I recently got to play Dominant Species for the first time. I was introduced to this game by an old friend. As he said about it, 'This is a game I love to lose.' This game is very much intended for people whose idea of a good time is to think really really hard. So, of course, I loved it.
Let's see what we have in store for us, by starting first with the ratings (and of course my rating system):
Expected Length of Game Play: 2 to 3 hours
In Dominant Species, players take the role of a taxonomic class of animals: insects, arachnids, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. Each category has a unique advantage: insects speciate more plentifully than the others, arachnids get a bonus to attack, reptiles are more resistant to regression, amphibians have a bonus to their setup, birds can move further than the other classes, and mammals are more resistant to extinction. This will make more sense in a moment. But the object of the game is to earn victory points by having your animals dominate the available terrain.
The board is made up of a series of hexagonal spaces, with a turn phase chart along one side, and a victory point track along the outer edge. There are a few other spaces on the board, with a place for available terrain tiles and dominance cards, and charts to help you in scoring. But the hexagons and the turn phase chart are perhaps the most important parts.
You start with seven terrain tiles in the centre, one tundra surrounded by one each of the other types (wetlands, savannah, jungle, forest, mountain, and desert - there are also sea tiles which are not part of the initial setup). At the vertices of these hexagonal tiles are elements: water, sun, grain, grubs, meat, and grass. Each player starts with a pile of small cubes: each one represents a different species within his class. They also start with some cones, which are used to denote which class is dominant in a specific terrain tile. Players also have five cylinders, which are Action Pawns (APs for short). Finally, they have a card which describes the mechanics involved in each phase of the round, but more importantly, has that class's starting elements (elements are those factors that allows a class to thrive; they survive more easily in terrain that has their elements). Elements can be added to or lost from your animal type.
The main action of the game revolves around the turn order, which can be complicated, so I will provide you a photograph of the turn phase chart:
Game play involves taking turns, in turn order as denoted in the row labelled 'Initiative' at the top, placing your APs on one of the eyes (the Action Spaces) in this chart. Placing your AP in this manner indicates that you've chosen to take that action in this round. As it is possible to gain and lose APs in the course of the game, some players might get to take more actions in a round. Once all players have placed all their APs, you go down the chart taking actions from top to bottom. Note that it's possible to place more than one of your own APs on a single phase, so that you (for example) take two Speciation actions in a single round.
First is Initiative: if you take this action, you get to move your marker forward in the initiative order.
Then comes Adaptation. Up to three APs can be placed on this action. There are four element tokens placed here, and a player who takes this action gets to take one of these tokens and add it to his animal card. This represents your class's growing ability to use additional elements to survive (arachnids adapting to survive on meat in addition to grubs, for example). Any element tokens left here at the end of the round move down to Regression.
During the Regression phase, all players lose one element token of each type that is represented on this line (if you have it), unless you've placed an AP here; each AP prevents the loss of one token (reptiles avoid one regression for free).
Abundance allows you to take one of the four (or fewer, if other players have already taken one or more of them) available element tokens and place it onto the board. This means that resources are becoming more abundant, allowing more species to survive in more places. Any tokens still here at the end of the round are moved down to the Wasteland line.
Using an AP on the Wasteland action allows you to remove an element token from the Wasteland line. Any elements still here at the end of this phase destroy all matching elements from all tundra tiles. At the end of the round, all tiles here move down to the Depletion line.
If you put an AP on the Depletion line, you may choose one element from this line to remove from the board.
In the Glaciation phase, you convert one non-Tundra terrain tile to Tundra. You gain points based on how many Tundra tiles are adjacent to the one you place. This kills off most of the species on that tile, and any element markers at the vertex of three Tundra tiles are destroyed.
In Speciation, you place species cubes on all tiles adjacent to a single element tile of the chosen type. The number you place is determined by the terrain onto which you are placing your cubes. Insects get a bonus cube in this phase.
Next is Wanderlust. Placing an AP here allows you to choose one of the three available terrain tiles to place onto the board, along with one of the four available element markers. You gain points based on how many terrain tiles are adjacent to the new tile. Any player with species on adjacent tiles are permitted to move any number of their cubes onto the new tile.
Migration is next. Players taking a Migration action can move some of their species cubes onto adjacent tiles (birds get to move their cubes up to two tiles in this phase).
We're nearly done: now we move on to Competition. Taking a Competition action allows you kill off some of your opponent's cubes (arachnids get to kill one enemy cube for free).
Finally, you can choose the Domination action. Each time you take a Domination action, you choose a terrain tile that has not been scored yet this round. Every player who has species on that tile earns points based on dominance (which is determined not by how many species he has on the tile, but by how able you are to survive there, based on the availability of elements that you can consume). The more dominant you are, the more points you get. Points also vary based on which terrain you score; the sea scores more than the desert, for example.
At the end of the round, you kill off all species that are on terrain which provide them none of the elements they consume (if your animal type consumes grass and grain, but you have some cubes on a tile that offers only meat and grubs, then all your cubes on that tile are removed). Mammals have the advantage here: they can save one cube from being killed in this manner. Then, whichever player has the most surviving species in the Tundra terrain tiles gets bonus points. Finally, you reset the pieces for the next round.
This sounds very abstract, and it really is until you've played the game at least once. But what I will say for this game is that every turn, you are faced with massive choices: you must decide where to place your Action Pawns, and this is almost always a very difficult decision. Not only must you decide on which phase to place your AP, judging that that phase might no longer be available when you get a chance to place the next AP, but also deciding that sometimes it might be more prudent to block an opponent from playing on a phase even if placing your AP on that phase may not be beneficial to you directly.
It's a very meaty game, with careful consideration going into nearly every act of setting down an AP. It's especially enjoyable because often, you'll select an action that seems like a really good idea at first, until another phase robs you of your ability to make full use of that action before it gets to your turn. If only you'd noticed that you were going to lose your sun element token before you placed your AP on the Speciation phase!
Seriously, this is a great game. I've only played it once, and I so very much enjoyed the process of making heavy decisions at every turn that I cannot wait to play it again. Unless games that make you think aren't your cup of tea, in which case, you might want to steer clear of this one. So until next time,