Inside Pulse 12

Tabletop Review: Dominant Species (3rd edition)

Dominant Species (3rd edition)
Publisher: GMT Games
Designer: Chad Jensen
Release Date: May, 2012
Number of Players: 2-6
Playing Time: 3-4 hours
Cost: $79.00 (GMT Games) or $55.30 (Thoughthammer.com)
Get it here: GMT Games or Thoughthammer.com

Dominant Species is a board game by designer Chad Jensen, who has also designed Urban Sprawl, both published by GMT Games. For this review I used the 3rd edition of the game, which has a lot of updated artwork, but no changes to gameplay from the previous editions.

The Mechanisms of Life

In this game you take on the role of one type of animal: mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, arachnids, or insects. Through taking certain actions and maneuvering, you hope to gain enough victory points to secure a win over rival animals.

I consider the game to be area control via worker placement. For those who don’t know exactly what that means, area control is where you are trying to control areas that are of value on the game board while your opponents try to do the same. The scarcity of valuable area and the disparity between values of different areas in an area control game generally determines the fierceness of the competition. Worker placement means that a player will have pieces at his disposal that he will put on a space on the board to claim that action or benefit. The spaces are often limited and limit the number of “workers” that can be put into them, thus making players compete for actions.

The resolution of actions occurs in a programmatic way, meaning that actions are resolved in order from left to right, top to bottom, much like program code. This is significant if you know what the part of the board looks like that contains the actions that can be chosen. It is a long rectangle with “eye” spaces that players can put their Action Pawns in. Each line of eye spaces refers to a different action that can occur. But, before I get too far into that, let’s talk about how the game plays in general.

Playing the Game (of Life)

Each round, players will place their Action Pawns in initiative order, which is determined by a row of chits corresponding to each animal (at the beginning of the game it is in food chain order). I should note here that the initiative order will likely change during the game, however the food chain order never changes. Mammals will always be at the top of the ol’ food chain, and insects will always be at the bottom. Food chain order is important to distinguish because it breaks ties, which happen with some frequency in the game. After everyone has placed their pawns, the actions are resolved as I stated above: left to right, top to bottom.

After the actions are resolved, a short “Reset” occurs where animals may be eliminated, one player is dubbed a survivor for living on tundra, and certain parts of the action sequence and board are re-seeded with elements and dominance cards.

During the game, your animal will be represented by several (or possibly no) cubes on the terrain tiles of the game board. These cubes are species, and are a sort of indicator of the diversity of life rather than just sheer quantity, as cubes usually represent. At first, players wanted to think the cubes were an indication of how strong their animals were in a particular area, and became confused when I informed them that another animal with less cubes was actually the dominant one. Dominance is a big part of this game, but actually is less important a lot of the time than you might think. It works like this: if your animal matches more elements on a tile they are on than any other animals on that tile, they are the dominant animal. The number of cubes has no bearing on dominance. This can definitely be confusing to players at first, since it is counter-intuitive.

Now, elements are an extremely important part of the game, as they represent some facet of the environment: sun, meat, grubs, water, grass, and seeds. Your animal starts with two elements as a baseline (except amphibians who start with three), these two are identical and are unique to each animal. The board is set up so that there is one of each type of terrain tile present on “Earth”, and seeded with two elements of each type as well. The animals all start out strongest in the environment that fits them the best; for example, Reptiles begin the game with two cubes and dominance on a desert tile. The desert tile begins the game with two Sun elements on it, and the Reptile’s two starting elements (on the animal card) are Sun as well. What this means is that Reptiles have a dominance rating of four (two Sun elements on the tile times two Sun elements on their animal card) and this gives them dominance on this tile, since none of the other creatures on it match as many elements as they do. Each animal starts on a tile that they are dominant on, and this may change during the game as elements are added or removed, or other animals adapt. If you see pictures of the game board, you’ll notice the little cones on the board; these are what I call “dominance hats” and mark which animal is dominant in a particular tile, if any.

