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Subject: An actual discussion of the "runaway leader" problem and why it's so hard to diagnose rss

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Chris Grenard
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First off, we have to admit we've been incredibly fortunate, and we've gotten a lot of people who really love DinoGenics. And we're proud of that, but it doesn't mean we aren't really paying attention and working to make the game better. We've heard two major complaints about the game, and they're both fair. The first is that our manual could be a lot better. We agree, and we're working on a solution. The second one is that a lot of people believe the game has a runaway leader problem. This one has largely baffled us, because we almost never see it. And tonight, I think we figured out why.

It happens in games where the players distinctly do not want to harm each other.

You see, the primary mechanism that keeps Carnivore-heavy, high reputation players in check is that all players can use meat. Herbivore players just use it to produce some spare Mutants. This creates a scarcity that prevents any one player from getting too far ahead, because if they do, they won't be able to keep up the meat production. This happens the instant you need 4 meat, since you can't get that much even if you're in first. That is, if the other players are taking meat spots as well.

But what if they're not? What if they see that you need that meat and go, "Well, I don't need it, so I'm going to let them take it. I'd hate to see their dinosaurs attacking their stuff."

This instantly creates a problem in the game design, because those very players have removed the mechanism that's present to prevent a runaway leader.

This is an interesting problem, and it's one that we didn't encounter probably due to most of the playtesters being competitive. It's rare for us to see a table without at least one person working to sabotage others, and it's an interesting problem to think about.

What do you think? Have you encountered this?
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David Molina
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I could buy this I think. Maybe having more choices at the dna market by refreshing it could help? I don’t know if it’s a “oh he needs it I don’t want to see his dinos go without it” but more of a “I don’t have a trex so I don’t need them why would I get goats and waste a worker for something I don’t need” maybe if players could obtain the trex’s a little easier that would help drive the mechanism you are describing that prevents the runaway leader? Maybe if more rampages in general happened? I still think a random “RAMPAGE!” In like the various decks could help. They are wild animals. They’ve been extinct for how long? Who knows what might set one off? Chaos theory at work. In JP her talking about the plants that are making the dinosos sick simply because they don’t know what they don’t know. They picked them because they are pretty. I think people WANT to see more rampages, but if you run a ‘safe’ park it’s pretty easy to avoid them.
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I don't want to see more random punishment. That's lazy design. Or a design for a 20 minute dice game with no planning. Not a game like this with planning and effort. Is essence.. #(*$ chaos. With enough preparation you can stop anything. This is not supposed to be a story about the hubris of man. Unless you CHOOSE to play your park that way. Maybe you need to catch up. Maybe you gambled and lost and need to get an edge... then that's ok. But you should never be forced into a rampage without warning.

I find it entertaining that niceness ends up letting people stay ahead. I actually like that in the design. Players need to keep others in check. If the first player needs goats that better be their first action and miss out on the best pick of buildings. I like it in games where it's not solitaire. When you need to make what seems like a sub-optimal play to keep someone else from achieving their ultimate goals. It keeps it from being 4 player solitaire.
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David Griffin
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There are only 6 turns of play and a pre-season. Obviously, someone is probably ahead in the pre-season but it's not till season 2 or so before someone pulls obviously ahead. By then there are only 4 seasons to try to catch them.

That can happen if the second player gets suddenly luckier or gets one of the really powerful manipulation cards (like the steal DNA card). But the leading player can do that too and if he does, he locks up the game.

If he doesn't, then you can try to just play as efficiently as possible, hoping the leader makes a mistake or himself has bad luck, and you're probably going to lose. Or you can start to take chances. But then you're chances only have to go wrong a couple of times and since you're taking more risks, you probably are also going to lose, only in a really spectacular fashion.

I think the problem is the major mechanic of the game is to build dinosaurs which give you both reputation AND VPs at the same time. Yes you can build dinos that give you a lot of one of those but most of them give you both. So once you are in the lead, you get more visitors and money and VPs and you tend to do better on the next round.

I've had some interesting games but I don't have other players to play against very often. In one game, I got ahead early and my opponent actually managed to become first player by taking some chances and having them pan out. I was still ahead but it was pretty close. Then I got the manipulation card that lets me steal all the bonus visitors for the next round, and he was never close again (not enough time for him to slowly catch me after that). My other game was against someone who was really lucky. He had lots of uncaged dinos and he was rolling every round and hardly ever having any negative consequences. I took chances trying to catch up and instead of losing by a few points, lost by a HUGE number of points. He put the game away (causing me to try to take those chances) by pulling ahead and then getting the Steal DNA card and stole my T-Rex. After that, there was no chance of catching him.

