Hold on to Your Butts
After a night of playing Fleet: The Dice Game, I got inspired to design a roll-and-write game. I was never enamored with roll-and-writes until I got to experience the engine building of Fleet. Not only did I get to mark off Xs that enabled me to mark more Xs, but every other phase those Xs actually did something!
Marissa Misura and I began brainstorming some elements that we wanted. Above all, we wanted to create something. Some of our favorite games leave us with something to be proud of. Sure, I might score terribly while playing Agricola, but at the end I have my own dysfunctional little farm. Knowing Brian Lewis and having personally seen Jurassic Park thirteen times in the movie theater, Dinosaur Island seemed like the natural fit. I pitched some basic ideas to Brian, jokingly called it a “Roar ‘N Write,” and Brian was in. Thus began a journey that none of us had foreseen.
Okay, Who’s The Jerk!?
While Brian has had success in the industry, I figured I would introduce the team. I also feel that the games we love say a lot about us.
Brian Lewis: The co-designer of Dinosaur Island and very much the John Hammond of the project. Brian is the type of designer who has a prototype ready to go the very next day. On top of that, he loves a quality spreadsheet and frequently lands on elegant solutions after long conversations. Brian’s favorite game is Brass, and I think that mirrors his design philosophy. It isn’t always easy, and you might have to lean on others, but the textile is going to get to the port whether you like it or not. Maybe it is because of his many creative ventures, but Brian ensures things get done and we are all constantly marching forward. This game exists because of him.
David McGregor: My design experience is largely from playtesting the designs of others and being fascinated by the constant stream of new releases. I would love to call myself the Ian Malcolm of the group in that I often find the “quotable moments” in design conversations. I like discussing game “flow”, clean turn structure, and “feel good moments”. I am one of those much loathed pacifist gamers; like a hobbit, my heart lies in peace and quiet and in good tilled earth. Unlike Malcolm, a mathematician, I don’t care about the math behind a design decision as long as it “seems right”. Where other designers can talk of input and output randomness, probabilities, etc. I stick to baby talk: “This feels good, and that doesn’t.” My favorite game is Le Havre because it is a sandbox in which I can make fish sandwiches while you ship steel. I love how the game has a real sense of narrative, with the city, ships, and economy changing as the generations pass. I hope your final park in Dinosaur World gives you the same sense of satisfaction that my splay of cards in Le Havre does for me, even when I come in dead last with the finest fish sandwiches on this side of the Seine.
Marissa Misura: Marissa is the Sattler and Grant of the design team by lending direction to the chaos. Not only does she make sense of the stream of consciousness of ideas that we all regurgitate, but she translates it to beautiful notes that we can work with later. Both she and Brian are the math gurus of the group, and while they work on balance and toil in the spreadsheets, my mind drifts to dinosaurs on Jet Skis. Marissa’s favorite game is Race for the Galaxy, and she loves “digging” through the deck to find synergies. She is constantly amazed at how much you “get done” in a short session and wanted a similar feeling with Dinosaur World.
From left, David, Marissa, and Brian
The three of us have known each other for nearly a decade and have worked together on a previously published design called Fungeon Party. This dexterity party game came out of a casual night with friends. As the night went on, we continued to challenge each other with more and more ridiculous dice-based challenges. We eventually wrote them all on index cards, set a timer for thirty seconds per card, and attempted to complete the stack of cards in co-op fashion. It was a silly game that we thought would be nothing more than a fun thing to entertain our friends. However, after taking it to some playtesting groups, several other designers suggested we pitch it. Sure enough, after a handful of successful pitches, we happily signed with WizKids. Dinosaur World would prove to be a much more involved and ambitious design challenge.
What Kind of Park Is This?
With inspiration found and a Dinosaur Island “rawr” and write to make, we started firing off ideas. We wanted an “activation phase”, and we wanted combos as in Ganz schön clever. Buildings became polyominoes, dino paddocks became rectangles, and they all did something.
