Friday, September 15, 2017

Dinosaur Island [P]review: A Playtester's Perspective

Dinosaur Island box art
Have you ever wanted to run your very own Jurassic Park?  Well, now you can.  In Dinosaur Island, you take on a similar role to that of the notorious John Hammond.  Over the course of the game, you will invent dino blueprints, invest in additional staff and facilities, and lure small children into your definitely-safe-enough amusement park.  With an art style brandishing enough neon colors to cause eye cancer, this game’s 90s roots are unmistakable.

I had the chance to playtest Dinosaur Island prior to its hugely successful Kickstarter campaign.  As the retail release date approaches, my anticipation and excitement has been growing proportionally.  So, in an effort to justify my excitement, I have written the following preview that I hope others find helpful.

In Dinosaur Island, each player controls their own Jurassic park.  The game is played over a variable number of rounds.  Players are competing for objects; when enough of the objectives have been fulfilled, the game is over and the players check to see who has the most reputable park.  Each game round consists of four phases of play:

1.       Research Phase – In this phase, players will acquire new DNA samples and Dinosaur Blueprints.  In order to clone additional dinosaurs in the park, both are required, but only a limited amount of each is available.

2.       Market Phase – I prefer to think of this as the Construction and Hiring phase.  Players can purchase additional research facilities, park attractions, staff, and resources during this phase, if they have enough money. 

3.       Worker Phase – In order to make use of research facilities in your park, you must assign workers.  It is in this phase that you can clone additional dinosaurs for your park, upgrade your security, or contract your extra labor for much-needed Dino Dollars.

4.       Park Phase – Building and operating a park is great, but ultimately meaningless if nobody visits.  In the Park Phase, you will attract patrons based on how exciting you have made your park. While dinosaurs are very exciting, those tea cup rides and roller coasters don’t hurt either.  Be careful to balance excitement with security though; having too many patrons may result in dinosaurs breaking out and running amok.

Playtesters don't get the deluxe treatment
While dinosaurs are an integral part of the game, you are ultimately an amusement park, and the designers have spent as much time on the attractions as they have the dinosaurs.  Part of running a successful park is managing your lines.  Attractions provide additional space in your park for patrons to visit.  If you do not have enough spaces for everyone, then people will leave your park saddened, won’t promote your park (i.e. increase your reputation).  So, if you want to be the best, you better make sure you have that safari Jeep ride.

You’ll start by cloning smaller dinosaurs, and hiring your first staff (will it be a Muldoon to protect your park, or Barney to be your mascot?).  Then, maybe you’ll  build a roller coaster to dino-soar above the competition.  Before you know it, your park will be filled with patrons waiting in like to view your murder of pteradons and you’ll be making money hand over fist.  Because you are constantly researching new dinosaurs, combining DNA strands, and attracting more visitors, your park’s evolution provides a satisfying sense of progress. 

The market and objectives provide a different experience each time.  The dinosaurs, staff, laboratories, and attractions vary each game.  Your favorite raptor-training specialist may not be available next time you play, or someone else may take them first.  These factors manage to provide variability without the inclusion of chaos or frustration.  Playing the same strategy in each game will not work.  While cloning T-rex cubs may work for you once, you may want to file it under “bad idea” the next game.

In short, if you’re in the market for a 90 minute economic game with a fantastic theme, I can highly recommend Dinosaur Island.  Despite its stellar integration of its theme, the European mechanics-first is equally evident.  To build the best park, you will have to consider each of your actions, and watch the market carefully.    If, instead, you prefer games driven by a narrative sequence, or if you have no love for 90s neon nostalgia, then I’d avoid this like it’s a raptor nest.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Latitude 90: The Origin -- First Impression

All hail our robot overlords.  For years, people have declared that the future of board games will see an increased utilization of smartphone apps and computers.  I recently had the opportunity to playtest Latitude 90: The Origin, a fully digital board game (currently funding on Kickstarter).  Rather than sit around a table with cards and tokens, a dozen of us stood in a large circle and logged our smartphones in to a game server.

