stressing about someone else getting their “mission” done in time.
If it bothers you, though, you could play without the timer. Or get a longer timer if 45 seconds is too short. That’s one of the things I loved most about this game. It’s very easily adapted to the age, experience levels, and desires of the players. The designer includes a few variants, but you could house rule just about anything and not break the game. You could get rid of the draft and just deal cards randomly. You can allow kids to use two hands to shift cards. Ditch the timer and play until everyone has done all they can do.
Mesozooic might not be something you want to play every night for months on end. Other than adding in the advanced cards which give you a bit more to think about and make the puzzle more difficult, not much changes game to game. Yes, the cards will draft differently and your grid will play out differently, but it’s still the same general experience. The replayability will depend on how much you enjoy the puzzle aspect.
That’s okay. This is a simple filler, something you’ll likely only play every now and then, anyway. Unless you have kids. Then I can see this becoming one of those games they latch onto for a while and want to play all the time. Or it may become the one your relatives want to play every night they’re in town over Christmas. It’s a charming little game with wide appeal. For me, it’s just simple fun that makes me laugh and groan and want to play again. It’s a game I can play for enjoyment and the thrill of working my puzzle. Most of the time, I don’t care who wins or loses because I’m having too much fun arranging my cards. But I love puzzles. If you don’t, then Mesozooic may not be for you.
If you want a strategic, deep dino park building experience you’ll need to look elsewhere. But if you want a fun, fast little game with a theme that appeals to kids and adults, Mesozooic might be worth a look. It won’t fry your brain, but the puzzle will make you think. And if you’re of a certain age, you may recapture that nostalgic feeling of sliding those tiles in your birthday party favor puzzle. Only this time, the screwdriver can’t save you.