Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Virgin and the Dinosaur by R. Garcia y Robertson (1996)

Cover blurb


In a far-future Megapolis free of disease, pollution, and money, Jake Bento is master of the wormhole – until an unforeseen catastrophe nearly strands the professional time traveler and his beautiful young paleontologist companion Peg in a world of huge extinct beasts. Luckily, Jake's deft manipulation of wormhole technology can bring them home – after several stopovers in more manageable eras – with enough 3V recordings to make them both legends in their own, and other, times.

There are those, however, who resent such newfound celebrity – specifically Jake's dangerous erstwhile employers at FASTER-THAN-LIGHT. And now Peg and Jake must watch their backs, from the Pleistocene to the present. For there are no treacheries their enemies won't stoop to – and no time in which to hide.

My thoughts

Who says you can’t judge a book by its cover? The Virgin and the Dinosaur is a 1996 novel by R. Garcia y Robertson that promises two things: 1) A virgin and 2) a dinosaur. I can report that it delivers on both. In fact, when it comes to the latter the book delivers in spades, as there are quite a few prehistoric creatures tucked between its covers. The only problem is readers must wade through a lot of filler to get to the dinosaur action.

The Virgin and the Dinosaur opens in Late Cretaceous Montana with the aforementioned virgin — a French paleontologist named Peg — stepping nude into a forest clearing. Running around in your birthday suit doesn’t seem a particularly wise idea as we are told that mosquitoes “as big as hummingbirds” are flying around, but Peg is the free-spirited type. Enjoying the view is fellow time traveler Jake Bento, who is supposed to be guarding Peg but instead spends most of his time trying to get into her pants. (That is, if she wore pants.) Peg and Jake have a series of adventures before traveling forward in time to pre-Civil War America and then to the far future, where their journeys have turned them into celebrities. However, their newfound fame has made an enemy of Jake’s employer, who realizes the duo now have the power to start their own time travel business and become competitors. The only way to stop Jake and Peg is to ruin their reputations by any means necessary.

Perhaps the most off-putting thing about The Virgin and the Dinosaur is its lack of any real plot. The novel actually is a collection of adventures linked together by a thin narrative arc. This isn't surprising as the first half of the book was originally published as two separate novellas, but it comes off as disjointed as a result. The story loses its footing in the slower-paced second half, although the pace picks up again near the end. That said, the good parts are really good. Robertson has a knack for writing action scenes, and he throws in just enough twists to keep things interesting. The Mesozoic scenes in particular stand out, although they make up only a third of the novel. Unfortunately the characters are not quite as well written. Peg exists solely as an object to be lusted over. Jake spends a good chunk of the novel more interested in sex than anything else, and his infatuation with Peg is more than a little creepy. I guess The Virgin and the Dinosaur was trying to be sexy, but the book is so clumsy at it that its efforts come across as awkward instead.

The Virgin and the Dinosaur isn't a bad book, but it has too many problems to be memorable. Robertson should have devoted more of the novel to his characters' Mesozoic adventures. It also would have helped had he dialed back on Jake's raging hormones. I guess what I'm saying is I wanted less virgin and more dinosaurs.

  • The first half of the novel was published as two separate novellas in Asimov's Science Fiction magazine. The stories - “The Virgin and the Dinosaur” and “Down the River” - both graced the covers of their respective issues. (Click on the titles for links to the cover art.)
  • The novella “The Virgin and the Dinosaur” was republished in the anthology Dinosaurs II.
  • The novel The Virgin and the Dinosaur was followed by a sequel, Atlantis Found. (Not to be confused with the Clive Cussler novel of the same name.) As far as I can tell, it doesn't involve dinosaurs.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Suddenly, a cornucopia of dinosaur board games

Dinosaurs and board games would seem an awesome combination, but the fact is game publishers have shown little interest in the “terrible lizards” outside kids games. That may be changing as a number of new games featuring dinosaurs and paleontology have been announced, and most of them can be enjoyed by adults.

Below is a list of upcoming games in no particular order. Most of them haven't been released yet, at least not in North America. All images are from BoardGameGeek.

The Great Dinosaur Rush

Of the games listed here, this is probably the one I'm most looking forward to. The Great Dinosaur Rush is based on the 19th century “Bone Wars” between paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and O.C. Marsh. Players are rival paleontologists trying to find and build dinosaur skeletons while sabotaging the other players' efforts. From the description:
The Great Dinosaur Rush or the Bone Wars, as they're otherwise called, were a period of incredible advancement in paleontology (discovery of fossils). Players compete to grab bones from the best dig sites, and build new dinosaurs for prestigious museums. 
Gain notoriety by stealing bones, sabotaging dig sites and otherwise impeding the other paleontologists. Play dirty if you want to win. Just not TOO dirty!

Artifacts, Inc.

File Artifacts, Inc. under the long list of creative projects that confuse archaeology with paleontology. Players are private archaeology companies that send explorers out on expeditions to find artifacts and fossils. This was a Kickstarter game, so it will first be available to backers of the crowdfunding campaign, but all games from this designer have eventually hit the market, so I'm betting you will be able to buy copies either later this year or sometime next year. From the description:

New York, 1929: A frenzy of interest in antiquity is sweeping the nation! With museums hungry for mysterious and exotic artifacts — and you hungry for adventure — you start up your own archeology company. Untold wonders await within dangerous jungles, harsh deserts, and wind-swept mountains. Will you gain a reputation as the most intrepid and famous adventurer of all time? 
In Artifacts, Inc., 2-4 players compete to grow the most famous archeology company. Players roll dice, which represent their troop of adventurers, and place them on cards in order to find artifacts, sell them to museums, and purchase new cards representing their company assets. Players can choose to focus on making lots of money by selling artifacts, having museum majorities, creating the best combination of expeditions and buildings, or searching below the waves for lost cities and hidden treasures. The first player to reach 20 reputation triggers the end of the game, and the player with the most total reputation wins!

Dino Twist

I don't know much about this game other than the description:

Sharp your claws and fangs, avoid disasters , meteors and gather the strongest dinosaurs! 
Dino Twist is a family game of cards , fast and smart, where players will have to fight the Dinos on the island of Twist, then recover them on their islands to score the most points. But beware to the events that will spice up the battles !!! 
The goal of the game is to have the strongest Dino on our island.

If you can speak French, then the following gameplay video should be very helpful:


So the “raptor” in this game is 1) featherless, 2) oversized, and 3) obviously inspired by the raptors from Jurassic Park. Still, the artwork looks nice. From the description:

Mamma Raptor has escaped from her run and laid her eggs in the park. A team of scientists must neutralize her and capture the baby raptors before they run wild into the forest. 
Raptor is a card driven board game with tactical play and some double guessing. Players use their cards to move their pawns (scientists on one side, Mother and baby raptors on the other) on the board. Every round, the player who played the lowest ranked card can use the corresponding action, while his opponent has movement / attack points equal to the difference between the two cards values. The scientists can use fire, can move by jeep on the tracks, and can even call for reinforcements, whil the mamma raptor can hide in the bushes, yell to frighten the scientists, and call for her babies.


