Dominant Species

Chad Jensen
2 - 6
12 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

Many thanks to Udo Grebe of Udo Grebe Gamedesign for supplying us with a review copy. UGG also carries a translated German edition of Dominant Species.

Recently, we’ve reviewed many light games – games with short rules and short playing times. Light does not mean bad in any way – well, probably for some people it does, but not for us.  Sometimes, light games are what you’re looking for – to play multiple games in a day, to play with more different people, to be social – or to avoid being forcibly removed from your favourite pub before the game is over.

Other times, you want something where your clever machinations in the early game pay off three hours later and take everyone by surprise. A game where you think hard before making your turn. A game that you play at home to avoid aforementioned removal from the pub. Something to really sink your teeth into, and in the teeth-sinking department Dominant Species is more than happy to oblige. Quite literally so: in Dominant Species, you take control over one type of animal – Mammals, Reptiles, Birds, Amphibians, Arachnids and Insects – and set out to dominate Hexagon Earth before the next ice age hits.

Rules of survival in case of ice age

Lots of Wood
Lots of Wood

After choosing your type of animal for this game by whatever method your group prefers you’re drowned in your game material:  up to 55 species cubes, three to seven action cylinders and ten conical dominance markers, all made of wood. Per player. Dominant Species is a heavy game in more than one sense of the word. Earth is then set up with seven initial hexes, one of each kind of landscape.  The sea in the centre is already covered by a smaller tundra hex. It’s clear from the very start that the ice age is coming and glaciers will soon cover the world. Also in the initial setup are 12 element markers; these little paper disks go to the corners of the landscape tiles (and thus belong to up to three hexes) and represent the things your animals need to survive: different kinds of food, water, sunlight. And don’t mind that reptiles live on sunlight only, some abstraction is expected in a game. To finish the preparation, one to two of your species cubes go to every landscape where your animals can survive, meaning where at least one element matches an element on your animal card.

With all the preparations done, it’s finally time to start playing.  The basic structure of a Dominant Species turn is deceptively simple. First, players take turns placing their Action Pawns (the cylinders) onto the action display to pick which actions they want to perform; there is no order where on the display to put your pawns, you can pick a action that is resolved later first and then on your next turn pick an action that resolves earlier. When all pawns are on the display, they all get to execute their actions in order: strictly from top to bottom and from left to right, so all actions of one type are resolved before going to the next type of action. Sounds simple and not so heavy at all, right? What I didn’t tell you yet is that there are 13 different actions to chose from, some of them with a further distinction where you may execute them and some of them with consequences for the next rounds. The good news is that each action is very short and simple in theory. I’ll go through the actions really quickly, if you’re not interested in that much detail feel free to skip ahead to “After the glaciers have come”

Planning and Scheming
Planning and Scheming

The first action, Initiative, manipulates turn order. There is only one spot to pick this action and taking it swaps your place in the turn order with the player going before you. You also – don’t forget this, it’s very powerful – get to place the pawn you had on Initiative to any free action space.

The next two actions, Adaptation and Regression, manipulate the elements on your animal card. Adaptation lets you add one from the available random ones. Everything left here at the end of the round moves down to “Regression” where it will remove one element disk of that kind from every animal that is not protected by placing a pawn here then.  Continuing with the element disks, Abundance, Wasteland and Depletion, deal with elements on earth. Abundance lets you add one, anywhere. Anything remaining in Abundance moves on to Wasteland at the end of the turn; elements in Wasteland get removed from all Tundra tiles and only one player can remove one element disk from here to save his food – when you’re not careful, Wasteland can lead to starvation very very quickly. Everything left in Wasteland then moves on to Depletion and gives one player the chance to remove one disk of that element anywhere on Earth on their next turn.

Next up is Glaciation, the first action that awards victory points. It pretty much does what it says on the tin: place a tundra tile on Earth, adjacent to one already present. Very few species adapt quickly enough to survive a sudden glacier, so all cubes except one of every colour are removed from this tile – as a small consolation if most of your species just turned to popsicles, at least you get these specied cubes back; with any other way to lose them, they are removed from the game. Points are awarded based on the number of tundra tiles surrounding the one you just created (see below for details).

Speciation lets you add species cubes to earth around one element disk of the type you chose when placing your action pawn. With Wanderlust you get to add new land tiles to earth and score points based on the number of adjacent tiles and Migration lets you move some of your species cubes around. Finally, with Competition, we get to the tooth-and-claw kind of game that we all expected: on each of the three landscapes you chose when placing your action pawn, you get to devour one enemy cube. One may not sound like much, but very often makes a difference in the following last phase.

After the glaciers have come

This glacier took me by surprise...
This glacier took me by surprise...

If you just skipped the actions to arrive here, I now have to admit that I cheated on you a little: the last action is still to come, because it’s the key to the game. Let me just summarise the above by saying that you can manipulate the elements on your animal card and on earth, add species, move species, eat other species, discover new land and cover it in ice to get here. The last action, the one that is the engine to create points for most strategies, is Domination. In Domination, your animals put on leather clothing and use whips and ch… oh wait… sorry, reading from the wrong manual. In Domination, you chose one land tile that you then score: the player with the most cubes on that tile gets points, depending on the landscape: sea is the most valuable with nine points while tundra scores one measly point. The second, third and even fourth player may also receive a lower amount of points, so sometimes you won’t want to chose the highest point tile for you because you would award second place points to a player that already has the lead on you.

