Spielberg’s adaptation of Jurassic Park stomped its way onto the silver screen and into our hearts. Millions of fans worldwide allowed themselves two hours of pure, exhilarating escapism. They wanted to believe in a world where dinosaurs and humans – two species separated by 65 million years of evolution – got thrown back into the mix.
The Jurassic franchise, and dinosaurs, never stray far from the public’s attention. Let’s pan across, then, to Gamelyn Games’ franchise of their own: the ‘Tiny Epic…’ series. And hey presto: Tiny Epic Dinosaurs is the latest title rolled off their (not-so-tiny) conveyor belt. Welcome to the world of dinosaur ranching!
Tiny Epic Dinosaurs isn’t the only dinosaur game on the board game circuit, though. So, is this a Procompsognathus walking among Tyrannosaurs? Is it further along the evolutionary chain compared to its rivals? Or is it a blended cocktail of DNA? A hybrid cooked up in a lab, like the Indominus Rex? Hold onto your butts… You’re about to find out!
"Makes the One I’ve Got Down in Kenya Look Like a Petting Zoo"
In Tiny Epic Dinosaurs, 1-4 players compete to run their own dinosaur ranch. This is a ‘farming’, Euro-style worker placement game with elements of resource management. Each player’s ranch is an asymmetrical player board. This is their Site B, their dirty little Isla Sorna, away from tourists’ prying eyes. This is where you track down dinos and house them for an interim period. You’ll aim to complete contractual desires (specific dinosaur types) for biological preserves. Contracts mean points, driving you to victory.
The game lasts six rounds, each having seven formulaic phases. That sounds complex, but don’t panic. It’s simple enough to grasp and all written on the Round Mat. Your initial ranch starts empty. In phase one you gain visible resources on your player mat. (Five leaves, three meat and one crate.)
Phase two and three are classic worker placement. Players take turns placing one of their four workers on a vacant spot. Then they perform the action there. Collect dinos, complete contracts, buy research cards, collect barriers, and collect resources. (Spaces scale for rising player counts.) Someone blocked the spot you had your eye on? No problem: send two workers there instead, and still perform the action. Achievable, but less efficient. It’s like Keyflower, in that respect. If a third person wants to go there, they then have to pay three workers, and so on. Everyone has one Lead Rancher, like a ‘Grande’ in Viticulture. This counts as two workers.
"Malcolm Was Right… The Dinosaurs are Breeding"
Phase four is arranging. Place any dinos you earned this round into your ranch, along with barriers. You have to keep different species in separate, complete enclosures. Water and mountain terrains count as a natural boundary. Once you place dinos and fences, they remain placed. So plan with care! If you can’t keep your prehistoric pets in a legal, safe enclosure, they’ll escape…
Next, you feed your animals. Herbivores eat plants; carnivores want meat. The bigger the dino, the more food they want. (All stated on your player mat.) Can’t feed your dinosaurs? They’ll escape. After feeding, comes breeding (like so many date nights). Play some smooth Barry White over the ranch speakers. Pairs of same-species dinosaurs in an enclosure do a special DinoCuddle™. A stork drops off a baby, which you then locate somewhere in your ranch. Can’t keep the baby/babies anywhere? They escape…
Last of all is end-of-round clean-up. Public Contract cards refill up to three (if any got claimed). Research cards get flushed regardless – so if you see one you want, you need to act fast. First player doesn’t change, unless you claimed it. Then you’re back to phase one, where you check your ranch for visible resources. Of course, now you might have animals in your ranch that cover up certain icons. The more dinos you have, the less resources you claim…
"We Have an Asset Out of Containment"
Much like running an actual zoo, the biggest threat is always an asset getting out of containment. This is a Euro-style game, so the ever-present stakes result in losing valuable dinosaurs. They don’t rampage about, eating lawyers, though. This isn’t a theme park. It’s a sparse, open ranch – no tourists. Your dinos help you complete contracts. Lose too many due to poor planning and you’ll struggle to win.
If a herbivore escapes (in either steps four/five/six), it crashes through a barrier, painfully, maybe even dangerously. Meaning: you lose the dino, plus one fence. If a carnivore escapes, it kills another dinosaur before stomping off. Meaning: you lose the dino, plus one other dino. You can have the carnivore nom the about-to-escape herbivore before it escapes. At least that way you only suffer one extra punishment!
The good news? This doesn’t have a ripple effect. The broken fence doesn’t result in other animals then escaping and destroying more fences… this turn. Only one herbivore and one carnivore escape per round. You’ll have the next seven phases to try to patch things back up. Theme-wise, this makes zero sense. Even Nedry knew better than to mess with the Raptor fences. But from a mechanical point of view, I can see why. It’d be too punishing, too much of an unstoppable snowball, otherwise.
"You Stood on the Shoulders of Geniuses"
The worker placement mechanism here doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Spaces become frozen out, but they’re not blocked per se. They become more expensive. Some spaces have a cost to visit them (crates are like a premium currency). You’ll have to balance your resources to afford everything you want. There is one neat twist though…
There are four spots to earn the base dinos. (Herbivores Stegosaurus and Brachiosaurus, and carnivores Velociraptor and Allosaurus.) These animals are colour coordinated, in respective yellow, blue, green and red. Visit one of these spots to ‘capture’ said species using the Wrangler die.
This D6 has three symbols: Net (three faces), Wound (two faces), or Egg (one face). Net captures one animal; you take one from the supply and add it to your Holding Area. Egg means you find two dinosaurs! You add both to your Holding Area. Wound means you capture the animal, but at a cost. Both you and the dinosaur end up in Medical Leave. (You get the worker and dino back for phase four.) But this results in your worker leaving that space vacant for another player to visit. Everyone’s invested in your die roll!
"If you Sign Off on the Park, We Can Get Back on Schedule"
The crux of Tiny Epic Dinosaurs is completing contracts from a face-up public flop. Each has a combination of three dinosaurs on it. These consist of the four base dinos, and some feature a purple dinosaur (not you, Barney). The latter can be any of the fifteen unique species that you gain via Genetic Research cards. To complete a contract, you must have – and they pay in – all dinosaurs for said contract in your ranch. This is different to having them waiting in your Holding Area, or stuck in Medical Leave.
In theory, animals you earn this round contribute towards contracts for next round. There is one way to bypass this. One spot allows you to place a dino from your Holding Area into your ranch now. (This spot also lets you move a barrier, which you otherwise wouldn’t be able to move.) As a result, you can spend your next worker to complete the contract. Is it worth spending an extra worker for the points? And as far as foreshadowing your next move goes? It’s as subtle as introducing a bad guy – everyone knows they’re dino-chowder in the final quarter of the movie.
“Hold Onto Your Butts”
Contracts are a race towards finishing them first-come, first-served. They don’t get replenished until the end of the round. It can be harsh being last in turn order. Harder still is completing a Private Contract. There’s no penalty for not completing them, other than a missed opportunity. But to complete a Private Contract, first you have to complete a Public one on the same turn.
This means having seven correct dinos in your ranch at once. Not impossible, but remember: you have a mere 11 spaces in your ranch, total. If you’re not First Player, that Public Contract might not be there when it comes around to your turn. So now you’re stuck with seven dinosaurs for the round, and can you feed them? Or, they’ll breed, and you have nowhere safe to keep the infant…
At least if you can’t complete contracts, any dinosaurs remaining in your ranch at the end are worth points themselves. Contracts always pay out more points than the worth of individual dinos, though.
"You Went Ahead and Made a New Dinosaur?"
The 30 Research cards come in two types – Science and Genetic. All are worth extra points at the end of the game, but more important are the abilities they provide. Science cards grant a range of cool actions you take in certain phases of the game. (Some gain extra food; others give you better barriers, and so on.) If you can combo a few together, they provide the means to a more fluid control over running your ranch. They’re worth the investment.
There’s 15 Genetics cards, corresponding to the 15 different Unique Dinosaur species. Each has their own fun, appealing reward for as long as it remains in your ranch. Of course, you need to pay in a Unique specimen to complete certain contracts. Judging when to get rid of one, or whether to keep it long-term for its ability, is a pleasant see-saw.