If you like dinosaurs fighting dinosaurs, then JurassAttack! sounds like the game for you. It is a two-player card game in which players battle using prehistoric beasts as their weapons of choice. From the description:

In JurassAttack! from first time designer and independent pro-wrestler, Ryan Cowler, 2 players face off in an epic face-to-face dinosaur battle! In the game, each player chooses a dinosaur, or pack of dinosaurs of the same type from their hand and reveals them simultaneously to compare Ferocity values. The player with the highest total Ferocity wins the round, taking their rival’s dinosaurs into their score pile. Different types of dinosaurs are worth varying amounts of victory points so it’s important to plan well and make sure not to give away too many points in the event of a knock out! These fierce, prehistoric beasts each have their own special effects as well. Some hunt alone while others may pack with dinos of different types. And sometimes, with a well placed bluff, players may even be able to sneak some of their precious eggs into their own score pile to protect the future generation. 
JurassAttack! is made up of 54 oversized cards and comes in a sturdy, portable box. Each game lasts about 15 minutes and plays with 2 players, ages 8 and up. Artwork by newcomer, Shaz Yong, will transport players back to a land where giants ruled the earth and only the strong survived! This Summer blockbuster, great for gamers and families looking for some quick dino-battle-action, is headed for Kickstarter in July of 2015.

Other games:

Cardline: Dinosaurs – I previously posted about this card game in which players must line up dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals based on their size and weight.

Apex: Theropod Deck-Building Game – A card game in which players are predatory dinosaurs hunting prey and fending off rivals. The Kickstarter campaign for the second edition of the game had about a week left as of the time of this post.

In a World of Dinosaurs – Another Kickstarter project that was funded last year, with backers now waiting to receive their copies of the game. It may be unique in that players control both the dinosaurs and the paleontologists who dig them up.

Evolution - This excellent game recently ended a Kickstarter campaign for both its second edition and a "Flight" expansion. I expect both to be out in stores either this year or early next year.

PS. Notice how many of these games started as Kickstarters? That seems to be the way the industry is heading.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dinosaur Planet by Anne McCaffrey (1978)

Cover blurb

Stranded on a strange world


The Exploratory and Evaluation Corps of the Federated Sentient Planets had sent ARCT-10, with its mixed crew of shipbred and planet-bound technicians, to Ireta to catalogue fauna and flora and search for new energy sources. It was a simple mission. A standard crew.


Kai and his beautiful co-leader Varian, the best xenob-vet in the business, followed all the standard procedures – but the results of their investigations were totally unexpected. Not only were the planet's creatures larger than anyone had anticipated and the geological finds smaller, but the rescue ship had inexplicably disappeared.


Then suddenly on a world of giant swamp creatures and deadly predators, a curious change had come over many of the members of the ARCT-10 crew… a change that would lead all of them, in one way or another, into the primitive darkness of a future world.

My thoughts

Anne McCaffrey is best known for writing about dragons, being the author of the very popular Dragonriders of Pern series. However, in 1978 she took a break from fire-breathing reptiles to focus on their real-life prehistoric counterparts with Dinosaur Planet. It wasn't much of a stretch as the novel is set in the same science fiction universe as Dragonriders of Pern, although no dragons or Thread show up in its pages. That's a shame, as Dinosaur Planet badly needs an injection of excitement.

The story begins not long after the crew of the spaceship ARCT-10 has landed and set up camp on Ireta, a jungle world whose poles are hotter than its equator because of the planet's super-hot core. Their mission is to survey the planet for energy-producing minerals as well as catalog the wildlife they encounter. The crew's leader, Kai, spends a good deal of the novel trying to squash rumors that the crew have been “planted” - that is, abandoned on the planet by mission control in a not-so-subtle attempt to start a new colony. Varian, the co-leader, isn't particularly concerned about the rumors. Most of her time is instead occupied researching a native species of flying creature that shows tool-making capabilities. Trouble comes in the form of the “heavy-worlders,” a group of crew members much stronger than average because they were raised on planets with high gravity. After a series of discoveries, Kai and Varian begin to suspect the heavy-worlders have violated the greatest taboo of their future vegetarian society: They have eaten meat.

It wasn't easy for me to write the above summary because Dinosaur Planet is a book without much plot. It is a rather dull and rambling piece of fiction that feels much longer than its 200 pages would suggest. Large parts of the narrative are just long stretches of stiff, unnatural-sounding dialogue, the sort of which one would find in bad 1950s B-movies. Worse still is McCaffrey's lazy descriptive text. We only get the broadest brush strokes of Ireta's sights, sounds, and smells because the author never paints them in any fine detail. A character may spot a “herbivore” and that's all we're told. What did the herbivore look like? Did it have a crest? A long neck? What color was it? Did it smell? What sounds did it make? McCaffrey can't be bothered to provide such descriptive elements, and as a result Ireta comes across as a rather drab and generic place.

Dinosaur Planet also is lacking much in the way of action and mystery, and while neither are necessary for a good novel, the lack of other redeeming qualities makes the absence of the two that much more noticeable. McCaffrey would revisit the planet Ireta again in a sequel, Dinosaur Planet Survivors, which I have sitting on my bookshelf. I can't see myself cracking it open anytime soon.

  • Ireta also is a setting in McCaffrey's Planet Pirates trilogy. I haven't read the books, so I can't say whether they feature pirate dinosaurs.
  • Dinosaur Planet and Dinosaur Planet Survivors were collected in a single volume titled The Mystery of Ireta in 2003.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Dinosaur card game Apex back on Kickstarter

Missed out on the Kickstarter for Apex: Theropod Deck-Building Game the first time around?  Now you have a second chance to pick up this excellent game, and with better quality components.

Die-Hard Games is running a Kickstarter for the second edition of the game. As of this post, there was 19 days left in the campaign. Backers can pick a copy of the original game, except this time it comes with a playmat, a better box, and a T. rex miniature.The publisher also is offering four expansions that let you play as different prehistoric predators. Check out my review for more information about the game.

I should note this Kickstarter isn't without controversy. Several backers of the first edition, including myself, are upset that a higher-quality second edition is coming out so soon after the first edition. In addition, many first edition backers have yet to receive their copies of the game. (I only received mine because I paid an extra $15 after the first Kickstarter ended to be moved up the mailing list.) The new edition also is quite pricey: A copy of the core game and expansions will set you back $100, once shipping is thrown in. You can back both individually for about half that price.