Early on, we had an idea of a logistic puzzle in which you would build roads and “travel” along those roads scoring in some way. In my dreams, dinos made their way to exits and escaped on Jet Skis, but this proved to be difficult to track. We were building roads and buildings, then crossing them off as they became “visited.” By the end, you didn’t have a cute little park blueprint, but instead a grid of scribbles and Xs. The goal was always to walk away with one of those “I made this!” feelings that we got from the Rosenberg classics.
As the game was now set in the Dinosaur Island universe, we wanted to use the DNA dice as the primary component. Very quickly we came up with a core worker-placement mechanism for our general actions: building attractions and special buildings, creating dinos, and laying down roads to connect attractions. The dice would be drafted, provide their base DNA, then be placed on a board to take an additional action.
In our first few plays, the board felt a bit too tight, so we added a dice-stacking mechanism reminiscent of Marco Polo. You could now use an occupied space as long as the threat pip value was higher than a previously placed die. This added a nice competitive wrinkle to the initial draft as you may want the threat pips to ensure your second action will be possible. For example, you may need a specific type of DNA to build dinosaurs, so one of your dice might have a high threat value to ensure that you can take a “create dinos” action later in the round.
After some tinkering, we had a core turn structure. You drafted dice, placed them to take DNA and actions, then built attractions in your park. When adding buildings to your park, they immediately activated, which would give you money to activate other buildings, specialists, etc. It was a fun system, but was difficult to teach and required a lot of resource tracking. We found it easy, but we were the ones who created it.
Brian threw together a prototype board, and we took it to Origins 2019 to pitch to the Pandasaurus Games team. The pitch went well, and the reception from the various playtesters was inspiring. We refined the game using several bits of feedback and brought a newer version to Gen Con 2019. This was the first experience when we had playtesters find us and return looking for another go at the game. As a new designer, this was such a cool moment for me, and I know Marissa and Brian felt the same way.
Gen Con 2019 was where the game really took on new life. We wanted ways of making the economy more diverse, but we didn’t want to change the core mechanisms or add more complexity. Our countless playtesters over the weekend came up with brilliant ways to add player agency and a diverse economy, and they solved some final scoring wrinkles that we had yet to iron out. The buildings went from being pre-printed on the board to a deck of cards that could be drafted to add variability to the game. The convoluted route scoring was simplified, and we left the con with a game we were proud of and that felt close to being done.
The next problem was more of a publisher issue than a design issue. How was the game going to be presented? Brian suggested that we make a small Dinosaur Island expansion to pair with the roll-and-write, and we graciously jumped on board. Little did we know where the design process would take us…
They Didn’t Stop to Think If They Should
Our initial idea was to take Dinosaur Island into the Ice Age. We listed issues that gamers have had with Dinosaur Island and Totally Liquid, then brainstormed ways to “game-ify DI“.
One of the core ideas was to create a Dinosaur Island campaign. Titled “The Rise and Fall of Dinosaur Island”, it saw your park thriving through a period of boom before being riddled with corruption and sabotage. Each of the episodes would act as a module that could be played in a variety of combinations. Some of these modules were more ambitious than others. The earlier episodes were basically sets of new buildings and dinosaurs. One of our goals was to make the park itself more interactive. These initial tiles had placement bonuses and adjacency scoring. The new dinosaur tiles had variable recipes that would change as you created more of them.
The first of the ambitious elements was a stock market module using Ice Age mammals. Mammals were commodities, and we added speculation phases, buy phases, and sell phases. We also wanted players to be able to invest DNA into making mammals and manipulating the markets. Mammals would enter the economy from outside agencies, and players would be adding their own to change the values of certain creatures. Costs and VPs would fluctuate, and the idea was that entering the market would be a highly-interactive but necessary aspect of play.
It was a challenge from the start. We did our research by playing stock games with both simple and more complex mechanisms to find something that would work. We saw this as the key module and worked tirelessly to make this function while keeping the rest of Dinosaur Island intact. Ultimately, we used a system in which the dinosaurs would enter the system randomly and be up for sale. As they were purchased, the player would get “action points” to manipulate the market as they saw fit. It didn’t work. The decisions were obvious and boring, and we shelved it to focus on the other modules.
