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I seem to be starting every review with a podcast reference at the moment, so why stop now just when I'm enjoying it? (That's a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy reference, by the way.) In the early-ish days of the Ludology podcast, Geoff and Ryan ran a competition in which précis entries were submitted to pair a theme with a mechanism, with the winner being the one that combined the best. I remember the first winner: a two-part game where, in part 1, players built up ancient civilisations only for them to wane and be covered with tiles representing the sands of time; then, in part 2, players are archaeologists uncovering those same civilisations, digging away to reveal hidden treasures. Great idea but I don't know if it ever actually became a game. It is, tho', the first thing I thought of when setting up Fossilis. Let me explain...

Fossilis, designed by David Diaz and published by Kids Table Board Gaming, is a game in which the 1-5 players assume the role of palaeontologists uncovering the bones of dinosaurs to assemble skeletons for museums. What a great theme! The bones of the dinosaurs are buried deep in a 5x5 grid which is covered during setup by chunky plastic tiles representing stone, clay and sand which the players must dig through to get their rewards. I was intrigued to see if those thematic bones have enough mechanical meat on them to make a satisfying game.

The components are wonderfully tactile, with an earthy plastic board, dozens of little plastic bones, a pair of tweezers for excavation, and chunky tiles that are arranged mostly randomly, as well as decks of cards for Dinosaurs, Supplies, and Tools. Each player takes a mat that describes much of what you need to know: turn structure, storage, plaster costs per bone type, and end-game scoring. A central score board holds nine Skill tokens which grant special abilities when Hammers are extracted, and the shared pool of plaster which sits atop three Event cards. Lastly, a row of four Dinosaurs which are beautifully illustrated by Apolline Etienne, is dealt out. The game continues until the fourth pool of plaster is exhausted and continues until all players have had an equal number of turns.

A player has four Energy points to spend each turn, with Actions costing variable amounts of Energy. Take plaster (which you'll need to 'pay' for excavated bones); move 1 or 2 spaces (orthogonally or diagonally, which is pleasantly flexible); slide a tile to uncover pits and gain Fragments (a second currency); and excavate (which is the main method of scoring). As well as a simple player aid, the rule book is very good and contains useful examples of the actions as well as detailed clarification about how sliding tiles works, tho' this is actually quite intuitive. After taking an action, a player can buy one Supply or Tool card from the Market using Fragments from removed tiles. Tools are always better than basic actions and can save a substantial amount of effort; Supplies will significantly speed up skeleton completion, especially the ones that give larger bones. After each pool of plaster is exhausted, an Event occurs to mix things up; these are mostly positive.

The bulk of Fossilis' victory points come from assembling skeletons but with the mitigating option to score an incomplete set and move on to another if you think that's worthwhile. Certainly the end-game bonuses for food type/habitat/period encourages this and we found having majorities more rewarding than the bonus for a complete skeleton, tho' that could be 'groupthink'. Skills gained from extracting Hammers are all useful; tho', interestingly, taking a second or third one actually costs you victory points, again letting you decide if improving your 'engine' is worth the cost. Pleasantly, the option to remove 'take that' powers is there and easy to implement on the fly. The amount of interaction in the game is up to the players: they can try to block each other by putting their palaeontologist pawn in the way, slide others off the board, or cover up pits by returning discarded tiles to the site; and, as with most games that have an open draft, a little spite drafting can come into play.

The game's 'timer' comes in the form of the main plaster 'currency': with only four plaster per player added at a time and bones requiring up to six plaster to excavate, it can feel like the game rushes headlong toward its conclusion; consequently, acquiring Tools and Supplies can be critical to being competitive. It does mean the game should not outstay its welcome, which is fair considering there isn’t that much depth to the decision making. Where there is depth, tho', there's also a bit of a problem: while the sand, clay and rock tiles are wonderfully chunky and satisfying to manipulate, the X-Y-Z dimensions of the dig site are somewhat problematic. The pits are deep and hard to examine without putting your head directly over them, especially if on the far side or behind adjacent tiles: that makes it hard to see what bones are available without putting your noggin in the way of other players or moving the whole arrangement closer to you; Fossilis is not a game for a large table!

Fossilis rewards good play, tactics and strategy and is, overall, a very engaging 'next step' title to wean a player who has previously just played 'gateway' games. There are probably a few too many steps for complete newcomers to process and the game might be thought a little simplistic for very experienced gamers, tho' there is still the substantial satisfaction to be had from just playing an interesting game well. As an indicator, an enthusiastic but non-hobby gaming family described the game as having 'just one mechanism too many'. Depending on the version you get, there is a rich seam of extra modules you can plug in to the base game to mix things up a bit, from a scuttling scorpion which reduces players' action points, to solo opponents, 'crime scene' tape, and even an Ice Age!

A question often posed to game designers is 'Which came first: the mechanics or the theme?' Fossilis eminently feels like the theme came first: it is so strong and the physical act of excavating bones reinforces it. But the mechanisms certainly don’t feel secondary or bolted on: the set collection, movement, double currencies, scoring options, and even a little engine building, all combine to create a solid and enjoyable play experience backed up by great table presence and, of course, that terrifically engaging theme.

(Review by David Fox)

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