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Lizard Wrangling: Tiny Epic Dinosaurs Review

J Updated August 28, 2020
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Lizard Wrangling: Tiny Epic Dinosaurs review

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There Will Be Games

A more mechanically-inclined Tiny Epic entry, but there's still enough Jurassic flavor to sink your claws/teeth/spines into.

I try hard to stay away from the "Euro vs Ameritrash" labeling conceit. Those are stereotypes that don't really reflect our modern gaming situation. We've long since passed the point where you could draw a straight line, put Tigris and Euphrates on one side and Talisman on the other, and declare that each game that followed could be placed on only one side of that line. The fusion of those two stereotypes has created both flavor-drenched DoaMs like Tiny Epic Kingdoms that still use some elegant mechanics reminiscent of 90s German designs and mechanistic worker placement efforts like Tiny Epic Western that still resonate with theme in every turn that's taken. (Did I just name my two favorites of the Tiny Epic series? Yes, I did.)

But, sometimes, the urge to describe things using terms or language that everyone in our little hobby niche will understand overrides all of that more enlightened thought. The classifications still have meaning beyond the quick and easy labels. With that in mind, it's not hard to label Gamelyn Games' latest entry to the Tiny Epic line, Tiny Epic Dinosaurs, a "Euro" because it carries that identity in both function and gameplay. Yes, you're dealing with dinosaurs, but you're also dealing with an incredibly tight, opportunity cost system that means that a single misstep might cost you the game and there isn't much "Ameritrash randomness" to save you or inhibit your opponents.

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Each player has a ranch where they're attemping to capture and/or breed different species of dinosaurs to fulfill contracts for, presumably, exotic zoos like Dinosaur Island, which this game is endlessly (and often inaccurately) compared to. There are six rounds of seven phases each and in the most important phase of each round, Assign Ranchers, you do the worker placement thing; dropping your appropriately-shaped meeples onto various spots that get you more resources or new dinosaurs or research cards (advantages that are mostly function-, but sometimes point-based) or barriers to keep your dinos separated and so on. Most of the action of the game is tied up in this phase so, even if you don't want to use labels, the one entitled "Worker placement" is mos def appropo to this game.

But it's not as simple as just putting your dudes in the "best spots", as a fair amount of planning has to go into making this phase work, so that all the subsequent phases of the round also work. The action economy is very tight. You start the game with only four dudes to place (3 regular ranchers and one Lead Rancher, who counts as two regulars) and get a fifth one halfway through the game. But with those four or five dudes, you have to make sure that you a) obtain dinosaurs, b) keep said dinosaurs both separated on your ranch and unable to escape that ranch, c) fulfill contracts with said dinosaurs, and d) have enough meat, plants, and general supply available to keep the whole machine running. You don't have to participate in all of those actions every round and, indeed, it's virtually impossible to do so. But you also only have six rounds in which to do all of that.

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Tiny Epic Dinosaurs has that moment that many worker placement games do: "All of the good spots are taken. Now what?" One way it gets around that is by allowing you to place your dudes in already occupied spots as long as you're willing to place more of them. If any opponent has one dude there, you can place two (or your Lead Rancher) and still take advantage of what that space does. But, again, with the action economy so tight, our games have rarely taken advantage of this mechanic outside of saving the Lead for last (there's a contradiction in terms) because it often simply doesn't seem like the sacrifice of another entire placement turn is worth whatever that space would provide. The only exceptions would be the contract fulfillment spaces late in the game and/or the space that allows you to drop a dino right into your ranch, presumably followed by a contract space on the next turn.

If that sounds like the game is properly oriented toward contracts being the way to win, you're right. Dinosaurs of all types will also earn you points at the end, but even those often don't compare to the value of the contract you can claim for selling them. Research cards can also earn you points, but also pale in comparison. (Our first game had a player who attempted to pick up as many unique (purple) dinos as possible and he finished dead last, having only fulfilled two contracts.) That assertion also compounds the tightly wound nature of the game, in that there will only ever be three Public Contracts available in any given round and, if they're all gone, you wait for the next round. Since you can only fulfill your Private Contracts by also fulfilling a Public Contract, there could be a serious hold on your progress if people get to those contract spaces before you do.

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The upside to this extremely tight system is that there are a lot of choices to make and each and every one of them has serious impact. That fulfilling two contracts example? You're going to need seven dinosaurs to do that, which means seven of the 11 spaces in your ranch will be occupied. You know what's the easiest way to gain resources in the game? Getting them for free from the empty spaces on your ranch. Otherwise, you're sacrificing a precious placement turn to get a couple meat or plants for your appropriate species. But if you don't have said resources? Those dinos that you're trying to score points with are going to be knocking down barriers (herbivores) or taking other dinosaurs with them as food (carnivores.) Meanwhile, you're trying to maintain the balance of beasts to food while also keeping every species separated from each other. The depth in gameplay that is a hallmark of the Tiny Epic series is irrefutably present in this game, simply because of the choices and sacrifices you have to make in order to navigate your way toward a successful operation. What enhances the replayability in that respect is the presence of the Research deck, which not only gives you unique dinos that perform special functions (and don't have to be enclosed like the regular dinos), but also scientific upgrades that enhance your ranch's basic functions. Just as with the rest of the game, doing Research is an opportunity cost decision. Not only does each card have a cost (from resources to trading in a whole dinosaur), but the cards for each round are discarded if no one takes them. Gotta act fast...