There's not enough data there for any real conclusions. But it seems to me that dividing the reputation and the VPs isn't enough, that it's still a rich get richer mechanic and the small number of rounds means that there is no real opportunity (short of spectacular luck) for the trailing player to catch the leader because even if he becomes first player, he just can't make enough points to edge out the leader, who even if he is behind, is still making a lot of VPs.

I expect regarding meat that the more players you have the more that might be a factor, but then the luck of the die roll tends to make that highly variable (because your opponent making rampage rolls might just get him more coins). With 2 players, you can generally get meat either from the goat placement positions, outsourcing, or even the meat manipulation cards. Plus the first player can take those positions first if he has to by going to the goat farm and then outsourcing. Also since he has more money too, he can buy the goat farm tile if it comes up (and other tiles that give him income or VPs). But with a bunch of players playing (something I've never seen) maybe the dynamics change. They certainly would with the DNA market. The market is almost useless after the first few rounds (for buying) with 2 players and totally useless (for buying) in solo obviously, but with 4 players, I expect it is different and maybe that is true with meat as well. Also remember, you didn't exactly give the players a LOT of actions, so taking a precious action to try to screw with your opponent is a hard choice.

It just seems like for the game to remain close, to allow a trailing player to catch the leader, you almost need to make the first player the one with the fewest reputation, not the most.

It might also be different if there was no rampage die. You just automatically get a skull. Then lack of meat would be more of a restraining factor, though even then more money could mitigate that (fences to destroy, facilities you could buy and then not care about being destroyed, etc.)
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The Bat
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I think the problem is with the reputation track. The leader tends to also have the most reputation allowing them to go first and get the most visitors each round. If you reversed that I think the game would balance out better.
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Désirée Greverud
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KingJackalope wrote:
I don’t know if it’s a “oh he needs it I don’t want to see his dinos go without it” but more of a “I don’t have a trex so I don’t need them why would I get goats and waste a worker for something I don’t need”

Bingo!
If your solution to the runaway leader problem is to ask the other players to play suboptimally by wasting moves that do nothing for them but harm the leader then that's not a great catch up mechanism nor particularly fun. And, as with the discussion about taking risks, building mutants or getting an early pterodactyl and letting it rampage a little until you can get a biodome, this is a strategy discussion, not a game design one. This is telling players they need to play better & play meaner. Given that there are "mean" cards in the deck which are specifically marked and the rule book even discusses removing them for a less mean game, this is a very unsatisfying solution to the design problem of giving the leader more at the start of each round.
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Jon Joy
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In the one game I played, I was the come from behind winner. With my starting hand and first dig for dna I still didn't have even one pair. So I decided to go with mutants. I was last in turn order the whole game. I managed to get the tour bus in the 2nd or 3rd season. I got a few other dinos along the way and a T-Rex in the final season but my park was almost completely full of mutants.

I think reputation can be a distraction to some players. Yes rep gets you more visitors but there are other ways to generate cash and VP.
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Chris Grenard
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DragonsDream wrote:
KingJackalope wrote:
I don’t know if it’s a “oh he needs it I don’t want to see his dinos go without it” but more of a “I don’t have a trex so I don’t need them why would I get goats and waste a worker for something I don’t need”

Bingo!
If your solution to the runaway leader problem is to ask the other players to play suboptimally by wasting moves that do nothing for them but harm the leader then that's not a great catch up mechanism nor particularly fun.


It's interesting on your phrasing, because I don't view that as a suboptimal play. Mutants are good, and if you get one in an early season and visit the Farm 2 times in the entire game, that will become 4 mutants. The 8vp you get per turn for this really low cost makes them effectively better than any dinosaur in the game, and it literally takes about 3 moves to accomplish, and it also creates that resource-tension that we see play out.