"Don’t Get Cheap on Me, Dodgson"
There are four solo modes to try; each pits you against a different specialist. The Scientist tends to earn more Research cards. The Breeder has babies galore. The Contractor gets discounts off contracts. Meanwhile, the Poacher steals your dinosaurs!
None are easy opponents, so consider this an advanced mode. The bot gets replicated by an Automa deck. It blocks out entire quadrants of the worker placement spots per turn. More so than ever, you have to prioritise what you want. With bad luck and poor planning, you could end up unable to place workers due to how expensive this becomes. Claiming the First Player Marker feels key to taking on the solo mode!
"Spared No Expense"
The 75 quaint wooden dino-meeples look amazing. Having 15 extra Unique dinosaurs on offer adds a further feeling of exclusivity. “We have a T-Rex!” you’ll whoop. Or, “Yay! I’ve got the Deino…cheirus? I always wanted one of those. Looks like a six-foot turkey!” Some purple dino-meeples are tricky to distinguish alongside their respective Genetics card, though.
Further details among the wooden tokens elevate the experience. The barriers have little spikes. The plants and meat are leaves and minuscule raw joints on the bone. The round marker is a cute coffee mug that reads I ♡ DINOS. But let’s not mince words: these and the dino-meeples are tiny. Too tiny? While they look phenomenal stood on your ranch, they’re awkward to handle. While I adore the attention to detail in the laser cutting, they’re borderline too delicate. I wasn’t ever able to relax around them. The fear of snapping off a leg or neck is real.
There’s four double-sided ranch mats, each comprising of 11 land squares and one water space. They have the same boundaries and resources, but there’s layout variety. The grass is the same shade of green as the Raptors – a minor visual issue; everything else looks clear.
The Player Mats are are bright and provide all the details you need. There are also four (double-sided) Action Mats that make up the worker placement board. Again, there are mats for the Round, Contracts and Research. For a ‘tiny’ game, this takes up a sizeable table footprint! The mats are thin card stock, but they need to be to fit inside the box alongside all those meeples.
Nikoletta Vaszi’s artwork exudes the vibe of a modern kids’ CGI television programme. That’s not a bad thing; it’s vibrant without being a shock-glare-fest like the palette in Dinosaur Island. It might mislead some people though, as being a ‘cute game for kids’. Tiny Epic Dinosaurs isn’t simple enough for ‘casual gamers’, who might pick this up on a whim. It’s a light-to-mid-weight strategy Euro.
"Now I’m Sitting By Myself, Talking to Myself; Uh, That’s Chaos Theory"
Designer, Scott Almes has borrowed mechanisms from popular tried-and-tested games. He’s twisted them together to make Tiny Epic Dinosaurs into a prehistoric farming puzzle. Arranging barriers, placing dinosaurs, breeding babies. Tenants within your ranch enter and leave through a revolving door. It culminates with completing contracts, which is often a relief. Not because you nabbed the points, but because now you don’t have to feed the animals!
For a game that’s all about managing dinosaur enclosures, I felt like something was missing. It’s not the cards, not the contracts, not the mechanisms. It’s not the variety of species on offer. There’s so many cool, pleasing different prehistoric fauna, especially the purple varieties. Instead, it’s us. Humans. We’re what’s missing. The threat of animals escaping in Tiny Epic Dinosaurs is an efficiency punishment. Barriers get broken. Carnivores get peckish… for other dinosaurs. “That’s 5 or 6 points I lost there,” you’ll think, not: “Arghh! The raptors are going to eat Tourist Tom!”
If you buy this game hoping for the thrill of dinosaurs stalking and attacking idiot humans, I’ve got bad news. This isn’t Jurassic Park. This is Dinosaur-Mini-Agricola. You build ‘pastures’ and put fences around them so you can keep animals apart. Remember, you need enough food to feed your animals. You practise animal husbandry.
Now, I enjoy playing Agricola. And there’s enough mechanical differences here to warrant owning both this and Uwe Rosenberg’s farming favourite. (This is much lighter, for one.) I had fun with the efficiency management side of Tiny Epic Dinosaurs. My only wish is that the stakes were a little different, theme-wise. I wanted that yikes moment. Dare I say it, I wanted more chaos.