Full disclosure: A preview copy of Dino Dig: Risky Sites was provided by Zerua Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
It’s a very busy week for Kickstarters, especially small box ones, with this and Matryoshka coming down the pipeline. Let’s dig right into both and see what’s going on, this week.
In Dino Dig: Risky Sites, you play as competitive paleontologists trying to dig up as many dinosaurs as you can for probable use in either museums or tourism-boosting ill-advised cloning programs. I didn’t do a lot of the required lore reading, if I’m being honest. Just be careful, as the other dinosaur excavators might not be as committed to ethical paleontology as you are…
It’s pretty straightforward, which is always nice. There are three types of dirt tiles:
They have various types of dino bones on them (or scorpions!):
Shuffle the dirt up and make a 5x5x3 grid (25 spots with three cards per spot). Set aside the Empty Sites:
- 2 – 3 players: 5 Empty Sites
- 4 – 5 players: 7 Empty Sites
Give each player a set of Tool Cards in a color:
There should be a matching paleontologist (the pink one should be orange):
Once you’ve done all that, you should be ready to go! Each player in turn order places their Paleontologist on an available Dig Site.
Your goal is to get as many dinosaur bones as possible. Heads, tails, eggs, necks; whatever, you don’t care. Naturally, you’d prefer to have a whole dinosaur, but you’re flexible. Just watch out for scorpions; they can really mess up your day. Naturally, once you’ve emptied enough sites, the player with the most points wins!
On your turn, you may do any two of the following three actions. You may do the same action twice, if you so choose:
For this action, you move your paleontologist one space up, down, left, or right from your dig site. If you would move off the board, you just can’t move in that direction. If you’d move onto an Empty Site or a Dig Site with another player, skip that one and move onto the next one.
If you can’t move at all, you may move to the closest Dig Site in any direction.
Now to get some dino bones. When you use a Dig Action, flip the card underneath your Paleontologist face-up and add it to your tableau. Generally, there are three types of dirt, as mentioned:
- Flat Dirt: Generally small stuff, sometimes bones or valuable eggs!
- Bony Dirt: Bigger fossils, but also nasty scorpions, sometimes.
- Rocky: Very valuable fossils, but also a lot more scorpions! It’s like they know.
You’ll generally find some fossils, so set those in front of you, face-up. You may even find some special cards!
- Bones: These give you one of three free actions to use immediately (check the card to see which):
- Move one Tile from an adjacent Dig Site to under your Paleontologist.
- Move your paleontologist one space to a nearby Dig Site.
- Look at the top tile of a nearby Dig Site.
- Eggs: Eggs are wild! You can use them to complete fossils and they cannot be taken by unscrupulous paleontologists! That’s nice. They cannot count as scorpions, though, just in case you were curious.
- Velociraptors: These score progressively! The first one is worth 1 point, the second is worth 2 points, the third is worth 3 points, and so on.
- Scorpions: These are nasty critters, but people do respect you if you have enough. If you have the most Scorpions (ties don’t count), you gain 5 points. Otherwise, every Scorpion is worth -2 points.
If you take the last card of a Dig Site, replace it with an Empty Dig Site card.
You can play one of your Tool Cards face-up. This takes effect immediately, and you may only use a Tool once per game:
- Boots: Your paleontologist may take four free Move Actions.
- Dirt Devil: You may swap any of your non-Egg face-up tiles for any of your opponent’s non-Egg face-up tiles.
- Gloves: Swap locations with another player’s paleontologist.
- Scanner: Look at the top card of three different Dig Sites. You may look underneath a paleontologist.
- Wheelbarrow: Take the top card of two different Dig Sites and put those cards on top of two other different Dig Sites. You may place cards underneath a paleontologist.
End of Game
The game ends when the requisite number of Dig Sites have been emptied. At that point every player gets another turn. However, the game’s end can be postponed if a player uses a Wheelbarrow to fill in enough of the Empty Dig Sites that you are below the limit again.
Once the game ends, total every player’s score; the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Definitely a game that benefits from higher player counts; at two, you sort of enter this weird detente where one player is only incentivized to let the game end (rather than using their Wheelbarrow) if they are sure that they’ve already won, which means you’re not incentivized to attempt to end the game unless you’re already crushingly winning. That doesn’t make for the most interesting play. I will say at higher player counts it’s very difficult to anticipate the end of the game given how many players have Wheelbarrows, which can also be annoying, but the scores are a bit tighter, which makes the game feel a bit more interesting to me. My recommendation is playing at 3 – 5 players; I’d recommend against 2 players.
- Take as much as you can? I mean, there aren’t really that many bad options. You’d probably be best off taking the top or bottom layers, since the bottom layers have enough scorpions that you might be able to get a plurality, and the top layers have none so you don’t have to worry about taking the negative. Either one is a pretty viable strategy. That said, if you go after the top layer, you’ll want to dig in a little bit to try and get fossils that are valuable beyond giving you special abilities, otherwise you’ll get crushed.
