I had the pleasure of playing a friend’s copy of Dinosaur Island 1.0 Kickstarter Edition from 2017, which had all the stretch goals of a ton of dino meeple shapes, metal coins, and the like. However, anyone just finding out about the game or who happened to miss prior Kickstarters bringing it back into stock likely missed out on some of these fun upgrades.
If this is you, look no further than this retail re-release of the Dinosaur Island base game which touts 3 different dino meeple shapes (instead of 1) as well as a 2.0 version of the Rulebook for lower MSRP than the first release to retail!
It’s a medium-weight economic game for 1-4 players that takes about 120 minutes to play. The best experience is with 3 players for more interaction without a ton of added time to play its long-game variant.
There are five phases in a round of Dinosaur Island: Research Phase, Market Phase, Worker Phase, Park Phase, and Cleanup Phase.
During Research Phase, the first player rolls all the dice in the DNA dice pool, and those are placed in the Available DNA area on the Phase 1 board “Research Center”. To acquire DNA, the player assigns a scientist to the corresponding die slot. Scientists can also be assigned to increase DNA cold storage or procure a dino recipe. If none of these options seem helpful, the player can also pass to use the scientist as a worker during the Worker Phase.
During Market Phase, each player will have the opportunity to buy a lab upgrade, build an attraction, hire a specialist, purchase DNA, or pass to collect $2. These purchases are essential in being able to take more powerful actions during Worker Phase, create more opportunities for points, hire staff with special abilities, or clone more dinosaurs.
During Worker Phase, all players can simultaneously assign each of their workers to take lab actions. The number of workers available can vary depending on the plot twist and/or any hired specialists. This phase is largely simultaneous unlike the other phases so you can theoretically spend as much time as you need here if others are still working. Base laboratories always come with DNA Refinement to turn basic DNA into advanced DNA, Dino research to create dinosaurs for the park, a tool bench to increase security or paddock capacity, and a venture capital area to collect money from the bank in a pinch.
Park Phase is easily the most fun part of the game, where visitors show up to the theme park you are managing! In turn order, each player draws several visitors from the bag equal to their excitement level. The excitement level is based on the types of dinosaurs showcased in the park. Folks are there to have fun so the more dangerous dinosaurs bring in the most crowds. However, not all visitors are the same; there are visitors called hooligans who are pink meeples that sneak into the park without paying and grant zero points. All they do is take up space and are just plain rude. They go in first and escape first if things go awry at the park. Depending on what you have built out during the Market Phase, your excitement level may exceed the number of available spots in the park for your visitors to go. Thankfully, they pay before they enter the park so this only impacts your in-game points and not your income.
You’re not in the clear after you manage those lines of visitors, though. After all players have drawn and placed visitors, everyone checks their base threat level and adds the number of threat pips from the DNA die that was not claimed during the Research Phase. The difference between the security level and the threat level determines the number of visitors that are eaten. Then, 1 VP is deducted from your score for each one eaten this way (p.s. therefore everyone starts at 10 VP). Oof.
Finally, in the Cleanup Phase, turn order is reset, the market is refreshed, new dino recipes are revealed, everyone gathers their scientists and workers, returns the visitors to the bag, and resolves any plot twists (if applicable).
The game ends when there is only one objective card left unclaimed. When this happens, players finish the current round and then proceed to final scoring. Each attraction is worth a certain number of VPs, each exhibit is worth the listed VP value multiplied by the number of dinosaurs in the paddock, objectives are scored at face value, and then money is 5:1 ratio for VP. Leftover money is a tiebreaker, if needed.
As fun and friendly as this game looks, there is a lot to think about for being a mid-weight strategy game and I’m super excited for it. Each Phase of the game is equally important and impactful as the others but of course, this comes with the downside of a lot of overthinking between player turns. Consequently, this is a game you’ll likely want to play with folks you know are at about the same overthinking level as you so that no one person is frustrated waiting during a Phase.
The tension between taking available DNA you want with zero-to-low threat pips and possibly “taking one for the team” with a second choice die that has high threat pips happens regularly. You cannot afford all the things all the time as a fledgling theme park so there is some math to be done on how that leftover die will impact threat levels and therefore the required investment in security levels. I find that this consideration is thrilling because I have definitely had strategies in my games where I toss caution out the window and have a really dangerous park that eats lots of visitors.
When reviewing available dino recipes, it’s always fun to see what I think are “fan favorites” like velociraptors or T. rex and having the option of choosing those dinosaurs. Saying, “I’m going to grab this velociraptor recipe” in game is a delight and only possible in a game about dinosaurs. My one complaint is that it had to be clarified repeatedly again with new players that this was a recipe and did not come with a dinosaur. It’s strange that it was a common misconception as I think the rulebook is clear about this but it happened, nonetheless.
I found that the lab upgrades were the hardest to think about in terms of investment value, since one item is purchased at a time. There are some upgrades that seemed somewhat overpowered or underpowered but were not in the sweet spot price. The fact that you are unsure of whether an item will stick around or be wiped at the end of the phase increases the artificial urgency to purchase it, sometimes to your detriment. I have had times during Market Phase where my FOMO completely betrayed me and I ended up building over the upgrade later. However, I think this happens less with more experience and familiarity with the game so it’s not a big deal.
Dinosaur Island is one of those worker placement games where you need to make sure you are certain of where you are when taking specific actions in case you need to undo something. If you aren’t paying attention and want to change your mind during Worker Phase, no one will be there to confirm whether you have done something to even begin to undo/redo it. I’ve found that some players new to this game will miscount everything from money they have to spend to DNA available to create a dinosaur. It’s a complete mess if you don’t think before placement, so try and draft it in your mind if you can.
Let me tell you this game knows how to pull on your heart strings and really does have gambling-level excitement when populating the park with visitors. Not knowing what will be drawn from the bag and having to mitigate the damage that those hooligans do is fun despite being an inconvenience. I’ve developed stories around where I choose the hooligans to go, for example, it’s not required that they get to see a dinosaur so I just stick them in the hat shop or other merchandising locations as revenge. I also find it extremely funny that folks have to pay before they even enter the park so if they 1) die or 2) have no space in the park to go you still got paid and can fuel your future renovations with their money. Evil, I know but it’s just a game, right?
I can also confirm that the solo mode included in the game is worth your time if you are a solo gamer. It comes with an AI deck that randomly messes with the available resources and Market items in ways that are challenging but manageable. The solo objectives are more rewarding when performed early which means that you do need to have your wits about you when attempting this mode. Since the theme park’s success is slow to start, I honestly find that getting a strong score during solo mode is a mark of full understanding of this game and the ultimate compliment.
Dinosaur Island is for those looking to add a solid dinosaur-themed strategy to their collection that stands out on the table and in gameplay. If you enjoy constant tension in decisions that you make in every Phase and would like tangible rewards for that hard work, this game is definitely for you. If one of your main complaints about games that you own is that they get boring, predictable, or repetitive then I can definitely also add that Dinosaur Island is also for you (because it isn’t any of those things). Fully understanding the implications of the choices, you make will take time but if you are willing to make that investment and possibly stumble through it with others then you are set. Just be prepared for the inevitable deaths of visitors.
Final Score: 4 Stars – Become the Dinosaur Island theme park manager of your dreams by hiring personnel and building out paddocks full of cloned dinosaurs in this economic strategy game.
• Modular design ensures replay value
• Theme shines through components and gameplay
• Player interaction is just right
• Major decisions are not simultaneous
• Heavy housekeeping and initial setup
• In-game vs end-game scoring unclear