The premise of Latitude 90: The Origin is much like John Carpenter's horror classic The Thing:
You are an Antarctic Researcher, part of a team of elite scientists posted at an Antarctic Research Station. An ancient life form, trapped beneath the ice for millennia, has infected one of the others, taking their form and hiding in plain sight. It is the most powerful Infected Master, and it calls itself “The Origin.” To figure out who the Infected Masters are, you and your fellow Researchers will use all your training as scientists — Isolate biological samples, conduct experiments to gain clues, and perform tests on your “teammates”, but be careful! The Infected Masters can spread their Infection through their own biological samples, taking over the Researchers’ bodies, and turning them into their Infected Minions.
Players are broken into two separate teams at the beginning of the game: Researchers and Infected.  Most players begin as Researchers while only a few are Infected.  Much like the games Werewolf and Mafia, the Researchers (townspeople) do not know who the other people on their team are, while the Infected (werewolves/mafia) do.

Role cards for the Researcher and "The Origin"
At the start of the game, the Infected team are dealt special Infected Master roles: The Origin, and Corrupter[s].  The Researchers’ goal is to quarantine the Infected Masters.  The Infected have a simple goal: avoid detection.  Both the Researchers and the Infected further their plots by sending players Biological Samples throughout the game.

Unlike the familiar Werewolf games, there is no player elimination; the Infected do not kill the researchers, and the Researchers cannot lynch/kill the werewolves.  Instead, The Origin’s sample can infect unwitting Researchers.  This infection converts those pesky Researchers into Infected allies (but not Infected Masters).  Yes, your team can (and often will) change in the middle of the game.  Newly infected researchers cannot contaminate other researchers.  However, if The Origin sends Infected teammates additional biological samples then those Infected teammates become contagious too, and can help spread the infection.

To combat this, Researchers can quarantine suspected Infected Masters.  This requires a vote from the Researcher players.  If successful, it reveals and disarms Infected Masters.  However, the Researchers must be careful because they are limited in the number of quarantines they can initiate.  If they do not quarantine all Infected Masters by that limit, they are overwhelmed and lose the game.  

So, how do Researchers know who to quarantine?  They open test samples from other players to receive information.  Each player can send 1 test sample every minute during the game (a game lasts 10 minutes).  Every time a player opens a test sample, they’re betting against it turning them into one of the Infected.  If they are not infected, they receive information about the other players.  For example, they may discover that a specific player is still a Researcher, or that certain players were not Infected at the beginning of the game (and thus cannot be Infected Masters).  This information is sent directly to the phone screen of the person who opened the sample.  It is then their job to disseminate it to the rest of the group.  While they are sharing their information, the group has to decide what information is correct versus what information are lies from Infected team members.

Examples of biological sample packages

Closing Thoughts:

While phones are used to send/receive samples, track suspicions, and quarantine Infected Masters, this takes up little time.  Playing the game through a server allows for real-time information flow that would be impossible without a moderator.  Also, by removing the need for a moderator, the game plays much faster than its Werewolf/Mafia predecessors.

Like other social deduction games, most time is spent processing and discussing the known information and its implications.  An early sample that says at least one of three specific people are Infected is a huge boon to the Researchers, but often that information is only useful much later and in combination with additional sampling.  At first, it was frustrating that information can become obsoleted (perhaps Jim is no longer a researcher after all, so maybe I can't trust their biological samples!), but the game balances this by only requiring Researchers to quarantine the original Infected team.  One potential concern with the game is that there's little incentive not to open all Biological Samples.  If the sample is clean then you gain information regarding the other team's activities; if the sample is contaminated, then you switch to the other (currently winning) team.

Latitude 90: The Origin takes advantage of smartphones’ ubiquity without losing the essence of its Werewolf/Mafia social deduction roots.  The game automatically scales for any number of players (3 to 20+). Additionally, purchasing a $10 copy of the game is like "buying the box" -- only one person is required to own a copy of the game in order for any number of friends to play. I found the game to be as interactive, challenging and rewarding as The Resistance or One Night Ultimate Werewolf, while providing a unique experience due to the use of smartphones.  I highly recommend looking into this game if you're a fan of social deduction games.

Friday, September 26, 2014

First Impression: Archipelago

Last night, I had the opportunity to play Archipelago for the first time.  This is a game I've been interested in playing since I first saw it in 2012.  However, this is not a game I am likely to play again.

Quick Overview

Players take on the role of European empires who are competing for control over a newly discovered archipelago.  This archipelago has a native population, so the players must balance their actions with the unrest of these natives.  

The game progresses by players exploring, expanding, and exploiting.  They can harvest resources, grow their population, or build on controlled territory.  At the end of every round, they can spend money to buy either new action cards, or building blueprints.  Periodically, players will have to handle crises from the native population, or face unrest and potential revolution.

