- Designer: Florian Fay
- Publisher: Z-Man Games
- Players: 2-6
- Ages: 8+
- Time: 20-30 minutes
- Times played: 6, with review copy provided by Asmodee NA
Mesozooic was a game that I first saw promoted at GenCon 2018, but either they didn’t have copies there at the show or I ran out of time to see it – I honestly can’t remember which. But, the press contact at Asmodee NA was quite excited about it, and she wanted to make sure that I had a chance to try it out. I didn’t see it as Essen, and I’ll be honest, it kinda slipped off of the radar for awhile. I was pleasantly surprised to see it in the most recent box of games from Z-Man, and it made it to the table on the very day that it arrived here.
In Mesozooic, players are trying to construct the best dinosaur zoo in a real time challenge. Each player starts with a zoo director card. The matching sets of basic cards that go with the Directors in play are then all shuffled together with the neutral cards to form a deck.
The game is played over three rounds – each following the same order. First, there is a draft. Each player is dealt 11 cards. Players look at them, choose two to keep and then pass the rest to their neighbor. Do this 4 more times. On the final pass, you’ll get one card from your neighbor to give you a new hand of 11 cards. Players then shuffle these cards and then lay them out in a 4×3 grid with the bottom right space in that grid remaining empty. Make sure to orient all the cards right side up and leave a little space between each of the cards.
Now, when all players are ready, the building phase begins. The sand timer is flipped over and players now use a single hand to move cards around as if they are using a sliding puzzle. Any orthogonally adjacent card to the hole can be slid into place, thus opening up a new hole in the grid. You cannot slide cards outside of the grid nor can you pick them up. When the timer is up (or when you are done sliding), place your director card in the hole in your grid to complete it.
Now you score your zoo – there are a number of different features which score you points
6 VP – A completed 2 part herbivore (horizontal) enclosure
6 VP – A completed 2 part carnivore (vertical) enclosure
4 VP – for each completed monorail connection between two tiles
1 VP – for each topiary
2 VP – for each truck that is adjacent to each attraction and is not blocked by an enclosure (Trucks can be counted more than once)
Write down your round score on the score sheet. Repeat until three rounds are complete. At the end of the third round, players calculate their final score by taking their two highest round scores and adding them together. The player with the most points wins. Ties are broken by the player with the higher unused score.
There are also advanced cards available to add to the deck, and they give you different ways of scoring as well. It is not recommended to use these until you have played the basic version a few times.
My thoughts on the game
Mesozooic is a game that just arrived on my doorstep about a week ago, and in that time, I’ve already managed to get 6 plays of it. This is a super quick game which I have found very entertaining. The sliding puzzle concept really hits a sweet spot for me, and I love the frantic rounds of rearranging the cards. The sand timer is nicely calibrated to almost never give you enough time to get all the cards in the right place. We’ve been fairly generous about letting people finish their current move when the time runs out — that is, when someone finally realizes that the time is out. In games going forward, I’m going to try to set up a timer on my phone that will give us a 10 second warning in addition to audibly announcing the end of the time.
There is a nice balance here between drafting, memory, luck, push-your-luck and card shuffling skill. As the hands are dealt, you have to look through your first hand and start working on a strategy. I have done well either focusing on enclosures or road segments, but of course YMMV. What is important is a good memory of what you have collected and what things you need in future draft rounds. There is a little push-your-luck involved because you never know what is coming down the road. You might choose to focus on enclosures, but you have to still get the right card later in order to complete it.
I would caution everyone to make sure that they have aligned all the cards in the same way before drafting (and again confirming this after shuffling). It would suck to have drawn a card thinking it was a left enclosure and having it really be a right enclosure!
The basic scoring rules are fairly easy to learn and remember, and the player aid card does a nice job of summarizing those rules. The back side has the advanced scoring rules, and I have found those cards to be a bit more confusing, though not so much to prevent me from figuring out how to use them. I think that these do add a bit more variety to the game – in a 5p game, you only add 13 of the 20 advanced cards to the deck, and then in each round, there is no guarantee that you will get a full supply of those advanced cards. This tends to increase both the luck factor and the push-your-luck element – but I find both of those changes to better the game.
There is clearly a role for luck in this game, and the scoring system works well to mitigate that as best as it can. By being able to throw out one of the three rounds of scoring, it eliminates most (but not all) whining about not getting the right cards. It also allows players to play a high risk, hi reward strategy in at least one round! In my last game, I had one round where I scored 42 points – using roads and enclosures mostly – and another round where I just failed all around and scored only 6 points.
Mesozooic comes in a nice small box, and we have definitely enjoyed it thus far. There is an expansion coming soon, the Triassic expansion, which I hope to cover in the near future. For now, we’re really enjoying this one.
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers
Jonathan: I don’t love speed games, but I enjoyed Mesozooic because I knew roughly why I drafted the cards, so I had a general final configuration in mind and the challenge was getting the cards into place and that moment of d’oh, realizing I had two of one thing and none of another, whereas I expected to have one of each and link them.
Brandon: One of the “hidden” gems of Gen Con 2018 for me. Z-Man was my second stop on Thursday morning, right after Plan B and right before CMON, but it wasn’t for any of the big games in their booth, it was for this little game. As a kid we always had these little sliding missing piece puzzles around my Grandparent’s house and Mesozooic is that, in game form. The drafting is fun and you can formulate a plan all you want while drafting, but as soon as you mix up those cards and lay them out, you have a whole new puzzle staring you in the face. Forty five seconds (the sand timer) may seem like a good amount of time for you to get your puzzle straight, but it’s not. You’ll quickly see that you may not be able to get your puzzle situated how you planned it out in that draft and you have to shift gears and just try to get as many points as you can possibly salvage. Those advanced cards just kind of ratchet that up a bit and add some different scoring possibilities. Happy to hear that they have some new cards coming!
Dan Blum: I like this sort of puzzle game in general but Mesozooic fell flat with me and others I played with. Possible the more advanced cards make things more interesting but the basic game just doesn’t offer enough to do, especially when your cards often let you score A or B but not both.
James Nathan: This game is pretty great. It turns out sliding puzzles date back to the 1880s. There have also been word-based sliding puzzles, such as Ro-Let http://www.cs.brandeis.edu/~storer/JimPuzzles/ZPAGES/zzzROLET.html, and I can’t imagine doing that. Partially because, uh, when was the last time you did a sliding puzzle? The sliding puzzle was invented by the then Postmaster of Canastota, New York -Noyes Chapman. He applied for a patent for his “sliding block puzzle”, but it was denied. Mathematicians at one point proved that half of the original game states in Chapman’s puzzle were unsolvable – possibly a fact which Dale re-discovered in his 6 point round.
What I’m saying is, Mesozooic let’s you explore a new puzzle. In a short real-time 45 seconds, your mind needs to develop the algorithms to put this card here over in that spot there while retaining the adjacencies of these other 3 tiles. If you don’t, that’s fine, you’ll have 2 more shots. Or you can play again.
You can also play with your non-dominant hand. We did that.
The drafting I found interesting in choosing whether or not to commit to certain strategies. The memory was a nice touch. But exploring a 140 year old simple puzzle mechanic with your friends was the prize.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Dale Y, Brandon K
- I like it. John P, James Nathan
- Neutral. Jonathan, Dan Blum, Craig V
- Not for me…