Dino Hunt

Published by Steve Jackson Games
Designed by Steve Jackson
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

2 to 4 players
variable time, less than an hour

I have always liked dinosaurs, and it would seem that most people feel the same way. They have an endearing quality, no one knows how they died out (Gary Larson excepted), most of us had books on the subject as kids (or have subsequently borrowed them from the younger generation) and Jurassic Park seemed to hit exactly the right note for millions. Thus suitably inspired, Steve Jackson (the American one) has designed Dino Hunt, a family game in which you travel back in time, shoot dinosaurs and ship them back to the future for your zoo. Several PC shibboleths are obviously brought into play at this point, so you use a stun gun, do no damage to the past, and presumably treat the poor old caged dinos as if they were royalty. So that's okay then. And whatever you do, don't mention the time paradox. I mentioned it once, and I think I got away with it.

The game starts with just the time track - this runs from the Triassic period (when most of the true dinos started to appear), through late and early Jurassic, to early and late Cretaceous. Your dobber, a plastic dinosaur naturally, is placed in the middle of the time track, you take an energy marker and an action cards, and you are all set. All set, but nothing to hunt. The starting four dinosaurs wander off the packinto their respective periods and each player's turn another d6 worth will appear at random - there are a variety on offer, with a marked bias towards herbivores and the more recent periods. When all the dinosaurs have been hunted, the game is over - it is recommended that you use about half the pack, but you can up or down this to suit.

There are two types of cards: the dinosaurs we have already mentioned, which each carry a points value, and action cards which are either gadgets to assist your quest or varying degrees of disaster to inflict on others. These range from cataclysmic disasters - which wipe out all the dinosaurs in a given period - ********

In a turn you have ten action points to spend, which also equate to energy for your time travel podule. One point will move you one period forward or back in time, so your hunter can move to where the tempting dinosaurs are or avoid his rivals. You can move more than one period, it will just cost more valuable energy. When you arrive at a period, you indicate which dinosaur you are going to try and capture - they vary in value between one and twelve points. The most points at the end of the game wins, but the bigger ones are harder to capture and cost more energy to ship forward in time.

Hunting is as simple as rolling a d6 and cross referring to the dinosaur card. The higher you roll, the more chance you have of capturing it without incident. If you roll low, the dinosaur might escape, removing the card from the board, or you might miss, usually allowing you to shoot again energy permitting, or sometimes it might run amok, squashing your gear. The results are nicely varied, but you can always work out broadly what will happen on any given roll. If you catch one, you pay his energy value (loosely related to size), he is propelled back to the relative safety of your zoo, and you are free to carry on hunting.

The main merriment, and surprise, comes from the "Take That!" event cards played on you by your rivals. These are great fun and can come in at any time, wrecking your plans. You might get to a chosen period only to find you time settings have gone wrong and it's all out of focus. Or you might get delayed on your trip, or find your gun misfires, or watch one of your carnivores eat your largest veggie. On the other hand, you can play a good one on yourself - catching lifts on passing reptiles, stealing animals from others' shipments and so on. All of this rattles along at a frantic pace. Players might gain up to half a dozen dinosaurs in a turn, with a series of good rolls, and with a new event card for each player every turn, interaction is consistently high. Inevitably there is a degree of picking on the leader, but such is the speed and action in the game, and the speed of dino collection, this hardly matters.

Probably the only downside to the game is that it is expensive at £20 (equivalent to $30) - sadly, always a problem for Steve Jackson's titles in the UK - and has a collectible expansion 'feature'. But since you get more than enough cards to play with in the box (so you don't need to expand if you don't want to), the rares policy is generous to a fault, and kids have been collecting and ripping open foil packs far longer than most gamers, this is not exactly a major trauma. The booster packs are inexpensive (around $1 each, so 70p here I guess) which give you five cards including a rare. These can be more dinosaurs, gold edged ultra rares - which depict just the skeleton of a famous reptile - or, more usefully for gamers, additional event cards. I would suggest treating yourself to a few of these in addition to the basic game, for variety if nothing else, but they are by no means a requirement. The final problem is that with a collectible game, the cards need to fit inside the box or be card sized for external storage. They don't and aren't. The cards are thin and long, fitting no known container, and the box supplied is neither big enough to take them lengthways or sideways, and too shallow to stand them up. So if you buy any extra cards you will find the lid gradually climbing skywards.

As befits its quasi-collectible status, the game comes complete with a list of all the cards in the set. We noted all the major players: Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, pterodactyls, Allosaurus, Triceratops, Old Steggie, T Rex, sundry raptors, and the little spitting one from Jurassic Park - but no sign of my favourites: the Brontosaurus, renamed since my childhood to the Apatosaurus, or the creature I first encountered at the excellent Dino Woods in San Diego. Its name escapes me, Glyptodont I think, but it looks like an armadillo that has swallowed a bowling ball three times its size. A very cute and most excellent creature, which presumably rolled away from danger and killed its prey while they were still laughing at it, but which, one felt, was somehow doomed to extinction - meteor strike or no meteor strike.

All of these marvellous beasties are depicted on some rather nice cards, but are rendered in what can only be described as loud colours - a range of garish oranges, reds, blues and greens - which makes the whole game take on a rather comic book feel. This may well be intentional, which I completely understand, but I for one would have preferred more realistic tonal values. Then the pictures would have been more of a reference, and dare I say it, even collectible. The problem is not with the underlying pen drawings, which are excellent, it is with the colourist who is clearly a member of the Nursery School of artists. I really don't know about this. The kids seemed not to notice, and I can't rightly argue whether the colours are right or wrong (from a marketing or historical perspective) but I do know they make my eyes hurt.

Of course, when you are playing with tough, macho gamers who have escaped the family for the day, it is not done to mention the E word. But Dino Hunt is undoubtedly educational, and thus ideal for kids, whether they happen to be ten or thirty five. I sat there reading the backs of the cards which are full of data, trying to remember which ones I knew from my Big Book of Dinosaurs, marvelling at how many types there are, how much they weighed, and for how long they lived. And the event cards are even more interesting - filled with reasons the dinosaurs might have died out, stories about fossils, the coelacanth and so on. I thought this all good stuff, not least because of the hilarious attempts at trying to pronounce some of the longer names (the cards tell you how, but it is more fun to have a stab first). The action cards, as discussed, encourage you to sort out the carnivores from herbivores, and the sauropods from the boneheads. In keeping with the target market, there are two game text explanations on each of the cards, one in full legalese, one in plain language. Guess which one works best. In keeping with this high standard, the rulebook is exemplary.

Dino Hunt is thus that all too rare commodity - a game that can be played and enjoyed by adults and kids, either separately or together, and which will probably teach you something while you are at it. As an indication, I have played it four times already and will happily play it again, and only one of those outings has been with kids. I don't, however, think Dino Hunt will provide a lot of play value for gamers, but then it probably isn't intended to. Where it will score is with its target audience - 8+ - and also where gamers play alongside younger people. In that respect it is a good game. It has enough plus points, in both subject matter and systems, to keep both parties interested, it has been thoughtfully designed and represents good play value - with or without the booster packs. There is precious little in the way of decision making, but it is fun, the interaction is good, the system is quickfire with minimal downtime and it will all be over in just the right length of time - no boredom sets in for any age group. Because it doesn't attempt to go deeper into what is a fascinating premise, the game offers no more than a cursory look at time travel, and will trouble gamer's brains not at all - it is probably too light to even be a regular, late night closer - but it is a solid example of its kind and comes recommended, despite the high UK price. Good fun, an overdue idea and one to buy for Christmas.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell