Dominant Species (4th printing)
For 2-6 players, ages 14+, playing time around 180 minutes.
90,000 B.C. - A great Ice Age is fast approaching, as yet another titanic struggle for global supremacy unwittingly commences between the varying animal species. In Dominant Species, players assume the role of one of six major Animal groups (Mammal, Reptile, Bird, Amphibian, Arachnid, or Insect) striving to become the prolific species on as many different Terrain tiles as possible in order to draw beneficial Dominance Cards, and propagate to earn Victory Points.
COUNTER MAGAZINE REVIEW:
2-6 players, 3-4 hours
designed by Chad Jensen
reviewed by Paul Lister
September and October are usually a quiet period for me with few new releases of note and I spend my time scouring the Essen previews for the list of potential purchases that late October brings. Early October 2010 was rather different, the release of Dominant Species had left me wondering if any game released at Spiel could match the debut ``Euro'' design by Chad Jensen. ``Euro'' might be a misleading term though for this intense game of survival; it uses mechanisms that are instantly recognisable by lovers of European designer games, but the experience is more akin to a multiplayer wargame than one would expect from the Worker placement and Area majority mechanisms that Dominant Species utilises. GMT have earned their reputation as a wargame publisher. In 2010 there was a subtle change of tack: the first was an upgrading of components from the usual paper maps and functional components to the standards of the best family games; the second is publishing non wargames. The first Leaping Lemmings is a race game (with enough `take that' to keep faithful to their war gaming pedigree). The second is Dominant Species.
Dominant Species is set 90,000 years in the past, with players controlling one or more of six animal classes fighting for survival in an environment that will eventually be overtaken by the ice age, the coming of which causes the end of the game. Players select an animal to play (or multiple animals in a two or three player game). For each animal type there is a display which shows a fixed number of elements that the animal needs to survive (and prosper) and space for further elements that the animal might adapt to as the game progresses. Each player also has a number of individual species (cubes) that make up their gene pool or animals available to place on the board. They also have a number of Action selection pawns (seven in a two player game going down to four in a six player game), and lastly ten cones in their colour to use to show when they are dominant on a tile (more on this later). Each animal has four unique characteristics, their starting elements, place in the food chain, place on the initiative track and special ability.
The board starts with a fixed set-up of seven terrain tiles (one of each type) placed in the centre. The centremost tile has a smaller tundra tile paced on top of it. The tiles are different terrain types found on earth. The terrain type will determine the points scored throughout the game. For example, Sea tiles, score a lot more points and can be scored by more players than Mountain, with tiles overcome by Tundra being the lowest scoring tiles of all. At each intersection of the tiles is placed an element necessary for survival (grass, grubs, meat, seed, sun and water). Each animal has a starting tile with two elements that match their display and two species. They will also have one species and animal on two other tiles. The most difficult concept to grasp in the game is that an animal's ability to survive on a terrain tile is not the tile itself but its matching elements. You might think that insects can survive in most environments but unless a terrain tile has an element on it that matches one on its display it's heading for extinction. Related to an animal's ability to survive on a tile is the concept of Dominance - and ``Dominance'' is not based on the most species on the tile; rather its adaption to the elements on the tile. The Dominance factor is calculated by the sum product of the matching elements on a players display by the elements on the corners of a tile. For example, if I have two seeds and one grub on my display and the tile has three seeds and a grub my dominance score (my term, not the games) is seven. If this is more than anyone else, I place a cone in my colour on the tile to show that I am dominant. As dominance can change at any time, it's up to the players to spot a change and implement it. At first getting your head round the difference between having a majority and dominance is like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time, it feels counter-intuitive but soon becomes second nature. Most points that will be scored in the game come from simple area majorities on tiles; however, there is a significant scoring of tiles you are dominant on at the end of the game and the ability to control the powerful Dominance Cards depends on how well your adaption to your environment is reflected in your Domination.
The method for selecting and performing actions is almost identical to that used in Age of Empires III (a game Jensen professes to liking). All actions are first selected by players in a planning phase and then they are carried out in the execution phase with selected action spots being resolved from left to right. There are 12 actions that can be chosen (some once, most have multiple spots open for selection), they are ordered in rows on the board (which corresponds to the order in which they will be executed) . Each action type has a varying number of spots that can be chosen. Initiative, or player order for action selection, is the first action that can be selected, and this is where the similarity with Age of Empires III ends. There is only one spot here and that only moves your animal up one space, and so moving up in player order is a slow process. When executed the action selection pawn is moved to a free action selection spot, so it's a powerful move that allows you to select and action that can't be countered. Initial player order is the reverse of the food chain. The food chain does not change and is used to break ties. So mammals are top of the food chain but place their dobbers last in action selection. The inverse of the food chain / order chain is balanced but most new players feel that they are at a significant disadvantage in selecting last. This is not the case though, as the ability to break ties is very important in a game where there are so many occasions where it will happen and the ability tactical ability to respond to choices is (almost) as important as grabbing the domination cards.
The second action that will be executed is the ``adaption'' box. The adaption box is randomly seeded each round with four elements. This action allows you to select one of the elements and add it to your animal display. In the first few rounds this is often a first pick for most players. Increasing your animal's ability to survive on the map and dominate tiles is key to success in this game. However, a rush for any extra elements can come back to haunt you because of the following actions and the effects of Domination cards.
There are only three spots open for players to select from the four elements. Then any unselected elements will, at the end of the turn, move down to the next action, Regression. When Regression is executed, any elements (not starting elements) are removed from an animal's display unless the player has selected one of the two spots here which prevent it being removed from their animal. This action is the first to reveal the wargame in euro clothing. Losing an element can be crushing, and the loss of an action to prevent it happening equally so. Crafty selection (or non selection, actions are not mandatory) of elements in the adaption box by the last player to choose can leave a whole host of problems for other players in the next round. The special ability of the Reptiles is to have one `free' action pawn in this area.
The fourth action is possibly the least appreciated but one of the most powerful in the game: Abundance allows you to place an element from four (randomly added each upkeep) on to any vacant tile corner on Earth. There are only two spots available for selection here and the reason this action is so strong is that it allows you to cement control over areas and set up future expansions. What's more (like Regression) there are two nasty actions that follow Abundance and controlling which elements will fall into those boxes at the end of turn will harm your opponents.
The fifth action, Wasteland, has one spot and allows the removal of one element from this box (from round two it will have at least two elements present). Matching elements on Tundra tiles are removed. As the tundra creeps over the board controlling this effect becomes more important, as the ``unglaciated'' (more on this later) tiles spread over the map. The remaining element will fall into the next box at the end of turn.
From the second turn onwards the Depletion box will have at least one element in it. There is one action spot available here and selecting it allows you to remove one matching element from Earth.
The next action is Glaciation, and it can tie up action pawns for more than one round. There are four spots open for players; however, it will only be executed once by the pawn in the leftmost pawn. Other action selection pawns placed remain on the board from round to round until they have slid over into the left most spot. Losing an action to join the queue for Glaciation is worth the investment, it's a whole strategy in itself. To execute Glaciation, a tundra tile is placed on to any tile that is adjacent to any tile that has a tundra tile on it. All but one of each players' species are returned to their gene pool and any elements completely surrounded by tundra tiles are removed from the board. Bonus victory points (a triangular number progression) are immediately scored for the number of existing tundra tiles the new tile is adjacent to. This can be a lot of points towards the end of the game. The player who has the most species in total on Tundra tiles will take possession of the Survival card (like tiles Domination it's up to players to track this and claim the card at any time in the game). During the reset phase at the end of turn the owner of the Survival card scores bonus victory points, again, potentially a lot of points towards the end of the game and if combined with the Glaciation action it can be a match winner.
