One Night At The Museum: Dinos Not Assembled review

The first game I remember my mom purchasing for me and my brother was a spin-and-move game from Milton Bradly called Casper The Friendly Ghost Game.   Mom knew how much I loved exploring the board games at my best friend’s house, everything from Risk to Payday to Sorry, and for some odd reason that summer we were into the Casper milieu, so as if by magic the board game went from Howard’s Brand Discount to our living room.

This short story does not have a happy ending, unfortunately; Casper was as predictably and unbearingly bad as you are imagining right now. The rules were poorly written, there were almost no thematic elements, and it was just a mailing-it-in hack job with an IP overlay. Of course, we lost all the pieces almost immediately, probably by using the box as one of the bases in Hallway Baseball (a game my dad loathed).

But, there is a silver lining. Leaving aside the traumatic experience of playing a horrible childhood game, the experience never dampened my love of board gaming. I never stopped looking for games appropriate for families that did not just involve spinning and moving.

Thing 12 Games started out as a game company showcasing tiny box games that had a lot of player interaction in them: Dice of Crowns, Dice of Pirates, Click Click Boom, and Seals of Cthulhu. But Thing 12 Games has a new game about paleontology that forms a part of their “family night” game collection. How family friendly is Dinos Not Assembled? Let’s find out.

Dinos Not Assembled is a game for two to four players designed by Alice Davis and Dawson Kemper. The game takes about thirty minutes, and is appropriate for gamers seven and up. The back story behind the theme is that Dawson, Alice’s son, loves dinosaurs and wanted a game involving them. The folks at Thing 12 Games played it at a convention and then developed and successfully funded the Kickstarter campaign, and now it is being delivered to backers and retailers everywhere.

Right off the bat, let’s geaux over the usual COVID caveats. We played this with smaller player counts within the family since we are not having our usual Gumbo Game Nights or large holiday family get togethers. And, as always, the kind folks at Thing 12 Games sent us the review copy free of charge.

GAMEPLAY:

It’s a family game, so one would expect family friendly rules, right? One family friendly rule set coming right up. The players are each paleontologists set out to be the first to install three gorgeous dinosaur displays in the central board’s museum, which strangely enough, has no wax figure of Teddy Roosevelt anywhere in sight. Players will either draft dinosaur bone tiles from a central market, clear that market if they don’t like the tiles present (put a pin in that one for later), grab more dinosaur recipe cards, steal a dinosaur tile from another player, or make a dinosaur out of the parts they have in hand. It’s that simple.

You probably have already figured out that a Thing 12 Games secret sauce ingredient is right there in those simple rules. Yes, the designers snuck in a little player interaction in this family friendly game, but fret not, it not something that will cause your kids to run screaming from the room.

For the most part, DNA is a simple little race game, where players are trying to grab the tiles they need efficiently, make up some dinos, and continue on their paleo diet of bones and humorous back story of dinosaur history. But, to give the game a little spice, DNA also gives players the ability to steal one tile from an opposing player. Don’t worry, the spice is not based on a habanero pepper, it’s just a little bit of cayenne. Players can (and will) steal bones from each other, as long as the tile is showing on its “green hand” stealable side. But, once it has been stolen by anyone, the tile that was taken is flipped over to the “red hand” side, never to be stolen again.

And the player that was stolen from even gets a little museum guard figure (think Ben Stiller’s dad) for their part of the museum, meaning no player can steal from them for a while. In a two player game, that means you are protected until you steal from the other player which makes for an interesting dynamic.

As you can see, the interaction is very light, and the stealing is even more light-hearted, and the reality is that it prevents one no-fun player from hoarding a tile they think might be the winning one. The designers have also helpfully suggested in the rule book that the “stealing” mechanic is optional, and those families uncomfortable with the interaction can just leave it out.

PRODUCTION:

We were have been impressed in the past with how Thing 12 Games makes even the simplest little dice games feel like a really glitzy production. Gamers will not find any let up in this box. Dinos Not Assembled has a beautifully cartoonish cover from artist Jeff Willis, with a spot UV raised coating that makes the name stand out, plus plenty more cartoony art inside the box.

The box is thick and has tons of thick cardboard tiles and funky little colored dino meeples, that are painted just for good measure. Throw in a well written rule book and the main player board and giant oversized tooth first player marker (the random one that came in our box), and it all adds up to a very high quality production. Anyone that buys gifts for nieces and nephews will be pleased at how professional this package looks.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

And now, the dinosaur in the room. We review lots of different games here, including family friendly kids games. But usually those games are either HABA level games that are directly geared toward the littlest ones but not so boring that the parents would fall asleep playing them. Or the games are geared toward older pre-teens like the My Little Scythe game that we loved playing with the nieces and nephews, games that look and play like stripped down but fun cousins of their larger relatives.