Maybe we need to really encourage Mutants more? Perhaps they are too easily ignored by new players?
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Chris Stockdale
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DragonsDream wrote:
KingJackalope wrote:
I don’t know if it’s a “oh he needs it I don’t want to see his dinos go without it” but more of a “I don’t have a trex so I don’t need them why would I get goats and waste a worker for something I don’t need”

Bingo!
If your solution to the runaway leader problem is to ask the other players to play suboptimally by wasting moves that do nothing for them but harm the leader then that's not a great catch up mechanism nor particularly fun. And, as with the discussion about taking risks, building mutants or getting an early pterodactyl and letting it rampage a little until you can get a biodome, this is a strategy discussion, not a game design one. This is telling players they need to play better & play meaner. Given that there are "mean" cards in the deck which are specifically marked and the rule book even discusses removing them for a less mean game, this is a very unsatisfying solution to the design problem of giving the leader more at the start of each round.


I agree with this.

I really enjoy this game, but I do agree with the two criticisms. If the game has to be played a very specific way to stop the run away leader... It takes away choices. Sure you could grab food to make mutants but what if you didn't want a bunch of mutants? What if you just wanted an herbivore park? Well that I have found is a difficult way to play.
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J.M. Diller
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goldfenix wrote:
DragonsDream wrote:
KingJackalope wrote:
I don’t know if it’s a “oh he needs it I don’t want to see his dinos go without it” but more of a “I don’t have a trex so I don’t need them why would I get goats and waste a worker for something I don’t need”

Bingo!
If your solution to the runaway leader problem is to ask the other players to play suboptimally by wasting moves that do nothing for them but harm the leader then that's not a great catch up mechanism nor particularly fun.


It's interesting on your phrasing, because I don't view that as a suboptimal play.


I don't view it as suboptimal either. The goal of the game is to win, that means you have to account for what others are doing.

But I also agree that playing that way might not be fun. We tend to want to make moves that drive our own engine and not be forced into making moves that hamper someone else. Plus there is this feeling of "why do I have to take one for the team?"
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George
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Only 3 plays, but I have found Mutants very strong... players who go mutant either winning or coming in 2nd. In my mind I kinda consider them the catch-up mechanic. Haven't had enough plays to prove that out, but it seems like one of the more reliable ways to boost your dino value quickly. If it takes meat from carnivore players, then all the better (though I'm not sure that is the main cause of the perceived "runaway leader" problem.)
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John Mavis
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Only 3 plays, but I have found Mutants very strong... players who go mutant either winning or coming in 2nd. In my mind I kinda consider them the catch-up mechanic. Haven't had enough plays to prove that out, but it seems like one of the more reliable ways to boost your dino value quickly. If it takes meat from carnivore players, then all the better (though I'm not sure that is the main cause of the perceived "runaway leader" problem.)

I agree with this 100%. I also think it is more of a perceptual problem than something that is real. This comes down to how the dinosaurs are scored. In most games, a 10 point difference between players is pretty large but in DinoGenics, you can easily make that up in a round. But if you see a player 20 points ahead of you you may "feel" like it is hopeless to catch up and thus play sub-optimally, creating a self fulfilling prophecy.

With the exception of one game where a player DID luck into almost a perfect draw, all of our games have been very close among similarly skilled players and usually come down to final scoring to decide the winner.
 
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Sandy Wilson
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Anecdotal evidence, but I don't feel that there is a Runaway Leader problem at all in two player games.

My wife and I have played 4 games now, and the lead has changed hands at several points during each game. The last time we played I only won by a single point, and had she picked up the third T Rex card in any of her final 4 visits to Site A or B she'd have been ahead at the end having been behind for much of the game.

Is the idea of a Runaway Leader more prevelant when there are more players, and thus more spaces routinely being blocked?
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Chris Grenard
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Sandals wrote:
Anecdotal evidence, but I don't feel that there is a Runaway Leader problem at all in two player games.

My wife and I have played 4 games now, and the lead has changed hands at several points during each game. The last time we played I only won by a single point, and had she picked up the third T Rex card in any of her final 4 visits to Site A or B she'd have been ahead at the end having been behind for much of the game.

Is the idea of a Runaway Leader more prevelant when there are more players, and thus more spaces routinely being blocked?


Shockingly, based on an few reviews, we think most people think it happens at lower player counts. These could be disingenuous reviews though, as I've noticed a trend of certain individuals giving us a 3 and Dinosaur Island a 10.
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Paul Paella
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DragonsDream wrote:
KingJackalope wrote:
I don’t know if it’s a “oh he needs it I don’t want to see his dinos go without it” but more of a “I don’t have a trex so I don’t need them why would I get goats and waste a worker for something I don’t need”


Bingo!
If your solution to the runaway leader problem is to ask the other players to play suboptimally by wasting moves that do nothing for them but harm the leader then that's not a great catch up mechanism nor particularly fun.