The eighth action, Speciation, allows players to add species to the board. The six available slots (one for each of the elements) allow the placement of species on tiles that have that element. The number placed is determined by the tile type, with sea tiles allowing up to four tiles to be placed, down to tundra tiles which only allow one. This action can get a lot of an animal's gene pool on to the table in one go. After all players have ``Speciated'', the Insects may place a free species on any tile on earth.
The ninth action, Wanderlust, adds new tiles to the board. Each turn, three actions and three random tiles will be available for selection from draw piles on the board. The Wanderlust box contains four Elements, randomly drawn each turn. When the action is executed, a player chooses one face up tile and one element (this is optional) and places the tile adjacent to any tile on earth and the element on any corner of the new tile. Then the player scores bonus victory points for the number of adjacent tiles. Finally, in food chain order, players may move any species on to the new tile from any they have on adjacent tiles. Wanderlust, like and especially in conjunction with Abundance, is very powerful, as it lets you shape the board to your advantage, possibly creating areas that you both dominate and have majorities in.
Migration allows you to move your species on to adjacent tiles (the bird's special ability is that it can migrate to tiles up to two tiles away). There are plentiful spots available for selection here, though they decrease in the number of migrations they allow: the leftmost 7 migrations of individual species the rightmost two).
Lastly, Competition allow you to eliminate other animals species from the board. Each of the seven spots has one of each terrain tile associated with it (one is always Tundra) and when executed the payer removes one species from any other animal species on each of the type of tiles where he has a species. The removed species are out of the game. The Arachnid's speciality is a free killing off of one species anywhere the arachnids are present
Last of the twelve actions to be resolved is Domination. And this is the area of the game that has divided opinions the most. There are five available slots for Domination. When executed the active player selects a tile on earth, it is then scored by area majority. Then the animal that is Dominant on that tile must choose a Domination card (if it's an action you have selected, you hope to have scored both the Area majority points and be Dominant) from the five available and carry out its effect.
There are twenty five Dominance cards in the game and all will appear. Some can break a player's game if unprepared, and in a first game they appear to add a huge amount of chaos. However, the knowledge they will appear and the actions available preceding them allow players to exploit or militate against their effects. Depending at what point cards are drawn some can be game changers, for example Blight allows the player to remove all but one element from a tile - this can eliminate huge number of species if a player has concentrated too much into one area or it over reliant on one element. Catastrophe eliminates all but one species on a tile and one from each adjacent tile. Other cards give scoring opportunities, extra actions, ability to place or move species on the board. Because they are all going to appear and some can destroy the unprepared player I will go though the cards with new players before the game starts.
After Domination there is a reset phase. First the board is checked for extinction - if any animal species is on a tile does not have an element matching the element on the tile, then it is eliminated (the Mammal's special ability is that it can save one species each round). Then remaining elements in Adaption and Abundance are moved to the action boxes below them, then new terrain tiles are drawn and elements to refill actions selection boxes. The action spaces are reseeded with elements and Dominance cards are drawn to bring the selection available to five.
The game continues until the Ice Age card is selected (this is always placed at the bottom of the Dominance card pile at the beginning of the game). The Ice Age card causes all animals to score bonus points depending on the number of tiles they dominate - another large source of points. At the end of the game after checking for extinction then every tile is scored.
Dominant Species is not a game I would recommend to everyone. It's expensive, the components are functional but uninspiring, the game is long at over three hours, it requires constant concentration and recalculation, it's confrontational, it can see players crippled and out of the game (``Nasty, brutish and long'' as one gamer said after seeing 20 species wiped out by the Blight card three rounds from the end), it's not going to appeal to players who like to control their game strategy at each and every point of the game, it's going to be best appreciated after more than one play, and it's most definitely not a game to be first played on a Friday night after a long week at work.
What it does have is multiple paths to victory and well balanced but variable player powers that give the game huge variety, and a theme that ties in with the mechanics. The multi-layered area majority systems work incredibly well together. This is one of my two favourite games of 2010, however I suggest for many Counter readers this is a ``try before you buy''.