Board Game Review: DinoGenics

7/10 Good, though the theme does most of the work

I’ve played at 1, 2, and 3-player.

DinoGenics, designed by Richard Keene and published by his own company, Ninth Haven Games, was a successful Kickstarter in 2017 and released in 2019. It’s a worker-placement game with set-collection and economic elements. You are the head of a corporation with an island and DNA research that can bring dinosaurs back to life. Your goal is to build and occupy your island with facilities and dinosaurs to capture the attention of visitors and become the most successful dinosaur park in the world.

Worth mentioning, I have not played the physical version. My friend owns it, but we’ve not played together face-to-face in months. We’ve instead played online. Tabletopia has a really nice version of DinoGenics that includes some of the solo scenarios.

Overview

You start with a mostly empty park—just room for 2 visitors, 4 fences with which you can make your first pen, and a few cards, both DNA and Manipulation. Depending on turn order, you also have a few starting credits. You skip most of the pre-round minutiae (Open Season) in round 1, going right to the meat of each round: worker-placement. You collect or sell DNA cards, use DNA cards to make dinosaurs, build facilities, fences, play Manipulation cards for powerful one-time effects, etc. At the end of the round, carnivorous dinosaurs must be fed goats, unhappy dinosaurs rampage (possibly destroying facilities or eating visitors), then you collect points from your dinosaurs and visitors and ready for the next round. After the first round, you then follow several steps for Open Season which involves determining player order for the new round, gaining new visitors based on turn order, making money from those visitors, and processing the next Breaking News (events).

After 7 Seasons, players earn points from facilities, collecting different types of dinosaurs, unspent credits, and leftover DNA cards. But you lose points for Scandal tokens, negative tokens earned from rampage mishaps and illegal digging. The player with the most points wins.

Theme

DinoGenics makes no effort to hide that it’s Jurassic Park, the board game. But it wasn’t the first. Dinosaur Island was released in 2017, a Kickstarter from that same year. Both attempt to make a board game version of Jurassic Park (neither with an official license), but both focus on different areas. Where DI focuses more on DNA management and park administration, leaving the dinosaurs themselves as a minor aspect of the game, DG puts more focus on the dinosaurs with each species having different statistics with different needs, rewards, and risks. For me, DinoGenics, without question, explores the theme better and is the game that I wanted. There’s still some park management, but the dinosaurs are the main attraction, figuratively and literally, and they all feel different enough that choosing which ones to put into your park is an interesting choice. This is, to me, the definitive Jurassic Park board game.

Mechanisms

The worker-placement, while the driving mechanism, is nothing to write home about. It’s as basic as it gets. You start with 4 workers, and players take turns putting 1 worker on the board and taking an action. Later in the game, everyone gets a 5th worker for free. That’s it. Likewise, I find some of the Facility tiles uninteresting. There aren’t many that offer bonus scoring, and some of the special effects seem weak and not worth half of an action buying them. I think more could have been done with Facilities.

I think the set-collection is more interesting. You make dinosaurs by playing sets of DNA cards. Each dinosaur has a value to determine how many cards form a complete set (2-4). There are multiple places on the board to get cards, each functioning differently. Site A allows you to just draw 2 DNA cards from the deck. Site B allows you to draw 3 but discard 2. The market, which only moves when DNA cards are sold, allows you to buy one card from three available, the card in the last slot being discounted by 2 credits. Lastly, the Boneyard allows you to take a DNA card from a stack for “free,” but you take a Scandal token for doing so. The stack is face-up so you always can see what’s in there and can freely sift through them to take the one you want. There are Manipulation cards and Facility tiles that can also affect getting cards or making dinosaurs. Seeing what cards you have, checking the market and Boneyard, then choosing how to make a set and for which dinosaur is one of my favorite parts of the game. It’s simple but gives you just enough ways to get cards and is satisfying when you complete a set, especially the harder ones.

I think the only other mechanism worth mentioning is how the economy works. At the start of a round, you get visitors by reputation order (reputation is primarily rewarded for the dinosaurs in your park). But you need hotels to hold them. No hotels, and you might be losing visitors, or worse, giving them to an opponent who has room. Each visitor gives you 1 credit, and at the end of the round, for every pair of surviving visitors, you earn 3 points. But with some time spent on infrastructure, your hotels can become the main source of income for your park. There are a few other ways of making money, but none as effective as having good hotels and enough reputation to lure visitors. Mechanically, it’s straightforward while also being thematic. It all makes sense and works just as you’d expect. Like with the set-collection of DNA cards, it’s satisfying to get running, earning large chunks of cash, and getting a good payout in points each round.

Components

It’s no secret that the game is basically a deluxe KS game. It seems there is something of an affordable retail version in French with more cardboard tokens instead of wood, single-layer boards, and so on. But otherwise, you can generally only get the game from one of the KS campaigns, of which there have been two so far. The dinosaurs all have uniquely-shaped wooden pieces, the fences are screen-printed with warning tape, the player boards are dual-layered so fences fit into place, even the goats and Scandal tokens are wood. It’s a ridiculous, over-the-top production. You might say they spared no expense. The downside is that it’s an expensive game that is unlikely to ever see wide release. But I also think some of it was unnecessary. For one, the reputation track wasn’t needed. You could have tracked reputation on the main score track using the cubes (your score is tracked with disk tokens showing your company logo). The visitor overlay board also could have probably just been a handful of cards to track the round and visitors. These didn’t need to be an extra, table-hogging board.

Rules Clarity and Balance

There are some organizational problems in the rules, but nothing horrible. You’ll just be flipping through it, back and forth, quite a bit, especially given the lengthy start and end of round procedures. The rules are mostly clear if maybe wordy at times, but some of the trickier rules can take a bit of deciphering, such as how exactly to determine what a rampaging dinosaur will destroy. It’s hard to comment too much on balance. It seems to be balanced but only if players understand an important point: get a dinosaur out early or get something big out before long. If you take your time, you can fall behind far enough that catching up will be difficult. The game does not have a catch-up mechanic, it’s assumed that you’ll figure out how to close the gap. There are ways, but your first game or two could see run-away leaders until you get better at adapting. We’ve had very close games since learning how to better jump-start our parks.

Conclusion

This was really difficult to score. It comes down to the fact that mechanically, the game is good but doesn’t stand out. The theme does most of the heavy lifting. If the worker-placement had a unique twist to it, or if the facilities were more interesting, or if there was something to do with dinosaurs once they’re in your park. As far as I can tell, this was the designer’s first game, and it’s a solid debut but maybe too safe. It’s a good game but I come back for the theme. If you want the most thematic dinosaur park game, this is it.

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