I also agree with this. The explained solution then becomes a game of diplomacy, where all players must agree to perform a weaker counter action to stop the runaway leader. The game is now a discussion of external agreements instead of making better choices.

Invariably, in the above situation the player last in turn order (and likely in last place) will/should choose a normal action instead of being the player to occupy last Farm location. He needs to catch up and just occupying the last Farm location my only stifles the player in first a little, and not all of the remaining players between him and the first player. The player in last is still probably in last. And now, the player in 1st is still probably in first.

I do not enjoy this type gameplay, at all. To me, it's as close to the Kingmaking as you can get.

What can be done about it? Not sure.
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Ess Why
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So the answer is everybody else has been playing the game wrong?shake
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esswhy wrote:
So the answer is everybody else has been playing the game wrong?shake

Yeah the "you're playing it wrong" argument isn't one I find particularly intriguing.
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George
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I’ve played just 3 times—two 5 player and one 4 player—and we haven’t experienced a runaway leader. Reputation has also changed up quite often, with the tie breakers of facilities and coins coming into play every round.

I guess the question is though, for those who do see it... has it been due to a high carnivore strategy in the lead player with other players staying herbivore not contesting meat?

Or are people seeing other runaway strategies?

Carnivores generally give the most VP and Rep, so it wouldn't be too surprising if players who ignore them don't do as well. Herbivore players will have to outbuild Carnivore players (with the actions they save from not gathering meat) unless they decide to add mutants and contest the farm spaces.
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The way i see it from the design, mechanics view this is how I would tackle the challenge (not a problem, a challenge!)

1. One thing I would do is give a drafting start to the game (to in general prevent some lucky starting hands)

2. Thing I would do, is I would offer san INCENTIVE, something interesting to the players who have dinos who dont eat meat even if they go to the goat spot, perhaps there is another resource that you could get there (something that an expansion could tackle)

3. Regarding the points/reputation that people are gaining by having a "great engine" with more and more dinos. I would actually add the BURDEN to having to take care of more dinos in a sense of a mechanic, that would mean that for more dinos that you have it becomes a bit harder to manage and hinders you a bit, thus, basically presenting and even more challenging way to manage your park and putting a bit of a slow down mechanic for those who are doing really well.

Thats how I would tackle it and I would really just bring light additions here, nothing major, cause the main game as it is works really well, so we are talking about balancing and maybe giving some additional interesting options, incentives here, which help steer and guide the players and prevent those situations with a runaway leader to happen
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Justin Matthew
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It seems like the issue is the multiplayer solitaire/long-term strategy mindset. In Agricola for instance, everyone is doing their own thing - the interaction tension happens when everybody wants to go to a increasingly valuable placement spot. It seems like Dinogenics is designed as much around trying to stop your opponents as building your own engine.

Perhaps goats should be a more universal resource. Maybe you could sell them back to The Farm, or they could breed during the off-season or when vising The Farm.

EDIT: It seems like a lot of people have complained about the "take-that" Corporate Espionage cards as well. Perhaps these should be only in a separate deck that, starting in Season 3, the player in last place draws from before worker placement starts.
 
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chrisoc13 wrote:
esswhy wrote:
So the answer is everybody else has been playing the game wrong?shake

Yeah the "you're playing it wrong" argument isn't one I find particularly intriguing.


Well while I am not sure on this particular game, in general the "you are playing it wrong" argument can be quite valid in a lot of cases. In which case "wrong" means not using the available tools to solve a problem, instead doing something else because of some other preference, and then complaining when the outcome isnt suitable, but refusing to change tactics.

Examples would be people playing Scythe with no more than the minimum battle for stars (so almost solitaire), Rising Sun without making alliance that weaken the leader, not attacking others with the bandit in Catan or not beating up on the vagabond early game in Root.

The problem is not with playing the game in a specific way that is legal, yet not conducive to victory. The problem is expecting that behaviour to result in a victory, or otherwise balanced game. Any game design that isnt narrowly railroaded will, by definition, have choices that are better or worse. Having options means having the option of playing bad. And just because somebody decides for themselves to apply some sort of meta restriction or perspective to the game (" I refuse to use this mechanic because I dont like it!") and still expecting the game to accomdate for that in terms of balance and give them an equal chance at winning is, IMO, a great example of "playing it wrong".

