By Mr. Saint
Dinosaur Island is a worker placement game with elements of resource management and tile placement. In Dinosaur Island, players will take on the role of a park manager, attempting to create the most exciting and profitable dinosaur park. Make sure you clear your table in preparation, as a game of Dinosaur Island commands a lot of real estate. Dinosaur Island is played over a series of rounds, and each round is broken into five phases: the Research Phase, the Market Phase, the Worker Phase, the Park Phase, and the Cleanup Phase.
To start the Research Phase, the first player rolls the DNA dice (number of DNA dice varies by player count) to determine what DNA is available to be researched for the given round. Each player has three scientist workers, with a research level of 1, 2, or 3. When collecting DNA or increasing cold storage limits (cold storage determines how much DNA you can hold in reserve), players multiply the resource they’re acquiring by the research level of the scientist they assigned. So placing a level 3 scientist to acquire a DNA die with two DNA symbols will result in six total DNA acquired. A scientist’s research level also determines which Dino recipe each scientist can acquire, with level 3 scientists being able to acquire any recipe, level 2 able to acquire small carnivores or herbivores, and level 1 only able to acquire herbivore recipes. Players will take turns placing scientists until all are placed or all players pass. An unclaimed DNA die with the most threat gets saved for later, to be checked in the Park Phase.
In the Market Phase, players will have the opportunity to buy upgrades for their park. These upgrades come in various flavors, such as additional attractions and food stalls for your park, upgrades to your lab to make it more efficient, and even specialists (specialized employees that give you added benefits and often come with extra workers for the next phase). Buys occur in turn order, and each player gets two opportunities to make a purchase. Players can also purchase DNA during the Market Phase if they didn’t get what they needed in the Research Phase. Alternatively, if your wallet is a little light, you can pass to gain $2.
After the Market Phase, play proceeds to the Worker Phase. Here, players will assign their workers to their own individual lab boards. These workers can do things like create dinosaurs (using the DNA that was acquired in the previous two phases or stored from earlier), increase a player’s security rating, refine DNA into it’s more advanced type (required for some dinos), or add space to a dinosaur paddock. Each player starts with four workers, but can acquire more over time (usually by recruiting specialists during the Market Phase).
The Park Phase is where you get to see all your hard administrative work pay off. In turn order, each player will draw a number of visitors from the bag equal to their excitement level. These visitors come in two flavors: paying patrons and hooligans. Players will earn $1 for each patron drawn from the bag (hooligans sneak into your park, and as such, do not pay). Then players will place visitors at the various attractions and dinosaur exhibits within their park. Attractions have slots on them that indicate how many visitors can use them at once, and dinosaur exhibits can hold visitors equal to the number of dinos the exhibit holds. Hooligans have to be placed before any patrons, as they don’t observe the social contract and push their way to the front of any line.
Once all available spots are filled, each player checks their threat plus the threat pips of the DNA die that was set aside in the Research Phase (if applicable) to determine their total threat level, and compares this to their security level. If their security level is equal to or higher than their threat level, nothing happens. If their security level is less than their threat level, this indicates that dinosaurs have escaped! Visitors will be eaten equal to the difference between your threat level and security level (with patrons being eaten before hooligans, because the hooligans are crafty and avoid the escaped dinos). Each visitor that was eaten results in minus one VP and is returned to the bag. Finally, for each patron remaining in your park (not patrons stuck in line or hooligans in the park), you’ll score one VP.
Dinosaur Island’s final phase is the Cleanup Phase. In the Cleanup Phase, players will reset the turn order (discussed more in the Review Section), refresh the market, reveal new dino recipes, return their scientists and workers to their worker pools, remove any remaining visitors from their park, and resolve any Plot Twists with end-of-round effects. Plot Twists add a bit of spice to each play of Dinosaur Island. They slightly alter the game’s rules to keep things fresh from game to game. For example, one Plot Twist lets each player increase their cold storage limits by one at no cost at the end of each round. Another lets a player collect $2 any time they claim a DNA die, incentivizing that action instead of something like increasing cold storage limits or purchasing a dino recipe.
Another way in which Dinosaur Island varies each game is with its objective cards. These come in three types, based on your desired game length: short, medium, and long. At game setup, a number of objectives are revealed equal to the number of players plus one. These can be things like “Reach an Excitement Level of 10”, “Create 12 dinosaurs”, or “Have 12 DNA in cold storage”. They give players a defined goal right from the start of the game, as they are worth significant VP, and also act as Dinosaur Island’s game timer. When a player meets the criteria for an objective, they may immediately place one of their corporation tokens on it. Other players have until the end of the current Phase to also qualify for that objective or forfeit the opportunity to claim it for the remainder of the game. When all but one objective has been claimed, players finish out the round and then total up their VP. In addition to any VP that was earned during the Park Phase, players earn VP for each dinosaur they’ve created, their park attractions, claimed objectives, and remaining money (at a $5:1 VP ratio). The player with the most VPs wins!