All that aside, if you have money to burn and like card games, you can't go wrong with Apex.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Ten books to read after Jurassic World (and five to avoid)

I generally avoid writing Top 10 lists because I believe every book should stand on its own merits. However, I see the writers over at have thrown together not one but two separate lists of recommended dinosaur fiction. (Here and here.) The gauntlet has been thrown: I think I can do better.

In all seriousness, I’ve received a handful of requests over the years to do a recommended reading list. The release of Jurassic World provided a good excuse to do that. The titles below are not provided in any particular order; they simply reflect what I believe are the best examples of dinosaur fiction reviewed for this site.

I didn’t include any comics or art books in this list because they are not prose fiction, but if I had, I would have listed Xenozoic Tales and Dinotopia. Both series are highly recommended.
  • Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. Let’s get this one out of the way. This is the novel that won me over to paleofiction. From my review: “Jurassic Park is a book where the entertainment value overshadows its negatives, probably as pure a 'summer read' as you'll ever find.”
  • The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The granddaddy of paleofiction remains one of the best novels on the subject: “Doyle strikes exactly the right balance between mystery, adventure and humor in a plot that never seems to have a dull moment.”
  • Raptor Red by Robert T. Bakker. The famous paleontologist penned this fun tale about a female Utahraptor in the early Cretaceous: “The exotic nature of the setting keeps the novel from becoming trite after the first few chapters, and Bakker’s quirky sense of humor comes across in several passages.”
  • Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear. This young adult novel about an expedition to a lost world captures the sense of adventure many of us feel when we hear the word "dinosaur": "It’s light, breezy entertainment and should be accepted as such."
  • Carnosaur by Harry Adam Knight. A dumb novel that knows its dumb and runs with that: “The fun thing about Carnosaur is it's B-grade entertainment and the author knows that -- he doesn't make the mistake of playing it straight.”
  • End of an Era by Robert J. Sawyer: This short, strange novel about the reason the dinosaurs went extinct may be a little too wacky for some readers, but I like it: “It’s hard not to like this book even if it does take itself a little too seriously given the craziness of the plot. It’s only 200 pages long, the appropriate length for this sort of thing.”
  • West of Eden by Harry Harrison. An entertaining clash-of-cultures tale set in an alternate Earth where dinosaurs didn’t go extinct: “West of Eden still works as an old-fashioned adventure story with a good sense of wonder.”
  • Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick. A moving, novel-length eulogy to the dinosaurs: “It’s a wonderful story, filled with believable characters and intriguing speculation about dinosaur ecology.”
  • Rivers of Time by L. Sprague de Camp. This collection of humorous short stories about a time-traveling safari guide should bring smiles to most readers’ faces: “None of the stories are quite as good as (the lead story) ‘A Gun for Dinosaur,’ but they’re all entertaining and the book is worth owning.”
  • Dinosaurs! by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois. An anthology of short stories about dinosaurs that includes several classics: “No point beating around the bush: Dinosaurs! is the best collection of dinosaur-themed short stories ever put together.”
Finally, I can’t resist mentioning some of the worst books I have reviewed. The following titles are definitely not recommended.
  • Age of Dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus rex by J.F. Revkin. A book that somehow managed to make lost civilizations and dinosaurs boring: “I’ve tried hard to erase this book from my memory since reading about three or four years ago, and I’ve been mostly successful. It’s simply awful, with eye-rolling dialogue, ugly writing, and no sense of story structure.”
  • The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly. Basically Jurassic Park with dinosaur-like dragons and atrocious writing: “I'm not a supporter of book burnings, but reading The Great Zoo of China is closest I've come to reconsidering that position.”
  • Carnivore by Leigh Clark. About as close to a SyFy Channel movie put to paper that has ever been penned: “Every time I hear someone talk about how hard it is to get a novel published these days, I whip this baby out. Actually, that's not true. I don't want to admit I read it in the first place.”
  • Dinosaur Nexus by Lee Grimes. A novel where poor plotting and bad writing ruin what could have been an intriguing premise about the consequences of time travel: "There's nothing in Dinosaur Nexus that is particularly memorable."
  • Deathbeast by David Gerrold. A bad book by an otherwise good author. The premise about a T. rex hunt gone wrong is sound; it's the execution that's lacking: "A little subtlety in the writing and a cast of humane characters would’ve gone a long way toward improving Deathbeast."

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Beyond Jurassic World: A guide to current dinosaur media

So you've seen Jurassic World. Maybe you loved it. Maybe you hated it. Either way, you were left wanting more fiction about dinosaurs. I'm here to help.

The first Jurassic Park film was accompanied by an explosion of dinosaur-themed books, comics, and magazines that were published to take advantage of the dino-craze the movie generated. That trend diminished with each successive film, and I'm sorry to say it is barely a trickle this time around. Still, there are a few titles out there to help sate your appetite for anything dinosaur related.

Note: These are all mainstream titles. Self-published titles are listed in separate posts.


The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan: Jurassic Park meets Game of Thrones is how George R.R. Martin describes this novel. The plot mixes high fantasy with prehistoric animals. You can learn more about this upcoming title on the author's website.

By Tooth and Claw by various authors. The second in a series of anthologies set in a world where dinosaurs didn't go extinct. The first anthology was Exiled: Clan of the Claw.

Dinosaurs and a Dirigible by David Drake. This anthology collects Drake's four Time Safari stories. A fifth steampunk story also is in the collection.

Dinosaurs! and Dinosaurs II by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann. Two excellent anthologies bringing together many classic short stories about dinosaurs.


Dinosaur Island. This isn't a good movie, but it is an entertaining one and notable for being the first feature film to showcase feathered dinosaurs, including a feathered T. rex. It may be a good alternative for children too young to see Jurassic World.

Cowboys vs Dinosaurs. Low-budget direct-to-video movie about modern-day cowboys up against prehistoric monsters. Looks awful.


Age of Reptiles: Ancient Egyptians by Ricardo Delgado. Delgado is back with a new Age of Reptiles story, this one about a Spinosaurus. The first issue is out and it is very, very good.

Savage Empire by Tim Lewinson. A Kickstarter project for a comic about a dinosaur invasion of Los Angeles after a massive earthquake. The creator worked on the 2008 video game reboot of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Dinosaur Thunder by James F. David (2012)

Cover blurb

Eighteen years ago, the prehistoric past collided with the present as time itself underwent a tremendous disruption, transporting huge swaths of the Cretaceous period into the twentieth century. Neighborhoods, towns, and cities were replaced by dense primeval jungles and modern humanity suddenly found itself sharing the world with fierce dinosaurs. In the end, desperate measures were taken to halt the disruptions and the crisis appeared to be over.