DinoGenics allows for conflict. Its part of the design, and an important part of it too. If you choose to not engage in it, arbitrarily leaving out a core mechanic of the game, you are playing it wrong.
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Except the game specifically accommodates people who like lower conflict by allowing you to remove conflict from the game before playing. I love the game, but offering lower conflict ways of playing and then saying people are playing it wrong by not having more conflict... Doesn't work well for me.

The conflict that they are saying fixes it is getting goats when you don't need them. I don't know... That's just... A weak explanation. Make an incentive for me to go there besides being the one to take one for the team to stop a leader. Sure if I have built a mutant engine I have a reason to go there, but if I haven't and I've gone for high value herbivores... Then I'm just the one doing someone from sitting the moon. That's not particularly fun.

Another point is if going for goats is essential to stop other people then you have to build your park every single time to use goats to have any chance to win so those blocking turns actually mean something. Sure that works, but it makes the game less interesting as there are less routes to victory.
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tibbles von tibbleton
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Huh...I don't have a particular solution to suggest here, having not played this myself, but I was just recommending a friend look into this game yesterday as the mechanics look good and she'd love the dino theme. (However, she'd also be the type to try full herbivores first and never compete on goats without a specific dino to feed, so maybe this isn't the best suggestion after all?)

Anyways, the interesting thing to me is, if you compare this game to say Agricola (or any other euro in that vein), they're always kind of "odd" in the fact optimal play isn't for doing the thematic goal until the very end. You don't build your farm in Agricola, you play a ton of occupations and improvements and then in round 12 you finally start spitting out all the actual farm bits onto your empty board for final scoring.

Contrasted to, I loved the fact that here in DinoGenics that there is a large reason to get dinos early for that persistent rep and VP. The playthrough I watched they actually built dino parks, not collections of ticket booths with an empty park. It's sad to realize that this thematic improvement of strongly rewarding dinos earlier results in more potential for leader snowballing.
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BlueOne8 wrote:
2. Thing I would do, is I would offer some INCENTIVE, something interesting to the players who have dinos who dont eat meat even if they go to the goat spot, perhaps there is another resource that you could get there (something that an expansion could tackle)


I like this suggestion, so the Farm space would give you a choice of 2 different resources when you go there. One is goats, which is good for carnivores and mutants. The other could be something useful for herbivores. Could even be a type of food for herbivores which would make them multiply in the same way mutants do, but you need food equal to the dinosaur's DNA requirement.

So maybe going to the farm gets you either 3 goats, or 2 'corn'.

--> Carnivores need the meat to avoid rampaging (no multiplying possible)
--> Mutants can eat 2 meat or 2 corn to multiply
--> Herbivores have the option to eat corn equal to their DNA number to multiply (so to multiply an Ankylosaurus would need 2 Farm visits to get the 3 corn needed)

So the Farm would be useful for herbivore strategies but not essential.

This would also make some of the building/dinosaur bonuses better eg) petting zoo, Triceratops/Stegosaurus effect, newsroom
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Owen134866 wrote:
BlueOne8 wrote:
2. Thing I would do, is I would offer some INCENTIVE, something interesting to the players who have dinos who dont eat meat even if they go to the goat spot, perhaps there is another resource that you could get there (something that an expansion could tackle)


I like this suggestion, so the Farm space would give you a choice of 2 different resources when you go there. One is goats, which is good for carnivores and mutants. The other could be something useful for herbivores. Could even be a type of food for herbivores which would make them multiply in the same way mutants do, but you need food equal to the dinosaur's DNA requirement.

So maybe going to the farm gets you either 3 goats, or 2 'corn'.

--> Carnivores need the meat to avoid rampaging (no multiplying possible)
--> Mutants can eat 2 meat or 2 corn to multiply
--> Herbivores have the option to eat corn equal to their DNA number to multiply (so to multiply an Ankylosaurus would need 2 Farm visits to get the 3 corn needed)

So the Farm would be useful for herbivore strategies but not essential.

This would also make some of the building/dinosaur bonuses better eg) petting zoo, Triceratops/Stegosaurus effect, newsroom


I was thinking of something like this as well.
Also, why can't we breed all the dinos? That would create an interesting challenge.

But the main thing that I think it's missing for the mutants is a building that gives points for them.

All of this could be tackled in a expansion.

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