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Make no bones about it – The Great Dinosaur Rush Review

It is always a pleasure to encounter a game that strides out into new thematic territory, and The Great Dinosaur Rush does exactly that, placing its players in the era of The Bone Wars (no, not a shoddy Star Wars spin-off) when great advances in paleontology were making, well, paleontologists very excited indeed.  These “wars” involved the digging up of huge numbers of fossils and the reassembling of them, as it later transpired, into what were often totally fictitious dinosaurs.  We may well snigger at these rudimentary efforts to reconstruct those ancient lizards, but then we still haven’t quite answered the question of how Tyrannosaurus Rex did push ups, so it is hard for us to criticise.  In any case, The Great Dinosaur Rush shines an explorer’s torch on this little known corner of natural history, bringing its characters back to life and inviting its players to take a shot at constructing their own fictitiousaur.

The Great Dinosaur Rush Board Game

Read all about it!

A step up from Tiny?  More widescreen than Epic?

Scott Almes, the designer of The Great Dinosaur Rush, has some pretty impressive games to his credit, including the well received “Tiny Epic” series, so he is a man with a good reputation in the business.  The Tiny Epic series of games gets a decent press, so my expectations for The Great Dinosaur Rush were correspondingly high, and I was interested in the game and its theme from the moment I first read about it – it seemed to be colourful and fun, and that is normally a good indicator of a game’s success in our house.

The box for The Great Dinosaur Rush is somewhere between small to medium in size lavishly decorated with cartoon paleontologists (who, it transpires, are based on real people) and a read-all-about-it paperboy on the front, screaming out the latest prehistoric news. Inside there is a decent array of components, including player screens, meeples, “bones” in various colours, some tokens, a couple of bags, and some generously sized player screens behind which various dinosaurs will eventually be constructed.  The instructions are colourful, bold and clear for the main part, and include variants for a two-player game and a slightly less confrontational family game.  The board contains the score track, the excavation field and the museum category trackers, but still takes up a commendably small amount of space on the table, so players will have more than enough space to collect their bones and assemble their dinosaurs behind the rather large player screens.

The Great Dinosaur Rush Board Game

Great big bag o’ bones…

Can you dig it?  Yes you can!

Assembling those dinosaurs is where players will be earning their points in The Great Dinosaur Rush, but before that stage is reached those bones need to be hauled out of the parched earth.  Players receive some starter bones (for want of a better description), dinosaur cards and their character card, each of which has a different ability, the board is seeded with lovely multicoloured dinosaur bones and then players go digging.

For all that the rulebook is bold and colourful, in play we found that it took a while (and an aborted game) to get to grips with all the ins and outs of the rules, as they are spread fairly widely across various paragraphs and pages, and some of the niceties of the game are implied rather than expressed.  Starter bones, for example, can never be lost but what happens to the bones players use to construct their dinosaurs is not explained.  Are they permanently lost because the dinosaurs they helped to make are now in an exhibition?  This would probably make thematic sense, but in the end we guessed that they were all returned to their players, otherwise the dinosaurs in rounds two and three would be very, very small indeed!

The Great Dinosaur Rush Board Game

Collect those bones, avoid the tar pits.

Round, round, get around, I get three rounds!

The Great Dinosaur Rush takes place over three rounds, each of which is divided into various phases.  Players begin with the Field Phase, each turn consisting of some compulsory elements, such as collecting bones, movement, digging and altering a museum category, and then a chosen action, which can be nice or nasty.  If you choose a nice action you could alter a museum category again, donate bones in return for points (quid pro quo, Clarisse!), or draw a new dinosaur card.  The nasty stuff includes dynamiting, sabotaging your opponents and stealing bones, but choosing one of these actions will earn you a notoriety token, and that has the potential to cost you points.  Donating some of your bones to a museum can remove one of these tokens (quid pro quo again), but stocking up on these beauties can end up costing a player the game.  It is a little odd that The Great Dinosaur Rush’s player screens detail the optional choices available in each round of the Field Phase, but not the obligatory ones.  We were back and forth to the rules for a good few rounds before we got the Collect – Move – Publicise – Actions sequence under our belts, and printing these on the player screens would have helped things along a little, especially as there is definitely space on there.

The Great Dinosaur Rush Board Game

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow…

Keeping up is easy!  Don’t get phased…

In each round of The Great Dinosaur Rush there are three of these field phases, new bones being added to the dig site between each of them, and then the game progresses to the Build Phase, in which players construct their dinosaurs from the bones they have collected, and attempt to match them to their cards.  Lastly comes the Exhibit Phase during which the dinosaurs gain points in each of the five categories on the museum tracker, and additional bonuses are awarded if a player manages to match one of their dinosaur cards to their ossified creation.  Strangely, despite this being a game where notoriety is in play and the possibility of sabotaging your opponents’ digs is always available, ties are “friendly” according to The Great Dinosaur Rush’s rules, so a dead heat for first and second in any category means that both players get top points, while the player who comes third gets the points for second place.  Well, if you say so, but I thought this was a Bone War?

The Great Dinosaur Rush Board Game

No – No – Notorious (tokens)…

Notorious or famous?  Depends where you finish!

