Nostalgia Finds a Way: ‘Dinosaur Island’ and the power of memory

The lights hum overhead as they flicker to life, illuminating a sea of grey and blue plastic. Rows of mid-90s Macintosh computers sit upon long tables, quietly promising an hour of uninterrupted game time. Thursdays in grade school mean a class trip to the computer lab, a cherished pastime for young kids such as myself who are nurturing a budding appreciation for video games.

For many in my class, Oregon Trail is the go-to. Fording rivers and trading buffalo hunting tips on the playground is common among the fourth graders. “You have died of dysentery” is an in-joke long before memes are even a thing. Naming family members after close friends is an unconscious analog for displaying affection without having the vocabulary to articulate it. Yes, there’s a reason Oregon Trail remains a steadfast pop culture reference: it was enormous fun.

For me, though, a different game is calling out from behind the glass of that monitor: DinoPark Tycoon.

* * *

Released in 1993–the same year Jurassic Park hit theaters–DinoPark Tycoon was developed for DOS and MacOS and saw later releases on the 3DO and Windows. You play the role of the administrator of a dinosaur park, and are charged with feeding your dinos, maintaining their enclosures, hiring and managing park staff, keeping a budget and more. It’s surprisingly robust considering the era in which it was released. 1989’s Sim City set the standard for sim/management games four years before, but the various Sim-branded games never tackled dinosaurs. If you’re so inclined, you can check out an emulation of DinoPark Tycoon over on ClassicReload.

DinoPark Tycoon

It was because of Jurassic Park, I think, that I gravitated towards DinoPark Tycoon on those computer lab days. But once grade school was behind me, memory of DinoPark Tycoon faded and I forgot all about my time spent building fences, hiring personnel, and buying dino food. Two decades passed without a thought of taking out a new loan to buy an Albertosaurus or Hadrosaurus. Like the dinosaurs themselves, my memory of DinoPark Tycoon went extinct.

Until a couple weeks ago when I played Pandasaurus Games’ Dinosaur Island by designers Jonathan Gilmour and Brian Lewis. It’s a board game about managing a dinosaur theme park. You need to attract visitors, manage your budget, hire specialists, and increase your security measures. You need to make sure your park has enough room for new dinosaurs and that your lab is capable of efficiently creating them.

Dinosaur Island

The entire thing reeks of Jurassic Park. From creating and refining dino DNA to usage of the term “paddock,” it’s likely that your first impression will be to reference Spielberg’s film. Hell, even the box art places front and center an analog for John Hammond. It was certainly my reflex to draw the parallel, which is something Pandasaurus Games was clearly aiming for. But once we got the game to the table and began playing, I was blindsided by a wave of sentimentality for another dinosaur-based memory. Completely unbidden, Dinosaur Island had excavated nostalgia from deep within my consciousness, a fondness for a forgotten park management game.

As the game went on, I felt a grin latch onto my face. All of the essential elements from DinoPark Tycoon are present in Dinosaur Island. Bring new dinosaurs in, attract visitors, earn revenue from visitors and souvenir stalls, make sure the dinos can’t hurt customers. It’s all there, in glorious cardboard, beckoning memories of Thursdays in the computer lab.

Earning new dinosaurs is done with DNA à la Jurassic Park rather than with straight up money, but the idea is the same. Your scientists will refine DNA, with more valuable dinosaurs requiring larger quantities of DNA. Upgrading your lab will let workers refine DNA or make new dinosaurs more efficiently. In this way, Dinosaur Island is almost like two worker placement games in one. Thrown in for good measure, though, are visits to the marketplace to build new attractions or hire specialists. It’s all capped off with a park phase wherein visitors pay to enter your park. Make sure to have enough security, though, lest some dinos escape and eat guests.

Dinosaur Island

Dinosaur Island may be aimed at fans of Jurassic Park, but it’s also a game sim/management players will appreciate. It’s impressive how much of that genre can be found in this tabletop game, and it never bogs down the experience with micromanagement. It’s like playing Cities: Skylines without having to worry about pollution, or Euro Truck Simulator without traffic laws. It’s park management in its most basic form, and the weight of it feels just right for a board game.

After our two-player game of Dinosaur Island, the pair of us were impressed with what a great job Gilmour and Lewis had done in adapting park management into a tabletop format. I sipped my beer and silently nursed a nostalgia that had caught me square in the jaw and knocked be back to the fourth grade. I had a DinoPark Tycoon-shaped hole in my heart, and I didn’t even realize it. Dinosaur Island fills the void perfectly.

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