Dino (and dodo) Domain

I love kart racing games. Mario Kart is an institution, a series that literally everyone knows and understands on a fundamental level, but there are tons of good ones. The inherent thrill of stomping the gas, bonking into each other, and arguably most importantly throwing wacky items to sabotage each other is a universal language, the rare kind of game that has ascended beyond the enthusiast crowd. Sure it sacrifices some of the skill ceiling, but in raising the floor it attains the widest appeal possible. Wonderful genre, I miss when we got several new ones per year.

Tabletop kart racing games, though? Ehhhhh.

Racing board games have a pacing problem. Most of them are slow, because taking turns and considering your moves is about as far from the white knuckle thrills of a race as it gets. Are there good racing games? Yes, absolutely, but the kart subgenre suffers considerably more. Managing movement often ends up dull as players slowly inch around, and using an item requires you to fill out a form in triplicate before finding out if it even works. It’s anathema to fun, the exact opposite of what kart racers fundamentally -are-. I’ve tried plenty of these: Bayou Bash (bad), Hod Rod Creeps (boring), Titan Race (needed development), Rush & Bash (I literally had to look the name of this one up because I forgot it), and I could go on but it’d just make me sad. They’re always slow, always clumsy, always overcomplicated.

Until now. We’ve got a good one, folks. Dodos Riding Dinos is not a graceful beast, but it’s a game that understands how to adapt the frenetic energy of digital kart racing to the tabletop and that makes it worth its weight in gold.

DRD takes a lot away in the conversion process. Courses are reduced to simple linear circuits, with steering and drifting completely omitted. All that matters is movement values and your position relative to the other racers, with occasional course hazards and racer powers that are easy to manage. Turns are as simple as the play of a card which is selected and revealed simultaneously, but resolved in turn order. This may sound odd but it’s an intentional choice; simultaneous selection cuts down on potential wasted time, forcing each player to make a decision with the info immediately in front of them, but the turn-based resolution can help inform how they steer mid-move. You know – like in a race!

The cards are wild. They guarantee some amount of movement alongside heaps of kart-racer-approved gimmicks and tricks. We get shades of Broom Service here: blue cards always resolve their text, but the more powerful red cards only trigger if no one else played a red. This immediately introduces excellent potential for mindgames, as well as comeback potential for racers who were initially left in the dust.

From here the game essentially borrows Magic the Gathering‘s stack, with players optionally throwing green reaction cards to mess things up. I assure you the stack never gets too complex; reactions are kept simple, just canceling an effect or offering slight edges to their players, but they add another layer of tension to the cardplay. You’ll never lose the movement portion of your card so nothing-turns are rare, but hammering the same racer over and over again can and will often end in mutually assured destruction as your hand is also your health and running out of cards spins you out, placing you back a few spaces.

So far if you wanted to be unnecessarily reductive you could call this a take-that card game with a board, and I suppose that’s correct to some degree, but that changes considerably once the wooden bits come out to play. If the deck of cards is DRD‘s heart, keeping everything alive and functional, the items are its soul. Many cards have players making use of the game’s actual physical items to attack opponents, and this is accomplished via various dexterity challenges. From the humble egg, flicked from the racer’s spot on the board like Mario Kart‘s green shell, to the mighty meteor dropped from at least a foot above the board onto the noggins of unsuspecting dinos (ala Snowboard Kids‘ pan item, which may only mean anything to me in the year of our lord 2022), each of them is capable of inspiring moments of held breath for the entire table. Firing at the racer in the lead is standard practice but some attacks offer the shooter benefits for multi-hits, meaning there’s potential for interesting choices if your dex skills are up to snuff.

Did I mention there are 4 tracks? I mean there had better be, it’s a kart racer. Each offers a short and long version depending on your preference. The island track is the obligatory vanilla option but the other 3 all offer some gimmicks to spice things up. Shortcuts, rough terrain, extra attacks or cards at the cost of a detour, and my personal favorite, the ridiculous board-wide jump on the long space track. And of course there are rules for a Grand Prix: every track is run back to back, with points given to first and second place and powerups divvied out to everyone else to give them an edge in upcoming courses. It’s likely not the mode you’ll play the most as this game is best played in short snappy sessions, but the fact that this is an option and an entire extra set of cards was made just to add a layer of comeback potential demonstrates the level of care put into making it the best it could be.

This all culminates in an experience that’s equal parts energetic, chaotic, and seamless. The game moves so fast, gleefully zipping from turn to turn without needing to stop for rules questions or stodgy mechanisms. With each play I’ve seen players grinning ear to ear during the card reveal, even more so when they successfully counter a huge play or get away with the only red card for the round. The moment somebody reaches for the items the entire table celebrates. Laughter erupts every time the log rolls out and its wonky shape forces it to swerve right before hitting its target, or when someone perfectly lobs the feather at the leader to rubberband themselves from dead last to first place, or especially when someone just CAN NOT make the jump on the space track. It’s all of the standout highlights of a kart race, but slowed down just enough so everyone can enjoy each other’s greatest moments as they happen, and that’s a glorious thing.

The goal of adaptation between mediums is never to replicate 1:1, it’s to get as close to to spirit of the source material as possible. Last year Bullet ❤ and Pocket Paragons pulled off competitive puzzle and fighting games in physical form better than any other attempts in their respective genres. This year we got the equivalent for kart racing and I couldn’t be happier with the result. Dodos Riding Dinos is a box crammed with joy, the kind of game I get excited to share with people, and one that I intend to keep for the long haul.

A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.