The juicy part of where to score is this: the animal that is dominating the tile gets to chose one of the five available Dominance Cards. However, dominating a tile does not mean having the most cubes – you already got points as a reward for that. Dominating means making the best use of the resources; to figure out who that is, you multiply the number of element disks of each type on your animal card by the number of disks of the same type on the tile. The animal with the highest value is dominating – obviously, only animals that are present are even considered. It doesn’t matter how well adapted you are, if you’re not there you’re not dominating anything. The calculation gave a lot of people trouble when learning the game, so let me quickly give an example: imagine a tile with two water disks, two suns, one seed and one grass. Now imagine you’re playing the amphibians, starting with three water elements and adapted to also have one sun and one meat element. Your dominance score is six points for water (your three elements times the tile’s two) plus two points for sun (one times two) plus zero points for meat (one times zero) for a total of eight.

Hitchcock would be so proud...
Hitchcock would be so proud...

The dominance cards have some very powerful effects – they can give you additional action pawns, modify your elements, remove opposition and many other effects that only the player executing them will consider fun. Experienced players will often not let you have a tile where both the score and the Dominance Card would fall to you,  putting you into quite an interesting dilemma which tile to score – sometimes it’s obvious if the points or a card will help you more, often it isn’t. And sometimes you even have to swallow the bitterest of pills and forfeit your Domination action – all actions are voluntary – to not give your opponents an advantage.

The last card of the Dominance Card stack is always Ice Age. Ice Age ends the game on the round that it’s picked and also awards a potentially insane amount of points to players that spread out across many tiles. Why so many points? Because they are based on the same scale as the scores for Glaciation and Wanderlust actions, and that scale strongly favors higher numbers. When the last round is over, a final scoring is performed for every tile, just like someone was dominating it, but without any cards being awarded now.

Reading through the condensed form of Dominant Species can make it seem daunting, but it’s really more straightforward then it appears. There is 13 different kinds of action, but each in itself is as simple as it can be and the well-written and well-structured manual does a good job introducing you to everything. Indeed, my one problem with the manual is some minor nit-picking about the choice of words: what I have called “type of animal” here the manual calls just “animal”; the first time I encountered the phrase “one species of your animal” it took a minute for me to realise that it was indeed correct in game terms and only nonsense in biological terms.

Designer ant-ics
Designer ant-ics

When I called Dominant Species straightforward in the previous paragraph, I was referring only to the rules, because playing it very decidedly is not. When picking your actions, you’re always making tough decisions because you don’t have all the action pawns you would like, but all actions also have only a few spots to put your pawns, so if you want them you have to pick them before your opponents; at least, that’s true with four or more players, playing with two or three is more relaxed in that respect. The hard choices don’t end with picking your actions. When it’s time to execute them, you again have to decide where to execute them, what to pick, where to score, and you’re almost certainly not in the same situation you were in when you chose that action. As is fitting for a game called Dominant Species quick adaptation is king here, you need to make the best of the situation you find yourself in. Every choice you make feels meaningful, and that together with the short execution time of each individual action contributes to the amazing fact that Dominant Species – a game that on our early games ran for five hours and in later games never went significantly lower than three – is never boring. You’re not waiting long for other players to finish, you’re rarely picking actions just because you had pawns left, you are always involved.

With so much going on, the assertion found on the intertubes that Dominant Species is two cojoined area majority games doesn’t do the game justice. It’s not wrong, it’s actually a perfect description of the scoring through Domination, it just ignores too many other aspects of the game. Although Domination creates a big chunk of your points in most games, there is perfectly viable strategies that completely ignore this option for most of the game, gathers points from Glaciation and Wanderlust and only floods the board with cubes on the last two or three turns to profit from Ice Age and the final scoring. There is many different ways to win at Dominant Species; in fact, the only kind strategy no one here has been able to successfully implement is any kind of strategy that spends the cubes early – there is just too many points in the final scoring. That still leaves enough other routes to explore, and the game shows a good balance between the initial turn order, the food chain resolving ties and the animal’s special abilities – two aspects of the game I skipped for brevity’s sake, I’m rambling on for long enough as it is.

It looks so peaceful...
It looks so peaceful...

Dominant Species looks abstract when you first unpack it- there is cubes, cylinders and cones aplenty – but once you have most of those components on the board at once you will appreciate that you’re not moving around miniscule plastic spiders or rubber birds. The design is minimalist, but perfectly conveys all information that you need; the components are GMT Games’ heavy, durable material that I liked in Leaping Lemmings already, but for a game that you’re going to  look at for a minimum of three hours, some more eye candy wouldn’t have hurt.

I think I made my warnings about Dominant Species clear enough: it’s a long game and it’s a heavy game. You need to be prepared for that. This is the kind of game you set a date with your gaming group to gather for specifically, preferably on a Friday and not at the pub. Having players that don’t hold grudges is another plus. Dominant Species is not the kind of game that requires you to enter conflict all the time, but an occasional vicious feeding frenzy will become necessary to secure your position, and feeding frenzies are not the kind of game that only has winners. But if you can find the time to play – and at least four people that want to play because more players make for a much more tense game – I can almost guarantee a good time.

Powered by Flickr Gallery
  • After a few games I really started to enjoy it… still think Dominant Species is a bit too long, but is a very nice strategy game. It is not a game to play with “king-maker” kind of player though… that can be very frustrating.