The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaurs

11/01/2017 11:11 pm ET

Most dinosaurs tend not to disappear. I mean, dinosaurs as a species aren’t exactly walking on earth with us 21st-century humans (as far as we know!!) , but if they did, only a small number of them would have chameleon-like camouflage skills where they could disappear into the ether at will. I hope.

But during the heat of past summer, indie gamers observed what you’d imagine to be impossible... a whole slough of dinosaurs simply disappeared from the middle of Indianapolis.

From GenCon 2017, to be precise.

Please indulge me as I recount the tale of... the stolen Dinosaur Island Board Game.

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Context: Dinosaur Island is a cool new board game. The game, which was Kickstarted in early 2017, is basically Dinopark Tycoon as a board game with a competitive edge. As it is described on the promotional site:

In Dinosaur Island, players will have to collect DNA, research the DNA sequences of extinct dinosaur species and then combine the ancient DNA in the correct sequence to bring these prehistoric creatures back to life.  Dino cooking!  All players will compete to build the most thrilling park each season, and then work to attract (and keep alive!) the most guests each season that the park opens.

It plays for an hour to two hours, so this won’t be like a casual game of Chutes and Ladders. It’s great for ages ten and up (or really savvy younger people). With sweet graphics and a talented designer duo behind the project, the game has been described as having “wonderful Worker Placement with some rly [sic] nice twists” (bwort110 on BGG). Also: “ If Jurassic Park were an economic euro game “ (gurpigurlie on BGG). And: “The best thing about the game is and remains the creative play with popular culture” (Flundi on BGG , translated by google translate from the original German).

One other really descriptive review posted to a blog called Cardbord Critique observes,

“if you’re in the market for a 90 minute economic game with a fantastic theme, I can highly recommend Dinosaur Island.  Despite its stellar integration of its theme, the European mechanics-first is equally evident.  To build the best park, you will have to consider each of your actions, and watch the market carefully.    If, instead, you prefer games driven by a narrative sequence, or if you have no love for 90s neon nostalgia, then I’d avoid this like it’s a raptor nest.”

Overall, the game gets solid ratings on BGG, with an average rating of 8.048 out of 10 (where N = 58 as of 11/1/17).

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So, back to the story: this brand new game was being shown off for the first time at Gencon 2017. And things were going fine, when all of a sudden, someone stole an advance prototype of the game! It disappeared without a trace, leaving the creative team that was there to promote the game pre-release with only one copy.

Now wait, you might ask. Didn’t Gencon happen during August? Nat, why are you writing about this in November?

The reason this came to my attention now is that this week, someone posted this pre-release copy for sale on ebay! I saw a discussion about this on Facebook and thought it would be good to share the story with a wider audience. Mostly because it’s such an anomaly for this kind of thing to happen in the indie world.

So without further ado, to permit you all the delectable dino details you could desire, here’s an interview I conducted with the game’s creative team about this curious incident of The Disappearing Dinosaurs...

Cast of Characters

The Designers, Jon Gilmour and Brian Lewis

The Publishers, Molly Wardlaw and Nathan McNair of Pandasaurus Games (twitter).

When at GenCon 2017 did you first notice the game missing? How did you react? What did you do? How did you feel?

(Molly & Nathan) We first heard about the copy being missing on Friday when one of the members of our demo team asked where the copy of Dinosaur Island was. For the first half hour we thought that it might have been taken by another publisher who was nearby in open gaming or maybe someone took it to play overnight but would return the games in the morning, but it started becoming pretty clear it had grown legs.

At the time, we were super upset. The print and play copy of the game was actually really expensive to have made. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 dollars or so because it is hand-made by a group of people who specialize in prototyping games.

The money wasn’t really the primary issue however, it was that we knew that tons of people had signed up for the game over the course of the week and we were really hoping to get good word of mouth from people playing the game at GenCon and sharing their experiences with other gamers. We also felt bad for all of the attendees who had signed up for Dinosaur Island demos that didn’t get them. It was just all around an awful feeling. Stealing that copy cost us a lot of exposure, it meant a lot of players couldn’t experience Dinosaur Island at the biggest gaming convention in North America and it just was awful.

I know that Jon Gilmour (one of the designers) also had about 4-5 smaller regional conventions he attended in the Fall and his plan was to bring this copy of Dinosaur Island along with him to show people the game and give them a chance to play it.