As with all of the other titles in the series, the production quality of the game is extremely high for both its size and its cost. As noted, your dudes are wearing park ranger-style hats and all of the wooden dinos are clearly detailed versions of their appropriate species. The unique dinos are sometimes a little challenging to differentiate, but their minis are nicely depicted on each card, so visual aids are present. As usual, the art style is very clean and, even with a ton of information packed into each "board", it's a pretty simple task to follow your way through all 42 phases with the symbology pointing you in the right direction each time. As usual, Gamelyn's ability to convey a great deal of info with relatively simple symbols and the ability to spread those symbols everywhere across player mats and general mats is second to none. Also, it's interesting to note that the mini-expansion ("Laboratory") that comes with the direct-from-Gamelyn version of the game is unusual, compared to most of the rest of the series. Rather than tacking on a variation (Tiny Epic Quest) or just adding more of the same (Tiny Epic Zombies), this expansion actually eases the strictures of the overall system, making it potentially easier to obtain dinos and/or resources, but doing so with enough variation that might make it more of a "must have" than most of the other mini-expacs.

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All of that said: Do I love this game the way I love most of the other Tiny Epics? ... Not yet. There's a certain level with some Euro-style games (Is it OK to say "Euro-style", instead of the more assertive "Euro"? Yes. Let's do that.) where playing the game feels like struggling with an implacable machine (Terminator references go here...) You want to do x, y, and z, but the game will only let you do y and maybe v, which you didn't want to do. Its closest comparison in the Tiny Epic series is probably Tiny Epic Western which is, again, one of my favorites. They're both worker placement games and can both involve direct competition over particular spots (albeit, much more passively in Tiny Epic Dinosaurs) But the magic of Western is not only the poker game, which adds real tension and uncertainty, both against players and the Rival, but also the long-term Shares strategy, on top of what points each building gives you. In Tiny Epic Dinosaurs, the only uncertainties are the wrangling die, the worst result of which is occasionally getting two dinos when you only wanted one, and the different Public Contracts which come up. The long-term strategy in the game is... just points.

Those aren't bad things and it's not a bad game. I am quite interested in playing more of it to find out just how far the game can range within its tightly-controlled system (kinda like barriers confining big lizards.) But I don't find myself eager to play again in the same way I am with most of the rest of the Tiny Epic line. The sense of adventure, the concept of big mechs stomping around or hunting zombies in the mall, just isn't there for me, especially when considering the puzzle of constraints that the overall system seems to represent. One inhibiting factor may be that I'm not particularly a dinosaur fan. Sure, I was when I was seven, but there are other genres that have more appeal (like, say, fantasy adventure or Westerns... or pirates.) Combine that with a style of game that feels more directed toward inhibiting you from doing what you want, rather than enabling it, and I'd have to say the Tiny Epic Dinosaurs ends up in the lower tier of the series for me, alongside still-entertaining titles like Tiny Epic Galaxies. You could speculate that I'm wanting more Ameritrash bang for my buck but, just like the inaccuracy of that label, I don't think that's entirely true. There's plenty of theme and gameplay here. It's just not among my favorite species, at the moment.

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Editor reviews

1 reviews

Tiny Epic Dinosaurs
A more mechanically-inclined Tiny Epic entry, but there's still enough Jurassic flavor to sink your claws/teeth/spines into.
Marc Reichardt  (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.


Articles by Marc

Marc Reichardt
Staff Board Game Reviewer

Articles by Marc

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Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #313210 18 Aug 2020 00:49
Good review. A thing that comes to mind is the more euro-oriented market isn't really missing the extreme simplicity and tight play that Tiny Epic games seem to pride themselves on---there's so much lineup depth in that area in euros---so maybe it isn't as vital an entry?