Some of the other modules included a series of tasks that you had to complete to satisfy a guy we referred to as “Nerman”, as well as a complete overhaul of the hooligan system. Nerman, based on Dennis Nedry, would cause issues across the parks, and you would have to allocate workers or money to the tasks. We discussed the idea of these tasks being semi-cooperative like Troyes or more take-that with the ability to sabotage other players like mandatory quests in Lords of Waterdeep. Either way, this module never got to testing.
The hooligan revamp came entirely from my dislike of the original system. As one of the earlier playtesters of Dinosaur Island, I had a table flip moment with some poorly drawn hooligans, and I questioned the system throughout the entire design process. If I was going to get my crack at Dinosaur Island, we were going to have to address this.
The idea eventually became a bag-building system. You would court customers through PR actions. The customers were color coded, with each color representing various wants and needs. If you were able to place the specific color meeple at the attraction they most desired, you would score additional points, excitement, etc. Going heavy on dinos? Court more dinosaur lovers. Love amusement park french fries? Court customers who were amped about amusement park food. The customer draw led to more positive interaction. Instead of the sting of hooligans, you would get the occasional bonus of attracting specific customers. We even added variant cards that would change the function of the customers from game to game. This module worked well, and we were in a state that was ready for development.
The last of the more ambitious modules were hybrid dinos that blended the three dino types from the base game. The idea was to massively overhaul the threat system and make the game more punishing. Many players were clamoring for a bloodbath, and that was the goal. We were working on dinos that would march around the board shutting down systems and point-scoring options. The players would have to invest in Robert Muldoon-style security to march around securing the dinosaurs.
This module was more manageable, but it continued to exacerbate a problem we had with most of them as the game was already phase and upkeep heavy. We had hit a wall. Everything we tested added some fun, but also made the game more difficult to manage and more of a table hog. We often left the playtests wondering if it was worth it, and we settled on the reality that it wasn’t. This was probably the lowest point of development for the “Rise and Fall” campaign expansion.
You Can’t See What Is on the Other Side Until You Get There
Throughout our brainstorming sessions, we often talked about cutting and adding components. Brian came up with the idea of doing away with the park boards and building with hexes. Another evening we talked about having a little truck that would move through your park and activate tiles. Eventually, all we had from Dinosaur Island were the dice and theme.
Up to this point, the goal was to make a small component-light complement to the roll-and-write. Despite being campaign focused, we were working with only new cards, tiles, and Ice Age meeples. We were still designing within the basic structure of Dinosaur Island and had no intention of pitching this as a standalone title. The first play with the hexes and truck tour changed that. Cutting the vast majority of the Dinosaur Island components liberated our design space, and suddenly we started bringing back ideas. We all love games with engine building, so we saw the park activation as the primary means of scoring points and earning money. Elements we used in the roll-and-write were showing up and being added to tiles.
From here, the design process went fast. We kept some of the phases from Dinosaur Island. You still drafted dice and used workers to collect dinosaur recipes, buildings, etc, but now you had to hold back some workers to ensure you had enough to run your park. The park phase turned into a logistic puzzle in which your truck would start in the Welcome Center and travel to adjacent tiles. If the tiles had workers present, you would take the action and collect resources.
The various colored meeples that represented customers now became workers with specialties, and instead of building your customer base, you were building your worker pool. Blue workers became scientists, red truck mechanics, etc., and we kept the bag-building mechanism for this. Workers would come in on “résumé cards” that were similar to the boats of Keyflower, with you drafting the workers, then adding them to your bag. Eventually this mechanism felt cumbersome, and very rarely did we feel any meaningful strategy in the bag building, so we cut it. Simply having the players draft a résumé card and take the assortment of workers still required the players to puzzle their way through activating their buildings and efficiently using the bonuses provided by the workers.
The new park phase allows you to move your “jeeple” from attraction to attraction, gaining resources as you went. If you move to a dino paddock, you get excitement, but you also have to roll the threat dice. Each category of dinosaur deals a differing amount of threat and potentially death. Attractions provide bonuses based on their adjacency, and buildings do any number of things.