Okay, this might be confusing if you aren’t familiar with the game. Just know that matching up elements on your animal card with the tiles that your animal species occupy on the board during the game is critical. Each terrain tile on Earth is a hexagon, and thus has six points that can have elements on them. This sounds promising, but you should also know that during the course of the game, the frozen tundra will be slowly expanding from the center of the board, and several times during the game elements can be removed simply for touching tundra or being surrounded by tundra. If your animal is ever on a tile where they match none of the elements, they are considered endangered, and will be extinct at the end of the round if they remain there (this means all the cubes on the tile are removed). Basically, if your animal can’t survive in the environment of the tile, it’s not going to do well.

The most important thing dominance does is allow you to play dominance cards, which are powerful and thematic effects that may have a drastic impact on the game. When a player scores, he or she chooses one tile to score; the player with the most species (cubes) on the tile scores the highest tier of points, the second-most species scores the second, etc. Some terrain tiles don’t even have a third tier of points, like mountains and desert. Heck, tundra only gives you one point when you score it, and only to the player with the most cubes. The best point yield is from a sea tile, which has four tiers of points (meaning four different players can score on it at one time) and also has the highest point value available. Anyway, once you’ve scored according to who has the most cubes on the tile, the player who is dominant on the tile gets to pick one of the face-up dominance cards to play, and this player may or may not be the player with the most species.

Alright, so what do the actions do? Well, there are a LOT of them, so let me mention some of the most important ones: Adaptation allows you to put an element on your animal card, thus making it better able to survive in other environments, or even stronger in its starting environment; Abundance allows you to add an element to a tile on the board; Glaciation allows you to place a tundra tile on a terrain tile, thereby transforming it into tundra and also killing off ALL the species of each animal except one (i.e. each player present when you freeze the tile gets to keep one cube there); Wanderlust lets you take a terrain tile and add it to the existing tiles on the board, expanding the Earth; Competition lets you kill off a cube in select areas of other animals; and Domination allows you to score and play dominance cards. There are others, but those ones are very important and chosen often.

I must say that explaining the list of actions to new players seemed to put them off a bit. Throughout the first half of the game, questions kept coming up about the actions, what does what, etc. The most problematic were the Wasteland and Depletion actions (each basically involves removing elements from the board), time after time players asked about them, and I even had to keep looking them up on my animal card (which has a summary of all the actions). They were also frequently ignored, and often irrelevant. I guess having them there really does no harm, it’s just confusing for new players.

Once the actions have been resolved, if you have any species on a tile that are endangered, they are dead meat. Gone, gone, gone. The player with the most species on tundra tiles gets the Survivor card and bonus points, which can add up, especially towards the end of the game. The board gets reset, some things moved around, and you go on to the next round. The game is really very straightforward: you place pawns, resolve the actions, and then reset. The really time-consuming part is everyone deciding what they want to do and then, in the second phase, deciding how they want to do it when their action pawn comes up. I would safely clock in each round at 30-45 minutes, especially for new players, and it might take even longer.

The game is of variable length, but if you’re playing with the standard rules then there is an Ice Age card at the bottom of the deck that comes up, and whenever this is chosen (just like any other dominance card) that indicates the last round. Expect a full game to be about 4 hours, but I have read that repeated plays and some discipline may bring this down to 3 or even 2.5 hours.

The Meaning (of Life)

Given the overall positive response that the game seemed to receive on the game site boardgamegeek.com, my expectations were high for Dominant Species. After I learned the game and played it with four others, my feelings are a bit mixed. I personally love area control games, even though I’m usually terrible at them. This game gave me a good area control feeling, but at times didn’t feel tense enough to really provide the struggle that I was looking for. Players could simply use the Wanderlust action to place a new tile when things were getting crowded, and the valuable sea tiles are just as common as the mountain and desert tiles, which are hardly worth scoring. By the end of the game, there was not enough competition for the valuable sea and wetland tiles. Now, this is partly the fault of players, but also due to the murky strategy of the game.

