Monday, April 6, 2015

Dinosaurs & Dice: A short history of prehistoric gaming

Dungeons & Dragons may be best known for dragons, but dinosaurs have been part of the roleplaying game since its start.

When D&D co-creator Gary Gygax penned the first edition of the system’s Monster Manual in 1977, he included a small menagerie of dinosaurs alongside the book’s otherwise mythological bestiary. Located in the "D" section between “Devil” and “Displacer Beast” were dinosaurs such as Ankylosaurus, Iguanodon, and, of course, T. rex:
"Because of the nature of time in planes where magic works, dinosaurs widely separate in time are discussed hereunder, for they can be found intermingled on some alternate world, strange plane, or isolated continent somewhere."
Many roleplaying games, board games, and miniatures systems have featured dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. They are not nearly as numerous as games about elves and goblins, and most dinosaur-themed games are targeted at kids. But there is still a considerable number of games out there that can be enjoyed by adults who never outgrew their love for the ancient past.

Board games

The earliest dinosaur-themed board game listed by BoardGameGeek is the Alley Oop Jungle Game, published in 1936. Based on the comic strip of the same name, Alley Oop is a simple spin-and-move game obviously made for younger kids.

The following decades would see the release of several prehistoric-themed board games, most tie-ins to popular TV shows, like The Flintstones or Land of the Lost. Most were simple “roll-and-move” games, with players rolling dice and moving their pawns the same number of spaces as the result.

Things didn’t get interesting until the 1980s, a time when board game designers started to experiment with game mechanics. One product of this era was the 1985 board game Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs, in which players moved their explorer pawns across a 3-D board while avoiding T. rexes, pteranodons, and an erupting volcano. That same year saw the release of Tyrannosaurus Wrecks, a "microgame" in which time-traveling hunters journey to the Mesozoic to bag dangerous dinosaurs. Two years later came what I consider the best dinosaur-themed board game yet made, Dinosaurs of the Lost World. In the game, players lead expeditions into a prehistoric wilderness, seeking out new discoveries while avoiding hostile beasts. (If you want to know more about Dinosaurs of the Lost World, see my review.) The end of the decade saw the release of Tyranno Ex (1990), a “eurogame” in which players evolve their dinosaurs to survive in different habitats.

Despite this initial burst of innovation, most prehistoric board games have remained simple affairs. That said, there have been a few exceptions, such as the “caveman” game Stone Age (2008). Other prehistoric-themed games that can be enjoyed by grown-ups include Primordial Soup (1997), Evo (2001), Urland (2001), Wildlife (2002), Conquest of Pangaea (2006), and Evolution (2010; second edition 2014). The rise of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have allowed for the distribution of games publishers would have otherwise ignored, such as Apex (2015) and In a World of Dinosaurs (To be released).

Roleplaying games

As mentioned in the introduction, dinosaurs have been a part of roleplaying games since the start of the hobby. They would play a central role in the Dungeons & Dragons adventure module The Isle of Dread (1981), which was inspired by the film King Kong. Another King Kong-themed adventure module, The Isle of the Ape, came out four years later. When the D&D campaign setting Forgotten Realms was first unveiled in 1987, an entire landmass was set aside for the terrible reptiles: the peninsula of Chult. This setting was explored in detail in the 1993 supplement The Jungles of Chult. If that wasn’t enough, dinosaurs would get their own (inner) world to inhabit in D&D: Hollow World (1990).

Of course, D&D is not the only roleplaying game in existence. Lands of Mystery (1985) was a Hero System supplement that served as a toolbox for players who wanted to create their own “lost world” adventures. Another notable non-D&D setting is Space: 1889. This game, first published in 1988, takes place in an alternate 19th century where all the planets of inner solar system are habitable. Venus is a jungle planet inhabited by dinosaurs and lizardmen, while life on Mercury is just starting the transition from sea to land. The setting’s creator, Frank Chadwick, also wrote Cadillacs & Dinosaurs: The Roleplaying Game (1990). Set in the world of the comics, the game contains an extensive bestiary of prehistoric wildlife.

The popular roleplaying game system GURPS would get on the action with GURPS Dinosaurs (1996), which not only boasts stats for more than 100 extinct animals, but also has an introduction by paleontologist Jack Horner. One of the stranger settings to incorporate dinosaurs came in the form of Dinosaur Planet: Broncosaurus Rex (2001) by Goodman Games. The game is best described as a space Western with dinosaurs filling the part of Native Americans. Dinosaurs would return to Earth with the release of Hollow Earth Expedition (2006) by Exile Game Studio, which was heavily inspired by the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

As for more recent works, Cubicle 7 Entertainment released Primeval in 2012, which is based on the British television series about prehistoric creatures unleashed on the modern world.

Miniatures gaming

The history of prehistoric animals in miniatures gaming is harder to pin down than that of board games and roleplaying games. Many miniatures rulesets were published by tiny companies on shoestring budgets – I have rulesets that were probably produced on a desktop printer. Also, to play miniatures games, you need miniatures of dinosaurs and other animals, which are rare.

The earliest ruleset I have in my collection is Tusk (1994) by Matthew Hartley. This game lets players hunt mammoths and dinosaurs using easy-to-learn rules. Hunting dinosaurs also is the central focus of Saurian Safari (2002) by Chris Peers.

Other rulesets focus more on adventuring rather than hunting. One is Thrilling Expeditions: Valley of the Thunder Lizards (2008) by Rattrap Productions, which allows players to game "lost world"-type adventures. The same company also released the gaming supplement Dragon Bones: Adventures in the Gobi Desert (2005), which turns Roy Chapman Andrews' fossil hunting expeditions in 1920s China into Indiana Jones-like escapades. For gamers who prefer living dinosaurs to fossils, there is Adventures in the Lost Lands (2010) by Two Hour Wargames. Then there is Perilous Island (2013), a supplement for the miniatures system Pulp Alley.


Are there any games that I have missed? Plenty, much of it intentional. If you believe there are games worth mentioning that didn’t get a shout out here, feel free to point them out in the comments.


Michael Taylor said...

My favorite of them all is "Valley of the Mammoths". No dinosaurs but lots of good caveman action.

The earliest I'm aware of the the RPG "Uuhraah!" (c) 1978 Bob King and Blackhawk Games

DoubleW said...

That's the first time I heard of Uuhraah! It is now my new favorite name for a RPG.

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Timmay said...

GURPS Ice Age and GURPS Lands Out of Time focus on cavemen. The first is a serious setting, well researched and focused on hunter gatherers in the Ice Age, however there are optional rules to add Dinosaurs.

The second is much more pulpish. IIRC time storms have seeded the world with a mix of megafauna, mostly dinosaurs as well as cavemen, apemen and malevolently intelligent saurians. A bronze age city state has arisen. You can play as someone native to the world, or a dimensional visitor.