Victory points are earned from three sources in this game: a public goal (eg. have the most cows), private goals for each player (players can score others' goals), and building Wonders.  This is a low scoring game: our medium length game ended with our scores at 7/7/6.

Busy, busy, busy.

Archipelago plays like someone decided they liked too many concepts and threw them together.  It is the opposite of a streamlined game.  It is an Auction, Resource Management, Tableau Building, Area Control, Tile Placing, Hidden Information, Semi-Cooperative, Negotiation game.  Within most of these mechanics, there are elements I would cut or modify to streamline the play.

Archipelago Action Palette

Graphic Design

An example of this over-busy mentality: pictured on the left is the action board for the game.  Around the board are the thirteen different actions you can take on your turn.  The graphic design is a mess.  Actions are not limited to the outer ring, if you look closely you'll see a small green cutout for Hiring Workers on the inner left side.  There is no reason this board needs to be so busy.  The six Gather Resources actions could easily be combined into one area; the Hire Workers, and Reproduce actions should be located closer together.

Resource Management

This mentality goes beyond the graphic design.  There are six separate resources you can collect: wood, stone, iron, cattle, fruit, and fish.  Of these resources, Iron is only used to build wonders; cattle and exotic fruit are only used to build markets.  Cattle and exotic fruit are redundant resources.  The game is not improved significantly by making fruit more valuable in the foreign market than cattle, and cattle more valuable in the domestic market.  Iron can easily replace replace cattle's use for the domestic market.  Reducing the market to 5 goods would increase the tension to manipulate the market, and allow you to better plan for crises.

Tile Placement (exploration)

If you manage to place a new hexagon onto the board, then you're rewarded with resources from that tile (usually), as well as a Wild good.  But, if you can't place a tile, then you get nothing.  Nothing.  Your turn has been wasted and the next player goes.  This is unnecessarily frustrating for the player who fails that action.  This non-reward is a bad type of tension to add to the game.  With three types of terrains to match (water, land, and mountains), this is an unfortunately common situation.  One solution might be to forgo your Exploration Tile to keep drawing until you get a placeable tile.

Hidden Information

I generally like Hidden Information games.  Suburbia is in my Top 10 list, and I thoroughly enjoy everything from Coup and One Night Ultimate Werewolf to Ticket to Ride.  Archipelago's hidden goals are frustrating and serve only to unfocus peoples' plans.  Diversifying into everything will net many points, but leads to a bland empire.  It does not feel as satisfying as cornering the market on stone, and forcing people to pay for overpriced goods when you deign to sell them.  I would recommend two public goals, and being dealt two private goals from which you pick one.  That would allow you to focus your plans while not ignoring what others are doing.

So, what works?

Various personality cards available for purchase

Tableau Building

This provides interesting decisions.  If you buy a Personality, then others may use it against you.  You have to balance which cards you want.  Also, building a Wonder is one of the few ways to earn victory points, and usually carries an additional benefit as well.  Rotating the cards to modify the price allows you to remove cards others may want, or at least modify their value.


You bid for turn order.  It's a lazy design for player order, but it works.  Since the winner picks the entire player order sequence, you have more reason to bid.  Furthermore, this, along with the crises give negotiations a meaning to the game.


The use of both a domestic and foreign market provides an interesting dynamic.  The crises act to remove goods from the market (thereby increasing prices again).  This works nicely, and you will be punished if you neglect to sell a particular type of good.  One tweak I would make is a way to exchange goods between the two markets (*there is one personality that lets you do this).

In Summary

This game design has potential.  For as many mechanics as the game includes, it does a not terrible job at blending them together.  However, there are rough edges which could have been sanded down during the design and playtesting phase.  For new players, the hidden information provides a wildly variable end score.  Exploration can be a frustrating and reductive experience.  With some modification, these issues could be resolved.

The core of Archipelago is its market.  In the market's current form, the game works.  There is back and forth, as resources are necessary for money, building, and crises.  With some refinement, this could be an amazing resource management game.

Final rating: 4/10.  Those rough edges are irritating.  I left the game frustrated.  It was not a fun or rewarding experience.  The game does not do any particular aspect better than other games, in an over-busy design that takes too long to play.  Were it an hour game, I might cut it more slack, but it's not worth the 2 hours dedicated to play it.