The word that comes to mind when I think about Dinosaur Island is “polished.” When playing the game, everything is so smooth. It all works in this frictionless way that propels you through the game’s phases, letting you focus on the enjoyable task of dinosaur amusement park administration. You can tell that Dinosaur Island was rigorously playtested, carefully buffing out most of the rough edges, leaving the players to focus on the game’s theme and mechanics. This also makes it significantly more approachable than it’s five phase structure, variable objectives, and multiple types of worker placement might look at first glance.
Take how Dinosaur Island determines player turn order for a given round. Turn order is a central tension of many worker placement games, so how a game handles it can tell you a lot about the game itself. For players new to Dinosaur Island, ordering the next round’s turn order so that those with the lowest current VPs go first acts as a built in catch-up mechanism. Sure, the newer players are being less efficient with each action, but the game accounts for that via the ever-changing turn order, giving novices the chances they need to compete with veterans. For a game group of mixed experienced levels, Dinosaur Island’s rules for turn order present a self-regulating system that automatically handicaps the best players by giving priority to the weaker ones, leading to a more interesting game for everyone at the table.
And rather than becoming antiquated once players are familiar with the game, I would argue that Dinosaur Island’s turn order system becomes even more compelling as one becomes more familiar with it. With a table of players who know the ins and outs of Dinosaur Island, the turn order system becomes a sort of push-your-luck mini game, whereby players will take calculated risks to minimize their turn-to-turn VP gains in favor of better turn order positioning and longer term VP rewards for endgame scoring. Suddenly, the food attractions, which might seem overpriced to newer players, become essential. With their ability to claim either a VP or $2 per patron, they become the throttle by which players regulate their game engines, in an effort to balance on the knife edge of VP competitiveness and favorable turn ordering. Similarly, a few accidental patron deaths might be just the cost of business you’re willing to pay for better turn order positioning.
While the DNA dice produce random results in the Research Phase, you can never be completely denied necessary DNA, as you are able to purchase it as one of your two buys in the Market Phase. Each of the three categories of dinosaur (herbivore, small carnivore, and large carnivore) have the same Excitement, VP and Threat values within their category, so if you miss out on procuring the large carnivore in a given round, you can pick up a functional clone in a later one. Dinosaur Island empowers each individual player to build the kind of park that they want, with a myriad of tools to accomplish that goal. Because of this, it sits at the extreme end of multiplayer solitaire (virtually no player interaction). What player interaction that exists in Dinosaur Island (mostly in the form of passively blocking with scientists during the Research Phase) is almost completely mitigatable by the numerous options available to players. This isn’t a downside for me, as someone on record as stating they enjoy multiplayer solitaire, but it is something potential purchasers of Dinosaur Island should be aware of.
There is still one area where Dinosaur Island feels a bit rough to me: the hooligans. Where such attention to detail and effort was made to smooth out the play experience and mitigate randomness, the Hooligans really stand out due to their unpredictability. It is rare that drawing any number of Hooligans in the Park Phase will upset your plans going into the next round, but it is possible on occasion, to draw four or five and have it really effect your income. They seem a bit arbitrary, like a handful of small gears whose teeth just barely don’t mesh correctly, grinding a little on each rotation.
I fully recognize that there are Specialists and Lab Upgrades that help offset the penalty of drawing hooligans, but spending resources to acquire those assets represents voluntarily setting yourself back, since you could have instead purchased a more impactful addition (and because you have no way of knowing how many hooligans you will draw over the course of the game, it’s impossible to predict the ROI on any anti-hooligan purchases, while it’s generally relatively easy to predict the value of other types of buys). The hooligans are also a bit of a thematic disconnect for me. You’re managing an amusement park on an island, so how exactly are these hooligans managing to get to the park and sneak in without paying? Are they all ex-Navy Seals or something?
We also have a bit of a Goldilocks complex when it comes to Dinosaur Island. Dinosaur Island comes with options for short, medium, and long game lengths (with length dictated by the Objective cards). For us, the short game felt way too abrupt. Dinosaur Island takes a considerable amount of time to set up, and with how quick the short game was, I can’t reasonably justify taking the game off the shelf to set up and play a game of that length. Conversely, while I do think we will return to the long game on occasion, our experience with it is that it went on about two rounds longer than we would like. There was a point in our long games where money ceased to matter because we were gaining so much each round, and it drains the tension out of the late game for us. The medium game though, offers tension between resource management and optimization choices throughout, and feels like it concludes exactly when your engine reaches its peak. For us, it’s just right.
All in all, we’ve greatly enjoyed our time with Dinosaur Island. It’s a perfect way to relax for an evening, offering a compelling optimization puzzle paired with an amazing theme. It sits in a bit of a sweet spot complexity-wise, making it the perfect next game for someone looking for something with a bit more depth than Champions of Midgard or Lords of Waterdeep. With its approachable theme, variable objectives and plot twists (easily enough for several plays, even when only playing one game duration), and smooth gameplay, Dinosaur Island is an easy recommendation for those who are looking for a medium-light worker placement game.