Our goal was to keep the basic economy of Dinosaur Island in which excitement would convert to money at the end of the round, but we also changed excitement to a spendable resource during the park phase. Thematically, some buildings just aren’t as exciting for your visitors, but might be necessary for operation. As you visit these, you must spend “active” excitement to get the benefits. This will lower the total income for the round, but will hopefully get you some benefits. Excitement also reverts back to zero at the end of the round, so you must generate excitement on the turn you intend to use it to get any use out of certain buildings.
The park phase proved to be a favorite among playtesters, but we were growing concerned about players hammering the same route over and over again. Once some players found a juicy combo, they were content with doing it repeatedly. We eventually decided to use dice to “count down” activations. You could use an attraction as much as you wanted, but each use would become less exciting for your patrons. Eventually, these buildings would cease to produce excitement, but instead cost it. Players could use their nice combos a few times before the value started to decline.
While this solved one problem, it opened up another. Now buildings at the front of the park had excitement generation in the negatives, and players couldn’t activate them. On a whim, we decided that after three years, the park needed to renovate the entrance and create a new one. At the beginning of the third or fourth round (depending on the player count), players add a new entrance for the remainder of the game. Now tiles that were buried in the remote reaches of your park could be hit early, and new combos were accessible.
The core was set: dice drafting, worker placement, tile laying, and logistics. We fine-tuned our phase structure, flipped phases here and there, and cleaned up the flow of play, then we were ready to playtest. We felt the design was of a similar weight to Dinosaur Island, but the experience felt quite different.
Life Breaks Free
As Brian, Marissa, and I continued to fine-tune and playtest, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, and upended our plans for an Origins and Gen Con roll-out and playtesting frenzy. Our little game was the farthest thing from our minds as we were concerned for the safety of our friends and family.
After the first major wave of infections had subsided, we were able to continue to work together, but development and playtesting slowed. With the help of Brian, Stevo Torres, and the Pandasaurus team, we were able to put our prototype assets in Tabletop Simulator and shift playtesting to an entirely digital space. Playtesting this way lacks much of the genuine interaction and feedback you can get face to face. So much of the experience of this hobby is tactical and based on friendly banter and conversation, that these early tests felt cold and distant. The upside is that there is little to focus on but the mechanisms and experience. A good digital playtesting experience might be fun, but a bad digital playtesting experience really sits with you. Some of our most genuine feedback has come from these digital plays.
Pandasaurus hired Andy Van Zandt to handle the remaining development. Andy was able to fine-tune balance and make excellent suggestions about turn structure and streamlining. All of the buildings or elements of the flow of play that we knew needed polish were suddenly getting that attention.
Kwanchai Moriya was once again on board, with Stevo Torres handling graphic design and Joe Shawcross and Andrew Thompson contributing additional illustrations. It seemed like within days we were getting art proofs and concepts that left the design team speechless.
An Aim Not Devoid of Merit
When Pandasaurus shared the official announcement and covers for both of these games, it was the first time I felt a resounding sense of dread. I have never fancied myself a creative, and the act of putting your work out there is terrifying.
From day one, I never considered this a product. Brian, Marissa, and I were just having fun. From the “rawr” and write, to the expansion, to the campaign, to World, each breakthrough and setback was a fun challenge to overcome. Not once did any of it feel like work. Sure, we had arguments, a bad playtest with close friends, and moments when simple solutions felt impossible, but after every play the game felt better. We were having fun.
Toward the end of the design process, we asked ourselves whether this was different enough. We know the theme is rife with options for more direct interaction and sabotage. We know some gamers would want nothing more than to march raptors into your opponents’ Welcome Center, but those moments never really emerged. The puzzle of linking your tiles and driving your little truck around continued to be fun, and the design space grew around that. We always went back to my “baby talk” design philosophy and asked the question, “Well, does that feel good?” After each change, both major and minor, we felt the answer was a resounding “Yes!”
From the get-go, we let the design lead us. No idea was too wacky; even when we had whittled Dinosaur Island to just the dice, it felt like the right step. Every decision was in the interest of fun, and we felt, as John Hammond would say, that that was, “An aim not devoid of merit.” We hope you enjoy playing the game as much as we enjoyed putting it together.