Until now.

New dinosaurs begin to appear, rampaging through cities. A secret mission to the Moon discovers a living Tyrannosaurus Rex trapped in an alternate timeline. As time begins to unravel once more, Nick Paulson, director of the Office of Security Science, finds a time passage to the Cretaceous period where humans, ripped from the comforts of the twenty-first century, are barely surviving in the past. Led by a cultlike religious leader, these survivors are at war with another sentient species descended from dinosaurs.

As the asteroid that ends the reign of dinosaurs rushes toward Earth, Nick and his allies must survive a war between species and save the future as we know it.

James F. David's Dinosaur Thunder is a terrifying, futuristic thriller in the tradition of Michael Crichton and Douglas Preston.

*Blurb from publishers website.

My thoughts

The first thing you should know about Dinosaur Thunder is it isn't a standalone story. It is the second sequel to the 1995 novel Footprints of Thunder, which was followed in 2005 by Thunder of Time. Anyone who hasn't read those two earlier novels may find themselves bewildered by Dinosaur Thunder as its plot relies heavily on knowledge of what has come before. A prologue brings readers up to speed but it is no substitute for having read the two earlier novels.

As for myself, I cracked open this book with trepidation. I enjoyed Footprints of Thunder but hated Thunder of Time, both for its poorly researched depictions of dinosaurs and its heavy-handed political stereotyping. In Dinosaur Thunder, David has put a little more effort into fleshing out his star animals and dialed way back on the political ranting. The novel is a better book than its predecessor as a result, but it still has several flaws that prevent me from recommending it.

Dinosaur Thunder is a novel with nearly a dozen main characters and nearly as many plot threads. To summarize as briefly as possible, the discovery of a living T. rex on the moon hints there may another disaster coming like the one that caused large swaths of modern-day Earth to be replaced by their Cretaceous period equivalents. Stranger still, dinosaurs from the past seem to be leaking into our world through doorways in time that may have something to with the comet/asteroid strike that killed them off. When the presidential science adviser goes off to investigate one of these doorways, he finds himself stranded in the ancient past. He is not alone. Also stranded are a group of people led by the Reverend, a Jim Jones-type cult leader who believes the Earth is only 10,000 years old despite the presence of dinosaurs all around him. Then there are the intelligent, spear-wielding dinosauroids who the human survivors are at war with.

Had the author focused solely on the plot elements I outlined then I would have enjoyed Dinosaur Thunder more. The problem is there are other, less interesting plot threads that break up the action, like that of a woman raising a pack of young Velociraptors. The novel has a lot of filler, and while it is less than 400 pages, the book feels too long for the story it is trying to tell. Not helping are the bland characters. The female characters in particular are treated poorly, with their most distinguishing characteristic being their looks. We're reminded repeatedly about just how gorgeous the heroic female leads are, while the most annoying character in the book is a fat woman (and the fact she is fat is turned into a running gag).

That said, Dinosaur Thunder isn't a bad book. Stylistically, it is better written than some other books I have read for this site. It also has some decent action in its latter half. The problem is it just isn't memorable. Much of the mystery of the first book is gone as we now have nice, tidy (and silly) explanations for time travel. The dinosaurs come out a little better this time around, but they are still only bit players in a story more about time travel than paleontology. And for reasons I already pointed out, the plot drags when it shouldn't. I can only recommend Dinosaur Thunder if you have read the first two books in the series and are a completist.

  • David is dean of the School of Behavioral and Health Science at George Fox University, a private Christian college in Newberg, Oregon.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Coming to Kickstarter: Savage Empire

Jurassic World is nearly here, but before it arrives you will be able to throw some money at a new graphic novel that will soon debut on Kickstarter.

Savage Empire by is described by its creator as Jurassic Park meets Black Hawk Down, although from the description it sounds more like Escape from L.A. meets Dinosaurs Attack! The comic also shouldn’t be confused with the excellent 1990 computer game of the same name, which is set in a lost world of dinosaurs.

Here’s the cover blurb:
A massive earthquake has shattered the West Coast, tearing a large swathe of California coastline free. At the quake's epicenter, pulsing energy portals appear - random gateways to another world. Through these portals, ancient creatures reclaim their territory, killing indiscriminately and acting as harbingers of an even more malevolent force in the Pacific.

This is the story of a group of wetworks operatives, sent into the zone to retrieve the technology that holds the key while acting as the reluctant handler for a man who specializes in finding those who don't want to be found.

A thrilling tale of extraordinary people and extraordinary odds, set against a backdrop of the ultimate apex predators - dinosaurs vs. humanity!
Apparently the creator of Savage Empire was the designer of the 2008 video game reboot of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, and he is already talking about a possible video game based on the comic. Only time will tell if that will happen.

Hopefully we will learn more about the comic—including art previews—once its Kickstarter campaign launches June 2.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Death in the Mesozoic: Paleontology in mystery novels

Paleontologists are homicide detectives — it's just that bodies they uncover have been dead for a very long time. The problem for writers is that investigations into 65 million-year-old crime scenes rarely make for compelling reading. If they want to grab readers' attention, their murders need to be of the more recent variety.

According to one report, mysteries rank behind only romance as the most popular literary genre. Countless mysteries have been written with settings ranging from the modern day to ancient Rome. The genre is so extensive it basically has its own version of Rule 34: If it exists, there is a mystery novel about it. So it should come as no surprise that a handful of mysteries feature paleontology as a plot point. Rarely do we get living prehistoric animals in mysteries — that's the realm of science fiction — but many authors aren't shy about sprinkling a little science in their crime novels.

The most recent example of a “paleo-mystery” is Dry Bones (2015) by Craig Johnson. The latest installment in Johnson's popular Longmire series, the plot heavily borrows from the real-life legal battle over the remains of Sue the T. rex. From the cover blurb:
When Jen, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found surfaces in Sheriff Walt Longmire’s jurisdiction, it appears to be a windfall for the High Plains Dinosaur Museum — until Danny Lone Elk, the Cheyenne rancher on whose property the remains were discovered, turns up dead, floating face down in a turtle pond. With millions of dollars at stake, a number of groups step forward to claim her, including Danny’s family, the tribe, and the federal government. As Wyoming’s Acting Deputy Attorney and a cadre of FBI officers descend on the town, Walt is determined to find out who would benefit from Danny’s death, enlisting old friends Lucian Connolly and Omar Rhoades, along with Dog and best friend Henry Standing Bear, to trawl the vast Lone Elk ranch looking for answers to a sixty-five million year old cold case that’s heating up fast.
It should be noted that in the case of Sue, no one was murdered, although a fossil dealer did end up in prison.

