I’m a sucker for any game that replicates the theme park building experience. If you combine park building with dinosaurs, a la Jurassic Park, I’ll practically beg you to take my money. Dinogenics, Dinosaur Island/Deulosaur Island, and Mesozooic are on constant rotation in this house. So when I saw Draftosaurus, a quick-playing dino-drafting game that has you building a simple dino theme park, well, let’s just say the money flew out of my wallet. But was that a wise decision, or should I learn to temper my impulses where park building and dinosaurs are concerned? Let’s find out.
How It Plays
Draftosaurus is a dino-drafting game played over two rounds. (The two-player game is played over four rounds.) Each player is trying to maximize the points earned from their dinosaur park (aka, your player board). Wise placement of dinos into the various enclosures will give you the best park with the happiest dinosaurs and visitors (aka, the most points).
At the beginning of each round, players take six random dinosaurs from the draw bag and hide them in their hands. (At various player counts, a certain number of each dinosaur species is left in the box to aid in scaling.) Now you’re ready to go.
The player with the placement die rolls it. This die depicts the various placement conditions on your park board. It does not depict specific enclosures, rather it narrows you down to an area, such as placing on the left or right side of the board, into an empty pen, or into a grassland/woodland section of your park. All players except the one who rolled the die will have to place their chosen dino into an enclosure according to the rolled condition. The player who rolled the die gets to put their dino anywhere on their board, thumbing their nose at these rules. If you cannot (or don’t want to) place a dino in the specified area, you can place it in the River.
You will choose your dinosaur from those held secretly in your hand. After everyone has chosen and placed their dinosaur, pass your handful of dinosaurs to the player on your left without revealing them. Repeat this process until each player has six dinosaurs in their park.
Round two is played exactly like the first round. The game ends at the end of the second round, when everyone should have twelve dinosaurs in their park. Everyone counts the points earned on their park board and the player with the most points wins.
That’s the gameplay in a nutshell. There’s a bit more to it because in order to maximize your points, you have to skillfully place your dinos into the pens that will earn you the most points. There are six kinds of pens on the board, plus the River mentioned above. (The boards are double sided – summer and winter – and each offers slightly different scoring conditions.)
I won’t go into the details of each pen type on each board, but the gist of it is that each pen provides victory points in a different way. One pen can only hold dinos of the same species, for example, while another rewards you for diversity. A pen may hold only one dinosaur, but scores only if you have more dinos of this species in your zoo than your opponents do. There’s another pen that also holds one dinosaur, but only scores if it’s the only one of its species in your zoo. Another pen rewards you if you can populate it with dinosaur couples. The placement die will generally restrict where you can stick a dino, so it’s your job to puzzle out the optimal placements given the dinosaurs that are going around the table and the roll of the die.
Is It Like Holding Jurassic Park in the Palm of Your Hand?
When I got this game, I was both excited and wary. Excited because of the theme, but wary because sometimes drafting games don’t work well with two players, which is my most common count. I was also unsure how well the theme park building aspect would translate into such a small and quick game. Mesozooic managed to do it well, but perhaps that was a flash in the pan. But the dino meeples basically made me buy it, so off we go.
It turns out that my misgivings were largely unfounded. Yes, the drafting is a little more fun with more players. It always is. That’s just because when two players are passing things back and forth, you have a much better idea of what you’ll be getting back. With more players, it gets harder to track who has what and what you’re likely to receive. The best drafting games find a way to mitigate the total predictability found with two players, and Draftosaurus does it well.
At 2p, after you place a dinosaur on your board, you choose one to place back in the box before passing your hand to your opponent. This adds an element of surprise. You’ll still know what you’re getting back when the hand is passed (assuming you’re paying attention), but it gives your opponent a chance to suss out what you were hoping to do and drop that dino into the box. This doesn’t quite replicate the higher player count experience — you still can keep good track of what your opponent has in her hand, whereas with more players it’s easier to forget who has what — but it does give you more of a chance to mess with each other and adds a layer of unpredictability. Draftosaurus is also a bit more strategic with two than it is at higher player counts. Because you know which dinos are likely coming back to you, it’s possible to formulate a better plan and have it work out.
With more players, the game becomes more about, “Now where do I stick this?” You probably won’t get back the dinos you really want, so you have to make the best of what you get and hope for the best on future turns. Sure, sometimes things will fall into place, but mostly you’ll be reacting rather than formulating a long term plan. That’s fine, though. If you pay attention to your opponents, you can make life just as difficult for them. Draftosaurus is still a fun game at any player count, it’s simply a matter of which type of experience you’re seeking.