Strategy is definitely hard to figure out. In some ways it is because the game board can change so much from round to round, it can be hard to plan ahead. In other ways, it is hard to know what to do: do I aim for Dominance so I can play a powerful dominance card, or do I try to Speciate (put more of my cubes on the board) and score some points on a certain tile? Do I try to Adapt and get more elements for my animal or do I Migrate (which moves your species to adjacent tiles, very useful if you think someone is going to toss a tundra on you) in preparation for future tactics?

One of my main concerns has to do with the scoring. You only score a terrain tile if you choose the Dominance action, or you happen to score some points from someone else’s Dominance action. The only other way to score points is by placing a tundra tile, placing a terrain tile, or winning the Survivor card, which all give you bonus points according to a chart on the board. Those bonus points are small for most of the game, not really comparable to scoring a sea or wetland tile; you might get three bonus points for putting a terrain tile next to two existing ones, but being top dog in the sea is worth nine points. I noticed during our play of the game that whoever could sit on a sea tile and score it without being bothered by other players too much was bound to rocket up the victory point track. Of course, savvy players should know not to let someone sit on a valuable spot uncontested, but at times I felt like the game required me to take up my actions with trying to foil other players’ scoring if no one else was going to. In a game like Small World, I feel like leader-bashing is expected, easy to do, and finding out who the leader is is part of the fun. In Dominant Species, I know who the leader is, but getting people to take notice and allocate some of their actions to increase the competition for valuable spaces is not an easy task. I’m thinking that with more experienced players this problem would more or less go away.

On the subject of valuable spaces, I do wish that the terrain tiles had something that differentiated them besides points and names. No matter what, sea tiles are always the most valuable, and I would expect players to fight over them as much as possible. However, the single-tile scoring allows for, at the most, five tiles to be scored a round (since there are five Domination action spaces on the action track), and this will likely leave a lot of tiles that are just ignored in favor of the same old sea and wetland tiles. I wish something clever would have been implemented to make the value of a tile variable instead of fixed every time. I would be willing to randomly place the number tokens from Settlers of Catan on the various tiles and use them as point indicators, just to mix things up.

Ok enough about scoring, but I have one more little concern, and that is the constant determination of dominance. As I wrote earlier, players gain dominance by matching more elements on a tile than any other animals on that tile. This leads to a lot of questions about who is dominant and calculating and re-calculating dominance ratings and such. At the beginning of the game it was really bad, and again, partly because dominance is not related to the number of cubes a player has on a tile, and that was confusing to new players. As the game wore on, there was enough familiarity, and also certain regions of the board had become homogenized enough, that there wasn’t so much confusion and fuss about dominance. Still, expect it to be a hurdle for new players.

There is much more to say about this game, and much discussion about the various aspects of the game and how they may or may not work as advertised. Let me just relate a few facts that I think are pretty objective and good to know. For one, this is a long and intense game for the casual board gamer; people need to stay focused if they are going to enjoy the game and finish it in a reasonable amount of time. I think the first game is going to be the hardest for anyone, but I have read several accounts that say after multiple games the play becomes faster and players have to think less about how everything works and can focus on strategy. I’m not in love with the scoring, but it might work better with experienced players. One aspect of scoring I didn’t mention above was that, at the end of the game, when someone selects the Ice Age card, all of the tiles you are dominant on are scored as two points each, so there is some benefit to being dominant in terms of scoring, at least at the end of the game.

This is a game I would probably like to play before I decided to purchase it. If you’re thinking about getting this game and introducing it to a group, think about some of the points I’ve mentioned and try to decide if your group is going to be able to get into the game and play it more than once. If they are, then it’s a much safer bet than if you think the group might reject it after the first play if things don’t go well. Budget time for end-game scoring, as it will probably add at least ten minutes to the game. Waiting for someone else to decide which action to take or how to execute their action can be boring and irritating for other players, and definitely contributes to overall game length, so encourage everyone to think about their moves when it isn’t their turn (this will be easier with more plays). I think there is the potential for a great game, but I have the overwhelming urge to tweak some of the rules to make it more competitive and take less time. There are a lot of people who really, really think this is a great game, I’m just not 100% sure that I can agree until I give it more plays.

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