Another recent paleo-mystery is The Dinosaur Feather (2008) by Sissel-Jo Gazan, which won an award for best mystery novel in the author's home country of Denmark. The plot revolves around a paleontology student who becomes involved in a murder investigation after her academic supervisor is killed. Closer in time is Homer Hickam's The Dinosaur Hunter (2010), about a ranch hand wrapped up in a murder plot surrounding the discovery of dinosaur fossils in eastern Montana.

Most paleo-mysteries are one-off affairs. One exception is Mesozoic Murder (2003) by Christine Gentry, which was followed by a sequel, Carnosaur Crimes (2010). Both feature Ansel Phoenix, a paleoartist who solves crimes in Montana.

Readers looking plucky heroines may want to check out Bone Hunter (1999) by Sarah Andrews. The fifth in a series of novels featuring forensic geologist Em Hansen, the protagonist finds herself the main suspect in the murder of a famous paleontologist on the eve of a Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in Salt Lake City.

The famous crime novelist Patricia Cornwell dabbled in paleontology in The Bone Bed (2012), featuring her popular character Kay Scarpetta. From the description:
A woman has vanished while digging a dinosaur bone bed in the remote wilderness of Canada. Somehow, the only evidence has made its way to the inbox of Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta, over two thousand miles away in Boston. She has no idea why. But as events unfold with alarming speed, Scarpetta begins to suspect that the paleontologist’s disappearance is connected to a series of crimes much closer to home: a gruesome murder, inexplicable tortures, and trace evidence from the last living creatures of the dinosaur age.
Other paleo-mysteries include Dinosaur Cat (1999) by Garrison Allen, The Last Dinosaur (1994) by Sandy Dengler, Rattle His Bones (2011) by Carola Dunn, and the young-adult novel Old Bones (2014) by Gwen Molnar.

All the novels mentioned so far feature human protagonists, but at least one series includes living dinosaurs. Anonymous Rex (1999) by Eric Garcia is set in an alternate reality where dinosaurs didn't die out and are living among us in disguise. A parody of hard-boiled detective fiction, the book has two sequels: Casual Rex (2002) and Hot and Sweaty Rex (2005).

Know any paleo-mysteries I missed? Feel free to mention them in the comments.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Thun'da by Dynamite Comics (2012)

Cover blurb

The time is now. A Military helicopter crash lands in a remote valley in Africa. A lone survivor awakens with no memory of who he is or what he was doing there, but he's wearing a uniform and is a skilled combatant. From the wreckage he learns only his name — ROGER DRUM. As he explores his new surroundings he is confronted by a bizarre lost world of dinosaurs and other strange creatures. Drum must learn to survive in this terrifying new reality while coming to terms with fragments of a past he isn't sure he wants to remember.

As a bonus, this over-sized issue also includes the original first issue with fantastic art by the one-and-only Frank Frazetta at no extra cost!

*Blurb from the first issue.

My thoughts

The year 1994. From out of space comes a runaway planet hurdling between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic destruction. Man's civilization is cast in ruins. Two thousand years later, Earth is reborn. A strange new world rises from the old. A world of savagery, super science and sorcery. But one man bursts his bonds to fight for justice...

Hold on... that's Thundarr the Barbarian. The comic I'm reviewing in this post is Thun'da, an even more obscure character that was the creation of legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. This isn't a review of the original comics but rather Dynamite Comics' attempt to revive the character in 2012 with a five-issue miniseries. Thun'da basically is a Tarzan knockoff living in a lost land filled with dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. There is little about the character to make him stand out from the other Tarzan clones (such as Ka-Zar), and there is little about the comic to make it stand out from countless other lost world stories.

The first issue begins with Thun'da – a U.S. soldier named Roger Drum – awakening after a helicopter crash that has left him stranded somewhere in central Africa. Thanks to the selective amnesia that only occurs in fiction, he can't remember who he is but he has retained all his survival skills and military training. The sudden appearance of a T. rex assures Thun'da that he is not in Kansas anymore, so after blowing up the helicopter, he escapes into the woods to get his bearings. What follows is a series of adventures with a sabertooth cat, Neanderthals, intelligent apes, and a scantily clad native princess.

The most memorable thing about Thun'da is just how forgettable it is. I read the series twice but have trouble retaining any details about the plot. That is largely because the comic is simply one lost world genre cliché after another, with the barest thread of a narrative arc holding it all together. The same blandness extends to the art, which isn't terrible but also isn't distinguishable in any way from the art that graces thousands of other comics. Together the story and the art add up to a whole lot of “meh.”

Thun'da is a comic you can comfortably skip. It isn't the worst comic I have read, but it may be among the most boring.

  • The first three issues of Thun'da include Frazetta's original comics, which boast much better illustrations than the reboot. The one exception is in the third issue, where Frazetta's art includes racist caricatures of native Africans. The original comics were drawn in the 1950s and reflect the racial attitudes of the times.
  • The original Thun'da made his big screen debut in 1952 in the Columbia Picture's film King of the Congo. He was portrayed by actor Buster Crabbe.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Jurassic Park once again available as an audiobook

It's hard to believe the novel Jurassic Park is now 25 years old. Unfortunately, we're not getting an annotated or illustrated edition of the book to celebrate its anniversary. What we are getting is a new audiobook released to cash in on the premier of next month's Jurassic World.

The unabridged recording of Jurassic Park, read by Scott Brick, is now available through Brilliance Audio and other online audiobook retailers, like Audible. This is a big deal as there hasn't been an unabridged recording of the novel available since its initial release in 1990, making it hard to find. In fact, it has been much easier to find recordings of the book's inferior sequel, The Lost World. Now you can listen to Jurassic Park for only $16, which is pretty cheap compared to the cost of most audiobooks.

I highly recommend reading/listening to Jurassic Park if you haven't already. Don't worry if you've seen the movie a million times: The novel is very different from the film (and also much better).