No matter how you play, the placement die is the star of the show, adding an interesting complication to the proceedings. If you could place your dinosaurs where you wanted to, the game would still require a bit of strategy in just the drafting portion. What to keep and what to pass on? What to hope you get back? But because you’re not going to know for sure where your next dino is going to have to go (unless you’re the die roller), you find yourself in the position of trying to leave at least a couple of good options open to hedge your bets. Of course, this gets more difficult as the game goes on and the pens fill up. And as the dinosaurs run out, you start to realize just how screwed you might really be.
You’ll find yourself trying to plan ahead for the turns when you’re the die roller, because at least then you know what you can do. Not that it will do any good, sometimes. Your brain starts having these conversations with itself: “Okay, let’s assume that two turns from now when I’m the die roller, I’ll want to place the T-Rex on Solitary Island. But Jake has the last T-Rex in his hand. Okay, there are enough turns for it to get back to me, as long as neither he nor Alice places it in their zoo. But if either of them do, I might still get the triceratops back and it can go in the Prairie of Love. Oh, dangit, he placed the T-Rex. And she placed the triceratops! Well, I’ve got this diplodocus that can go in the Meadow of Differences, it just means I don’t have a place to put another one, and I see Carol eyeing me up and hoping to stick me with that last one.”
So you can see that you actually get to do a lot of thinking in this game. And hoping. You’ll do a lot of hoping that the placement die will roll in your favor. When it goes against you, you’ll do a lot of scrambling to find a good place for a dino on this turn, while leaving yourself some options for the next turn. It’s actually a bit surprising how much thinking you do in such a short period of time. Draftosaurus is, first and foremost, a puzzle that you have to solve without ever really knowing where and how all of the pieces will make themselves available.
Because I love this puzzly type of game, Draftosaurus is a hit for me. I love games that present a somewhat complex puzzle to be solved, yet streamline the design to a very simple ruleset. Draftosaurus can be explained in two minutes and plays in 10-15 minutes. It’s perfect for casual gatherings and weeknights. Because it’s so quick, it’s got a high, “Play again!” factor going for it. I like to play several times in a row, using both sides of the board. You can mix the board sides in a game, playing one round with the summer side and the second with the winter side. The winner is still the person with the highest score.
As for the theme, yeah, it’s kind of pasted on. You could be placing anything into any sort of enclosure for points. Colored cubes would work just as well, for example. But it’d be a lot less interesting and fun. While Draftosaurus might not be as thematically rich as say, Dinogenics, it does do pretty well for a small, ten minute game. The dino meeples and the descriptions of the enclosures do kind of make you feel like you’re building a park. Of course you won’t feel it if you’re the sort of person who ignores the trimmings, but as long as you can think like a park manager (and appreciate the humor in the park descriptions), you’ll feel a bit like one.
There’s a lot of bang in this value-priced box. The dino meeples are wood. They’re well cut and colorful. The boards are reasonably thick and their two-sided nature helps with replayability. The box is appropriately small, which is a nice change from having small games in huge boxes. My biggest complaint is that some player aids describing the scoring conditions for each pen would have been helpful. There are icons on the boards to remind you, but in the first few games we found ourselves passing the rulebook around, seeking the full text explanations. Small cards for each player with the text explanations would have saved some time until we internalized each pen’s rules.
The only other complaint I have is that holding six pointy dinos in your hand isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world. And if your hands get sweaty, well, things can get a little gross. Nothing like inheriting a handful of sweaty, sticky dinosaurs. You might want to find some substitute for hand-holding like bags, or opaque containers of some sort.
Other than those small complaints, are there any other negatives? Sure, but they’re a matter of taste rather than things “wrong” with the game. If you don’t like light games, look away from Draftosaurus. It’s incredibly light, despite offering a good mental workout. There aren’t a lot of mechanisms here and luck plays a fairly significant role. You have some control, but not much. That roll of that placement die can really ruin your day. If you want a meatier, more strategic dinosaur park building game, you’ll need to look at something like Dinogenics or Dinosaur Island.
Like most drafting games, there can be an element of meanness, too. You can absolutely hate draft dinosaurs to keep them away from your opponents. This is more pronounced when playing with just two. The ability to drop a dino back into the box can feel especially mean, particularly when your opponent does it with a smug smirk and says, “Ha!” when he does it. (I’m not naming names.) If this sort of thing bugs you, Draftosaurus might not be for you.
Draftosaurus does what it sets out to do, and it does it with some style and cuteness. As a result, it’s a good game for families, non-gamers, and gamers seeking a light, quick mental workout. It’s not for those seeking a full park-building/management experience, with all the economic and structural variables that entails. However, it may be a hit for those seeking to build on a much smaller scale, and those who enjoy puzzles. For me, I’m happy to report that my binge buying of dinosaur park games hasn’t bitten me in the backside this time. I’m sure that day is coming, but Draftosaurus was a solid impulse buy.