13th May2019

‘Dinosaur Island’ & ‘Totally Liquid’ Expansion Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

dino-island-box

If you’ve been following board games for the past couple of years, you will almost certainly heard of Dinosaur Island, which debuted last year in a blockbusting Kickstarter. Finally, after a few relatively modest print runs, the game is back in print and available to buy, and along with it is a big box expansion called Totally Liquid. Today, we’ll be looking at both the base game and the expansion in a back to back review.

For those who haven’t heard of Dinosaur Island, it can broadly be summarised as the board game interpretation of Jurassic Park, albeit with a highly individual art style that uses neon colours like hot pink and bright green to accentuate its features. The game itself is built around a worker placement mechanism and split across several phases, making Dinosaur Island a relatively complex game that will appeal mostly to experienced gamers.

The Totally Liquid expansion introduces a number of new features and modules, including the obligatory additional (in this case fifth) player expansion. The material changes include new facility modules that change some of the rules of the base game, for example the Goat Pen, which allows players to buy goats and use them to appease angry dinosaurs.

As you might expect, Totally Liquid also features a host of minor improvements including new objectives and Plot Twist cards, as well as a few new upgrade and amenity tiles. Perhaps the most exiting new feature are the new dinosaur tiles, which (aside from a few land based creatures) include a whole raft of water borne dinos such as the Plesiosaur and Megalodon.

The first thing to handle in any game of Dinosaur Island is the fairly epic setup, which takes a while the first few times you do it, but isn’t too bad given the weight and complexity of the game, relative to its peers. Adding Totally Liquid into the equation doesn’t change this materially, adding only a couple of new steps (most components just fold into the existing setup).

All of the components in Dinosaur Island are very nicely made and whilst it never appealed to me in pictures before, I’d recommend that you try and look at it in the flesh before making a judgement. What looks like a mass of uncoordinated colours without context soon becomes clear once you’ve laid each of the boards out and there’s a nice visual flow.

Each player receives two personal boards, one of which tracks stored DNA as well as threat and security levels and the other which allows the player to map out their own dinosaur park with various pens, facilities and amenities for the guests. In the centre of the table, the players will place a score track, a research board and a market board.

Around these, a shared stock of dinosaur meeples (sadly in the retail version, they are all Triceratops), a load of coins, some plot twist and objective cards and a few other stock items will be placed. When all is said and done, even the most generous table will be overflowing with content once Dinosaur Island is laid out, so in this way it’s a bit of a blessing that Totally Liquid only introduces a smallish board per player for their chosen utility.

Once the game begins, Dinosaur Island is split into several phases that are played in sequence, with each player participating in the current phase before moving on to the next one. Player order is important in Dinosaur Island and the current order is tracked on the scoreboard, with the first player acting first in a number of the phases.

There are five phases in Dinosaur Island, a couple of which are equivalent to full worker placement rounds, whilst the others are more about adjusting various tracks, checking possible outcomes and making purchases. All in all, a full round of phases takes a fair bit of time – maybe ten minutes or so depending on player experience level and count. Five players certainly takes longer than two, for example, but it’s not a massive problem because the phases are all quite engaging in their own right.

The first phase of Dinosaur Island is Research, which is where players will use their three scientists to perform actions like drafting DNA dice, increase their DNA cold storage and claim dinosaur recipes. DNA dice will often, unsurprisingly, provide DNA, but can also offer other benefits depending on the face shown. Players may also pass at this stage in order to have their unused scientists carry over to the third phase.

In phase two, players will each take up to two actions on the market board. Either (or both) actions can be passed in order for the player to gain $2 per passed action, or the players can use those actions to hire specialists, buy attractions or upgrade their lab. The cost of each of these upgrades is based on the position on the market track plus any cost shown on the upgrade itself, and as upgrades are taken, those remaining slide into the cheaper slots, with empty slots being replaced.