What other dinosaur-themed works of fiction are available as audiobooks? Well, as already mentioned, the sequel The Lost World has been around for a while. Here are some other novels I found through Audible:
  • Raptor Red by Robert T. Bakker: The famous paleontologist's fun novel about a female Utahratpor surviving in the early Cretaceous.
  • Tyrannosaur Canyon by Douglas Preston: A modern-day thriller about a mysterious T. rex fossil and the secrets it contains about why the dinosaurs went extinct. It suffers from the problem of giving too much information away at the beginning of the story.
  • Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion: The novelization of one of the TV series' more infamous episodes.
  • The Dinosaur Hunter by Homer Hickam: A murder mystery involving paleontology in modern-day Montana.
  • Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear: An unofficial sequel to the original The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I rather enjoy this book, although other people have called it one of Bear's weaker efforts.
  • Dinosaur Park by Hayford Piece: I haven't read this one, but it concerns aliens, time travel, and dinosaurs.
  • Deathbeast by David Gerrold: The well-known science fiction writer turned his attention to dinosaurs in this time travel story that I didn't like, but maybe you will.
  • The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs: The first of three novels set on a lost continent of dinosaurs from the creator of Tarzan.
  • The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: There are at least four unabridged readings of this classic dinosaur novel on Audible. There also are two full-cast audio productions.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

New book roundup: Dinosaur invasions and alien dinosaurs

Sadly it appears the premier of Jurassic World in June isn’t going to result in the same deluge of dinosaur-themed media that surrounded the release of Jurassic Park in 1993. I only know of two new works of fiction about dinosaurs coming from mainstream publishers, and there isn't a single anthology in sight. Fortunately there are several self-published titles available for readers wanting some prehistoric action.

As always, a disclaimer: I haven’t read any of these books so I can’t vouch for their quality. I’m simply providing this list as a service to readers. Also, this list relies heavily on titles published through If you know of any other publishing formats that include titles I’m missing, please let me know in the comments.

Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion by Malcolm Hulke

This isn’t a self-published title but a novelization of one of the classic show’s most notorious episodes. (Turns out puppets do not make convincing dinosaurs.) However, the novelization is unusual in that it was penned by the writer of the episode. Here’s the cover blurb:
Three hundred and fifty million years ago, dinosaurs crawled the Earth, devouring everything in sight. But then they disappeared. Certainly, no one ever expected them to return ... When Doctor Who lands in London and finds the entire city deserted - except for dinosaurs - he figures something really weird is going on. It is. A clever group of misguided idealists is at the centre of a bizarre plot to reverse Time to a golden era - an era before technology, before pollution, before the hydrogen bomb. The group is going to give the human race a second chance. But, to implement Operation Golden Age, the past must be eliminated. The present will not exist - and only the chosen will survive. Doctor Who must turn the clock forward to stop Operation Golden Age, but will he be able to do it before Earth's Time runs out?

Planets that Time Forgot: Classic Tales of Otherworldly Dinosaurs, edited by Benjamin Chandler

In my essay about the different plot devices authors used to bring dinosaurs back to life, one of the more unusual ones mentioned was transporting dinosaurs to alien planets. Benjamin Chandler has collected and illustrated six classic stories using this device. Cover blurb:
The dinosaurs are long gone on this world, but what if they existed elsewhere? Would they evolve to build modern civilizations? Overrun planets in primordial violence? Come to be worshiped as gods? What if they were to re-evolve in Earth's distant future?
Here are six newly illustrated classic sci-fi stories that try to answer these questions, exploring worlds where dinosaurs still reign, from pulpy adventures on the far side of the moon to giant alien monster satire. Featuring the works of Henry Kuttner, Arthur K. Barnes, Milton Lesser, and others.

Dino Hunt by Max Davine

Here’s a title from a small publisher that is available as both a physical book and digital download:
Jimmy Reeves is a down on his luck wildlife wrangler, his career once saw him traveling the globe, working on relocation programs and starring in documentary films. Now, he and his business partner Paul Franciscus are lucky if they can get a gig wrangling bulls in Arizona. Until one day, when they receive a massive advance payment from a mysterious company based in Florida. In return, they are to do what once brought them glory the world over; trap and relocated endangered animals. Little do they know they're not going to the Everglades to trap alligators, they're going through time and space to rescue great, big dinosaurs!
But others have come to pillage the Cretaceous world for its natural resources, and to enslave and exploit the prehistoric inhabitants. They are ruthless, they are well equipped, and they will stop at nothing. It's up to unwitting Reeves to make a stand not just for the dinosaurs, but to save his own life, teaming up with an alluring paleontologist and a helicopter pilot nicknamed “Crash” to save the land of the forgotten from human annihilation.

Other titles

Crockatiel - An O.C.L.T. Novel by David Niall Wilson: The latest in a series of novels about an international agency that investigates paranormal mysteries, this time about a mysterious creature living in the swamps of South Carolina.

The Island in the Mist by G.G. Mosely: The fountain of youth is discovered on a lost island in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle.

The Valley by Rick Jones: The Hunger Games meets Jurassic Park as convicted criminals are forced to cross a valley filled with resurrected dinosaurs while being filmed for the amusement of the masses.

Return to Skull Island by Ron Miller and Darrell Funk: An unofficial sequel to the original King Kong. Miller is an illustrator and writer who has received the Hugo Award.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Apex Theropod Deck-Building Game by Die-Hard Games (2015)


Apex is a deck-building game, played solo or with up to 5 friends. You play as one of seven prehistoric apex predators competing for territory and resources against other predators. Each playable species has a unique deck to master.  Each deck has different strengths, weaknesses, and strategies—creating a varied and constantly evolving experience.

Your species must overcome a very brutal environment including harsh climate changes, disease, attacks from predators, grievous wounds, infections, and deadly prey. The game incorporates many dinosaurs that behave in their own distinct way. The goal of the game is to endure the environment, build up the population and evolve your species, and become the Apex predator.

* Summary from publisher’s website. Images from BoardGameGeek.

My thoughts

Apex is a game I waited a long time to get my hands on. Then I got it, and it took me nearly as long to learn how to play.

I’m exaggerating, but my unfamiliarity with deck-building card games combined with a poorly written rulebook certainly tested my patience during my first few games. The game designer has since published a second, much easier to understand rulebook and posted gameplay videos, all of which helped. I’ve now nailed down the core mechanics of the game, although I’m still a long way from mastering it.

Was all the time I sunk into Apex worth it? Definitely. Apex is the best dinosaur board/card game currently on the market. But it is not a game that will appeal to everyone, with mechanics that will likely confuse people whose experience with board games doesn’t go much beyond Monopoly.

Apex is a game for one to six players—or eight if you have the Kickstarter edition—in which you take on the role of a carnivorous dinosaur in the Mesozoic. You hunt prey, fend off other predators, and even “hatch eggs” that can become cards to add to your deck. Most of the game’s 600 cards represent an impressive range of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals that lived during the Mesozoic. (Except the giant snake Titanoboa, which was included for its coolness factor.)

At the start of the game, each player chooses a deck of cards that represents a specific predator. You then “hunt” prey cards using cards from your deck. Every kill earns you points that can be used to purchase new apex predator cards for your deck or "evolve" cards that give you special abilities. Trouble comes in the form of non-player predators that periodically pop up in the game to either kill prey or attack you. If that weren’t enough, you must contend with a super-predator “boss” that can not only deal out a lot of damage, but will take multiple hits to bring down. And did I mention this boss has minions to make your life even more miserable?

