Designer Diary: Dinosaur World, or Life, Uh, Finds a Way (Part 1)

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Enjoy this designer diary written by David McGregor, co-designer of Dinosaur World and Dinosaur Island: Rawr 'n Write - live on Kickstarter now!!

Part 2 linked herePart 3 linked here!

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Hold Onto Your Butts!

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! Marissa and I began brainstorming some elements that we wanted. Above all, we wanted to “create” something. Some of our favorite games leave us with something to be proud of. Sure, I might score terribly while playing Agricola, but at the end I have my own dysfunctional little farm. Knowing Brian Lewis, and having personally seen Jurassic Park 13 times in the movie theatre, Dinosaur Island 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. 

OK, Who’s The Jerk!?

While Brian has had success in the industry, I figured I would introduce the team. I also feel that the games we love say a lot about us. 

Brian Lewis: The Co-designer of Dinosaur Island and very much the John Hammond of the project. Brian is the type of designer who has a prototype ready to go the very next day. On top of that, he loves a quality spreadsheet, and frequently lands on elegant solutions after long conversations. Brian’s favorite game is Brass, and I think that mirrors his design philosophy. It isn’t always easy, and you might have to lean on others, but the textile is going to get to the port whether you like it or not. Maybe it is because of his many creative ventures, but Brian ensures things get done and we are all constantly marching forward. This game exists because of him. 

David McGregor: My design experience is largely from playtesting the designs of others and being fascinated by the constant stream of new releases. I would love to call myself the Ian Malcolm of the group in that I often find the “quotable moments” in design conversations. I like discussing game “flow”, clean turn structure, and “feel good moments.” I am one of those much loathed pacifist gamers; like a Hobbit, my heart lies in peace and quiet, and good tilled earth. Unlike Malcolm, a mathematician, I don’t care about the math behind a design decision, as long as it “seems right.” Where other designers can talk of input and output randomness, probabilities, etc. I stick to baby talk, “This feels good, and that doesn’t.” My favorite game is Le Havre, because it is a sandbox where I can make fish sandwiches while you ship steel. I love how the game has a real sense of narrative, with the city, ships, and economy changing as the generations pass. I hope your final park in Dinosaur World gives you the same sense of satisfaction that my splay of cards in Le Havre does for me, even when I come in dead last with the finest fish sandwiches on this side of the Seine.

Marissa Misura: Marissa is the Sattler and Grant of the design team by lending direction to the chaos. Not only does she make sense of the stream of consciousness of ideas that we all regurgitate, but she translates it to beautiful notes that we can work with later. Both she and Brian are the math gurus of the group, and while they work on balance and toil in the spreadsheets, my mind drifts to dinosaurs on jet skis. Marissa’s favorite game is Race for the Galaxy and she loves “digging” through the deck to find synergies. She is constantly amazed at how much you “get done” in a short session and wanted a similar feeling with Dinosaur World

The three of us have known each other for nearly a decade, and have worked together on a previously published design called Fungeon Party. This dexterity party game came out of a casual night with friends. As the night went on, we continued to challenge each other with more and more ridiculous dice-based challenges. We eventually wrote them all on index cards, set a timer for 30 seconds per card, and attempted to complete the stack of cards in co-op fashion. It was a silly game that we thought would be nothing more than a fun thing to entertain our friends. However, after taking it to some playtesting groups, several other designers suggested we pitch it. Sure enough, after a handful of successful pitches, we happily signed with Wizkids. Dinosaur World would prove to be a much more involved and ambitious design challenge. 

What Kind of Park is This?

With inspiration found, and a Dinosaur Island “rawr” and write to make, 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, which would give 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. 

The next problem was more of a publisher issue than a design issue. How was the game going to be presented? Brian suggested that we make a small Dinosaur Island expansion to pair with the roll and write, and we graciously jumped on board. Little did we know where the design process would take us.

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