At the end of three rounds of The Great Dinosaur Rush comes the final reckoning, as players’ notoriety is assessed.  Each of the notoriety tokens has a value printed on the back, from 1 to 3, kept hidden from other players during the game, and uncompleted dinosaur cards are also worth 3 notoriety points each.  The player with the most notoriety subtracts it from their score, while all other players add their notoriety to their score.  Presumably being very bad is, well, very bad, but being quite bad is…good?  It’s an interesting wrinkle in the design, but it feels very odd, like the museum category tracker, and I am not entirely sure that it is essential to the the game – even the explanation for it in the introduction to the rules seems unconvincing.  Still, the Family Variant of The Great Dinosaur Rush does away with notoriety altogether, so the option is there to jettison it entirely if you wish.

On the plus side, The Great Dinosaur Rush plays up to five, and comes with decent variants for a two-player or a less confrontational game, and the abilities of the individual paleontologists are a great touch, especially as they are based on genuine characters of the age.  There’s no Dino McSaur as a character in The Great Dinosaur Rush, instead fascinating figures – and many women – emerging from the depths of time, and it is worth mentioning that the dinosaur and character cards all come with little nuggets of information.  It is done lightly and deftly, and made me genuinely interested in the whole subject, and it is not often that a game does that.  These powers and the random layout of the bones at the start of the game mean that there is significant replay value in the box, so it offers good value for money.

The Great Dinosaur Rush Board Game

Hooray for variable player powers!

Not all great, though…I’ve got a bone to pick!

However, it is not all good news.  My main two beefs with The Great Dinosaur Rush are the obligatory movement of the museum category tracker on each turn and the complicated rules for assembling dinosaurs.  I can understand that moving the reputation markers gives players another way to manipulate the game to their advantage, but making it obligatory in every single turn, and then adding it as an optional extra move in that same turn seems totally surplus to requirements.  There is more than enough going on with the picking of bones, the notoriety tokens and the building of dinosaurs, individual powers and so on – the reputation track feels unnecessary, and I would have been very happy just to have had standard scoring across the five categories, against which you would have to balance your individual dinosaur cards.

The Great Dinosaur Rush Board Game

Grumposaurus says this tracker is unnecessary and fiddly.

Gripe number two is the fiddly rules for assembling a dinosaur.  You need head (green), neck (yellow), back (green), rib (green), two limbs (red) and tail (yellow), and can add decorations (blue) and wild bones (white).  Blues and whites are optional, but everything else is obligatory for a legal exhibit.  Ribs need to be attached to the back, and limbs need to be attached to the ribs, and the head-neck-back-tail sequence also needs to run in a single line.  Ok so far?  Right, the blues can go anywhere, but whites can only ever touch a single colour and never another white, which means that they cannot join one section of the dinosaur to another, unless it is a rib to the back.  Does this sound simple to you?  Bear in mind that you are also trying to get the whole animal to match one of your cards at the same time!  Admittedly, we did have a decent amount of fun during this phase (“my dinosaur’s got really bad posture” being a particularly memorable exclamation) but we also found it overlong and oppressive, and the sheer fun of building a ridiculous dinosaur was offset by the need to check the rules several times.

The Great Dinosaur Rush Board Game

But is it legal?

T-Rexcellent?  Or pteryble?

Despite the very best of intentions, I have to conclude that The Great Dinosaur Rush fails to hit its target.  The game is very strangely paced indeed, the digging phase passing by quickly as players manipulate the museum categories (again, I’m not quite sure why this is obligatory on every turn), gain bones and maybe some notoriety.  Then comes the assembly of the dinosaurs themselves, during which the game doesn’t just slow – it grinds to a complete halt.  Quite apart from checking the rules for assembling the bones, perhaps many times, players will also be attempting to work out which of the dinosaurs on their cards they might be able to reconstruct, and balancing that with the five (yes, five) scoring categories which have kept changing.  I fear also that this overreliance on complication for complication’s sake makes the game’s presumed identity as a family product difficult to support, even with the Family Variant described in the rules.

I feel quite bad coming down on The Great Dinosaur Rush.  The theme is unique, the artwork and the components are very good, and there is some fun stuff going on.  Unfortunately there are too many mechanisms vying for attention that make it simultaneously too complicated for the family market (unless you choose to play the Family Variant) and too fickle for serious gamers.  My players wanted to love it, as did I, but the desire to cram in as many moving parts as possible reminded us of the ill-reviewed Aquarium, even though The Great Dinosaur Rush is substantially better than that game.  Players end up balancing the conflicting demands of the five categories on the ever-changing scoring tracker, their own dinosaur cards and notoriety tokens, and it all begins to feel as if you might as well just take a stab in the dark and hope for the best.

The Great Dinosaur Rush Board Game

Build these for bonus points.

I really do feel that The Great Dinosaur Rush would benefit from the institution of fixed scoring, so doing away with the moveable museum category tracker, and simplifying the process of building a dinosaur.  Do those and this is a fine game, but there are too many conflicting elements at play, and the theme, strong in some places, serves in others as the thinnest of veneers for some odd decisions.  Our players’ average mark was just that – average, a docile herbivore rather than an apex predator, and the game is fiddly rather than out and out bad, so it is with some regret that I give The Great Dinosaur Rush 6 out of 10.

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.