One thing Apex does beautifully is merge theme with game mechanics. A lot of the rules simply make sense in context of simulating a predator in the wild. For example, there are disease cards that require you to add a wound card to your deck every time you draw them. That’s logical: Just as a disease whittles away an animal’s health, disease cards make your deck progressively weaker. One rule I really like is ambush. You can set aside up to three cards to ambush prey in a later turn, but you must add an “alert” card to your deck to do this. If you draw the alert card later on, not only do you lose the element of surprise and return your ambush cards to the deck, but you activate any alert rules on prey in play, making them harder to hunt.

Another plus for Apex is it’s simply beautiful to look at. Apex was the creation of one man—Herschel Hoffmeyer —who not only came up with the game mechanics but also did all the art himself. That’s an impressive achievement, and I’m a bit flabbergasted at the amount of work that went into the game. The art is not just good game art—it’s good paleoart, with a degree of anatomical accuracy you usually don’t see in entertainment products. I’ve often found myself not playing the game but simply looking at it, enjoying the depictions of the dinosaurs spread out on the table before me.

Are there downsides? As I’ve already mentioned, the rulebook that came with my copy of the game was hard to follow. Another drawback is Apex isn’t a game you can just jump into on a whim. It has a significant setup time, with players needing to shuffle and sort the several card decks used in the game before they start playing. (This is probably less of a problem with more players given each person could shuffle a different deck.) Also, while I have only played Apex solo, I’m left with the impression there isn’t much player interaction during the course of the game. There are few cards you can play against other people but otherwise players are playing against the mechanics of the game itself, not other players. Whether or not this bothers you depends on what type of gamer you are.

Negatives aside, I love this game. I had never been much of a card game person before, usually preferring games with dice. Apex opened my eyes to a whole genre of games I had missed out on until now. Unfortunately Apex is not a game you can purchase and begin playing the same day, which will limit its appeal to casual gamers. The game has a bit of a learning curve. But if you are willing to invest the time to learn how to play it, you will be rewarded with the best dinosaur game since Dinosaurs of the Lost World.

  • The nine playable predators in the game are Acrocanthosaurus, Carnotaurus, Giganotosaurus, Spinosaurus, Tyrannosaurus rex, Utahratpor, Velociraptor, Quetzalcoatlus, and Sarocosuchus. The last two are only available in the exotic predators edition of the game.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Brontosaurus: A faded star rises again

So much for being the snob who corrected my friends whenever someone mentioned “Brontosaurus.”

As you’ve probably heard by now, a group of scientists has proposed restoring the name after concluding the original fossils differed enough from Apatosaurus to constitute a separate genus. I’ll leave it to better writers to explain how this resurrection came about. All I know is I’ve lost the pleasure of tut-tutting writers when they included Brontosaurus in their stories.

Make no mistake: Brontosaurus has appeared in a lot of dinosaur books and movies. It is possibly the most famous dinosaur, running neck to neck with T. rex in terms of a dinosaur name everyone knows. Pull someone off the street and ask that person to draw you a dinosaur, I’m willing to bet most drawings will resemble a Brontosaurus: thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the far end.

Brontosaurus may in fact be the first dinosaur ever to appear in a work of fiction. The 1901 pulp adventure novel Beyond the Great South Wall by Frank Savile is about an expedition to Antarctica that discovers a lost civilization that worships a god named “Cay.” The author includes this footnote after the narrator stumbles upon Cay’s lair:
Lord Heatberslie makes a mistake here. Professor Lessatition's subsequent researches proved "the god Cay" to be without doubt Brontosaurus excelsus, remains of which have been found in the Jurassic formation of Colorado. It was purely a land animal.
Beyond the Great South Wall was probably the first example of dinosaur fiction. Yes, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth was published four decades before Savile’s novel, but Verne’s tale didn’t include any living dinosaurs. Rather, the famous science fiction author populated his book with mastodons and marine reptiles. (Update: I forgot the 1888 novel A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder may actually be the first science fiction novel with dinosaurs, but a quick search through it didn't turn up any specific species, so my point stands for now.)

Brontosaurus also was absent in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World, possibly because many of the dinosaurs depicted in the novel were known from fossils discovered in Doyle’s home country of Great Britain, whereas Brontosaurus is an American beast. It is ironic then that Brontosaurus would play a major role in the first film adaptation of the book. The 1925 movie features not only a Brontosaurus fighting an Allosaurus, but the animal is transported to London to go on a rampage through the city—a scenario that was copied by countless other B-movies.

The animal appears again in the 1933 film King Kong during a frightening sequence in which a group of sailors are trying to cross a lake in pursuit of the giant ape. For sake of plot, Brontosaurus is turned into a flesh-eating monster that flips the sailors' rafts then picks them off one by one as they swim to shore. One sailor manages to climb a tree only to be eaten by the Brontosaurus, which can grab him because of its long neck.

After that, Brontosaurus faded into the background of most imaginative works about dinosaurs. It usually got a shout out but was never the star, lacking both the fierce weaponry of Triceratops and the predatory habits of T. rex. One exception was the 1953 novel Danger: Dinosaurs! by Richard Marsten, in which a herd of brontosaurs plays a small but important role in the plot. More often than not, any references to the dinosaur were more like this throwaway paragraph in David Gerrold’s 1978 novel Deathbeast:
At first, he thought it was a grounded blimp – then his eyes adjusted to the scale of the thing and he realized it was only a brontosaur. Not dangerous at all – well, not deliberately dangerous. There was the case of that hunter who was eaten inadvertently because the brontosaur’s eyesight is so poor it hadn’t see him in the tree – but that one really didn’t count.
The 1980s saw Brontosaurus rumble into the spotlight once again. The dinosaur played a starring role in the 1985 movie Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend, a film so bad it nearly condemned dinosaur films to extinction. Luckily, the animal’s reputation was salvaged in 1988 with the release of The Land Before Time, an animated film about the adventures of a baby Brontosaurus named Littlefoot.

Brontosaurus didn’t make it into 1993’s Jurassic Park. However, the animal did appear in the 2005 remake of King Kong. The film took place on an island where dinosaurs continued to evolve and thrive after the rest of their kind died off 65 million years ago. According to the tie-in book, the island’s brontosaurs had evolved from earlier sauropod ancestors.

Will Brontosaurus rise again now its status has been restored? Hard to say. Still, it is notable that the upcoming Jurassic World features Apatosaurus as one of the dinosaurs populating the park. Given the park’s staff have been known to get dinosaur names wrong before, who is to say the dinosaurs are not brontosaurs?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Game alert: Evolution takes flight on Kickstarter

When I posted my essay Monday about the history of prehistoric-themed board games, I didn't expect this week would be filled with news about them. Now it turns out the popular card game Evolution is getting both a second edition and an expansion that will allow players to create animals capable of flight.