Once each player has completed their market actions (or passed) then phase three begins. During this phase, the players use their workers (and any reserved scientists) to take actions including refining DNA, creating dinosaurs, upgrading paddocks, increasing security and gaining income. Some upgrade tiles also include new worker placement slots and some locations allow more than one worker.

For phase four, players must resolve the park visitors. This is where meeples visit each park based on the excitement level it generates, with a number of meeples equal to each parks excitement level drawn from a blind bag. Yellow meeples each generate a dollar in income, whilst pink meeples (hooligans) do not. Each meeple must be placed into a visitor space, where meeples provide cash or victory points and hooligans just clog things up – it is possible (and likely) that not all meeples will be placed, leaving some languishing in line (which is neither a positive nor a negative.)

The final phase is basically cleanup, and during this time, the players do several things to reset their boards for the next round. Visitors are removed, the market is refreshed, dinosaur recipes are flipped face up (if any were taken) and so on. Most importantly, objectives can be completed at this point, should any player have met the criteria – which might be to have built a certain number of attractions, for example. Turn order is also reset, with the player on the lowest number of victory points acting first in the next round.

The number of times that this process is repeated depends on the objective cards used and Dinosaur Island comes with objectives for short, medium and long games. The ultimate winner will be the player with the most victory points, which are tracked throughout the game. Players gain them for having visitors make it into their park to see the attractions, but can also lose them if their threat level exceeds their security level, which results in visitors being eaten.

Objectives score points when completed, and there are a few other methods of obtaining them which might relate to specific attractions or other events within the game. The plot twist cards that are used in most games change the basic rules, occasionally allowing the players to have access to extra workers, DNA dice or some other effect, which can have an impact on how easy it is to score – and therefore the final score that is achieved.

When all the phases are combined, in context of the objectives and any additional rules applied through plot twists, Dinosaur Island is a pretty complex game that is definitely at the heavier end of the spectrum. With that said, it’s also relatively straightforward and intuitive to learn, albeit that it comes with a cost that someone (usually the owner) needs to remember the intricacies of each phase.

Totally Liquid expands upon the base game content without materially changing it, which I found helpful from a learning perspective. At first, I played only with the base game, but after just a few games, I was able to integrate modules from Totally Liquid with complete comfort. The most complex additions are the new utility tiles (each of which is different) and the executive meeples that come with them.

If you were a new player who had invested in both the base game and the expansion, then I’d be willing to suggest that you could introduce the additional dinosaurs, attraction and upgrade tiles from perhaps your second game, as well as the extra DNA dice and other “more stuff” modules. Adding a fifth player is completely at your discretion depending on how many people are playing, whilst some of the new plot twists and objectives work best with other expansion content in place, which is worth bearing in mind.

Having come to Dinosaur Island relatively late, I entered into it without as much of the expectation that I might have had if I had played it at peak hype, but even so, it didn’t disappoint. I found that Totally Liquid added some asymmetry (via the utility boards) and the dinosaurs are much more interesting thanks to their wildly variable excitement and threat levels, which tend to be quite limited in the base game.

As a thematic worker placement game, Dinosaur Island made a lot of sense to me. The research phase features three scientists of different power levels (one, two and three) which presents players with some interesting decisions, then during the worker phase, there are never as many workers in your roster as there are actions you’ll want to complete. The fact that DNA dice, objectives and plot twist cards are randomised in each game adds a little bit of variation, which is then really enhanced by the extra features in Totally Liquid.

With all of this in mind, Dinosaur Island achieves a lot. It’s a solid worker placement game in its own right, but with the added thematic elements and the potential variation, it becomes a lot more interesting. Add Totally Liquid’s more varied dinosaurs, fifth player and other modules into the mix and you have a really interesting proposition. I have by no means seen every possible variation of what Dinosaur Island is capable of, but after about seven or eight games, I am simply eager to see more.

**** 4/5

Dinosaur Island is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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