Dust off your spades and track down your trowels because you, my precious little palaeontologists are in for a treat! Now you can partake in your very own bone wars as Fossilis makes competitive palaeontology into an art form. This is a game with an unparalleled table presence. With a 3 dimensional board, intricate Dino bone miniatures and gloriously chunky terrain tiles making up the shared dig site. Not to mention the gorgeously illustrated tarot sized dinosaur cards! Fossilis demands your attention from the get-go. But is its unique beauty only surface deep? Well, grab your best khaki shorts and your favourite Fedora Dino fans, ‘cos we’re going diggin’!
The Bones Of It
A game of Fossilis is set up by placing all the dinosaur bones and hammers into the dig site’s 25 ‘pits’. With the exquisitely sculpted site lid placed on top you can now give the dig site board an enthusiastic shake to randomly disperse the bones and hammers. Next, go the tiles making two levels of randomly placed terrain covering all pits. Each turn players have 4 energy to use on various actions. These include gaining 1 plaster for 1 energy point. Moving their palaeomeeple across the dig site. Digging terrain for varying energy depending on the terrain type. Orange sand tiles cost a single energy to ‘dig’, or slide laterally, while grey stone costs 3 energy!
Having revealed a pit you can also extract for a single energy. In order to extract Dino bones though you’ll first need a stock of plaster with which to protect them. The bigger the bone, the more plaster. Hammers are free to extract and can be immediately used to gain a skill tile. Skills give players a unique ability for the rest of the game.
After the action phase, you can buy a card from the market, either tools or supplies. Tool cards can be used during subsequent action phases to supercharge or give free actions. Supplies will give resources like plaster or specific bones or even endgame points. How do I buy these nifty cards, Joe? Well, that’s simple, they cost fragments. What on earth’s a fragment Joe and how do I get them? Well, whenever you dig it means shifting a tile laterally. This means also pushing any tiles in front of it. Inevitably this will lead to tiles falling off the board, any tile that does so on your go becomes yours. Any fragment icon printed on those tiles become yours to spend on aforementioned cards. Like I said, simple.
Do You Wanna Build A Dino?
After the market phase is everyone’s favourite phase, claim a Dino card! Now, let’s have a quick look into the anatomy of a dinosaur card. Each Dino has 3 characteristic icons, these characteristics are central to the endgame set collection scoring of Fossilis. Collect 3 of a single icon type to score its allotted points. A full set of all 9 icons will net you 12 points and there are 3 points on offer for a majority of each and every icon. Next, every prehistoric beastie will have an amount of completion points you’ll score if you fully complete that skeleton. At the bottom of the card the Dino will have a set of bones that it requires for completion.
Each individual bone in that set has a point score too. In order to claim a Dino card, you’ll need to have and assign to it at least one of the bones it requires from your stock. Then you can put that card in your ‘lab’ and no one else can claim it.
Here’s the rub, you can only have one Dino in your lab at a time, those fellas are big after all! So rather than waiting till you can complete a Dino, you may choose to partially complete its skeleton. This means scoring the points only of the bones currently assigned to the card, NOT the full completion amount, and clearing it from your lab. Characteristic icons from all your completed cards, whether that’s fully or partially completed will count toward your set collection totals at the end. So sacrificing points by partially completing can be a powerful way to get mega set collection points later.
One important thing I skipped past is the Events deck. This is made of 3 random event cards and acts as an endgame countdown. You see on the event deck is placed the plaster pool, 4 plaster resources per player. As players gain plaster they take it from this pool. When the pool runs out it triggers the next event in the deck. After the event is resolved another plaster pool is placed on top of the deck. When the last event is gone there’s one more pool and then that’s it! Basically bringing the game to 4 rounds of indeterminate length depending on how quickly you get through that plaster.
Can You Dig It?
Now on paper the fact the game comes with tweezers and chunky tiles that stack up may put you in mind of childhood horrors like Operation or Upwords. In-person, it’s easy to dismiss the chunky game board and toylike bones as gimmicky and childish. But the simple fact is Fossilis melds aesthetic, thematic and mechanical in a show-stopping manner! Everything works in a highly practical way that just makes sense. As well as being extremely appealing to kids, and let’s face it, adults alike. Okay, Fossilis looks like a toy, and indeed it comes with at least 6 ways to simplify and scale it for kids as young as 6 or 7.
But woven through those fun components is a very capable strategy game that will challenge and entertain gamers of any age. Although, and this is probably my only negative on the game, not even I can see into those pits from a seated position. Expect shorter Dino fans to have to stand up and move the board fairly regularly.
Fossilis is no party game. It’s intensely strategic and holds all the ingredients you’d expect of a medium-light euro-style board game. It has resource management as well as a modicum of engine building. It has a tight decision space, especially with the single lab space available, and the shared map which constantly challenges your plans and strategies. The choice of points now over potential for later is a constant companion. It interacts nicely with the awareness that extracting bones and using up that plaster is actively accelerating the game and limiting your time to achieve all you want.
Another example? Those skill tiles we talked about? Each player has exactly 3 slots for skill tiles. The second and third slots are worth 2 and 4 points respectively at games end, but only if they’re empty. Even this element forces you to choose not only the ability you want but whether you even want the leg up now or the points later. This juicy dilemma is always at the heart of Fossilis and what makes it not just another family game.
Do I Dig It?
This game really overturned my expectations. I bought it on the basis of its uniquely attractive aesthetic, cool theme and with the justification that I’ll play it with my kids and they’ll love it. All of these things are true, but Fossilis is so much more. The fact you can remove modular elements of the game to scale it for age and ability is awesome. The fact you NEED to was a pleasant surprise. This is a fully fledged strategy game with a ton of tough choices. It’s also a fairly interactive game with the opportunity for some aggressive interaction on the dig site itself. The set collection final scoring is exquisitely done and the secret nature of this scoring keeps everyone in the game till the bitter end.
Fossilis is one of those games that leaves you saying ‘ aww I wish I had one more turn!’ That puts it amongst very good company in the board game world.
I said that Fossilis blended aesthetic, theme and mechanisms in a unique way. Well, it’s one of the most tactile games I’ve ever experienced, but this physicality makes total sense with the theme. Nothing in the game is just for the sake of it and the physical application of the mechanics doesn’t make the design any less precise or elegant. Put simply, the visual appeal and solid gameplay may well make Fossilis the ultimate family board game experience!