There wasn’t much we could do. We are a really small company of 2 people and we were already stretched too thin for the show as it was, so our strategy at the time was to hope for the safe return of the game.

Indie board games are fairly niche media. The casual congoer probably has no idea of the value of something like the advance copy that was taken. Why do you think someone targeted your material?

(Molly & Nathan) I hoped they targeted it because they wanted a copy of the game. Like, the best scenario in my mind is someone was really hyped for Dinosaur Island and stole it so that they could play it before the game came out. The hobby gaming space is a really small world, so in my mind no one would try to steal it to profit because you would be found out pretty quickly. But now that the game is on ebay, maybe their intention was to try and sell it from the outset. Maybe they didn’t know it was an advanced copy when they grabbed it? Then when the story gained some traction originally after GenCon they decided to sell it when things slowed down.

What kind of work goes into making an advance copy like the one that was stolen? What makes it different from a “regular” copy distributed to the public?

(Molly & Nathan) Lots. We usually pay a specialist to create a pre-release prototype. It involves mounting the art to foam board and cutting all of the different bits out by hand. I personally spent hours putting stickers on blank dice and locating pawns and cubes and whatnot that could easily stand-in for parts of the game that weren’t created yet for the prototype copy.

In truth, these copies look pretty good, but you would never ever confuse them for a commercial product once you see it. They look sort of like a school project made by that one student who got help from their parents making the diorama.

Tell me more about the creative motivations behind your game. What was the creative process?

(Brian & Jon) Sometimes coming up with a theme for a game can be a challenge. It has to motivate and inspire, and it helps if it is unique. I was walking down the street, and I passed a pizza place that had a giant window decal for a local attraction called “Dinosaur Island.” It was that window decal that triggered all sorts of ideas for a game.

Jon and I chatted over Skype to decide if this is what we wanted our first co-design to be. Jon was an enthusiastic yes, and so we embarked on the design process.

Jon lives about 2 hours from me, so it wasn’t always easy getting together to work. I find that in person design seems to work a lot better than designing over video chat, so we made it a priority to meet one to two days a week to create the game.

Jon and I then took the theme and figured out how we wanted it to manifest itself in game form. We looked for inspiration in one of our favorite movies, Jurassic Park. We decided each player would own a park, research DNA, have scientists that work in a lab, and then have visitors that come to the park. It took many months to balance all of the mechanics, to make sure that it all worked.

The great thing about working with another designer is bouncing ideas off of each other. Jon and I have a great working relationship – we aren’t afraid to say what we like and what we don’t. To this day, one of my favorite sayings of Jon’s is “Well I don’t hate it….” which basically means he doesn’t think it will work in the game.

If you could wave a magic wand and have whatever outcome was most optimal to you, what would make this situation better?

(Molly & Nathan) I don’t know. Part of me wants them to just be found out. Now that the game has been on ebay twice and we have some idea of where it is in the world and who is at least selling it on ebay I just kind of want their friends and gaming group to know that they are the kind of person who would steal something at a gaming convention.

The other part of me is just mostly sad that this happened. I think that’s the bigger part of me. The truth is there isn’t a good situation. The prototype game isn’t worth anything any more because the commercial product is about to start shipping to our Kickstarter backers. So, there really isn’t a magic wand that can go back and let our fans play the game at GenCon. So, it’s mostly just a gross feeling that doesn’t have a good answer. We’ll get the game out to our backers and hopefully it will all be behind us soon.

Also do you have law enforcement involved? Why or why not?

We don’t. I don’t know if we will or not. There are a handful of reasons.

1) We are in Essen Germany for Essen Spiel right now which is the largest board game convention in the world, so we’re really busy and the time zones make it hard.

2) I don’t really know if I call police in Indiana or the city where the game landed on ebay. I tried to report it to ebay but they require a police report.

What do you want readers to know about your game, other than the unusual circumstances surrounding its release?

(Molly & Nathan) That it is super fun! It’s a really fantastic game design that Jon Gilmour and Brian Lewis gave us. You get to take DNA from “amber” dice, create dinosaurs and manage a dinosaur theme park. If you don’t have enough security your dinosaurs will even break out and eat your guests. It’s a blast to play, and the artwork is straight out of the early 90s Trapper Keeper line.

To read more about this ongoing drama, check out this reddit thread.

For those who are interested, you can order the game here: https://www.pandasaurusgames.com

<Disclaimer: The author of this piece received no compensation or free materials from Pandasaurus Games or from any of its associates.>

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