Saturday, August 2, 2014

Needs more dinosaurs

I like pirates. I think they work great as a storytelling genre, and clearly I'm not alone since pirates are well-represented in the gaming world.

I also like dinosaurs. Primeval is one of my favorite TV shows, and for all their flaws I'm a big fan of the Jurassic Park movies. Unlike pirates, dinosaurs are sadly under-represented on the board game shelves (but if you disagree I welcome your recommendations of good dinosaur games in the comments below).

I also like Arkham Horror. It's one of my favorite board games. So when I heard that Richard Launius, creator of Arkham Horror, was designing a game called Pirates vs. Dinosaurs, I thought "what's not to like?"

As it turns out, Pirates vs. Dinosaurs is not quite the epic struggle I was hoping for, but it's still pretty fun. It is essentially the classic pirate scenario of the treasure hunt on an unexplored island, where players control crews of pirates in a race to see who can be first to find the location of the hidden treasure, and then abscond with the most booty before the island is destroyed by a volcano. As if that wasn't enough, the island is also populated by bloodthirsty dinosaurs who will attempt to eat the pirates at every turn.

At the beginning of the game, after choosing a captain and first mate, each player chooses how to equip their pirate crew. Choices range from obvious items like shovels and rope to slightly more outlandish (but still pirate genre-appropriate) choices like a parrot or a cannon. They also choose whether to arm their crews with pistols n' pikes, which are more accurate but require more crew to use, or good old fashioned swords n' muskets, which are less dependable but give the player more dice to roll during combat.

After the crews are equipped, the hunt is on. Each player is assigned three tiles representing specific landmarks on the island. There are corresponding face-down tiles scattered throughout the island, and players must find the matching tiles for their three landmarks by spending time in different areas of the island, during which they are vulnerable to attack via Island cards, which are played on them by the other players.

Island cards represent mundane dangers such as mutiny or quicksand, and occasionally even positive effects players can play on themselves, like a trained monkey that will steal cards from the other players. More importantly, the Island cards include dinosaur attacks, from crafty velociraptors to stampeding triceratops to the dreaded Tyrannosaurus Rex. Naturally, attacking dinosaurs will trample or eat your crew, making them less effective in combat against further dinosaur attacks. Additionally, when you finally find the location of the treasure, you need crew to haul it back to your ship.

Once a player has located all the tiles on the board that correspond to their landmarks, they move on to the third stage of the game. From this point on, it becomes a risk management game: the player rolls the dice to determine how many tiles they draw from a randomized bag. Tiles can represent treasure of various values, but also ghosts which cumulatively cause crew and treasure loss, attacking dinosaurs, or an erupting volcano which counts down based on the number of volcano tiles that have already been drawn. How much treasure a player can haul away depends on how much crew they have left, and every draw risks ghosts, dinosaurs or volcanic eruptions, so players have to carefully decide when enough is enough and it's time to retreat to the ship.

The game ends when either all players have returned to their ships, or the island sinks as a result of the erupting volcano. At this point, the player whose crew survived with the most treasure is the winner.

As a pirate-themed treasure hunting game, Pirates vs. Dinosaurs is solid and entertaining, helped along by some excellent illustration and graphic design. However, the presence of the dinosaurs is a bit understated for me, with one exception being the Giant T-Rex, which is actually represented by a piece on the board and has an ongoing effect throughout the game.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A perfectly good pirate game, but not a very good dinosaur one.

Date played: June 21, 2014

UPDATE April 20, 2015: Another look at Pirates vs. Dinosaurs

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