Also, the rest of the graphic design doesn't look bad but that is a savagely ugly cover. From the cut rate mobile clicker art file.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #313212 18 Aug 2020 00:54
Thanks. Yeah, I think that assessment is fair. In some respects, it seems like it wants to be a rapid game and the pace is enforced by the limited number of rounds. However, I never got that constrained feeling playing Western, which has the same number of rounds and a couple similar mechanics (worker placement, most notably.) I'm not sure what it is about this one that isn't quite grabbing me the way most of the others have.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #313217 18 Aug 2020 10:28
Been playing this one myself and I like it. I haven’t played Dinogenics yet but this definitely has more dino flavor than Dinosaur Island, and with the dinos being harder to maintain, it’s a more exciting game than DI. Draftosaurus is more fun though.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #313220 18 Aug 2020 10:35
I agree on the Island comparison. That game is more like "theme park design, but with dinosaurs", while this one is more about the big lizards. I've never played Draftosaurus.
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #313239 19 Aug 2020 09:14
This is probably an unrelated tangent, but: At what point does the "Tiny Epic" series devolve into self-parody?

Because at this point the whole Tiny Epic label feels like a cynical exercise in branding. When it was Kingdoms and Defenders it made more sense, as Gamelyn was cramming the vast feel of a world-builder in a small box. And I'll even give them Galaxies, because if you squinted and turned your head sideways you may have gotten a whiff of a very scaled-down 4x game. But now it's just them plastering a crowd-pleasing image on the box (Cowboys and Pirates and Dinosaurs, oh my!) and hoping folks feel compelled to keep completing the set for their game shelves. I have this image of poor Scott Almes as he sits at his designer desk while the Gamelyn dude stands behind him cracking a whip, as poor Almes is sobbing & whimpering, expected to crank out yet another big world in a small box.

I guess I should give them some amount of capitalist free-market credit for creating a brand that has lasted this long, but it feels like with every new "Tiny Epic" game they get further away from the plot, and closer to just flogging the branded corpse for $25 a pop.

It feels like in an alternate universe they would put out one really good Tiny Epic game in an 18-month span, instead of immediately running back to Kickstarter every six months to ring the register on yet another title you're supposed to buy based strictly off of the name.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #313240 19 Aug 2020 10:14
I think there certainly is a branding effort involved. If you see "Tiny Epic", you're likely to think "Gamelyn", whereas I'm betting there are a fair number of people that don't know that they also produced Heroes of Land, Air, and Sea (their only non-TE game of the last few years, IIRC.)

I don't think the TE label was ever meant to be a constraint; as in they'd only produce large, world-builder-type game in their small boxes. I think the idea was that it was a response to the ever-increasing size and price of what dominates the market these days and an argument that you didn't need either of those to produce a good game with plenty of replayability. Hence, "Tiny" (size, price (relatively) "Epic" (depth, can be played many times.)

I think their design strategy has been oriented more toward exploring genres within the constraints of those two elements. Thus, the 4X aspects of Kingdoms and Galaxies, the adventure aspects of Defenders and Quest, the engine-building aspects of Western and Dinosaurs, the minis aspects of Tactics and Mechs, etc. The upcoming TE Pirates is a pick-up-and-deliver game. It basically plays like a small version of Merchants and Marauders, but with some basic improvements.

I buy their stuff based on the fact that I've at least enjoyed, if not loved, all of them. So, for me, the marketing angle is more a demonstration of intent, than something like GW's normal approach: "It's 40K, but in a sewer! It's 40K, but in the air! It's 40K, but constantly in the same, small village that somehow avoids destruction..."
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #313245 19 Aug 2020 11:19
Tiny Epic 40k!!!
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #313259 19 Aug 2020 14:30
If they ever do Tiny Epic Cthulhu, I'm out.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #313261 19 Aug 2020 14:36

Josh Look wrote: If they ever do Tiny Epic Cthulhu, I'm out.

I would be, too. That's one of the things that put me off the Kemet KS (aside from the fact that I already have a complete set that is already an amazing game.) They decided one of their stretch goals would be adding a Cthulhu expansion. That's not what I'm playing Kemet or any other game for. If you have your own IP, then stick with it. Don't borrow other crap just because it's popular. Do your own thing.

That said, I do think that Lovecraft Letter is more fun than regular Love Letter and I'm fine with games that are essentially based on others' IPs, like Funkoverse.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #313269 19 Aug 2020 17:29
I might be called out for not knowing what I'm talking about, but I feel like there's a difference between playing around in established IPs because it's what you do, so to speak and is the case for Funko/Prospero Hall, and merely fishing for hype. That's how Cthulhu in Kemet and most of the extras in CMONs crap (like the DISGUSTING addition of "45" as a playable character in Zombicide 2nd Ed).
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #313289 19 Aug 2020 23:24
Totally agree. Funkoverse was designed to use other peoples' stuff. Kemet has been around for 8 years as its own thing, even if loosely based on Egyptian mythology. Trying to add a Cthulhu angle is just gold-digging. I think Gamelyn has been fully content to do their own thing. Defenders even follows the storyline of Kingdoms, in which the wars are over and the formerly warring people have to unify against the demonic invasion and the majority of races in Kingdoms are represented by heroes in Defenders. The whole series is basically Gamelyn's World and welcome to it.