Jurassic Park is a simple premise: what if we brought back dinosaurs? Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel and the resulting film franchise dedicate their creative energy to exploring the disastrous combination of science and hubris, while also giving fans plenty of opportunities to geek out over extremely big, prehistoric chicken-lizards.
Prospero Hall’s upcoming board game, Jurassic World: The Legacy of Isla Nublar, carries that tradition forward by putting players in the shoes of John Hammond and company at the beginning of his ill-fated venture. Through a dozen or so session-long encounters, the island will be gradually tamed, cordoned and transformed into something that can be sold to guests under the veil of safety.
I took the opportunity to play through the early sessions of Isla Nublar at a recent preview event (Full disclosure: publisher Funko Games paid for travel and accommodation) and came away impressed with Prospero Hall’s dedication to designing an experience that deploys legacy mechanics thoughtfully. It’s a bold project from a studio that has spent the last few years proving licensed games can be more than crass popularity ploys with titles such as Fast & Furious: Highway Heist and Jaws, and while the road felt rough at times it’s hard not to be excited for this park’s grand opening.
Jurassic World: The Legacy of Isla Nublar impresses on groups from the jump that playing it will require a lot of guidance. The box, which weighs a hefty eight pounds, has been packed such that the very first piece of paper one sees contains strict and exact instructions on what to read and when. This might chafe those players who would rather unpack every piece of cardboard and extruded plastic before even reading the rulebook, but there’s sound reasoning behind holding the group’s hands early on.
There’s a cinematic quality to playing Isla Nublar’s early sessions - comprising a repeatable tutorial and two initial missions wherein the meat of the board game’s verbs will be introduced and explained - encountering specific scenes in a prescribed order that Prospero Hall’s designers have worked very hard to curate. As this is a legacy game, choices are immutable - the board game does a lot of information frontloading to ensure players understand the ramifications of every decision.
It’s rare that a board game evokes a childlike awe and lip-chewing anxiety within the same evening.
This would feel plodding and contrived if not for the board game’s excellent pacing and use of anticipation to drive interest. My group almost immediately noticed gaps in the game’s rulebook denoted by dotted-lined boxes, as well as sections on character cards covered by a scratchable film. The entire time playing through the tutorial - framed as Hammond dreaming of his perfect park while on a helicopter ride - we were anxious to know when the game would lay those cards on the table. Each mission begins by opening a sealed envelope and applying the components inside to the board. Sometimes this meant punching out new tokens or applying stickers from a sheet (which we did so with glee) while other times it meant revealing new character abilities or upgrades by scratching that film with a wickedly sculpted raptor claw tool - points for theatrics, there.
It sounds like artifice to obfuscate what’s essentially a three-hour tutorial, but the care and attention to making every moment of that tutorial interesting was apparent. By the time we started the second scenario by cracking open a new dinosaur box, everyone at the table was nearly hooting and hollering for the reveal. Some games let you revel at the whole machine powering their gameplay immediately, but Isla Nublar had us build an engine piece by piece without consciously thinking about it - we were too busy marvelling at the individual components.
Isla Nublar does a great job of providing players enough knowledge and experience to make informed choices without revealing everything.
But a legacy-based title is only as good as the game you play within each session, and Isla Nublar doesn’t skimp on the moment-to-moment fun. Four players will begin the session by choosing one character from a roster that includes familiar names such as Hammond, Dr. Henry Wu, Robert Muldoon and the new addition of Alexandra Solano. Each boast unique abilities tied to their role that will define their strengths. For example, Hammond can use one of his two actions per round (or the one free action anyone can claim per round) to move another character two spaces, reflecting his nature as park director and personnel specialist. By comparison, Dr. Wu shines when accessing the laboratory’s genome sequencing minigame.
Every adventure will have different objectives to complete over the course of five turns, and all characters are free to act in any order. Our group quickly found ourselves strategising the best way to use our nine available actions to scout island landmarks, construct buildings, place barriers or escort personnel, arguing our own strengths and falling into archetypal roles of support, action and direction. There’s definitely the risk of “quarterbacking” other players - steamrolling their own wants for the sake of optimal play - and I don’t know if Isla Nublar does enough to discourage that kind of behaviour at the table.
Completing these various objectives would be difficult enough if not for the dinosaurs roaming the park. The initial two herbivores and two carnivores - triceratops, brontosaurus, T-Rex and velociraptors, respectively - follow a card-based AI pattern after all of the players have exhausted their actions, moving around the island and hunting whatever is nearby. These instincts will remain unknown unless the group expend their precious actions and items to scout the island’s six sectors and flip over their corresponding cards. Just knowing is not enough - players will have to work together to herd wayward dinos out of harm’s way or avoid an untimely encounter with a hungry predator.
By the time we started the second scenario by cracking open a new dinosaur box, everyone at the table was nearly hooting and hollering for the reveal.
I love this hidden information aspect of the game, and it points to a larger design philosophy running through all of Isla Nublar - Isla Nublar does a great job of providing players enough knowledge and experience to make informed choices without revealing everything. We were always acting under some sense of unsurety, betting on remaining two steps ahead of imminent disaster, which the game tracks via consequence tokens. Waiting to solve issues that crop up during the session or taking excess damage will accrue consequences, and more than five will automatically fail the adventure.
Letting a dinosaur take too much damage will also earn consequences, so you can’t just leave nature to play its course. A significant portion of one adventure was spent protecting the dinosaurs from each other, leading to an interesting discussion of how much disaster is acceptable to avoid the loss of one of Hammond’s valuable assets.
It's that thread that excites me the most about Isla Nublar - how well it seems to understand Jurassic Park’s interrogation of hubris and pride masquerading as scientific progress. Failing an adventure means living with the consequences and moving forward regardless. Some scenarios explicitly state a minimum threshold of personnel loss or property damage that can still be called a success. The permanency of our choices could be monuments to folly as easily as inspired acts of collaboration.
There’s a lot I wasn’t able to touch - and more that’s locked behind an embargo - but I left the preview event impressed by the hooks those brief sessions managed to sink into my brain. It’s rare that a board game evokes a childlike awe and lip-chewing anxiety within the same evening, but I can’t say whether it will manage to stick the landing or carry its themes through another nine adventures intact. But if you’re a fan of legacy games, board games with a narrative bent or simply pulling dinosaur miniatures out of a box, Jurassic World: the Legacy of Isla Nublar might be worth the price of admission.
A Kickstarter campaign for Jurassic World: The Legacy of Isla Nublar will launch on March 29th.