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.
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.
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.
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.
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.