- Force other players to Wheelbarrow. Note that this a very dangerous game. You can, if you want, abstain from using your Wheelbarrow in the hopes that another player will use theirs on their turn to prevent the game from ending. This lets you save yours for a more useful time, deprives an opponent of theirs, and keeps the game going so you can score more points. It also lets you get an extra action, which is a bonus. The major issue here is that if the player(s) after you think they’re winning, they might just let the game end. Even if they don’t, they might not notice that they’re not winning and just let the game end. This is the risk you assume when you choose not to try and keep the game going, but being aware of it is an important part of the strategy.
- Be careful when gifting Scorpions. It’s sometimes better to take them, especially if taking one will put you at the Most Scorpions spot. If you’re already there by a large amount, gifting one to another person is particularly cruel, but kind of effective, so maybe look into that as a potential lifestyle choice? Just remember that you can’t steal eggs.
- Try to start near the center. You’d rather not restrict your potential movement options, especially when you don’t know where your opponents are going to be digging. If you start closer to the edge of the board, you’re going to end up against the edge in future rounds, which might make your life a bit more annoying. Naturally, avoiding that is optimal.
- Also, just keep in mind that this is targeted at younger gamers. If you’re trying to minmax your fossils too aggressively, you may enjoy the experience more if you sort of … relax? I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life; just suggesting another potential approach.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Cute theme. Paleontology is dope. I mean, I’ve seen at least two dinosaur-themed kids’ games hit Kickstarter in the last few months; that’s gotta be a good indicator of its popularity.
- You can make dinosaurs. How cool is that? You can get bones of a bunch of dinosaurs and dig them up. Don’t get me wrong; I think The Great Dinosaur Rush had the better schtick (since you then could build fake dinosaurs, which is incredible), but I’m still a fan of digging up real dinosaurs, as well. It’s nice either way.
- Plays pretty quickly. It’s not a particularly long game, which I always appreciate; you can make it through a couple plays pretty quickly.
- Portable. It’s a fairly small-box game, so it’s probably pretty easy to slide into a bag and take somewhere with you, if you want.
- Stacking cards and aligning them in a grid is a recipe for a mess. The cards end up decently scattered by the game’s end and it’s tough to even place them initially, which is frustrating for someone like me that appreciates grid layouts. I’m hoping that these ultimately get upgraded to tiles with a bit more friction between them; it would really improve the game’s tactile sense.
- I’d love to see a more compelling two-player mode. I tend to play a lot of games at two players, and was disappointed that it seems to be more focused on higher player counts.
- The “expert variant” is just “play the game for three rounds”. Like the Oink Games, that doesn’t really excite me because there’s no state preserved between those rounds. It’s a Meh rather than a Con, here, since it’s an optional variant for the game.
- The Wheelbarrow item’s ability to cancel the game’s end is … strange. I haven’t seen that in a game before and I don’t think I particularly care for it. It essentially allows players to turn off the “the game is ending” condition, if they so please (or force it on another player to end, which isn’t great either). It prolongs the game, which isn’t always a great experience for the players.
- The restrictions on movement kind of slow the game down, a bit. It would be nice to have the ability to move more freely during the game. Otherwise, where you move and what’s available matters a great deal, since you have very little choice over what Sites you end up at. If that’s the case, then you kind of just take all of what you can get when you get it.
- The game doesn’t necessarily feel very strategic. Since it’s hard to get between Dig Sites, players will drain the ones they’re on. If they sync up, great! If not, well, it’s not necessarily worth it to get to ones that do; you might just be better off pulling from the next adjacent site and hoping for the best. This doesn’t afford players a lot of agency, which might be fine for very young players but doesn’t bridge the gap for adults.
Overall: 6 / 10
Overall, I think Dino Dig is fine. There’s some understanding that a kids’ game, and I get that, but even then I think it leans a bit heavily into luck to the detriment of player agency, for my tastes. Interestingly, I’m surprised the game doesn’t have any sort of Events or round effects; I think that’s a pretty easy way to increase the variability of the game in ways that can be fun or thematically interesting. Otherwise, you just sort of pull cards from stacks until the game ultimately ends. Naturally, the things the game shoots for, it does pretty well, though; the art on the cards is cute, the game plays pretty quickly, and it’s easy to get places. I think it just occupies a slightly uncomfortable position where it’s not fully committing to being a very light kids game, but I’m not necessarily sure if the expert mode is enough to bridge the gap between that and lighter strategy card games (like Troika, for instance, which I think would be a game with similar features). That said, though, I don’t have kids myself, so I’m analyzing this from the perspective of a hobby board gamer who ends up playing a lot of kids games because they’re rad, like ICECOOL or Rhino Hero: Super Battle. If you’re looking for something that will help your kid learn the basics, this might be a solid fit for you, or if you’re looking for a quick game of digging up dinos, Dino Dig might be worth checking out!