Mesozooic (Brandon Kempf)
Designed by Florian Fay
Artwork by Atha Kanaani
Published by Z-Man Games
Every once in awhile, you look through the massive amounts of game announcements and you notice one that may have slipped by on any other day. If you had sneezed and scrolled at the wrong time, you never would have never seen the cute artwork on the box cover and been drawn in to take a look and see just what the game was about. This is the tale of one such game that could have been missed, and judging by collection statistics on BGG, was missed at Gen Con this year. This is Mesozooic. It’s a silly name, really, but what else would you call a game that is all about trying to build a zoo to house dinosaurs for all of the world to see?
A game of Mesozooic lasts 3 rounds. Each round you are going to score the park you created that round, with the highest score having created the most fantastic dinosaur zoo in all the lands. Each zoo builder is going to choose a color deck from the six choices and they are going to put their cards in the center of the table, while keeping their Zoo Director card. The chosen dealer then takes all the player cards, plus the neutral cards (or you could add in the advanced cards, but we’ll cover those later) and shuffles them before dealing each player eleven cards. So now each player is going to have a different set of cards with various features for your zoo, but you don’t get to keep everything that is in your hand. You are going to have some fun drafting cards before starting to put your zoo together. Each player will choose two cards to keep and then pass the remaining to their neighbor, continuing this way until you are handed one card and that one is your final card to keep.
Shuffle these eleven cards really well and then begin placing them face up in front of you in a 4x3 grid. All cards must be oriented the same way, so make sure that the symbol on the card is in the lower left as you look at your cards. Now, if you are any good at math, you realize that there is one space remaining at this point. Here is the simple genius that is Mesozooic. You have created for yourself in front of you, a missing piece sliding puzzle. You know those kind you see at Cracker Barrel where there are numbers and you have to get them in order while moving one piece at a time? This is what you are going to do, only in Mesozooic you are trying to get those features in the right place to score the most points, in about 45 seconds. That’s right, this is a real-time game on top of everything else. When everyone is ready, flip the sand timer over and start sliding those cards to get your zoo in order.
In the basic game you are going to score based on four features:
Enclosures - Each enclosure has a left and right or a top and bottom. When you connect those they are worth 6 points for each completed enclosure.
Attractions & Trucks - There are several attractions in the game and if you have one of your parks’ trucks next to an Attraction, that’s worth 2 points per truck next to that Attraction.
Monorails - Your visitors have to have a way to get around, right? So with the monorails, you are going to score 4 points for each monorail connection that is in your park.
Topiaries - Each dinosaur topiary that is in your park is going to score you 1 point.
So you have 45 seconds to slide these cards around one space at a time to get them where you want them to be. No rotating cards, no picking up cards and placing them somewhere else, you slide them, one space at a time, stopping immediately as soon as the timer runs out. Then you score. You do all of this three times and the player with the highest score wins.
The Advanced Cards mentioned at the beginning will replace the original neutral cards, and you can either choose to add them randomly or you can choose specific advanced cards to be added to the deck, with the number of these cards based on the number of players. Be careful with the Advanced Cards though, there are T-Rex cards in here and they can get pretty wild. The Advanced Cards change the scoring of the game by giving you different features to work with.
In a gaming world where folks seemingly clamor to the next two-hour game full of rules, and rules clarifications and FAQs, it’s a breath of fresh air to see companies still taking a chance on these small box card games that play in about 30 minutes. In the past, Z-Man has been better about this than many others with their wonderful Deluxe Card Game collection, I’d like to think that if this line of games was still around this would fit perfectly in there among the likes of Arboretum or Fairy Tile, and if it were around, we’d get some wonderful dinosaur coasters, but I digress.
Mesozooic oozes charm from the word go. You pick your deck of cards and get your Zoo Director, which is wonderfully illustrated by Atha Kanaani, who has seemed to have quietly amassed a wonderful portfolio of artwork for Z-Man over the years to very little accolades, including the recent Smile, which was just absolutely wonderfully illustrated. The characters are well-rounded and inclusive, which we still need to thank illustrators for doing these days, it seems, even though it seems a natural thing to do.
The play is quick and the drafting is really important as it forms your plan for your park. You have five choices to make each draft, so you better have a good plan and hope that your opponents aren’t working on that same plan and keeping what you need. Are you going to try to have a monorail connected throughout most of your park full of enclosures? If so, you better make sure those connections are able to be matched and that you have plenty of trucks to park next to those enclosures.
The other issue with this is that you can formulate a plan in your head all you want, but when you shuffle those cards and put them out in random order, you may not recognize anything that you drafted, and then the fun begins. Forty-five seconds may not seem like a lot of time, and it isn’t, but you’ll be amazed at what you can do in those forty-five seconds, good or bad. As you are moving your cards around trying to manipulate that empty space to the right position for each card, you’ll quickly learn that you may not be able to do exactly what you planned on doing two minutes earlier, so you gotta switch gears and go into maximize-what-points-you-can-get mode, otherwise known as the “Oh crap, I’ve made horrible decisions” moment.
Mesozooic isn’t the best game I’ve played coming out of Gen Con, but it is the one I wanted to highlight first, as I don’t want folks to scroll right past it. Florian Fay has designed a wonderful game full of highs and lows as you play it, but first and foremost he has designed a game that is fun for everyone to play, and that’s what we need a bit more of in this hobby -- a focus on the fun.