Dinos Not Assembled falls somewhere in between, which is a weird market for us here at the Gumbo to play and review. My two little grandbugs are pretty young, and at age four and five, they were just a little bit too young to play the main game the way Davis and Kemper likely intended it to be. They understood how to match the pictures on the tiles with the pictures on their cards. But they never understood the different choices between getting more cards versus getting more tiles, or understood why four tiles was the limit.

Yet, with just a few simple tweaks (after reading a rule book that seemed to encouraged house ruling certain aspects of the game), we were able to play a few games with them. We just nixed the stealing mechanic, and let them make a dinosaur anytime they had the right tiles, sort of a “free action” for their turn.

That seemed to do the trick! They loved the colorful dino meeples, even if they were very impatient early on bout waiting their turn to complete their cards. They loved matching up the dinosaur bones to their dig sites. And of course, they told little stories about the paleontologists and the dinosaurs that came to live in their corner of the museum.

The game box says the game lasts about thirty minutes, and we found that to be very accurate. But even at that short time frame in terms of hobby games, thirty minutes is just a mite bit too long for that age group. I think that time frame would be a perfect game to play with middle schoolers and pre-teens. (I’ll find out later this year, cross my fingers.)

But we cannot critique a game just based on house rules, tweaks, and the wrong age group, now can we? I mean, we are professional unpaid amateur reviewers with a rep to protect. So after a few games of playing with the little ones, I talked my wife into playing some two player games with me, but with all of the rules included. The box says this is a family nite game, right? With rolling blackouts amidst sub 20 degree weather in south Louisiana on a cold, dreary, Mardi Gras, it seemed like the perfect game opportunity.

Alas, for us, DNA missed the mark as a couple of adults playing the game, but just a bit. All the reasons that my grandbugs loved the game fell flat for us. The dinosaur theme is great when we visit Disney’s Animal Kingdom exhibits, especially Dinosaur! and the dig site, but unless it involves an island of wayward DNA experiments, that theme just was not that exciting for us. Plus, while we really enjoyed the player interaction and the tension of the race, and kudos to the two designers for making a tense game, there were a lot of wasted turns “digging” through the bag to find the right tiles.

This may be a picayune complaint to some, but tweaking the “clear the board” mechanic would have improved our experience convincingly. My wife and I lamented so many lost turns. In the game, if you are uninterested in drawing more dinosaur cards, do not yet have enough tiles to make one of the dinosaurs in your hand, and do not see anything in the market or on other players’ boards worth taking, ou can always “clear” the market of tiles available and pick four new ones.

But that’s it. There is no advantage to doing this, because the next player may steal the very tile(s) that you turned onto the board. That’s the luck of the draw, of course, but it feels like such a let down when it happens. Why not just give some benefit to the player wiping the board? Maybe letting the player pick one tile instead of two? Or maybe even just giving the player a bonus random tile from the bag? I’m not a real designer, so I am tapped out, but giving us any kind of benefit would have seemed fairer, more streamlined, and moved the game along at a brisker pace.

But even in our adult game plays, the game did have its moments. It is super light, so it is the kind of game that my wife and I could share stories outside the magic circle while still playing, something that rarely happens when we play Fields of Green or Quacks. That is mainly due to the fact that DNA has even lighter and less-crunchy decisions than say Ticket to Ride, but there is a nice little bump of anticipation when you complete one of your dinosaurs with a steal from the other player as you wait for your turn to come around again.

We really dug the artwork, too; there are lots of diverse people on the cover and in the game. How refreshing was it to have two little grandchildren get to pick their favorite character without having to fight over “who is going to be the dino girl catcher”! Kudos to the art direction team.

CONCLUSION:

Dinos Not Assembled is an easy call for me, mostly due to the nature of the game itself. This is a game I would happily play with my grandbugs (tweaked for now to eliminate the “stealing” rule and allowing the bugs to pick tiles and make up a dinosaur in the same turn.) I would also be happy to introduce it to my middle school nieces and nephews, especially the ones that love dinosaurs.

I can easily see this as a good gift for those families with multi-aged kids, since there is something for just about everyone here. Sure, it was a bit of a let down for our adult board game date nights, as we want just a little bit more meat on those dino bones, but that’s not the game’s fault at all. I think Dawson and Alice accomplished exactly what they were trying to do. Dinos Not Assembled is a gorgeous little family weight game perfect for families of middle school kids who want a fast playing, easy to teach, dino themed racing and collecting game.

I can easily see this as a good gift for those families with multi-aged kids, since there is something for just about everyone here.  Sure, it was a bit of a let down for our adult board game date nights, as we want just a little bit more meat on those dino bones, but that’s not the game’s fault at all. I think Dawson and Alice accomplished exactly what they were trying to do. Dinos Not Assembled is a gorgeous little family weight game perfect for families of middle school kids who want a fast playing, easy to teach, dino themed racing and collecting game. 

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ at Board Game Gumbo  

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