North Star Games - the publisher of Evolution - is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the expansion, titled Evolution Flight. The company also is planning a second edition with major changes to many of the cards - a strange move given the first edition hit stores just last year. The good news for anyone that owns the game is that if you pledge $25 for a copy of the expansion, the company will send you the updated 100 cards at no additional cost, provided it hits at least $50,000 in pledges. The game was already at $23,700 with 44 days to go in the Kickstarter campaign at the time of this post, so it is very likely the pledge amount will go above and beyond the amount needed to get the updated cards.

I admit I was distressed when I learned about the Kickstarter: I had just purchased a copy of the game a few hours earlier! I'm happy I will probably get the new cards along with the expansion, but I can't help but think of those retailers whose copies of the game may go unsold once word gets out a second edition is already in the works. It doesn't sound like a smart business move to release an updated version of the game so close to the release of the original version, but then again, I'm not in the board game business.

Anyway, click here to see the campaign. $25 will get you the expansion. $55 will get you the second edition. $75 will get you both.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

New game: A deck full of dinosaurs

History buffs who play board games probably are familiar with the Timeline series of card games. Now amateur paleontologists will get to see what all the fuss is about with the most recent edition in the series, Cardline: Dinosaurs.

Cardline: Dinosaurs is already out in France and will debut in the U.S. sometime between July and September of this year, according to BoardGameGeek. Here's the description of the game from the publisher's website:
The diplodocus is clearly heavier than the tyrannosaurus, but what about the brachiosaurus? I imagine that the stegosaurus is lighter than those three, but does it weigh less than a wooly mammoth?

In Cardline Dinosaurs, these are the kind of questions you’ll be faced with each time you want to place one of your cards. There’s only one goal here -to be the first one to correctly play all of your cards.

This box contains 110 cards built around the theme of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. All of these cards are compatible with the cards from the Cardline Animal series. This way, by using various boxes with different themes, you increase the possibilities and the fun of playing.
That description isn't particularly helpful in describing gameplay but I've played other games in this series and can assure you they're pretty fun. Basically players try to get rid of all the cards in their possession by placing them in the right sequence in relation to other cards in play. In the history game, cards must be arranged from the earliest historical event to the most recent. In Cardline: Dinosaurs, cards must be arranged from the smallest animal to the largest or from the lightest creature to the heaviest. (Players decide at the start of the game which category they want to use.)

The video below gives you an idea of what the game looks like. Its biggest selling point is the tin that holds the cards. The card art is colorful, but unfortunately the dinosaurs lack the anatomical accuracy one would find had the company used a paleoartist instead. Still, I plan to pick up a copy of the game once it hits the states.

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.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Isaac Asimov's Robots in Time: Predator by William F. Wu (1993)

Cover blurb


Governors are the ultimate in robot evolution. Composed of six separate robots, each can single-handedly run an entire human city. Now they have begun to fail mysteriously. The last unit, MC Governor, realizes its own destruction is approaching. The Third Law of Robotics comes into effect: a robot must protect its own existence.

To save itself, MC Governor breaks itself down into six component robots and launches its parts into the remote past. But there's something MC Governor doesn't know – time travel causes a change in its molecular structure. If its pieces are not returned to their own time, they will explode in a nuclear inferno, destroying the fragile web of human history.

Only an experimental robot named Hunter and a hastily assembled team of human experts have a chance to find the MC Governor robots before they change the past – and the future. Their first target is in hiding somewhere in the age of the dinosaurs. A robot determined to survive. A robot willing to be branded – PREDATOR.

Toward the end of his career, the late science fiction genius Issac Asimov explored the concept of robotics and time travel in his only robot time travel story. That tale, included here, inspired this new series – an adventure across time authorized by Asimov himself.

My thoughts

Perhaps the greatest claim to fame for an author is having your name appear on books you didn't write. Issac Asimov had been dead for a year when the first of the six-book series Robots in Time came out in 1993. He had nothing to do with the series other than it was inspired by a short story he wrote about time-traveling robots. Still, his rock star status in the science fiction world has the power to sell books, which is why his name is displayed more prominently than that of the actual author, William F. Wu, who was hired by the publisher to write the series.

Unfortunately, Robots in Time doesn't get off to a good start in Predator. The story centers around the disappearance of MC Governor, a Voltron-like robot that splits into six different robots that flee into the past out of fear they will be decommissioned by the humans who control them. A new robot called Hunter is built to seek out the six robots and return them to their proper time period. (Actually, Hunter resembles a human, so the correct term would be “android” if you wanted to be semantic about it.) Hunter deduces the first robot fled into the Cretaceous Period, so he assembles a team of three humans – a roboticist, a paleontologist, and an outdoor survival expert - to help him track down the rogue 'bot. What the team doesn't know is MC Governor's creator has also traveled into the past to round up the six robots so he can salvage his reputation, no matter the cost.

Predator is a book with many flaws, but its greatest sin is it is simply boring. The stakes are not high and there is never any sense of danger despite the mingling of humans with dinosaurs. Here's the thing: Good adventure stories need mystery and suspense. Mystery comes from withholding crucial information until a time when its revelation has the greatest dramatic impact. Suspense comes from creating tension, both through character conflict and through putting characters in seemingly unwinnable situations. Predator blunders on mystery by spending the first 50 of its 220 pages explaining the villain motivations instead of letting readers watch as the main characters unravel the clues. It blunders on suspense with human characters who are more bland than the robots that accompany them, so readers couldn't care less about the petty fights they have. As for action, no character ever faces real danger. Hunter has super strength, so he easily fights off any dinosaurs that appear. Even the rogue robot doesn't post any threat thanks to Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which prevents robots from harming people.

The writing is bland and workmanlike, with most of the text just long stretches of bad dialogue. Wu puts no effort into describing either future Earth or Cretaceous North America. Several dinosaurs make appearances but they are mostly window dressing, disappearing after a couple pages never to be seen again. One exception is a Struthiomimus the protagonists catch and train to use as a mount in less than a day. That should give some idea of the quality of science in this science fiction novel.

There are five other novels in the Robots of Time series, but only Predator has dinosaurs.

  • Predator was released the same year as the first Jurassic Park movie. That explains the focus on dinosaurs. It also explains the many references to chaos theory throughout the novel, although the science behind it is never explored in any detail.
  • Wu says on his website the novel was written for younger readers, so he toned down the story's language and violence. Still, the book was marketed as adult science fiction. That's not as big a stretch as you would think: I once had a bookstore owner explain to me that she placed the science fiction section next to the young adult section because there was overlap in readership.
  • A summary of all six books in the series can be found on Wu's website.