*All pictures taken from Boardgamegeek galleries.  Siromist took the personalities picture as well as the action plate.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Bezier Games

With GenCon 2014 behind us, I decided to write about my experiences volunteering with Bezier Games.  This year they were showing off three games: One Night Ultimate WerewolfSubdivision, and Castles of Mad King Ludwig.  Without further ado, here are my impressions of each game:

One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Werewolf(/Mafia) is a group game in which every person assumes the role of someone in a village.  Among the villagers are two or three people who have become werewolves.  The game is broken into night/day actions.  The game starts at night; every night people close their eyes and the werewolves choose someone in the village to eat.  Often there is one villager who is also a seer/detective who can check the identity of one other villager per night.

After those actions are taken everyone in the village wakes up and a moderator narrates who died during the night.  Everyone in the village then must decide who they feel is responsible for these senseless killings, and they then lynch that person.  The werewolves win the game if they manage to kill off all the villagers before the villagers manage to lynch the last werewolf.

In Bezier Games' version, they limit all of the interaction to a single night and a single day of voting.  Also, there is no moderator, so everyone can participate (a free app is available to narrate the night/day actions). The villagers win if they manage to lynch even a single werewolf.  Conversely, the werewolves are just trying to survive without being lynched.  To facilitate the flow of information, almost everyone playing will have a special role, which gives them a night action or alternative win condition.  The result is a chaotic scramble to piece together everyone's' roles and determine who the werewolves are.

Ted Alspach & Akihisa Okui retain the bluffing and social interaction, but condense it to only 15 minutes.  Because each person has a role, nobody feels left out, and "I'm just a villager!" is almost unheard of.  Due to the short timespan, and highly interactive play, it's very common to play two, three, even five times in a row.  If you're a fan of quick social party games, this is a must have.


This is marketed as a the next game in the Suburbia line. The art style is consistent with that, and it uses those same hex shapes. That's about where the similarities end, in my opinion.

To play, each person draws a hand of 5 hex tiles. On their turn, they place one down, and then pass the remaining ones to the person sitting next to them. You can place a tile for free where on the symbol which is rolled on a die, or you can pay $2 to place a hex anywhere you want. If you can't do either, you can ditch a tile for $$$.

The tiles you are drafting all have white borders. If you place your white tile next to another white tile, then that previously placed white zoning tile provides you with an adjacency bonus (either new black-border hexes to place down, or wooden sidewalk bricks). These black border tiles are how you earn VP at the end of the game. Placing next to a black tile does not trigger any additional adjacency bonuses, but will often earn you VP or cash.

The game consists of 16 tile placements, and then you count the scores at the end. It plays quickly, typically between half an hour to forty five minutes. The problem I have here is that every way to obtain VP encourages you to commingle your districts. In Suburbia, you would lay out your industrial parks, and then section those off from your residential communities. In subdivision, you're actively trying to make sure two tiles of the same color do not touch. It's difficult to plan your city in a meaningful way, so it's just not interesting to play.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Castles is not marketed as a Suburbia game. However, it is the mechanical successor to it.  There is a market present, and each person starts with the same $15 that you do in Suburbia. There are public goals to vie for, and each person also has a few private goals of their own.

The basic gameplay of Castles is that every round there is a Master Builder (which passes clockwise every round). The master builder then sets the price for each room (he arranges them by price: $1, $2, $4, $6, $8, $10, and $15). On your turn you can: build a new tile, build a staircase/hallway, or take $5 (5,000 marks) from the bank. If you build a tile, you pay the master builder, not the bank (unless you are the master builder, who builds last, and pays the bank). This is where the game is brilliant and interactive. If you know someone wants a room you can either price it out of range for them, or make them pay what you want for it. Also, you can't set the room you want too low or someone else will take it. Any room not taken during a round has $1 placed as incentive for someone to build it later.

For the rooms themselves, some of them give bonus VP for being connected or adjacent (connected is through a door, adjacent means share a wall) to other rooms. Some rooms cost VP if you place them next to others (activity rooms next to sleep quarters, for example). Also, if you complete a room (close off all the doors) then you gain a bonus. These bonuses range from money to victory points to additional hidden bonus cards.

I did not expect to like this game. I assumed the shapes would be gimmicky. While I do think the components could be about 50% bigger, the game is fantastic. The master builder is a significant improvement on Suburbia's market, and positioning and completing rooms is much more compelling here than in games like Princes of Florence. This may 'kill' Suburbia for me.  Bezier Games is hoping to release Castles of Mad King Ludwig at Essen (in October), and  I expect it to be an instant success.