Dinosaur Island: Rawr ‘n Write, or Life, Uh, Finds a Way
By David McGregor, co-designer of Dinosaur World and Dinosaur Island: Rawr ‘n Write
After a night of playing Fleet: The Dice Game, I got inspired to design a roll and write. 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! My partner Marissa and I began brainstorming some elements that we wanted. Knowing Brian Lewis, co-designer of Dinosaur Island, and having personally seen Jurassic Park 13 times in the movie theatre, a Dinosaur Island theme seemed like the natural fit. I pitched some basic ideas to Brian, jokingly called it a “Rawr ‘N Write,” and Brian was in. Thus began a journey that none of us had foreseen.
With inspiration found, we started firing off ideas. We wanted an “activation phase” and we wanted combos like 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 where 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, and 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 mechanic for our general actions: building attractions and special buildings, creating dinos, and building roads to connect attractions. The dice would be drafted, provide their base DNA, and 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 mechanic 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 was 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 could 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, and then built attractions in your park. When adding buildings to your park, they immediately activated and gave 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 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 where 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 mechanics or add more complexity. Our countless playtesters over the weekend came up with brilliant ways to add player agency, a diverse economy, and 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 some 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.
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 the attention they needed.
Kwanchai Moriya is once again on board, with Stevo Torres handling graphic design and Andrew Thompson contributing additional illustrations. It seemed like that within days we were getting art proofs and concepts. These elements left the design team speechless.
Toward the end of the design process, we asked ourselves if this was different enough. 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 did putting it together.